SUSPENDED Chief Justice of Nigeria Walter Onnoghen has been declared guilty of false assets declaration by the Code of Conduct Tribunal sitting in Abuja on Thursday.
As a result, Onnoghen is barred from holding public office in Nigeria in the next 10 years and he also forfeits the assets he failed to declare to the federal government.
Thus, Onnoghen becomes the first serving top government official to be convicted by the CCT in the history of Nigeria.
Chairman of the tribunal, Danladi Umar, gave the judgement after ruling that the CCT has the jurisdiction to entertain the case. Umar had held that Onnoghen was arraigned before the tribunal not as the CJN but as an erring public official.
The federal government had accused Onnoghen of maintaining and operating several bank accounts containing huge sums of money in local and foreign currencies without declaring same as required by the Code of Conduct Act.
However, Onnoghen, through his counsels, challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal to try a judicial officer who had not first been subjected to disciplinary measures by the National Judicial Council (NJC) as provided for in the constitution.
Before delivering the ruling, the tribunal overruled itself on a similar ruling which it had given in the case between the federal government and Sylvester Ngwuta, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
In 2017, Ngwuta was also dragged before the CCT on charges of false assets declaration, but the tribunal struck out the case, ruling that Ngwuta ought to have been tried first by the NJC before he could be charged.
On Thursday, the CCT Chairman, Umar, held that the tribunal reserves the right to overrule itself if it discovered that it had given a wrong ruling in the past.
Having ruled on the issue of the jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the suit, Umar proceeded to deliver judgement on the six-count charge brought against Onnoghen. He said the suspended CJN was guilty of all the charges and as such has been barred from holding any public office in Nigeria for 10 years.
Umar also ruled that all the monies contained in the bank accounts which Onnoghen failed to declare have been forfeited to the federal government in accordance with the Code of Conduct Act. The CCT Chairman held that the monies were evidently acquired through corrupt means since Onnoghen was unable to explain to the tribunal how he came about the funds.
It is not clear whether Onnoghen would appeal the CCT judgement or not.
Recall that the NJC had investigated some of the petitions brought against Onnoghen by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), but had not looked into the alleged false assets declaration which was already before the CCT at the time.
The NJC, having looked into the other allegations against the suspended CJN, made recommendations to President Muhammadu Buhari, which, according to reports, included a compulsory retirement for Onnoghen. A day later, however, Onnoghen forwarded his resignation to the President.
Buhari, while announcing Onnoghen’s suspension, had also appointed Tanko Mohammed, the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court after Onnoghen, as the Acting CJN.
With this recent development, it is expected that Mohammed will be confirmed as the substantive CJN soonest.
Onnoghen may be the first top public officer to be convicted by the CCT, but he was not the first to be docked at the tribunal. That “honour” belongs to Senate President Bukola Saraki who was also charged with false assets declaration by the federal government in September 2015.
Saraki was however discharged and acquitted as the tribunal upheld the no-case-submission he filed after the federal government had closed its case against him.
Dissatisfied with the judgement, the federal government filed an appeal before the Court of Appeal, and the higher court ruled that while 15 of the 18 charges against Saraki were correctly struck out, the Senate President had a case to answer on the remaining three.
However, Saraki went to the Supreme Court and after a review of the decision of the appellate court, all the charges against him were struck out.