..declines to reveal outcome
…as suspended CJN denies receiving car gift, bribe from lawyers
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The National Judicial Council, NJC, on Wednesday, said it has forwarded the outcome of its investigation into corruption allegations against the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, to President Muhammadu Buhari, for action.
The legal body, in a statement that was signed by its Director of Information, Mr. Soji Oye, said it convened an emergency meeting to consider the report of the five-man committee it constituted to investigate allegations of misconduct that were levelled against Justice Onnoghen and the Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad.
However, the NJC, said it decided to refrain from considering the allegation that Justice Onnoghen failed to declare his assets, saying it would amount to subjudice since the matter is in court.
“The National Judicial Council reconvened today in an Emergency Meeting to consider the Report of the Five-Man Committee constituted to investigate the allegations of misconduct made against Hon. Mr. Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, GCON and Hon. Mr. Justice I. T. Muhammad, CFR.
“Council decided that the allegations relating to assets declaration that were levelled against Hon. Mr. Justice W. S. N.Onnoghen, GCON were subjudice and therefore abstained from considering them.
“Council reached a decision on the petitions written by Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and others and conveyed its decision to President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR.
“Council also resolved that, by the nature of the decision reached, it would be inappropriate to publicise it before conveying it to Mr. President”, the statement read.
It will be recalled that the NJC had on February 13, said it was satisfied that corruption allegations against the suspended CJN deserved to be investigated.
The Council equally okayed probe of the Acting CJN, Justice Muhammad, on the allegation that he engaged in misconduct by making himself available to be sworn by President Buhari as Onnoghen’s replacement.
Pursuant to Rule 20 (1) of the Judicial Discipline Regulations, the NJC, constituted a five-man investigation panel headed by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice S. A. Akintan, to look into various petitions that were lodged both against Onnoghen and Muhammad.
The legal body directed the Investigation Committee “to work expeditiously, determine all the petitions and responses and report to Council for a final decision”.
Meantime, in his response to the NJC, Onnoghen, queried the competence of two petitions the EFCC lodged against him.
Onnoghen, who was suspended from office by President Buhari on January 25, accused the EFCC of raising “malicious and speculative” allegations against him.
The investigative panel had directed the embattled CJN to respond to corruption allegations the anti-graft agency raised against him.
Specifically, EFCC had in its petitions, alleged that Onnoghen received car and monetary gifts from lawyers, some of whom it said had pending cases in court.
For instance, the agency, said its “intelligence report” had indicated that Onnoghen received a Mercedes Benz Gl 450, valued at N7 million, from a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Mr. Joe Agi.
EFCC said its investigation disclosed that the senior lawyer subsequently appeared in a case that was handled by a Supreme Court panel that included the CJN.
The commission maintained that the car gift was aimed at persuading the suspended CJN to pervert the course of Justice to favour Agi.
Likewise, EFCC, alleged that he collected various monetary gifts from five other SANs, among whom it said included the current President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr. Paul Usoro.
It gave names of the other lawyers their fund transfers were traced to accounts of the CJN as Mr. Emeka Etiaba, Dr. Onyechi Ikpeazu, Mr. Eze Duru Iheoma and Mr. Ogunsanya Adewunmi.
According to the EFCC, the funds, which ranged between N250,00 and N300,000, were deposited into Onnoghen’s accounts sometimes in 2015, before he eventually became the CJN.
More so, the petitioner alleged that Onnoghen had on different occasions, received huge amount of dollars as estacodes.
It insisted that the estacodes which were handed to him in cash, was above the approved limits.
In a bid to justify its claim that the embattled CJN siphoned public funds under the false pretence that they were estacodes that accrued to him over time, EFCC, told the NJC that Onnoghen had between 2017 and 2018, received a total of N24,169,452 from one Ngozi Nwankwo, who it identified as the Chief Protocol Officer at the Supreme Court.
The agency said it decided to file the petitions before dragging the suspended CJN to court, considering that the NJC is the body with the statutory powers to okay the prosecution of serving judicial officers.
It alleged that funds that were traced to accounts of the Respondent were suspected to be part of proceeds of illegal transactions.
Following NJC’s directive, Justice Onnoghen, in his response to a query that was issued to him, debunked all the allegations, insisting that he was being unnecessarily witch-hunted.
Contrary to EFCC’s allegation, Onnoghen, said he never received any car gift from Mr. Agi, SAN, saying he bought the car from the lawyer who he said had car dealership licence in America.
He noted that Agi had also testified before the NJC panel to the effect that he was duly paid for the car.
He insisted that the car was never a gift to sway him to compromise in the discharge of his judicial duties.
According to Onnoghen, “Mr. Agi, in his appearance as a witness, had informed this Honourable Committee that the car issue happened in 2008 and that His Lordship ordered for the car and paid for it by installments.
“The referenced case was in December 2010. Joe Agi, SAN also stated that the car was neither a bribe nor a gift but was purchased by His Lordship.
“He stated that he was the one that informed the EFCC voluntarily about the car His Lordship bought through his U.S Company which has a car dealership licence in the United States so to illustrate his long standing relationship with His Lordship. Surprisingly, the EFCC then turned around to label it as a bribe.”
Onnoghen maintained that it was not tenable that he could collect a car gift to pervert justice in a case that was decided by a five-man panel of Justices that included the immediate past CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed and the current Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad.
He gave other panel members in the case EFCC claimed that Agi later brought to the apex court, as Justices Francis Fedode Tabai (now retired) and Christopher Michell Chukwumah-Eneh (now late).
“It is thus malicious to link the appearance of Joe Agi, SAN, before the Supreme Court in the above matter to any purported gift to one of the Justices who sat on the Panel,” Onnoghen argued.
Though the CJN admitted that he indeed received monetary gifts from five lawyers, he insisted that it was not a bribe, but a goodwill gesture and an unsolicited support that was extended to him during the wedding ceremony of his first daughter in 2015.
To substantiate his claim, Onnoghen, tendered the wedding invitation card in evidence before the NJC, contending that gifts that followed were part and parcel of the customs and traditions of the people he said judicial officers were by law, allowed to receive.
According to Onnoghen’s defence team, by Rule 13.5(2) of the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial officers (Published February, 2016), a judicial officer is permitted to accept: “Personal gifts or benefits from relatives or personal friends to such extent and on such occasions as are recognized by custom”.
The CJN argued that linking the gift to cases that were handled by the Supreme Court was baseless since he did not even sit on one of the cited cases.
He gave names of justices that handled the case EFCC referred to in its petition, as Musa Dattijo Muhammad, (presided), Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kudirat Motonmori O. Kekere-Ekun, Ejembi Eko, and Sidi Dauda Bage.
More so, Justice Onnoghen noted that whereas the goodwill gesture was extended to his daughter in 2015, the said case was decided by the Supreme Court in 2017.
He further noted that one of the cases in which he was accused of collecting gratification was concluded four years before his daughter’s wedding, even as he gave names of other justices that handled the said case in 2011 as Aloysius Katsina- Alu (then CJN), Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, John Afolabi Fabiyi, Olufunlola O. Adekeye, Suleiman Galadima, and Bode Rhodes Vivour.
He argued that linking the “customary gift” he received from the NBA President, Usoro, SAN, to a member of the Panel of seven Justices, was “in conflict with common sense”.
“Could Paul Usoro, SAN, have given a gift of N300,000 to 7 Supreme Court Justices through one of the Justices in 2015 due to a case he lost before the Supreme Court 4 years earlier?”, Onnoghen’s legal team queried.
Likewise, Onnoghen said he only received estacodes that were due to him, after it was calculated by relevant accounting officials.
He said it was the practice of the apex court for judges to be paid estacodes, stressing that no judge was in the position to determine what should be paid to him, though they sign to collect it in cash.
Onnoghen’s claim was backed by the Director of Finance at the Supreme Court who also testified before the NJC to the effect that it was a regular practice for Justices to collect their estacodes in cash.
The embattled CJN maintained that he did not violate any law, adding that all Justices of the Supreme Court, both serving and retired, were always handed their own estacodes in cash.
Meantime, payment schedules before the NJC had revealed that Onnoghen received between $20,000 and $36,000 for each trip he made between 2017 and 2018.
Onnoghen responded to all the allegations EFCC raised against him, even though he noted that the petitions were not based on any direct complaint that was filed against him by anybody with respect to the discharge of his judicial functions.
He contended that the NJC has the mandate to look into allegations of misconduct levelled against judicial officers, and not to investigate alleged crime that was based on “intelligence report”.
Consequently, he urged the legal body to dismiss the petitions as grossly incompetent and for lacking in merit and substance.
Onnoghen is currently facing a six-count non-declaration of assets charge the Federal Government entered against him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, in Abuja.