Godwin Tsa, Abuja
The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) has ordered the removal of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) after convicting him for breaching the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act in declaration for public officers.
The Tribunal further banned Onnoghen from holding public office for a period of 10 years.
The former CJN will in addition forfeit to the federal government various sums of money found in his five bank accounts with the Standard Chartered Bank which he was said to have failed to declare.
The Chairman of the Tribunal, Danladi Umar, who delivered the judgment in a six-count false asset declaration and non assets declaration brought against Onnoghen, 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.
Umar held that the prosecution through the witnesses and exhibits tendered and admitted established beyond reasonable doubt that the convicted CJN was in grave error by his failure to declare the bank accounts as required by law.
Going by the judgment of the CCT, the convicted former CJN is to forfeit to the federal government a sum of N26.8 million, $137, 700 and £13, 730 pounds sterling found in his domiciliary account with the Standard Chattered Bank accounts which were said to have been maintained since 2009.
The Tribunal said it ordered the forfeiture of the various currencies in the accounts because Onnoghen did not disclose the source of the money through out the trial.
Mr Umar held that the CCT had the requisite jurisdiction to try the ex-CJN on the allegation that he falsely declared his assets.
He maintained that the FG did not violate any portion of the law by by-passing the National Judicial Council (NJC) to file the charge.
Mr Umar said the Tribunal was minded to overrule itself by departing from the position it took in a similar case the government instituted against Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court.
The CCT held that sections 158(1) and Paragraph 21(6) of the Third Schedule to the1999 Constitution, as amended, was not applicable in the case since FG did not charge the former CJN as a serving judicial officer, but as an ordinary public officer that acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers.
Umar, who read the judgment, said:
“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 if the CCB provisions and the prosecution has there for 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 Chief Justice of Nigeria and as chairman of the National Judicial Council.
“He is also barred for ten years from holding public office while the money in the five undeclared bank accounts is hereby seized, confisticated and forfeited to the federal government, having been illegally acquired, since the defendant did not disclose their sources.”
Before delivering judgment in the substantive case, the Tribunal had earlier dismissed the preliminary objection raised by Onnoghen challenging his trial before the tribunal.
While assuming jurisdiction to adjudicate on the six count charge against Onnoghen, the tribunal in a ruling delivered by its chairman, Danladi Umar overruled itself in its judgment that quashed a similar charge against another Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta, on the ground that the NJC ought to have been allowed to look into the matter before the case was filed.
The Tribunal had, while departing from the Court of Appeal decision in the case of Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391, held that Justice Onnoghen was not charged before it as a judicial officer but as a public officer in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act and the 1999 constitution.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal was to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws.
The Tribunal chairman 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.
However, the CCT said that, although it respects the decision of the Court of Appeal and its judgment in the case of Justice Nwuta, “it will not hesitate to overrule itself having been satisfied that the case at hand is different.
“The tribunal hereby reversed itself in the case of Justice Nwuta. The preliminary objection of the defendant lacked merit and is hereby refused.”
The tribunal equally rejected an application by Onnoghen asking the chairman to recuse himself from his trial on account of corruption charges against him by the EFCC, on the ground that the said charge against its chairman has since been withdrawn by the EFCC in November 2018.
Onnoghen predicated his application on the grounds that Umar is having issues with the EFCC on the N10 million bribery allegation by one Taiwo Owolabi.
The Tribunal held that a letter from the EFCC dated May 6, 2016, had exonerated the chairman of allegation of corruption after a thorough investigation.
“Therefore, the chairman can never recuse himself. The tribunal hereby refused the application and the chairman is competent to adjudicate on the case.”
The Tribunal, in addition, held that the allegations by Onnoghen that he will not be given fair hearing because the Executive is the Investigator and prosecutor lacked merit.
Umar noted that although the Tribunal is not directly under the control of Federal Judicial Service, “it does not mean that it will bound by the whims and caprices of the executive arm of government.
It further held that “Indeed, all judges of court of records are appointed by the president, that does not mean that judges are appendages of the Executive.
Having resolved all the preliminary issues against Onnoghen, the Tribunal is delivering its judgment on the substantive case.
The Federal Government had 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.
It further alleged that the ex-CJN, who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, operated five foreign bank accounts, contrary to the code of conduct for public officers.
Whereas Onnoghen urged the Tribunal to discharge and acquit him, insisting that the FG failed to prove that he committed any offence that is known to the law.
On the other hand, FG asked the CCT to convict and impose maximum punishment on the former CJN, contending that it has successfully established a prima facie case against him to the effect that he acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers in the country.
In opposition to his trial, Justice Onnoghen had challenged the validity of the charge against him, stressing that the prosecution violated established judicial precedents by not allowing the NJC to investigate the allegation against him before it rushed the matter to the Tribunal.
On this ground, Onnoghen stressed that failure to channel the petition against him, as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on assets declaration forms he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to the NJC, rendered the charge invalid.
In addition, he urged the CCT to abide by a subsisting Court of Appeal decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391, to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws.
He maintained that only after the NJC had pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.
Justice Onnoghen drew attention of the Tribunal to its judgment that quashed a similar charge against another Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta, on the ground that the NJC ought to have been allowed to look into the matter before the case was filed.
He stressed that the two judgments were yet to be set aside by the Supreme Court.
Aside challenging powers of the Tribunal to try him, Onnoghen said he was afraid that he would not be accorded fair hearing by the Tribunal, which he described as an appendage of the Presidency.
He insisted that he was entitled to fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, under section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
The defendant argued that the CCB, which recommended his trial, the Attorney General of the Federation who is prosecuting him, and the Tribunal itself, are all answerable to the executive arm of the Federal Government.
He equally asked the CCT chairman to disqualify himself from the matter considering that he equally has a criminal allegation pending against him.
Nevertheless, the Tribunal, in a ruling on March 11, relied on section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, and Paragraph 5(5) of its Practice Direction, and held that it would not consider the merit of Onnoghen’s objection to the charge, till conclusion of the trial.
While the FG closed its case against the ex-CJN after it produced three witnesses to testify before the Tribunal, the embattled former CJN, who initially proposed to also call three witnesses to defend the charge, announced his decision to close his defence after his driver testified to the fact that he was present when the defendant submitted his assets declaration forms at the CCB head office in Abuja