Onnoghen: My conviction is illegal, premeditated

on April 19, 2019

…files 16 grounds notice of appeal against tribunal’s ruling

The convicted Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, yesterday, said his conviction by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) sitting in Abuja over a six-count criminal charge bothering on non-declaration of five of his accounts with the Standard Chartered Bank was unconstitutional. Justice Onnoghen, however, vowed to use all legal means to challenge the judgement.

The Danladi Umar-led three-man panel of the tribunal had, in a unanimous judgement convicted Onnoghen of non-assets declaration charge and consequently ordered his removal from the office of CJN. The tribunal equally barred him from holding public office for 10 years for contravening the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) laws on asset declaration for public officers. In addition, the tribunal also ordered the forfeiture of various sums of monies in naira, euros, pounds and dollars denominations found in the convict’s five bank accounts with the Standard Chartered Bank which he was said to have failed to declare.

The forfeited sums are N26.8 million, $137,700 and £13,730. However, speaking through his counsel, Okon Nkanu Ufot (SAN), Onnoghen said: “The journey has ended today. Anything that has a beginning will have an end. This day, the 18th of April, 2019, we have heard that the Chief Justice of Nigeria has been convicted and sentenced. “The conviction is unconstitutional, it is a breach of fair hearing, but before this day, on the 24th of January, the same judgement has been passed before now, removing the Chief Justice of Nigeria without a fair hearing.

It was fait accompli. It was premeditated. The judgement has been passed before today. “So today’s judgement is just a formality and we hold the view that the tribunal has not only breach the Constitution of Nigeria, it has breached the fundamental principle of natural justice, equity and good conscience. “It has not been to pass only judgement, it has convicted for an offence which was never charged and this is an erosion of the fundamental principle of our constitution until some questions are answered.

“For instance, why is it that due course of justice was not allowed to flow? Why was judgement passed on January 23 before today, removing the CJN? Even after the CJN has tendered his letter of voluntary retirement, and the NJC has taken a position, why is it that the tribunal has gone ahead to give judgement in total disregard of the independence of the NJC, in total disregard of the powers of the Senate in this matter? “We hold a view that the tribunal, having reversed itself in the case of Justice Ngwuta, has breached the principle that holds us together. It is a sad day in our democracy. And, we know that it is not over in this matter. The mill of Justice grinds slowly, but surely justice will prevail in the end.

“We shall avail ourselves of all the processes, the hi-erarchy of the judiciary, know that the judiciary will redeem itself, even though seriously battered and bruised, the judiciary will do justice. Justice has not been done today, but it will be done tomorrow. If not by the tribunal, then our courts, and if not, Justice will be done by God. This is our position in this matter.” Earlier in his judgement, the tribunal held that the admission by Onnoghen that he forgot to declare the bank accounts in the form CCB001 was a clear contravention of Section 23 of the CCB and CCT Act. It further held that the prosecution, through the witnesses and exhibits tendered and admitted, established beyond reasonable doubt that the CJN was in grave error by his failure to declare the bank accounts as required by law.

The tribunal, in the unanimous judgement, said that it ordered the forfeiture of the various currencies in the accounts because Onnoghen did not disclose the source of the money throughout the trial. Umar, in the judgment, overruled the claim of Onnoghen that he could not be tried by the Tribunal on the account of him being a serving judicial officer, and can only be investigated by the National Judicial Council (NJC) and also has the power to met out any punishment on him. The Tribunal contended that Onnoghen was arraigned before him as a public officer and not as a judicial officer and as such, the Tribunal is not under the obligation of the NJC. Although, Onnoghen had prayed the chairman of the Tribunal to recuse himself from participating in the proceedings on account of being biased and having issues with the EFCC on the N10 million bribery allegation by one Taiwo Owolabi, Umar, however, said that he could not step down from the trial because the EFCC had, in two separate letters, exonerated him from the bribery issue after a thorough investigation. Umar also said the issue of bias raised by Onnoghen against him was not established as required by law.

Before passing the sentence, the tribunal chairman noted that Onnoghen, who only called one witness, failed to dispute the evidence of the three prosecution witnesses. He said: “The tribunal, having considered the case of the prosecution and documents tendered without objection, find the exhibits tendered worthy of consideration. “The evidence of Prosecution Witness 1, Prosecution Witness 2 and Pros-ecution Witness 3 was not disputed. “The statement of the defendant, made in his handwriting alluding to forgetfulness to declare the five accounts, is enough to hold that the defendant clearly contravened the Code of Conduct for Public Officer.” Convicting the erstwhile CJN, the tribunal chairman said:

“Having regard to Section 23(2) of the Code of Conduct Tribunal and Bureau Act, the defendant has clearly contravened the Code of Conduct for Public Officers and he is hereby convicted. “The admission by the defendant in his own handwriting that he forgot to declare the five bank accounts in his asset declaration form CCB001 amounts to a partial confession that the defendant has breached the provision of the CCB/CCT Act as it amounts to refusal to declare assets. “In the present case, hard facts have been adduced by the prosecution to establish that the defendant is in crystal clear of breach of the CCB provisions and the prosecution has, therefore, discharged the burden placed on it by law. “Having examined the case of the prosecution against the defendant, this tribunal has come to a conclusion that the defendant falsely declared his assets as is hereby found guilty of contravention of Section 23 of the CCB/CCT Act.

“It is hereby ordered that the defendant be removed as the CJN and as chairman of the NJC. “He is also barred for 10 years from holding public office while the money in the five undeclared bank accounts is hereby seized, confiscated and forfeited to the Federal Government, having been illegally acquired, since the defendant did not disclose their sources.” On January 7, 2019, Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), a civil society group headed by a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in Enugu State, Denis Aghanya, wrote a petition against Onnoghen, alleging non-declaration of assets and submitted same to the Code of Conduct Bureau.

The Federal Government had, subsequently in the charge marked CCT/ ABJ/01/19, alleged that Onnoghen’s failure to properly declare his assets, was in violation of section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act. Onnoghen, who was Nigeria’s 17th Chief Justice, was charged on six counts, for allegedly failing to declare some of his accounts in the asset declaration form submitted to the CCB in December 2016. According to the charge, Onnoghen also failed to declare his assets after the expiration of his declaration form filled in 2005. The trial commenced on January 14, 2019 at CCT, but Onnoghen was absent. The case was then adjourned to the following week because Onnoghen faulted the summons procedure. The next hearing was slated for January 22, 2019 but he failed to show up in court again. Following his absence again, President Muhammadu Buhari suspended him on January 26 and appointed Justice Tanko Ibrahim as acting CJN.