By: Ajibade Morakinyo
When the 80s boy band, Boys II Men sang the song, End Of The Road, they described a loving relationship that had gone sour but one of the parties was living in denial pleading and hoping that the relationship continues though it was teaching what was technically it’s last bus stop.
This scenario can be likened to the situation that has occurred in the life of Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
His love affair with the judiciary which hit its zenith with him ascending the No.1 role had ended but he was holding on tight, hoping for a miracle or a turnaround of fortune but it is now obvious that it is over and he had reached the end of the road with a reported resignation.
It all started on Friday, January 11, 2019, when the presidency presented a 20 point text which revealed that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mr. Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, has committed chronic offences as alleged by a petition by a whistle blowing NGO.
The reaction was that of incredulity in some quarters while others doubted.the motive and asked if this was not a politically motivated witch hunt of Justice Onnoghen.
On Monday January 7, 2019, a petition was written by the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI); on Tuesday January 8, the petition was submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB); on Wednesday January 9, the petition was received by the office of the CCB Chairman; on Thursday January 10, charges against CJN Onnoghen were filed by the CCB; and on Friday January 11, the CJN was served at his official residence in Abuja.
According to the petition, Onnoghen is the owner of sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself up to as recently as 10th August 2016 which appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials.
The group, in the petition, said Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on March 8, 2011, into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650; two separate cash deposits of $5000 each followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 7, 2011; another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 27, 2011, and four more cash deposits of $10,000 each the following day.
Aside this, they said Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office, contrary to section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act; and that he did not comply with the constitutional requirement for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.
Another allegation against him was that his Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day and the acknowledgement slips were issued for both on December 14, 2016 — at which point, they said, he had become the CJN – Onnoghen assumed CJN office on March 6, 2017.
ARDI alleged that prior to 2016, Onnoghen appeared to have suppressed or otherwise concealed the existence of these multiple domiciliary accounts owned by him, as well as the substantial cash balances in them and that these domiciliary accounts were not declared in one of the two CCB Forms filed by Justice Onnoghen on the same day, 14th December 2016.
The cash balances in them were as follows: The Standard Chartered Bank dollar account 1062650 has $391,401.28 as at January 31, 2011; The Standard Chartered Bank Euro account 5001062686 has 49,971.71 Euro as at January 31, 2011; and The Standard Chartered Bank pound sterling account 5001062679 has balance GBP23,409.66 as at February 28, 2011.
THE EFCC ANGLE
As if this body punch was not bad enough, the Chief Justice got a blow yo the face from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
In the commission’s petition which no doubt cast more aspersions on Onnoghen’s intergrity, it disclosed that he refused to declare his assets upon his appointment as a judicial officer in 1989.
The EFCC also made various discoveries including hidden accounts and undeclared houses and businesses.
As a result of the weighty allegations, he was dragged before the Justice Danladi Umar-led Code Of Conduct Tribunal.
In one of the sitings, the State Prosecutor, Mr. Aliyu Umar (SAN) asked that Onnoghen steps down or be suspended while the trial was going on.
The CCT had adjourned sitting but it was started that it had granted the prayer of that he should step aside.
This was challenged at a high court by Onnoghen’ s lawyers and before you could say Jack Robinson, President Muhammadu Buhari relying on the CCT recommendation suspended Onnoghen and swore in Justice Tanko Muhammed as Acting CJN.
The battle for his survival now began at the CCT
THE CCT DRAMA
At the CCT, it was discovered that the CCB had not conducted any investigation rather it was the EFCC that investigated Onnoghen.
The Commission had been contacted to investigate the petition and said Onnoghen had no evidence of ever declaring his assets until 2016 and upon his appointment as a judicial Officer in 1989 as Justice of the High Court of Cross River State.
EFCC stated that further that the respondent has not ever declared his asset until 2016 when he filled annexure E and F of exhibits R 6 and R7.
In exhibit R7, the Respondent admitted that he failed to comply with the Constitutional provisions requiring him to declare asset on the ground that he forgot due to pressure of work.
“My lords, even in the conventional court where rules of evidence is applicable every admitted facts need no further prove. See Agbakoba v. SSS (1994) 8 NWLR (Pt.351) p. 475 and the case of Gov. of Akwa-Ibom State v. John Amah (2002) 7 NWLR (Pt.767) 730 at 778,” the commission revealed.
Also, he was accused of depositing the sum of $1,716,000 in a United State Dollars account operated with the Standard Chartered Bank in 2009, marked as exhibit P4 C, between 2009 and 2016.
According to EFCC, Onnoghen’s earnings as a judicial officer could not satisfactorily account for the amount found in the account.
They also said the Respondent (Onnoghen) failed to declare all the accounts and funds in exhibit P4-P4D when he declared his 2014 asset in November 2016. And that he only declared his Salary account with the Union Bank exhibit P3 and failed to declare P4-P4D, which are the accounts that warehoused funds that are far above Onnoghen’s known and provable lawful income.
It stated that by the provisions of Rule 1.2 of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers, it is clear that because members of the public expect a high standard of conduct from a judge, Onnoghen is under the obligation to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities both in his professional and private life.
Insisting that any conduct of the Respondent that give rise to the appearance of impropriety is a judicial misconduct and same is punishable under the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers.
The EFCC said that having studied the petition,
“It is our humble submission that the petitioner proved before this Honourable Panel that the Respondent was in possession of funds which are fairly not attributable to his known, provable and legitimate source of income.
“The evidence shows that my lord earned a monthly salary in the sum of N750,819.87 which is about N9,000,000.00 per annum,” the petition read.
As shown in exhibit P10A page 14 paragraph XXVI from the petition, the Respondent only earned the sum of N91,962,362.49 as salary between September 2005 and October 2016, and that the exhibit P3 is the salary account wherein his salaries are paid.
The commission further said, “the evidence before this Honourable Committee shows clearly that the Respondent opened United State Dollars account with the Standard Chartered Bank in 2009, exhibit P4 C, which was opened by Mr. Joe Agi SAN and the first cash depositor of United State of America Dollars into the said account with entry of the 29th day of June, 2009.
Responding to this, Onnoghen claimed he gave the learned SAN, Joe Agi the $30,000.00 to deposit to exhibit P4 C. Although he could not give any reasonable explanation as to source of this money, he admitted under cross-examination that the USD was not his salary and that he only received dollars as estacodes which is meant to for his official trips.
The commission also made it known that upon the opening of the USD account exhibit P4C, a lot of cash deposits in Dollars were made to this account between 2009 and 2016.
The amounts in the said account were deposited as follows: $74,200 (2009); $291,800 (2010); $340,000 (2011); $625,000 (2012); $298,000 (2013); $40,000 (2015) and $47,000 (2016). The total was $1,716,000.
The suspended CJN was quoted to have stated that: “The sources of these are from my savings from my days as foreign student and a successful private legal practitioner, as well as estacodes for annual for annual vacations, medical expenses, international conferences, my earnings as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Gambia (See Annexure “B” referenced as ZD 129/186/01/P.II/(148), among others; and the conversion of Naira to Dollars which sometimes ago was very favorable.
According to him, returns from his off-shore investments in the foreign currencies which are clearly documented by the bank with an overdraft of $500,000 approved for me in the USD Dollars account in November, 2018.
He disclosed that up till now, the proceeds from the investments are paid into the account as and at when due, and that his investments with Standard Chartered Bank also include Federal Government Bonds as can be seen from the records of dividends.
The commission however said Onnoghen’s explanation was “laughable” and that when he was a foreign student in Ghana he accumulated such amount of money but was not stated to the Panel.
It was said by the commission that the respondent who purportedly cannot afford to pay N7,000,000.00 to Joe Agi SAN in 2009 wanted the Panel to believe that he accumulated dollars to the tune of $1,716,000.00 in his house.
In addition, it was said that he never declared having $1,716,000.00 in his asset declaration form as cash in hand and was therefore inexplicable that he wanted the panel to believe that he accumulated the said sum in his house and only deposited them in the bank between 2009 and 2016 in cash.
Also Onnoghen attempted to suggest to the panel that the $1,716,000.00 cash deposit in exhibit P4C was earned by him upon his part-time appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court of Gambia, but was accepted because he was appointed on the 22nd day of November 2012.
On the face of his appointment letter, it is clear that Onnoghen was entitled to the Five Thousand pounds Sterling (5,000 GBP) and Twenty Thousand Dalasis which is payable per session to be determined by the Chief Justice of Gambia in line with the Rules of the Supreme Court of Gambia.
However, he failed to show the panel that consequent upon his appointment in November 2012 and the assumption of that office in 2013 the number of sessions he sat as a member of the Supreme Court of Gambia.
Onnoghen also failed to state how much he earned from Gambia, how he was paid whether cash or through his account.
The petition concluded that if Onnoghen is to earn any fee from Gambia it will be GBP and not USD, and that he has failed to show with credible evidence how he legitimately earned the sum of $1,716,000.00 which is far above his lawful and provable income.
The Prosecution went on with his case declaring that it was going to call six witnesses.
The prosecution presented three witnesses before closing its case against the suspended judge.
The first persecution witness, James Akpala, an investigative officer with the bureau, told the court that the CCB received the petition against Mr Onnoghen from a petitioner, Denis Aghanya, on January 9.
Mr Akpala, whose testimony was given on March 18, said he was asked to investigate the content of the petition from Mr Aghanya, a member of the All Progressives Congress, on January 10.
With Mr Akpala in the witness box, the lead prosecution lawyer, Aliu Umar, admitted six documents said to have been investigated by the first prosecution witness.
The documents included Mr Aghanya’s petition, which gave rise to the six count charge against Mr Onnoghen, and two of Mr Onnoghen’s asset declaration forms, which were both filed by Mr Onnoghen in December, 2016.
The other documents admitted were Mr Onnoghen’s Supreme Court identity card, his traveling passport and a Standard Chartered Bank document which all made up Mr Onnoghen’s account opening package.
Also admitted in evidence was Mr Onnoghen’s handwritten statement taken by a team of investigators at his office on January 11.
According to the witness, one of the declaration forms submitted by Mr Onnoghen had two bank accounts while the other had seven bank accounts.
He said the bank accounts included two Union Bank details and five others with Standard Chartered Bank.
Mr Akpala was asked during cross examination to read out the dates written on the charge sheet earlier submitted at the tribunal.
The information read out by Mr Akpala proved a point made by the defence that the charge sheet was prepared before the investigation team visited Mr Onnoghen at his office.
That submission was not objected by the prosecution.
Asked whether the charge sheet was filed within 24 hours of commencement of investigation, Mr Akpala responded in the affirmative.
Mr Akpala declined comments when asked to speak on the reason the bank statements shown to Mr Onnoghen by the CCB was addressed to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC).
During his testimony, the second witness, Awwal Yakassai, also a staff of the bureau, testified that the asset declaration forms submitted by Mr Onnoghen were yet to be verified by the Code of Conduct Bureau.
Mr Yakassai was presented before the tribunal on March 21.
He reiterated a point made by Mr Akpala that the forms were both submitted the same day by Mr Onnoghen, and also confirmed that the forms were the basis upon which the charges against the suspended Chief Justice were filed.
Mr Yakassai was the CCB officer who collected the forms when they were filed by Mr Onnoghen in December 2016.
During cross examination, Mr Yakassai was shown the portion of the forms expected to have been signed as a measure of verification by the CCT. The portion shown to Mr Yakassai were confirmed blank by the witness.
Mr Yakassai also admitted, when confronted with a submission by the defence, that the content of the petition written against Mr Onnoghen was a ‘practical duplication of the details entered by Mr Onnoghen in his asset declaration forms.’
In her testimony, the third prosecution witness, Ifeoma Okagbue, a staff of the Standard Chartered bank who was also presented on Thursday told the tribunal that Mr Onnoghen did not have as much as $1million or £1 million in all the bank accounts, a denial of a major plank upon which the charges against him were built.
Ms Akagbue, who told the tribunal that she started to manage Mr Onnoghen’s account in 2015, added that all five accounts mentioned in the charges had the Bank Verification Numbers.
The witness also told the tribunal that the various accounts were domiciliary, not foreign. It was after this that it said it was not calling any other witnesses and decided to close the case.
Defense counsel, Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), led in evidence one Lawal Busari, who is Justice Onnoghen’s driver.
In his evidence, Busari told the court how he drove Onnoghen to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) Office on July 28, 2010, to obtain an assets’ declaration form, saying he paid N200 fee for Onnoghen’s form on November 3, 2010.
Busari, who told the court that he was a chief driver and mechanic with the Supreme Court, added that while he was still with Justice Onnoghen at the CCB, he (Onnoghen) asked him to also get his own assets declaration form.
He explained that he obtained his form as directed, adding: “When we got back to the office, I filled my own form and on November 3, 2010, my Lordship gave me N200 to pay into the treasury account for the form.
“I collected the receipt from the cashier and I gave the receipt back to my lord and on November 4, 2010, I did mine by paying N200 to the cashier.”
The testimony of the 60-year old witness aimed at countering the prosecution’s charge that Justice Onnoghen did not declare his assets between 2005 and 2016 in line with public office law.
But when Awomolo sought to tender the receipt as exhibit, the prosecution counsel, Aliyu Umar (SAN), objected to its admissibility.
He hinged his objection on the fact that the ‘Revenue number’ was not on the receipt, insisting that its authenticity was doubtful, and that Busari, not being the originator of the document, was not the right person to tender it in court.
The prosecution was, however, overruled and the receipt admitted as an exhibit, after which the tribunal adjourned for that day.
It was also to call Mrs Theresa Nwafor, a Director of the CCB now based in Benin, after asking that she be issued subpoena to appear, the Defence counsel, Chris Uche (SAN) informed on the next trial date of the tribunal that the defendant was done with his case.
Uche, while addressing the tribunal Chairman, Danladi Umar, said:”My lords, today is for continuation of trial.
“But my lords, after a deep review of the evidence led by the prosecution and the defence, the defence has come to conclusion and we have closed our case.
He stated “Pursuarnt to paragraph 14 of the Practice Direction of this honourable tribunal, we apply to file our final written addresses.”
Uche prayed the tribunal for 14 days to enable him file his client’s final written address.
Lead prosecution lawyer, Aliyu Umar (SAN), said the defence informed him before hand that it would close its case.
Umar urged the tribunal to allocate time to the parties as it wishes.
The tribunal’s chairman directed the defence to file and serve its address on or before April 8.
THE NJC ANGLE
Following an uproar by Nigerians on the case, especially that his trial did not follow due process and his suspension too was wrong because he could only have been suspended through the recommendation of the National Judicial Council ( NJC), the NJC stepped into the arena.
It stated that it has received two petitions, one was the one that formed the basis for the CCT trial against Justice Onnoghen and the other was by Olisa Agbakoba, SAN against Justice Tanko Muhammed for accepting to be sworn in as Acting CJN
The NJC summoned bith men to respond to the petitions after which it would take a decision.It set up a 5-man panel to handle the matter.
The council however decided that the allegations relating to assets declaration that were levelled against Hon. Mr. Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, GCON were subjudice and therefore abstained from considering them.
Thereafter, the Council reached a decision on the petitions written by Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and others, of which it has conveyed its decision to President Muhammadu Buhari.
Also, the council resolved that by the nature of the decision reached, it would be inappropriate for it to publicise it before conveying it to Mr. President.
Every film.or drama, there must be an end.And it seems the one involving Onnoghen is gradually cruising to an end with his reported resignation.
Though no official statement has so far been made by the Presidency, it was widely reported that Justice Onnoghen had tendered his resignation on Thursday and now we all await what will certainly be his final farewell from the exalted position of Chief Justice of Nigeria.