…..you’ve a case to answer, FG fires back
…..as tribunal stands-down to rule of motion to stop trial
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—-The suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Friday, demanded an apology from the Federal Government for dragging him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, for trial over his alleged failure to properly declare his assets.
The CJN who was temporarily removed from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25 owing to allegations against him, said he deserved an apology since FG failed to tender any credible evidence before the tribunal to establish that he committed any offence known to the law.
He described the totality of exhibits FG adduced to support the six-count charge it preferred against him at the CCT as “hearsay, irrelevant and useless evidence”.
According to him, “there is nothing proved”. Consequently, Justice Onnoghen, urged the Mr. Danladi Umar led three-member tribunal to discharge and acquit him of all the allegations that were levelled against him in the charge, insisting that he has no case to answer.
The defendant made the application through his team of lawyers led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, after he prayed the tribunal to uphold the no-case-submission he filed with respect to the charge against him.
Specifically, in the application he predicated on section 303 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, the suspended CJN, argued that FG failed to establish a prima facie case that was capable of warranting the tribunal to compel him to enter his defence the charge against him.
He argued that though FG alleged that he did not declare his assets, “there is no report of investigation before the tribunal to show that this is true”.
He said there was no evidence that he did not file declaration of asset forms between 2005 and 2016.
Besides, Onnoghen, challenged the evidential value of some of the exhibits FG tendered before the tribunal, including his bank statements.
He contended that the prosecution failed to fulfil condition precedents stipulated in section 84 of the Evidence Act for the admissibility of computer generated documents.
He argued that the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, which purportedly recommended his trial, did not substantially comply with the constitution that it derived its powers from.
“There is evidence on record that the CCB did not substantially comply with the law.
“Even if there was non declaration, there must be verification. That was not done. There is no offence known to the law in this matter”, Awomolo argued.
More so, he noted that some of the exhibits were irrelevant to the case before the CCT since they were procured by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Relying on earlier decision of the tribunal in a similar charge FG filed against the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, the CJN, argued that neither the EFCC nor the Department of State Service, DSS, have a role to play in relation to proceedings before the CCT.
Justice Onnoghen observed that most of the documents FG tendered through the three witnesses that testified before the tribunal, emanated from the EFCC.
“It is our submission that this document addressed to EFCC in the tribunal’s proceeding is illegal and your lordship should not countenance an illegal document”.
He drew attention of the panel to the oral testimony of FG’s star witness, PW-1, Mr. James Akpala who is a senior investigative officer at the CCB, to the effect that the Bureau had a Register were details of public officers that submitted their asset declaration forms were documented.
The witness had informed the tribunal that the Bureau has a Director that is in charge of the Register.
In his no-case-submission, the CJN, argued that the Director was neither called to prove that he did not declare his assets, nor was the said Register tendered in evidence.
“Neither the Register nor the Director was brought”, Onnoghen contended, saying the onus was on the CCB to prove that he did not file his asset declaration forms as required by the law.
“The defendant has no duty to show that he filed the form. It is only when credible evidence is led to the fact that he did not file, that the burden shifts to the defence”, he argued.
Onnoghen’s lawyer further maintained that counts 2,3,4,5 and 6 of the charge were invalid as it failed to disclose essential elements of the offence of making false declarations.
“It is mandatory for the prosecution to prove that there is verification of exhibit 1 and 2 (Onnoghen’s Asset Declaration Forms of 2014 and 2016).
“They must show that the forms have been verified by the authority or persons authorized by the CCB
“Without verification by the authorised person, there cannot be allegation of false declaration of assets.
“It is not the duty of the prosecutor or the defence to verify, it is the responsibility of the authorised person”.
The CJN stressed that essential elements of offence in each count of the charge must be proved before a prima-facie case can be said to have been established against him.
“The authorise person must have investigated the statement in the declaration form and found that the declaration was false.
“That person or authority must give evidence before the tribunal. In this case, what we have are mere speculation, assumptions and imaginative contrivance.
“Therefore this tribunal should not compel the defendant to come and defend speculations.
“We urge your lordships to uphold this no- cases submission, discharge and acquit the defendant.
“Likewise, my lords should direct whoever was responsible for this trial to apologize to the CJN for bringing this shame to the judiciary”, Onnoghen’s lawyer added.
Meantime, FG, through its lead counsel, Mr. Aliyu Umar, SAN, urged the tribunal to dismiss Onnoghen’s no-case-submission and compel him to enter his defence to the charge.
FG maintained that the case against the suspended CJN was properly instituted since it secured leave of the tribunal before the charge was filed, saying there was no legal requirement for approval of the Attorney General of Federation under section 174 of the Constitution, before the case could be instituted.
Aliyu argued that a careful review of evidence of the witnesses would show that the CCB conducted its own investigations.
“The documents sent from the EFCC to the CCB is of no consequence”, the prosecution insisted, stressing that the bank statements it tendered through the PW-3, confirmed some of the transactions that were conducted by the CJN.
Moreover, FG said its case against Onnoghen was not that he had huge funds in his accounts, but that he failed to declare his ownership of bank accounts that were in operation before he assumed office as the CJN.
“The charge is that he omitted to declare the accounts. We are not saying that the defendant had $1million or £1m in the accounts, what we are saying is that he omitted to declare the accounts.
“The point is that his appointment was made in 2015, but he did not submit his asset declaration forms till 2016 when he was confirmed as the CJN.
“We are not causing him of taking bribe or refusing to declare monies in the accounts. What we are saying is that even as a Supreme Court justice, those accounts were operational and he did not declare them.
“In exhibit 6, the defendant admitted that he forgot to declare his assets. That exhibit is before this tribunal and it was admitted without objection.
“Under section 306 of the ACJA, it is our submission that the defendant has a case to answer”, FG’s lawyer added.
Meanwhile, the tribunal stood down the proceeding to rule on the CJN’s contention that he has no case to answer.
FG had in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, alleged that Onnoghen violated section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
Aside the allegation that he failed to declare his assets as prescribed by the law, the suspended CJN was also alleged to have operated foreign bank accounts, contrary to the code of conduct for public officers.
The prosecution had on March 21, closed its case after it called a total of three witnesses that testified before the tribunal.
In his Evidence-in-Chief, the PW-1, Mr. Akpala, told the tribunal that the charge against Onnoghen was filed before his team concluded investigation on the allegation that he falsely declared his assets.
The PW-2, a retired Director at the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, Mr. Awal Yakassai, in his own testimony, told the panel that contrary to what was alleged in the media, he said the suspended CJN owned only five houses.
The PW-2 told the tribunal that he served at the CCB for 29 years before he retired in April 2018.
He admitted that the CCB was yet to verify Justice Onnoghen’s assets with a view to finding out if he made false declarations.
The witness told the court that verification columns on Onnoghen’s two asset declaration forms were still empty and unsigned.
On her part, the PW-3, Mrs. Ifeoma Okagbue, a staff of Standard Chartered Bank in Abuja, debunked the allegation that the suspended CJN operated foreign bank accounts.
The witness who identified herself as Onnoghen’s Relationship Manager, told the tribunal that contrary to what was contained in the charge, the five bank accounts that were linked to the defendant were domiciliary accounts that were opened at a branch of the bank at Wuse 2 in Abuja.
Okagbue told the tribunal that she started managing Onnoghen’s bank accounts since 2015, even as she gave a load down of both the opening and closing balance in all the accounts, from January 2018 to January 2019.
She said the accounts were all linked to one Bank Verification Code, BVN, adding that the bank had upon securing an approval from the defendant, diverted funds from the accounts into various profit yielding ventures.
The PW-3 told the tribunal that profits that accrued from the investments were credited back into the accounts.
While two of the accounts are in Naira, the three others were Pounds Sterling, Euro and Dollar accounts.
Besides, the PW-3, said it was untrue that the defendant had either $1million or £1million in any of the five bank accounts she said were still active.
She said the accounts were opened separately between 2009 and 2010, adding that the embattled CJN had used FG’s bond to secure $500,000 loan from the bank in January.