By Tonnie Iredia
It is not difficult to get all the sides to any issue in Nigeria. All that one needs to do, is to get into a debate with a few people on any public subject and all the dimensions of the subject will be laid bare. Two days ago, while waiting as usual, at the Lagos airport, for delayed flights, I met a group talking about the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) and its handling of the asset declaration case of former Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen. It was a heated but thrilling debate which began with a discussion on whether or not, the case could inspire our anti-corruption bodies.
While some felt that the handling of corruption cases should be premised on the rule of law others said the rule of law is itself corrupt. It was argued that those mandated to stop corruption in Nigeria are persuaded that the due process of law especially legal technicalities and procedures often render nugatory, the gains of their efforts. EFCC’s Chief Executive, Ibrahim Magu reportedly confirmed this much some two years back with his argument that the destructive tendencies of corruption ought to justify whatever weapon is employed in fighting the cankerworm.
One of the debaters agreed with Magu that the clamour against media trial in the country was because of its effectiveness and deterrence. During a visit to the Guardian Newspapers in September 2017, Magu was reported to have stated that the only way to stop media trial of corruption cases is to stop corruption. He illuminated his viewpoint with the symbolism of the inherent dangers of a snake; stating that Nigeria should kill corruption the way a person would instantly confront a snake that intrudes into his room with every available weapon – cutlass, stick, bottle etc. Perhaps, the CCT which has just swiftly concluded the case against the former Chief Justice is the type of court Nigeria needs. This was however a contentious view, but no one disagreed that Onnoghen’s case which began at the CCT only in January and has already ended at this point, will go into record as the fastest case involving a top public office-holder in Nigeria.
Last Thursday, the CCT ruled that Onnoghen’s undeclared assets be forfeited while he was barred from holding any public office for the next 10 years. His contention that the court was tainted with bias and that it was not the proper avenue for initiating the trial of a judicial officer were all dismissed. Also discountenanced, was the point that witnesses invited to prove the allegations had no useful evidence. Some of the discussants who seemed to be mocking the CCT said if all cases of corruption are treated as the CCT just did, corruption may end in Nigeria before the country celebrates its next birthday anniversary on October 1st, 2019.
One discussant, probably a lawyer revealed that the conduct of the former CJ’s case has rendered redundant, a provision in the law which gives owners of incorrect declaration forms, an opportunity to correct their mistakes by getting fresh forms to fill any observed gaps. For ease of reference, the exact words of S3(d) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act are: “where the person concerned makes a written admission of such noncompliance, no reference to the Tribunal shall be necessary.” With Onnoghen’s case now, any person whose declaration of assets is incomplete will be summarily tried, no more room for ensuring compliance other than by trial.
One other person opined that if we are really ready to end corruption in the country soonest, then we should allow the Danladi Umar-led CCT which has reinvented itself, to try all types of corruption cases. Remarkably, the Tribunal departed from its previous decision where it suspended the trial of another Supreme Court justice, Sylvester Ngwuta to enable the National Judicial Commission (NJC) review the case. One of the debaters brought in some humour, with his claim of no faith in the NJC which according to him tends to speak from two sides of the mouth – a good example being how it handled the celebrated disagreement between former Chief Justice Katsina-Alu and Justice Ayo Salami, the then President of the Court of Appeal.
In that case, the NJC agreed that interference by the CJN in the case before the Court of Appeal was improper but asked Salami to apologize!! Well, all that can no longer arise now as the CCT has decided to reverse itself and dispense with the NJC. So, starting from the known, maybe the Tribunal should look into the assets of every Supreme Court Judge to see if anyone would survive. Thereafter, it should be allowed to review cases it handled in the past and see if it would change its mind about such cases involving celebrities such as Senate President Bukola Saraki and even APC leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Should the Tribunal be changed to Special Court (SC) so it can handle all cases bothering on fraud? Those who agreed say in order not to over-burden the court, only not too old cases such as that of former Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun should be entertained. It certainly won’t take long to deal with that and those of others who fraudulently got into office because the current proactive CCT has no time for ‘I forgot or didn’t know’ stories. In which case, Communication Minister, Adebayo Shittu would not have had the opportunity of interpreting for us, the unambiguous National Youth Corps Scheme law.
In fact, the case of Ayo Fayose, former governor of Ekiti state which promptly began the very day he left office in 2018 and the old case of Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia would have since ended. It was also suggested that for speedy handling, the case of Lai Mohammed, Information Minister who allegedly approved billions of broadcast contract without due diligence should be sent there. Perhaps, if the CCT handles everybody’s case, we might end soonest, the old story that corruption is hard to deal with by changing the narrative of corruption is fighting back.
There was also the view that the anti-corruption bodies themselves may become irrelevant as they often take too long to investigate cases. In fact, certain cases don’t ever start. For example, the 2016 petition against the APC chairman, Adams Oshiomhole in spite of the petitioner going to court to beg for his petition to be investigated, is yet to start three years later. One of the debaters argued that the CCT chair should be made Chief Justice to instantly redress court congestion and also greatly reduce our politicians by banning many for 10years. As a natural choice for the role of moderator of the debate, I pointed out that Onnoghen had already signified his intention to go on appeal. The way the discussants shunned my information while jeering loudly made me feel the arguments were essentially a satire.