By Soni Daniel, Emmanuel Aziken, Innocent Anaba, Adekunle Aliyu & Henry Ojelu
•Outrage as FG files assets declaration charges against CJN
•S/South govs summon emergency meeting
•Atiku warns: Don’t throw Nigeria into crisis
•SANs kick, say action dangerous
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, may be dragged before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) any moment from now following alleged gaps in his assets declaration forms.
The CCB, according to documents obtained by Sunday Vanguard, has already confronted Justice Onnoghen with purported evidence of false assets declaration and huge payments of foreign currencies by him into accounts, which he allegedly did not declare were his at the time he filled his forms with the Federal Government agency.
Perhaps, to pave the way for the CJN to be prosecuted, top investigators from the CCB, on Friday, reportedly, went to the Supreme Court and obtained written cautionary statement from him.
During the interrogation, which sources said, ended at 1:45pm, the CCB operatives were said to have confronted the Chief Justice on why he opened and operated sundry domiciliary and local accounts, most of which he allegedly did not declare in his forms, thereby violating the code of conduct of public officers.
Onnoghen was also reportedly questioned on why he did not immediately declare his assets after taking office as the head of the judiciary in Nigeria and why his two assets forms for 2014 and 2016 were filled and filed the same day.
The main opposition party in the country, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State and some Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) were outraged by the action against the CJN.
In particular, Onnoghen’s attention was said to have been drawn by his interrogators to the discrepancies in the two assets declaration forms he submitted to the CCB. The first form, with reference No. SCN: 000014, and the second, with reference No. SCN: 000015 and dated December 14, 2016, were reportedly issued, completed and acknowledged the same day by one Awwal Yakasai when the CJN had taken office.
But the two forms had what the interrogators considered as ‘significant deviations’, which informed their investigations and decision to invite the CJN for questioning.
The documents before the CCB, according to sources, indicated that, in the first set of forms submitted by Onnoghen, he mentioned two banks accounts in SCN: 000014, namely Union Bank with a balance of N9,536,407 as of November 14, 2014 and another Union Bank account in Calabar Branch with cash balance of N11,456, 311.
However, in form Number SCN: 000015, the CJN allegedly listed seven bank accounts mostly holding foreign and local currencies running into millions of Naira.
The accounts, which the CJN reportedly acknowledged to have opened, are made up of five in Standard Chartered and two in Union.
They are: Standard Chartered accounts (five) with cash balances of N3,221,807.05, N$164,804,82, €55,154,56, £108,352.2, and N8,131,195,27 as of November 14, 2016.
The two Union Bank accounts held N23,261,568,89 and N14,695,029,12 respectively as of November 14, 2016.
I’ve done no wrong – Onnoghen
Responding to the interrogation in writing, Onnoghen pleaded his innocence on the issues raised by the CCB, saying he did not do any wrong to warrant any action, having satisfied the requirements of publicly declaring his assets as a top public officer in Nigeria.
In a written statement to the CCB, sighted last night, he explained that he filed the two assets declaration forms on the same day in 2016 after becoming CJN because he forgot to make another declaration of his assets at the expiration of his 2005 paper in 2009.
“Following my appointment as the Acting CJN in 2016 the need to declare my assets anew made me to realize the mistake and I therefore did the declaration to cover the period in default,”he explained.
On the seven accounts omitted in form SCN: 000014, he explained that it arose because he believed they were not opened during the period covered by the declaration.
According to him, the $10,000 cash deposits he made at different intervals into his account in Standard Chartered in 2011 came from his earned estacodes for medical expenses while the withdrawals from the accounts were due to paying for his children’s schools fees and for their upkeep abroad.
It was not clear last night if the CCB could press ahead with the case against Onnoghen without clearing with the National Judicial Council, (NJC) which is headed by him, a body that has vehemently resisted the trial of any judge for corrupt practices without being reprimanded by it.
But there were indications that the CCB might push the case before the CCT this week.
PDP: Presidency plotting to annex the judiciary
The PDP deplored the action against the CJN, accusing the Buhari presidency of plotting to destabilise and annex the judiciary ahead of the general elections.
The main opposition party said the All Progressives Congress (APC) and a “cabal” at the Presidency were hounding Onnoghen and seeking his removal so as to cause a constitutional crisis, instill fear in judicial officers and pave the way for the foisting of a pliable CJN that will do their bidding on electoral matters.
“This is particularly following allegations that the APC seeks a new CJN that will aid its rigging schemes as well as execute the plot to use the court to detain and put opposition members and outspoken members of Civil Society Organizations out of circulation during the general elections,” it said in a statement.
“This development is a clear recipe for anarchy and a huge crisis that is capable of fracturing our justice system and derail our democracy as it portends a prelude to a total clamp down on institutions of democracy and rule of law in our country.
“The PDP therefore urges all Nigerians, the United Nations and all international bodies to unite in the defence of our democracy, especially at this very critical time in our political development.
“Moreover, if President Buhari is committed to cleaning up the system as he claims, we challenge him to allow the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, whose tenure has expired and who had also been rejected by Nigerians due to his manifest partisanship, to go.
“President Buhari should also ask Amina Zakari to recuse herself from INEC following her rejection by Nigerians over issues of impropriety in her appointment as Chairperson of the Presidential election collation committee”.
Don’t Throw Nigeria into Crisis, Atiku Warns
Also reacting, the presidential candidate of the PDP, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, warned President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC against throwing Nigeria into avoidable crisis over what he called their desperation to sack the CJN.
Atiku, in a statement by his Special Assistant on Public Communication, Mr. Phrank Shaibu, said the principle of separation of powers remained sacrosanct in a democracy irrespective of what Buhari is told by his advisers.
According to him, the plot to sack Onnoghen is a pre-emptive move against the bench in the face of imminent defeat and knowing the role the judiciary plays in the final outcome of elections.
“We have just been made aware of the plot by President Muhammadu Buhari the All Progressives Congress (APC) to sack Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen using flimsy assets declaration issues as a pretext. We are aware that there are plans to arraign Justice Onnoghen before the Justice Danladi Yakubu Umar led- Code of Conduct Tribunal on Monday, January, 14, 2019. The charge against Onnoghen, we understand has already been filed and served on him last Friday at his official residence in Abuja preparatory to his appearance at the Tribunal,”he stated.
‘’But we warn that despite the clandestine meetings in the highest echelon of the APC and also involving some top officials of the federal government which include the Code of Conduct Tribunal, neither Buhari nor the APC can re-write the Nigerian Constitution just because of its impending defeat at the February 16, presidential election. Heavens did not fall when PDP lost to the APC in 2015. And heavens will not fall now that the APC is sure to lose to the PDP, seeing that the APC’s plan to rig in the forthcoming elections will not pull through.”
Tambuwal warns against plot to give CJN ‘Saraki treatment’
Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto State cautioned Buhari against succumbing to the plea by his associates to give Onnoghen the ‘Bukola Saraki’ treatment for the purpose of having their way at the tribunals post – 2019 polls.
Senate President Bukola Saraki had been tried by the CCT for what may believed were trumped-up assets declaration charges dating back to his time as governor of Kwara State.
The trial came after he defied the APC leadership to become the Senate President.
CCT freed him of the charges.
Speaking at the flag-off of the PDP election campaign in Bodinga Local Government Area of Sokoto State, Tambuwal said that, “after desecrating the legislature, the Buhari administration had set its sight on the judiciary in a brazen effort to return itself to power”.
Three senior advocates of Nigeria (SAN) who spoke on the CJN episode, last night, were scathing in their criticism of the action against Onnoghen.
In his reaction, Sebastine Hon, SAN, said: “ While I know that the Chief Justice of Nigeria does not enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution, I see this move by the Federal Government as dangerously political and tendentious. Suddenly, we woke to see a petition leaked to the informal or social media, allegedly received by the Code of Conduct on 9th January, 2019. Suddenly, we are told charges have been filed against the CJN. Suddenly the Presidency is reportedly asking him to step aside! Was he interrogated or interviewed and his own reactions obtained? Why this supersonic rush? These steps are more political than honest.
“There is an attempt to destroy the Judiciary or gag it; and in the latter situation, to hector it into submission. I personally say no to this! All Nigerians of goodwill must say no to this unprovoked assault on the Judiciary.
“After unsuccessful attempts to reign in the National Assembly, the same unholy attention is beamed on the Judiciary. If this arm of government is destroyed, due process, constitutionalism and the rule of law will pave way to whimsical, narrow and brute force, at the instance of one man or a select few! I personally say no to this.
“Nothing stops the Federal Government from deferring, in the interest of national peace and cohesion, the filing of those charges till an opportune time – since there is no limitation of time in criminal proceedings. Why now?
“The Federal prosecutors are also aware of extant decisions of the Court of Appeal, to the effect that unless and until the NJC pronounces a Judicial Officer guilty, he cannot be arraigned in court. Those authorities know full well that these decisions of the Court of Appeal have not been overruled; but they have decided to humiliate the CJN, by rushing some charges to the Tribunal and leaking same to the press over the weekend.
“I strongly counsel the CJN not to heed the obviously unholy call that he should step aside. There is light, I am strongly persuaded, at the end of the tunnel!.”
For his part, Yusuf Alli, SAN, stated: “To say that I am flustered and nonplussed is an understatement. We should not destroy our institutions. The judiciary is one of the most important institution in any country. We should not toy with the judiciary. While accusing everybody of being corrupt, we should not throw it around just because some people are happy. The Chief Justice of Nigeria is the epitome of Nigeria’s judicial system. We should just be very careful so that we don’t end up with the title of Chinua Achebe’s book, ‘ There was a country’.”
Chief Chris Uche, SAN, reacting, said, “This is carrying the battle for 2019 too far. To attempt to intimidate and destroy the Judiciary because of the forthcoming presidential election is a ploy that must be stoutly and vehemently resisted by the legal community. The legal community must rise in unison against this attack on all of us.
“We will not allow this to happen otherwise the legal profession is finished. The AGF should not allow himself to go down in history as the one under whose watch the judiciary in Nigeria was destroyed. His predecessors such as Clem Akpamgbo SAN, Abdullahi Ibrahim SAN, Bayo Ojo, SAN and others strove to strengthen the judiciary as an institution. Those who allow their heads to be used in breaking the coconut may not be around to drink the water therefrom.”
South-South govs summon emergency meeting
In a related development, South-South Governors Forum meets today in connection with the CJN affair
A statement by the Special Adviser, Media Relations to the Governor of Bayelsa State, Mr. Fidelis Soriwei, stated that the security of the Niger Delta, during and after the 2019 elections, and the issue of derivation would also be discussed at the meeting.
Soriwie said that while his principal, Governor Seriaki Dickson, was yet to know the details at the Supreme Court concerning the CJN, it was a grave and dangerous escalation, coming a few weeks to the general elections.
He quoted Dickson as saying that all hands must be on deck to prevent the subversion and desecration of the ethos of democracy in Nigeria as the nation inches to the elections.