© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Onnoghen and Umar: Sacrificial lamb and the sacred cow
SINCE January 25, 2019, no Nigerian public office holder has gained more media prominence than the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen.
The suspension of Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari on the advice of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) has continued to attract diverse comments, criticisms and condemnation to the administration.
According to Jiti Ogunye, a legal practitioner, the portrayal of what Onnoghen is facing inevitably will be that the Nigerian Judiciary is so corrupt that its head is put on trial.
“This depiction is not fair to many judicial officers whose integrity is solid and who are free of corrupt practices,” he said.
The suspension was also carried against the stay of proceedings order of an appeal court— a court of higher jurisdiction— to the CCT. The occupant of the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) is the head of the judiciary —the third arm of government.
The removal of Onnoghen on the order of CCT whose judge, Danladi Umar is also being investigated for corruption allegations has again made a mockery of the Buhari administration’s war against corruption.
To some Nigerians, the suspension was an outright violation of the 1999 Constitution—that the president has no such power—but the National Judicial Council (NJC), while some other people opine that the president acted in the right interest of the state.
Other school of thoughts believes that the Chairman of CCT, Danladi Umar on whose advice Onnoghen’s suspension rests lacks moral ground to continue to occupy that position because his hands were soiled already.
The president claimed it was an attempt to fight corruption in the judiciary, critics argued that on the basis of that, CCT’s Chairman who got administrative bail from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) about five years ago over an alleged N10million bribe should also be removed and prosecuted.
Case against Onnoghen
Following a petition by a Non-Governmental Organisation, Anti-corruption and Research based Data Initiative against the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) slammed corruption charges against the Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
Walter Onnoghen became the Chief Justice in March 2017, less than six months after the homes of several federal judges, including those of the Supreme Court, were searched in an anti-corruption raid.
On January 10, the Federal Government filed charges against him, accusing him of asset declaration offences.
The government said it was only in 2016 after the controversial crackdown on judges that Onnoghen partially declared his asset, but still failed to declare a series of bank accounts, denominated in local and foreign currencies, linked to him at a Standard Chartered Bank branch in Abuja.
The government consequently filed six charges of non and fraudulent declaration of assets by Onnoghen. His trial commenced on January 14 and culminated in his eventual suspension on January 25 despite public outcry.
The complaints were sent to the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission
PETITION ON SUSPECTED FINANCIAL CRIMES AND BREACHES OF THE CODE OF CONDUCT BUREAU REQUIREMENTS AGAINST HONOURABLE MR. JUSTICE W. S. NKANU ONNOGHEN, GCON, THE CHIEF JUSTICE OF NIGERIA
We write to bring to your attention serious concerns bothering on flagrant violations of the law and the Constitution of Nigeria by the Honourable Mr. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Specifically, we are distressed that facts on the ground indicate the leader of our country’s judicial branch is embroiled in suspected financial crimes and breaches of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
The particulars of our findings indicate that:
His Lordship Justice Walter Onnoghen is the owner of sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself, up to as recently as 10th August 2016 which appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials.
To give specific examples, here are some instances of cash deposits by Justice Onnoghen:
Justice Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on 8th March 2011 into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650;
On 7th June 2011, two separate cash deposits of $5000 each were made by Justice Walter Onnoghen, followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each;
On 27th June 2011, Justice Onnoghen made another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each and made four more cash deposits of $10,000 each on the following day, 28th June 2011;
Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office, contrary to Section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act;
Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen did not comply with the constitutional requirement for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career;
The Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) of Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day. The acknowledgement slip for Declarant SCN: 000014 was issued on 14th December 2016. The acknowledgement slip for Declarant SCN: 000015 was also issued on 14th December 2016, at which point Justice Onnoghen had become the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
The affidavit for SCN: 000014 was sworn to on 14th December 2016;
The affidavit for SCN: 000015 was sworn to on 14th December 2016;
Both forms were received on 14th December 2016 by one Awwal Usman Yakasai.
The discrepancy between Justice Walter Onnoghen’s two CCB forms that were filed on the same day is significant.
In filling the section on Details of Assets, particularly Cash, in Nigerian Banks, His Lordship as Declarant SCN: 000014 mentioned only two bank accounts:
Union Bank account number 0021464934 in Abuja, with balance of N9,536,407, as at 14th November 2014.
Union Bank account number 0012783291 in Calabar, with balance of N11, 456,311 as at 14th November 2014.
The sources of the funds in these accounts are stated as salaries, estacodes and allowances.
As Declarant SCN: 000015 His Lordship however lists seven bank accounts:
Standard Chartered account 00001062667, with balance of N3,221,807.05 as at 14th November 2016.
Standard Chartered account 00001062650, with balance of $164,804.82, as at 14th November 2016.
Standard Chartered account 5001062686, with balance of EUROS 55,154.56, as at 14th November 2016.
Standard Chartered Bank account 5001062679 with balance of GBP108,352.2, as at 14th November 2016.
Standard Chartered Bank account 5001062693 with balance of N8,131,195.27, as at 14th November 2016.
Union Bank account 00021464934 with balance of N23,261,568.89, as at 14th November 2016.
Union Bank account 0012783291 with balance of N14,695,029.12, as at 14th November 2016.
The foreign currency Standard Chartered Bank accounts that were declared by Declarant SCN: 000015 have been in existence since at least 2011.
Prior to 2016, His Lordship appears to have suppressed or otherwise concealed the existence of these multiple domiciliary accounts owned by him, as well as the substantial cash balances in them.
The Standard Chartered Bank dollar account 1062650 had a balance of $391,401.28 on 31st January 2011;
The Standard Chartered Bank Euro account 5001062686 had a balance of EURO 49,971.71 on 31st January 2011;
The Standard Chartered Bank pound sterling account 5001062679 had a balance of GBP23,409.66 on 28th February 2011.
It is curious that these domiciliary accounts were not declared in one of the two CCB Forms filed by Justice Onnoghen on the same day, 14th December 2016.
The Naira bank accounts in b (i) and b (v) above are also omitted in the CCB form of Declarant SCN: 000014.
It is our humble view that, with the foregoing, we have laid before you facts which support the assertion that Justice Walter Onnoghen may have committed a breach of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act as follows:
Non-declaration of assets immediately after taking office in several capacities prior to becoming the Chief Justice of Nigeria contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act;
Non-declaration of assets immediately after taking office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act;
55Non-declaration of assets at the statutory intervals after taking office throughout his career as a federal judicial officer contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act;
False declaration of asset, and in particular, concealment of significant and declarable assets in the form of sundry bank accounts and the balances therein, contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act;
Consequent to this information, it is our expectation and request that you will discharge the constitutional duty of your office and take the necessary lawful actions to uphold and enforce the law in this matter by involving sister agencies such as:
The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to conduct comprehensive statistical analysis of cash transactions on all the accounts for cases of suspicious transactions.
The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to determine whether Standard Chartered Bank has not breached statutory duties to the Nigerian State in favour of, or in connivance with, His Lordship on Suspicious Transactions Reporting (STR).
The Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), the Supreme Court of Nigeria and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to determine whether the disclosed financial transactions are justified by His Lordship’s lawful remuneration.
As ordinary citizens, motivated by a clear belief that there must be high standards in public life, we have acted to expose a possible criminal breach of our laws. We believe it is now your duty to act, and to do so promptly.
Umar’s N10million bribery allegation
The Chairman of Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), Danladi Umar made history on July 11, 2011, when he was appointed by former President Goodluck Jonathan to the position he currently occupies at the age of 40. He was and still the first Nigerian to occupy that seat at the age of 40.
And for his role in the trial and suspension of Onnoghen, Umar to many Nigerians appear to be a sacred cow that cannot be touched. His case at Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has been swept under carpet.
Umar gained unprecedented media prominence in 2015 when the Federal Government arraigned the Senate President, Bukola Saraki on 13 counts of false assets declaration.
Saraki was accused of making false assets declaration in his forms submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau as a two-term governor of Kwara State between 2003 and 2011. The CCT Chairman would later order the arrest of the Senate president following his refusal to appear in court to face the 13-count criminal charge that was preferred against him.
Saraki had through his lawyer begged the tribunal to consider his position as the Senate president and stay the execution of the arrest warrant, saying he would be available for trial the following Monday. His plea was refused by Umar who maintained that the accused person, having sworn to protect the constitution, ought to have shown respect to the tribunal by appearing before it on the day he was meant to appear.
But unknown to many Nigerians, Umar had indeed been investigated by the EFCC in 2014 over an alleged N10million bribery scandal, he and his personal assistant Ali Gambo Abdullahi were involved. He was alleged to have demanded N10million bribe from one Rasheed Omotosho Owolabi, a Comptroller of Customs who was retired in 2009 by the Nigerian Customs Service.
Taiwo sued the Service for wrongful dismissal. In response, the then Comptroller General of Customs reported him to EFCC for presenting a fake certificate which was found to be false.
On July 6, 2012, he was arraigned before CCT for false assets declaration. During the trial, it was alleged that Umar met with Taiwo in his Chamber, the meeting was between the two of them alone and act described as ‘unethical’, by other legal practitioners.
At the meeting, Taiwo alleged that Umar advised him that the case against him was not strong and that if he could bring N10million the case would be quashed. In the process, he transferred the sum of N1.8million to Abdullahi’s account on December 12, 2012. But Taiwo would later petition Umar at EFCC when he continued to pester him for the balance.
Despite evidences filed by the Commission against the CCT Chairman, the EFCC said it could not establish any wrong doing against him and withdrew the case in March 2015. The Commission said he could not be prosecuted because it has no evidence to do so. In fact, the letter of clearance was written by former SGF, Pius Anyim.
However, in the height of the prosecution of the Senate President in the false asset declaration case, Saraki filed for the withdrawal of the Chairman of CCT from handling his matter because he was on administrative bail granted him by the EFCC in an alleged N10million bribery scandal.
That was in April 2016. He went further to provide evidence against the Chairman including letter by the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Anyim Pius Anyim to the EFCC, letter by two other members of the CCT, Robert Odu and Agwaza Atede to former President Goodluck Jonathan asking for investigation into the allegation as well as confessional statements made by both Umar and Abdullahi.
Two years after, precisely in February 2018, EFCC filed fresh charges against Umar. The charges, prepared by Festus Keyamo, an EFCC prosecutor revealed that Umar collected N10 million from Rasheed Taiwo, a former Customs official who was facing false assets declaration charges before the Code of Conduct Tribunal sometimes in 2012.
The prosecution also accused him of receiving N1.8 million of the N10 million bribe sum through one of his personal assistants, Gambo Abdullahi.
The two counts of fraud contradicted Section 12(1) (a) and (b) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2003, Keyamo stated in charge affidavit prepared on January 25 and stamped on February 2 at the Federal High Court, Abuja. The CCT chair could face up to seven years’ imprisonment if convicted of the charges.
These charges are however the same for which the Commission in 2015 cleared him of any wrongdoing. The EFCC was compelled to clear Umar after he came under intense scrutiny since the commencement of the trial of Saraki, over alleged false assets declaration, with many accusing him of being equally tainted and calling on him to excuse himself from Saraki’s case.
It is not clear why the Commission suddenly brought up the case against Umar.