False Assets declaration: Tension mounts over CJN’s trial

...Executive intimidating judiciary – NBA ...Only NJC can try CJN –Afe Babalola *No, he must prove his innocence at tribunal -Sagay *Buhari lacks regard for S/South sentiment - Govs *Disregard PDP’s conspiracy theory -APC

Will the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen appear before the Code of Conduct Tribunal today, being Monday?

This is a pertinent question Nigerians seek answer to as the  stage appears set for the trial of the nation’s number one judicial officer, who, in a six-count charge, is among others, been accused of false assets declaration.

The development is generating some tension among major stakeholders, who argued for and against the planned trial.

And barring any last minute change of strategy,  a total of 150 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) from different geo-political zones are due to storm the CCT in Abuja this morning to defend the nation’s chief judicial officer  pro bono (free of charge) in the controversial trial.  

The lawyers, according to an impeccable source, are to raise various issues, including subject-matter jurisdiction before the tribunal to frustrate the attempt by the federal government to dock the CJN.

 The allegations

The development followed a petition to the Code of Conduct Bureau by a group, the Anti-corruption and Research-based Data Initiative (ARDI).

The CJN is also being accused of maintaining domiciliary accounts, comprising dollar, pound sterling and euro accounts, all believed to be contrary to relevant laws, especially for public office holders.

Further to this, the federal government, it’s further gathered, planned to  file a motion on notice praying the tribunal to order the CJN to vacate office and rescue himself from any aspect of the case as chairman of the National Judicial Council so as to prevent alleged interference in his arraignment and trial.

In the petition, dated January 7, 2019, ARDI claimed 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.”

It further claimed the CJN made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on March 8, 2011, into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650; two separate cash deposits of $5000 each followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 7, 2011; another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 27, 2011, and four more cash deposits of $10,000 each the following day.

Prior to 2016, the group also alleged Onnoghen appeared “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.”

For instance, ARDI claimed that Onnoghen had a balance of $391,401.28 as at January 31, 2011, in his Standard Chartered Bank dollar account with account number: 1062650; 49,971 71 euros as at January 31, 2011, in his Standard Chartered Bank Euro account with number: 5001062686; and E23, 409.66 as at February 28, 2011, in his Standard Chartered Bank Pound Sterling account with number 5001062679.

CCT confirms charge

CCT spokesman, Ibraheem Al-Hassan, who confirmed the charge, said the tribunal has scheduled January 14 for arraignment.

Al-Hassan said the fixing of the date of arraignment was informed by an application filed on January 11 this year, by the CCB, seeking that the case be set down for hearing.

He said a copy of the charge has been served on the CJN as required, but was silent on when the service of the process was effected.

Al-Hassan said, in a statement: “The Code of Conduct Tribunal has scheduled Monday, 14th of January for the commencement of trial in the charge against current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon Justce Onnoghen Nkanu Walter Samuel for alleged non declaration of asset.

“This was consequent upon an application filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau to the CCT Chairman yesterday (January 11) for the trial to commence against the Chief Justice of Nigeria on six count charges. However, service of summons has been effected on the defendant.

“The application was filed yesterday (Friday) by the operatives of CCB, dated 11th January, 2019 and signed by Musa Ibrahim Usman (Esq) and Fatima Danjuma Ali (Esq), containing six counts charges, all bordering on non-declaration of asset.

“The three-man panel, led by Justice Danladi Y. Umar, will commence the trial on Monday, 14th January, 2019 at the CCT courtroom, situated at the headquarters, along Jabi Dakibiyu, Solomon Lar way, Abuja, at about 10:00am.”

NBA, Hon, Ozekhome kick

But the Nigerian Bar Association and some senior lawyers have condemned the planned trial.

In a statement yesterday, the NBA described the move as an attempt by the executive arm of government to intimidate the judiciary.

The statement, which was signed by the NBA President, Mr. Paul Usoro, condemned the speedy nature of the investigation and trial of Onnoghen, saying the established precedent for such a trial was not followed.

“If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on Jan.14, we have in total a record number of 3 (three) working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of charge and ancillary processes and the arraignment.

“With such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration, it is clear that the NJC was not privy to it and did not conduct its mandatorily required disciplinary processes prior to the filing of the charge before the CCT.”

Usoro said it was difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the federal government on the heads of the two independent arms of government.

On his part, Mr. Sebatian Hon (SAN), said that the haste with which the charge was filed indicated that it was a political witch hunt and not a honest investigation.

According to Hon, 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 and all Nigerians must say no to this unprovoked assault on the judiciary.

“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,” Hon said.

He counselled the CJN not to heed what he described as the obviously unholy call that he should step aside.

Similarly, Mr. Mike Ozekhome (SAN), also described the act as an attempt to gag the CJN who was constitutionally empowered to inaugurate the presidential election tribunal, against the 2019 election.

According to Ozekhome, the trial is undoubtedly politically motivated, because as head of the judiciary, the CJN will be the one to empanel the presidential election tribunal that will try cases which emanate from the elections.

“There are many questions to be asked: When have Nigerian security agencies optimized and displayed such efficiency that a petition by an NGO, dated Jan.7 and received Jan. 9 was acted upon with such automatic alacrity that by Jan. 11, charges have already been filed against Onnoghen,” the SAN queried.

He maintained that the CJN could be removed from office only where he had been convicted or, if under Section 291 of the Constitution, the Senate, by two-third majority vote, affirms a request by the president to remove him. (NAN)

…Afe Babalola too

Toeing same line, legal giant, Chief Afe Babalola, SAN has described the planned trial as “denigration of the country’s judiciary and constitution.”

According to him, there is a constitutional provision which stipulates that any infraction by judges must first be investigated and then resolved by the National Judicial Council, “to the exclusion of any other body or authority.”

He made his position known yesterday, in a statement entitled, “Proposed arraignment of the Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen: Again, I say two wrongs do not make a right.”

 “I am of the view that the Constitution requires that any infraction by the said judges be firstly investigated and resolved by the National Judicial Council, to the exclusion of any other body or authority,” he argued.

While resting his position on the decision of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), he said the ruling “still subsists and has not been set aside,” adding, “I therefore see no justification for the decision to arraign the CJN before the CCT.”

Pushing further his position, the SAN contended:  “Again, the point must be made clear that the Constitution clearly provides for the procedure with which the CJN can be removed from office.

“Section 292 (1) (a) (i) and 292 (1) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended) addressed it.”

Given the clear provisions for trial and removal of judges, Babalola further argued, “it becomes more worrying to learn that, aside from laying the proposed charges, the prosecution has also filed an application for an order directing the CJN to rescue himself from office pending the conclusion of the trial.

“By proceeding as proposed, the government is unwittingly or, perhaps, deliberately, creating a wrong impression in the minds of millions of Nigerians that the judiciary is a criminal organisation.

“For the sake of our democracy, this is a misconception that must not be allowed to fester. No country, no matter how well intentioned its political leaders are, can aspire to greatness if its judicial arm is denigrated and held in contempt.

“While the Judiciary itself must be awake to its huge responsibilities, its efforts in this regard will surely not be helped by the erosion of its independence.”

Sagay counters

In a counter argument, however, Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Professor Itse Sagay, insisted the controversy over the trial was needless, asking the CJN to appear before the tribunal and prove his innocence.

He made the position known in an interview with The Interview.

He said: “And honestly, I don’t know what the hullabaloo is about. The law is very clear about what public officers can do and cannot do under the Code of Conduct Bureau, including declaration of assets. And that is a subject that can be determined mathematically. It is either you declared, or you did not declare your assets; there is no exception.

“The rule of law doesn’t know any exception. Nobody is above the law. It can happen to me, it can happen to you if you are in public office. It is compulsory that one must declare assets. So, what has to be determined by the Tribunal based on the evidence before it is whether he did declare or did not declare his assets. That’s mathematically certain.”

“So, what all the noise is about, I don’t know. I would have thought that those who have sympathy for the Chief Justice would have said there is nothing to worry about; the truth would come out at the Tribunal and it would be established that he has nothing to answer for.

“And that would be the end of it. But there is a lot of confusion and cloud being thrown all over. There is a frenzy. I don’t understand why this is so. Are you saying that somebody who occupies high office cannot answer to a breach of the law? It doesn’t make sense to me.

“It just shows you something is wrong and those who are behind this are the elite – top elites, the Senior Advocates; all those who think that  living in a society is to gather privileges without any responsibility, and if anyone of them is challenged about it, then the roof has to fall.

“My view on this matter is, let the matter come before the Tribunal, let the prosecution make his case, and let the Chief Justice’s lawyers and himself show clearly that the case is wrong and that he is innocent. That’s it. It is very simple,” the PACAC boss further submitted.

…Ditto APC

Arguing along Sagay’s line of thought, the All Progressives Congress said the current administration’s fight against corruption is total, saying no one, no matter how highly placed, will be spared.

The ruling party also faulted the Peoples Democratic Party for condemning the planned trial of Onnoghen.

The PDP, had, through its spokesman, Kola Ologbondiyan, alleged that the federal government was putting the CJN on trial in order to destabilise the Judiciary and perfect its ‘election rigging plan’ next month.

Countering the wave of opposition against today’s trial, APC National Publicity Secretary, Lanre Issa-Onilu, noted that the swift reaction by the PDP exposed the opposition party as one with a natural inclination to rise up in defence of cases of alleged corruption.

The party said it expected the PDP to call for impartial investigations when corruption cases are levelled against public officers, but noted however that   “spinning falsehoods and conspiracies” remains the opposition party’s favourite past time.

The ruling party dismissed as baseless the allegation that the move against Onnoghen is a plot to rig the election, and urged Nigerians to disregard such allegations, as APC is committed to ensuring a free and fair election.

“The PDP’s baseless conspiracy theory on APC’s participation in the 2019 general elections should hereby be disregarded. We remain solidly committed to ensuring that the forthcoming elections go on record as one of the freest, most credible and peaceful elections in the country.”

Issa-Onilu further assured that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration remains uncompromising in its determination to rid the country of corruption, and will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute any public officer if and when such is indicted for corruption.

S/South govs hit Buhari

And in yet another reaction, the South-south Governors forum, has urged the CJN Onnoghen not to resign, noting that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has no regard for the sentiment of the zone.

The emergency meeting of five out of six governors of the states of the South-south geopolitical zone, held at the Bayelsa state Governor’s Lodge, Abuja yesterday, started at around 3pm and lasted till 7:45 pm.

Chairman of the Forum and Governor of Bayelsa state, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson, who read the communiqué at the end of the meeting, disclosed that the group resolved that, the action against the CJN constitutes a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.

He said, “We note that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of judicial officers.

“Specifically, the NJC has the powers and clear procedures for investigating allegations, and recommending appropriate sanctions or disciplinary measures against judicial officials as a matter of first instance before any further steps.”

 Citing some instances, Dickson noted that, ” the judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT, have given validation to the express provisions of the constitution on this issue.”

The forum also cautioned that, “the attempt to drag the CJN to the CCT is also a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state, including the National Assembly and the judiciary. We believe that the President, Muhammadu Buhari has a constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend our democracy.”

Lamenting the ordeal the zone had allegedly suffered, they concluded that the step “is directly aimed at humiliating the nation’s highest judicial officer and a prominent son of the region, as totally unacceptable as it is reflective of the South-south story of endless marginalization and intimidation. The unceremonious removal of former Acting Director General of the Department of State Service, Mathew Seiyefa and his replacement is still very fresh.

  “We note that the unfortunate action against the CJN further reinforces the perception that the Buhari administration has no regard for the sentiments of Nigerians, in particular the people of Niger Delta, and the rule of law. It is a fact that this administration has a penchant for flagrant disobedience of and disregard for legitimate and valid court orders.”

“We expect President Buhari to know that democracy cannot survive without respect for the constitution, strict adherence to the rule of law, and separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution.

 “We strongly believe that the regrettable development at the Supreme Court at this critical time, when preparations for the general elections are wobbling (with serious concern about INEC and security agencies), is capable of causing avoidable anxiety, tension and possible breakdown of law and order in the country.

 “We note further that the action undermines confidence not only in the judiciary, but also the electoral process that has already commenced, in view of the pivotal role that the judiciary plays in the process of electoral adjudication.

 “We affirm President Buhari should know that the continuous assault on critical institutions of state, is a defining feature of a dictatorship, and that the President is obliged to live up to his word that he is a born-again democrat, as he assured Nigerians in 2015,” the communiqué further added.

They charged the President to “condemn without any equivocation, this assault on the CJN and the judiciary, especially coming after similar assaults on the National Assembly, to save the country from this embarrassment and global contempt.”

The forum also called on the CJN “to ignore this so-called Court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters. While we are not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, such an action must always be anchored on the rule of law”

Other governors also in attendance include: Nyesom Wike of Rivers state, Prof.  Ben Ayade of Cross River state, Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom state, and  Dr.Ifeanyi Okowa of  Delta, while Godwin Obaseki was conspicuously absent at  the meeting. .

My security details intact- Onnoghen

Meanwhile, the embattled CJN has clarified that his security aides were not withdrawn as reported in some sections of the media.

Onnoghen’s special assistant on media, Awassam Bassey, dismissed the reports in a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES  yesterday.

Bassey, who said he was with the CJN till late afternoon on Sunday, his boss attended a public function on Sunday, “in company of his usual security aides”.

“I was with him, through this afternoon. We had attended the special Sunday service for the Armed Forces Remembrance Day. His security officers were there. None of them has been changed, or taken away,” Bassey said.

The spokesperson said the social media has been awash with various information regarding his boss, adding that most are fake news.

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