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CCT Trial: Onnoghen kicks over conviction, seizure of funds in his accounts

…….heads to A-Court, says verdict in breach of natural justice, equity, good conscience

By Ikechukwu Nnochiri

ABUJA – The Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, sitting in Abuja, on Thursday, convicted the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on all the six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against him.

Onnoghen
Suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen

The Mr. Danladi Umar-led three-man panel tribunal said it was satisfied that FG successfully proved its allegation that Onnoghen who had voluntarily resigned his position as CJN on April 4, acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers in the country.

It held that evidence of three witnesses that testified in the course of the trial, were not discredited by the defendant who was accused of failing to properly declare his assets, as well as operating five domiciliary foreign bank accounts.

The CCT Chairman, Mr. Umar, who read the judgement, maintained that admission by the embattled former CJN that he forgot to declare the five accounts he operated since 2009, was “weighty enough” to guarantee his conviction.

He held that the defendant was unable to disprove “hard facts” that were brought against him by the prosecution.

“The prosecution has discharged the onus placed on it beyond every iota of doubt. It is clear that the defendant was in clear breach of the code of conduct for public officers. The prosecution successfully established its case, and the defendant is accordingly convicted”, the CCT Chairman added.

Consequently, handing its sentence after it declared the defendant guilty, the tribunal, ordered that he is “hereby removed from office as the Chief Justice of the Nigeria, Chairman of the National Judicial Council and the Federal Judicial Service Commission.

“Secondly, the defendant is hereby banned from holding any public office for 10 years”.

More so, the tribunal held that Onnoghen’s failure to explain how he amassed “huge amounts of money in his accounts”, was an indication that the funds were acquired illegally.

It therefore ordered that the funds should be “confiscated, seized and forfeited to the federal government”.

Meanwhile, Onnoghen who appeared unruffled in the dock while the judgement was delivered, declined offer by the CCT Chairman to plead for clemency.

Mr. Umar had before he commenced the sentencing, asked the defendant if he would like to make a plea of allocutus (for mercy), but Onnoghen simply bowed his head and told him, “no comment”.

Earlier before the judgment was delivered, the CCT boss, dismissed two preliminary objections the former CJN lodged to challenge the legal propriety of his 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 FG did not violate any portion of the law by bye-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.

“We resolve this issue against the defendant. The tribunal hereby affirm its jurisdiction to entertain the charge against the defendant which is competent.

“Though the tribunal is not unmindful of its previous decision in the case of Ngwuta, the tribunal will not hesitate to overrule itself in any previous decision which it is satisfied was reached on wrong reasons.

“I agree that we should do so in this case. In other words, the tribunal hereby reverses itself as regards the case against Ngwuta.

“The tribunal hereby overrules itself in the case of Ngwuta. The preliminary objection lacks merit and is hereby refused”, Mr. Umar held.

In a second ruling, the CCT Chairman, said there was no merit in the former CJN’s application that he should recuse himself from the matter considering that he equally has a criminal allegation hanging on his neck.

Mr. Umar admitted that though their was a bribery allegation that was levelled against him, he said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, had in two separate letters dated March 5, 2015, and April 20, 2016, cleared him of any wrongdoing.

He said an initial charge that was entered against him was subsequently withdrawn by the EFCC on November 8, 2018.

“The issue regarding bribery allegation against the Chairman has been resolved by the EFCC. All the issues raised by the Applicant have been dealt with without any ambiguity.

“The Chairman is competent to proceed with the case”.

Besides, the CCT boss dismissed as unfounded, Onnoghen’s contention that he would not be granted fair hearing since the panel is answerable to the Presidency which was behind his travails.

Mr. Umar insisted that though the CCT is not directly under the NJC or the Federal Judicial Service Commission, he said the Presidency does not have any control over its decisions.

“Nothwistanding that the CCT is under the Presidency, that does not mean that it will bow under the whims and caprices of the
Presidency or fail to decide cases brought before it dispassionately.

” All judges of courts of superior records are appointed by the President, including Chairman and members of the CCT. That does not reduce them to agents or appendages of the President”, he held.

Meantime, Justice Onnoghen, through his lawyer, Mr. Okon Efut, SAN, gave a hint that he would appeal against his conviction by the CCT.

Though the former CJN declined to speak to journalists, his lawyer, in his reaction, insisted that the judgment was in breach of the fundamental principles of natural justice, equity and good conscience.

He alleged that the verdict was premeditated, adding that the CCT had on January 23 when it granted the ex-parte order President Muhammadu Buhari relied upon on January 25, to remove Justice Onnoghen from office as the CJN, revealed its position on the matter.

He said: “The journey has ended today because everything that has a beginning must have an end. So this day, we have heard that the Chief Justice of Nigeria has been convicted and sentenced. The conviction is out of order, it is unconstitutional. It is a breach of fair hearing because before this day, on the January 23, the same judgement had been passed before now, removing the CJN without a fair hearing.
“So it was a fair accompli, it was premeditated gas judgment had been passed before today.
So today’s judgement is just a formality and we hold the view that the tribunal has not only breached the constitution of Nigeria, it has breached the fundamental principles of natural justice, equity and good conscience.

“It has not only not been able to pass judgement, it has convicted for an offence that was never charged and this is an erosion of the fundamental principles of our constitution. Until some questions are answered, for instance, why is it that the due course of justice was not allowed to flow? Why was judgement passed on January 23 before today, removing the CJN? Why is it that today, even after the CJN had tendered his notice of voluntary retirement and the NJC has taken a position, why is it that the tribunal has gone ahead to pass a 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 in reversing itself in the case of Ngwuta, has breached the principle that hold us together.

“This is a sad day in our nation’s democracy and we know that all is not over with this matter. The wheel of justice grinds slowly but surely. This is not a matter that will end here. We shall avail ourselves of all the processes, the hierarchy of the judiciary and we know that the judiciary will redeem itself eventhough seriously battered and bruised. The judiciary will do justice. Justice has not been done today, but it will surely be done tomorrow. If not by the tribunal, but by our God. Justice will be done by our God”, he added.

It will be recalled that the tribunal had last Monday, reserved judgment on the matter after FG and Onnoghen adopted their final written arguments on Monday.
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 successfully established that he acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers in the country.

The tribunal said it would also on Thursday, deliver ruling on two applications the erstwhile CJN filed to challenge the competence of the criminal proceeding the government initiated against him.

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 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.

However, in opposition to his trial, Justice Onnoghen, queried the validity of the charge against him, stressing that FG violated 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 had pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.

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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.

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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.

While 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 CCB’s head office in Abuja.

Onnoghen had on April 4, resigned his position as CJN, shortly after the NJC, sent report of if its investigation into the allegation against him, to President Buhari.

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.

While FG closed its case after it produced three witnesses to testify before the tribunal, the Defendant who initially proposed to also call three witnesses to defend the charge, announced his decision to close his defence after his driver testified that he was present when the disputed asset declaration forms were submitted at CCB’s head office in Abuja.

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