By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—The suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Wednesday, shelved his earlier resolve to produce three witnesses to debunk the allegation that he did not declare his assets as prescribed by the law.
At the resumed proceeding on the six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, the embattled CJN, announced his decision to close his defence with only the testimony of his driver.
Justice Onnoghen’s driver, Mr. Lawal Busari, had last Monday, testified before the tribunal as the first defence witness, DW-1.
The witness had in his Evidence-In-Chief, told the Mr. Danladi Umar-led CCT panel that he personally drove Onnoghen to Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, in 2010, to submit his assets declaration form.
His evidence was contrary to the allegation that the defendant failed to declare his assets between 2006 and 2016.
FG 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 suspended CJN operated five foreign bank accounts, contrary to the code of conduct for public officers.
The suspended CJN had at the last adjourned date, persuaded the CCT panel to issue a subpoena to compel a Director at the Code of Conduct Bureau, Mrs Theresa Nwafor, to appear as his second witness.
The proposed witness is currently serving at the CCB office in Edo State.
The application by the suspended CJN to produce her to testify in the matter was not opposed by the prosecution.
Though the tribunal acceded to the request and summoned Mrs. Nwafor to appear as at witness, however, when the matter was called, Justice Onnoghen, said he would no longer need her testimony.
The defence lawyer, Chief Chris Uche, SAN, said his client took the decision after “a very deep review of the case”.
He said: “My lords, after a very deep review and consideration of evidence already before this tribunal, the defence has taken the decision to close our case.
“And pursuant to paragraph 14 of the practice direction of this tribunal, we are applying to file our final written address.
“However, may we most humbly apply for record of the proceedings from the inception of this case. This is because we will need it to be able to appropriately review the entire proceedings”, Uche submitted.
Meantime, despite plea by Onnoghen’s lawyer to be granted at least 14 days to file a final written address, the CCT Chairman, Mr. Umar, declined, even as he slated April 15 for the parties to adopt their briefs of argument.
The tribunal said it would after the parties have adopted their final addresses, fix a dat for judgement and to deliver two rulings that are pending in the matter.
Whereas one of the pending ruling is challenging jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the charge, in his second application, Onnoghen, asked the CCT Chairman to recuse himself from the matter, alleging bias.
Specifically, the suspended CJN had queried the validity of the charge against him, contending that FG failed to respect established judicial precedents by not allowing the National Judicial Council, NJC, to firstly investigate the allegation against him, before it rushed the matter to the CCT.
He argued 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.
More so, the defendant 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 has 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 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.
The CCT Chairman further ordered that the trial would be conducted on a day-to-day basis, stressing that ruling on the defendant’s preliminary objections would be delivered alongside judgment on the substantive charge.
Onnoghen had since gone to the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal to challenge the decision the tribunal took against him.
Noting that Justice Ngwuta’s trial was stopped at the preliminary stage, the CJN who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, wondered why his own case would be treated differently by the tribunal.
FG had earlier closed its case against him after it called three witnesses that testified before the CCT.
Attempt by the defendant to stop the trial at that stage was rejected by the tribunal which he dismissed his no-case-submission and ordered him to open his defence to the charge.
The Mr. Umar-led three-member panel tribunal declined to discharge and acquit the defendant, insisting that he has explanations to give with respect to allegations FG levelled against him.
Owing to the development, Onnoghen called his lone witness to testify in the matter.
In his testimony, the DW-1, who said he joined the judiciary in February 1999, told the CCT that he was there when Onnoghen submitted the completed asset declaration forms at the CCB office in Asokoro, Abuja.
He said the forms which were issues to both himself and Onnoghen on July 28, 2010, were filled and returned back to the CCB sometimes in November same year.
Mr. Busari told the tribunal that Onnoghen submitted the asset declaration form before he was appointed the CJN.
FG’s first witness, PW-1, Mr. James Akpala, who is a senior investigative officer at the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, had in his testimony, told the tribunal that the charge against Onnoghen was filed before his team concluded investigation on the allegation that he falsely declared his assets.
Similarly, the PW-2, Mr. Awal Yakassai, who is a retired Director at the CCB, told the Mr. Umar led three-man panel that contrary to what was alleged in the media, he said the suspended CJN owned only five houses.
He said it was not true that CCB investigators linked the ownership of 55 houses to the defendant.
The witness made the disclosure after he was shown copies of Justice Onnoghen’s asset declaration forms, which FG tendered in evidence before the CCT.
The CJN was said to have submitted the forms marked as Exhibit 2 and 3, to the CCB in 2014 and 2016.
Answering questions under cross-examination, 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.
FG had insisted that it was the CCB that okayed Onnoghen’s trial based on certain infractions that were discovered in his asset declaration forms.
On her part, the PW-3, Mr. Ifeoma Okagbue, a staff of Standard Chartered Bank in Abuja, told the tribunal that it was not true that the defendant possessed either $1million or £1million in any of the five bank accounts that necessitated the charge.
Okagbue who told the tribunal that she started managing Onnoghen’s bank accounts since 2015, gave a load down of both the opening and closing balance of 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.
The witness told the tribunal that all the accounts were domiciliary, and were opened and managed at the branch of the bank in Wuse 2, Abuja.