Godwin Tsa (Abuja), Chinelo Obogo and Wole Balogun (Ado-Ekiti)
Citing the Presidential Executive Order No. 6 of 2018, the Federal Government has ordered the immediate freezing of five accounts belonging to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, over allegations of false and non-asset declarations.
In a letter made available to Daily Sun and addressed to the Director of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), dated January 14, 2019, and signed by Mr. Abiodun Aikomo on behalf of the Attorney of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, government ordered that restriction be placed on the affected accounts pending the determination of the case against the CJN at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The letter stated: “I am directed by Mr. Abubakar Salami (SAN), the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to request that you, pursuant to the Presidential Executive Order No. 6 of 2018, forthwith, restrict normal banking operations on certain accounts belonging to Justice Walter Onnoghen pending final determination of the case against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT/ABJ/1/19: Federal Republic of Nigeria v Hon. Justice Onnoghen Nkan Walter Samuel).
“These accounts are as follows: Account No: 5001062686 (Euro) Standard Chartered Bank (SCB), Account No: 5001062679 (Pound Sterling) SCB, Account No: 0001062650 (Dollar) SCB, Account No: 0001062667 (Naira) SCB and Account No 5000162693 (Naira).”
Following a petition written to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) by Dennis Aghanya, executive secretary of Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), over alleged non-declaration of assets by the CJN, the bureau slammed corruption charges against Onnoghen at the CCT on January 10, 2018.
The petition alleged among others that the CJN failed to declare ownership of local and domiciliary accounts funded through cash deposits made by himself up to August 10, 2016.
Aghanya was President Muhammadu Buhari’s aide between 2009 and 2011 and a founding member of The Buhari Organisation (TBO).
He accused the CJN of maintaining domiciliary foreign currencies accounts, which he claimed is contrary to relevant laws for public office holders.
He said the petition became necessary “bearing in mind the imminence of the 2019 general elections and the overwhelming roles of the judicial arm both before and after.”
The Federal Government said it was in 2016 after the crackdown on judges that Onnoghen partially declared his assets, but still failed to declare a series of bank accounts which had local and foreign currencies, linked to him at a Standard Chartered Bank branch in Abuja.
Justice Onnoghen responded to the charges in writing, pleading his innocence on the issues raised by the CCB. He said he did not do any wrong to warrant any action, having satisfied the requirements of publicly declaring his assets as a top public officer in Nigeria.
In a written statement to the CCB, he explained that he filed the two assets declaration forms on the same day in 2016 after becoming CJN because he forgot to make another declaration of his assets at the expiration of his 2005 paper in 2009. According to him, the $10,000 cash deposits he made at different intervals into his account in Standard Chartered in 2011 came from his earned estacodes for medical expenses while the withdrawals from the accounts were due to paying for his children’s schools fees and for their upkeep abroad.
Reacting to the AGF’s directive to freeze his accounts, Onnoghen’s Senior Special Assistant, Awassam Bassey, said he could not confirm if the CJN received such a letter: “I have been in the office since morning and I am not aware of the existence of such a letter and I do not want to speculate. Maybe the letter was served on the CJN personally; I cannot confirm because I have not seen it.” On the directive to freeze the CJN’s account, a human rights lawyer, Abdul Mahmood said the NFIU has no powers of temporary seizure and cannot exercise what it has no powers to do: “The constitutionality of Executive Order was established by Justice Ojukwu last year. She also held that temporary seizures cannot be made without a court order.
“The NFIU has no powers of temporary seizure and cannot exercise what it has no power to do or what the law does not grant it. Sections 3 and 16 of the NFIU Act of 2018 are clear.
“NFIU powers only extend to monitoring and surveillance. No more, no less. The Executive Order is not a power-creating instrument, if the NFIU acts on the basis of this ‘source of authority’, it will be offending the separation of powers doctrine preserved by our constitution.
“The powers to freeze lie with EFCC and ICPC. Is he wrong as a senior judicial official to have domiciliary accounts? No. The constitution only bars him from operating foreign bank accounts.”
The Senior Special Assistant to the AGF on Media, Salihu Isah, could not be reached when his mobile line was called. He equally did not respond to the text message sent to the line.