By ‘Fisayo Soyombo
THERE is nothing heartwarming about the expected arraignment, later today, of Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), at the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on a six-count charge bordering on fraudulent asset declaration. It is not good for Onnoghen, it is not good for his profession, it is not good for the country, it is not good for his prosecutors. And, most importantly, it is not good for his persecutors.
In its twilight, Onnoghen’s 41-year legal career is on the line. If found guilty, the consequences are clear: “removal from office, disqualification… from holding any public office for a period not exceeding 10 years and seizure and forfeiture of the state of any property acquired…” At 68, Onnoghen cannot be perturbed about the latter two. But the disgrace of removal from office threatens to ruin all he spent his entire career building.
It isn’t good for the legal profession, which explains why many of the country’ most senior lawyers are livid with the Muhammadu Buhari administration, and why 150 senior advocates have already volunteered to defend him in court. Onnoghen’s prosecutors are in for a hard time, apparently. The SANS understand that the integrity of the legal profession is hanging in the balance. With Paul Usoro, President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), battling N1.4billion fraud allegations preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the case against Onnoghen means the heads of both the bar and the bench are battling corruption allegations. The bar or the bench — which, then, can the people look to for anti-corruption inspiration?
Potential corruption convictions for the arrowheads of both the bar and the bench adds nothing to the credibility of any country’s judicial process, never mind one just four weeks away from a presidential election that promises to be the biggest test yet of its democratic maturation. These are signs the judiciary can’t be relied on in the lead-up to that election, and in the aftermath.
And for Onnoghen’s persecutors? They’re in for a sterner test than they bargained for. They probably didn’t know, when they were picking the man to do their hatchet job, that he would be found out so soon. Dennis Aghanya, Executive Secretary of the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), who filed the allegations against Onnoghen, has been unveiled as Buhari’s main man. One thing is clear: Onnoghen’s trial is not motivated by altruism; and, whether the President is aware or not, his political strategists are the ones pulling the strings. That still doesn’t erase the question: is Onnoghen guilty or not? We will come back to that later.
The accusations against him include failure to declare and submit a written declaration of his assets within three months of being sworn in as Justice of the Supreme Court in 2005 named CJN; and failure to declare a domiciliary US Dollar account, a domiciliary Euro account, a domiciliary (Pound Sterling) account, an e-saver savings (Naira) account and a Naira account, all maintained with Standard Chartered Bank (Nig.) Ltd in Abuja. All these in addition to funding some of his accounts through self-made cash deposits “which appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials”.
The most striking feature of this petition is not its content but the expedition with which it has been treated. The CCB received it on January 9, and by January 10 the charge sheet was already filed at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) — meaning the CCB investigated the petition within 24 hours, discovered sufficient wrongdoing by the CJN, and filed action at the CCT. Everything in 24 hours. The CJN’s accusers are clearly in a race against time — could this possibly be a race against February 16?
The Muhammadu Buhari administration has so far proven itself to be incapable of prosecuting its selfish agenda by proxy without giving itself out. For instance, when desperately trying to proscribe the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in September 2014, it was the Nigerian Military that made the announcement on behalf of the government. Meanwhile, the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011, amended in 2013, is clear on the steps to be taken before a group may be proscribed as terrorist: only a judge — at the advice of the Attorney General of the Federation, the National Security Adviser or the Inspector General of Police — could make such declaration. The scenario is repeating itself in Onnoghen’s persecutors’ recourse to the CCB rather than the National Judicial Council (NJC) — the body constitutionally and primarily empowered to try judicial officers after which they can then be handed over to the courts. It is a matter the Appeal Court has settled at least twice in the last two years, first of which was in December 2017 when it dismissed corruption charges brought against Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court, on the argument that by virtue of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution, only the NJC is empowered to deal with the kind of allegations brought by the EFCC. The argument against that would be that Onnoghen is the NJC Chairman, but nothing stops him from stepping aside to allow the body, headed by the next in line, do its job.
Those who can read between the lines can already conclude that Onnoghen has tacitly admitted guilt. His claim that he “forgot to make a declaration of my assets after the expiration of my 2005 declaration in 2009” or that he did not include his Standard Charted Bank Account in SCN 000014 “because I believed they were not opened” are implausible. A chief justice, the nation’s number-one judicial officer for that matter, cannot run infringe on the law and expect to go scot-free by claiming forgetfulness or feigning ignorance. No one — not even the CJN — should be above the law. The law should take its course, but not through the backdoor as being devised by the APC plotters masquerading as ARDI.
Is Onnoghen guilty? For the NJC and the courts, this is yet to be decided. But in the court of public opinion, he appears to have already answered yes. Too bad for a man who holds the key to a den filled with lions waiting to pounce on raw flesh in the form of Rivers and Ekiti state election petitions, plus many more to spring up after the February/March 2019 elections. By leaving the asset declaration loophole, Onnoghen has handed the initiative to his persecutors. Yet, if there is anyone who can wriggle himself out of this mess, it surely has to be a chief justice. Onnoghen has fed himself to the lions in the den; we wait to see if he will come out alive.
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo