Despite resigning as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen can still be tried for fraudulent practices, chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay has said.
Onnoghen is currently standing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over a six-count charge bordering on non-declaration of assets.
Also, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had laid a slew of financial impropriety against him before the National Judicial Council (NJC).
In a twist however, a senior counsel in Onnoghen’s defence team at the CCT, told journalists Friday that the suspended CJN had tendered his resignation letter Thursday, which he reportedly forwarded to President Muhammadu Buhari.
The resignation came less than 48 hours after the NJC recommended Onnoghen for compulsory retirement.
His resignation has been generating various reactions, with the PACAC chairman, Prof. Sagay, saying the erstwhile CJN still risks being tried and made to explain the source of foreign currencies found in his bank accounts even after quitting office.
Sagay, who spoke to Blueprint Weekend on the telephone Friday, said the former number one judicial officer was “an embarrassment and a huge disappointment” to the nation.
He said the suspended CJN’s resignation waited for too long and embarrassed himself before throwing in the towel.
“To start with, the CJN (Justice Onnoghen) is a huge disappointment for those of us who believe in honour, dignity, grace and character in conducting oneself. As soon as those charges were brought from the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), and the moment he said he omitted (whether deliberately or not) to put in all the assets that he had, he should have resigned on the spot, and he would have been respected.”
The vocal lawyer also took a swipe at the manner in which the former CJN went to several courts for favourable injunctions to save his head, accusing him of using his high judicial position to browbeat the CCT into abandoning his trial.
“Not only that he (Onnoghen) failed to resign, he defended himself in a very disgraceful and embarrassing manner. He went to the National Industrial Court to get an injunction, which the court has no jurisdiction to give. In addition to that, Onnoghen went to two different High Courts all on the same case; everything amounting to a very gross abuse of the judicial process.
“So, Justice Onnoghen behaved grossly and manifestly in a very bad way. This is a man who has admitted in fact that he did not include some of his assets, and allowed it to go to the extent that other types of misconduct like the dollars that were lodged in his account, had to be brought out and presented before the NJC. So, what was he fighting about?”
The PACAC chairman further accused Onnoghen of “creating some coalition against the innocent Buhari-led government that was doing its duty of purifying the judiciary and ensuring that the people who sit there do not have any blemish on them,” saying the office of the CJN was not meant for everybody.
When asked on the implications of Justice Onnoghen’s resignation, Sagay said the ex-CJN could still be put on trial for alleged fraudulent activities.
“Of course, he can now be put on trial. All the dollars that were paid into his account which he cannot explain can be the cause of prosecution at the very least. They can be confiscated. That is why we have non-conviction based assets recovery. So, you don’t need to convict him (Onnoghen) to recover those assets from him.”
Sagay did not spare Onnoghen’s team of lawyers whom he blamed for “misadvising” the judicial officer in anticipation of “future benefits.”
“When the case started, a crowd of irresponsible Senior Advocates of Nigeria carried themselves there (CCT) so that they can be remembered for future benefits. Look at him (Onnoghen) now, what good have they done to the man?”
He equally urged the NJC to mete out appropriate sanctions against judges who used their judicial positions to carry out what Sagay termed “solidarity protests” in favour of Onnoghen.
In another reaction, the All Progressives Congress (APC) has said events leading to the resignation of former CJN have vindicated President Muhammadu Buhari as well as the party.
Speaking to journalists in Abuja Friday, APC national publicity secretary, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu said reasonable Nigerians knew from the word “go that those allegations were not cooked up.” .
Issa-Onilu said: “Now, events have proven the president right, events have proven the party, APC right, events have proven those Nigerians who believe in Nigeria first and any other things after – events have proven them right.
“We all can only be hiding behind one finger, otherwise we knew Nigerians, reasonable Nigerians knew from the word go that those allegations were not cooked up and if they were real, the next thing for the CJN to have done was to have stepped aside and the question of, ‘he wouldn’t be the only one, why him , won’t arise. There is nowhere in the world where judgment is passed on every sinner at once.
“It is not every armed robber you can catch the same day. And even some of you know, the slow wheel of justice may not catch up with them immediately, but we must continue to see evidence that we are moving towards that sanity, that we are making progressive efforts and sending strong signals to people who think this country must continue as long as they are comfortable and the rest of Nigerians are suffering. We must send that signal to them. It is not going to be business as usual.
“Now, you have seen the head of National Assembly, Senate president, you have seen him in the dock, now, you have seen the CJN in the dock. So, one day, we will see a president that will also misbehave in the dock — which now shows that nobody is above the law of this country, that we are all equal before the law. So, anybody who finds himself in any position, should now begin to look closely at his own actions knowing full well that today may protect him but tomorrow may expose him.”
On the outrage which followed Onnoghen’s suspension, the APC spokesman said: “The issue we have in this country is that, many people, especially those who have been part of the impunity of the past, are struggling badly to adjust to the reality of rule of law. That is the major issue we are facing in this country. There is so much struggle to allow the past, that is not good enough for us as a country to allow it go and for all of us to rise and face the future, future of promise, future of change, so that we can move to the ‘Next Level’.
“When this happened, as usual, especially PDP and some of their allies, the civil societies, not the entire community of the civil societies because some of the allies, including PDP, everything they read were the barometer of politics and we do know that, until we all rise above sentiments, no matter what part of the divide you find yourself and we see first and foremost this as an issue that has to do with our country, that is the only way we can progress.
“We knew right from the beginning that what the immediate past CJN (that is if his resignation letter is accepted)… the allegations were too serious and we know that the president does not act on frivolities, he must have done his background checks, he must have gotten good information to have taken the action he took and not just taking that action, that there was basis for the action that can be legally proven and those lawyers, so-called Senior Advocate of Nigeria who had over the years dipped their hands along with some of these judicial officers, in the till of this country, continued to lampoon the president, lampoon the APC and blaming this government that is doing its best to right several of the wrongs that we have been used to.”
Presidency keeps mum
Meanwhile, the presidency, as at the time of filing this report, was yet to confirm the receipt of Onnoghen’s letter of resignation.
The letter, it was gathered, was submitted to the Chief of Staff to the President, Malam Abba Kyari, by some Justices of the apex court.
In the same vein, a presidency source claimed President Buhari had, before his departure, received the NJC’s recommendations on the petitions written against both Onnoghen and Muhammad.
The report was submitted to the president by Kyari, who was accompanied by Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubalar Malami, SAN at about 2:20 p.m on the day.
When our correspondent contacted the Nigeria Bar Association president, Paul Usoro, SAN to comment on the development, he declined, saying “ I also heard it like you did and I am yet to confirm it.”
Another stakeholder and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Adebayo Adelodun, also refused to comment during a telephone conversation.
He nevertheless promised to respond after knowing the details, basis, and circumstances of Onnoghen’s resignation.