Everything seemed to go haywire over the weekend when news came in that the current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen was to be arraigned before the Code of Conduct Tribunal tomorrow, Monday 14th January.
This followed allegations of false asset declaration preferred against him by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) which is charging him on six-counts.
Justice Onnoghen has, however, in a statement he made to CCB investigators on Friday January 11, explained that the undeclared foreign currencies found in his Standard Chartered Bank were his estacodes and medical allowances, including funds from his days in private practice between 1979 and 1989.
“Following my appointment as Acting CJN in November 2016, the need to declare my asset anew made me to realise the mistake”.
He further stated that the withdrawals from his Pound Sterling and Euro accounts were for the school fees and allowances of his children who are studying abroad.
“My Asset Declaration Form No SC N 00014 and SCN 00005 were declared on the same day 14/12/2016 because I forgot to make the declaration”.
The CJN further explained that he did not include the funds in his domiciliary accounts because he believed the accounts were not opened during the period covered by the declaration.
The CCB in a statement on Saturday confirmed the filing of the charges before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Abuja, where the CJN is expected to make his plea.
The charges followed a petition to the chairman of CCB by Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI)’s Executive Secretary, Dennis Aghanya.
Justice Onnoghen was alleged to have failed to declare his asset upon assumption of office as provided in Section 15 (1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act C15, punishable under Section 23 (2) (a) (b) and (c) of the same Act.
He was said to be maintaining domicilliary accounts in US Dollars, British Pounds Sterling and Euro in different bank accounts in Nigeria, which were omitted in his asset form.
Investigators alleged that the CJN, presented his 2014 and 2016 assets declaration forms on same date of December 14, 2016 and both have discrepancies in them.
The planned arraignment of the CJN will be the first time a serving Chief Justice of Nigeria would be arraigned on such allegations.
Many questions have been asked and comments made on how a high ranking official as the CJ would forget such a mandatory thing as asset declaration and why he didn’t know what constitute an asset to be declared in the first place.
There has also been furore as to the official correctness of a CJ being tried by a tribunal or court when there’s a constitutional provision already explained by the Court of Appeal, that it is only the National Judicial Council that is saddled with the responsibility for investigating and sanctioning Supreme Court judges.
There is also the timing of the move against the CJ right before the presidential and other elections which are likely to throw up judicial challenges which would require a stable judiciary to ensure credibility and legal stamp to the election results. This timing makes commentators to read political motives to the proposed arraignment.
At the last count, over 150 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) have volunteered to appear in defence of Chief Just Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen on Monday, before the Justice Danladi Yakubu led-Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The SANs are expected to also work to prevent any motion that would ask the tribunal to order the CJ to vacate office and recuse himself from office so as to prevent alleged interference in his arraignment and trial.
Such commentators point to the speed of the process that led to the proposed arraignment of the Chief Justice which was concluded in four days in a country where the legal wheel is usually as slow as can be.
For instance, the formal petition by the ARDI was said to have been outlined on Monday January 7 2019.
On Tuesday January 8, the petition was submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).
On Wednesday January 9, the petition was stamped “received” by the office of the CCB chairman.
On Thursday January 10, charges against CJN Onnoghen were filed by the CCB.
On Friday January 11, the CJN was served at his official residence in Abuja.
Details of the petition:
ARDI petitioned the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), listing a number of allegations, false declaration of assets, against Onnoghen.
The group said its petition, dated January 7, 2019, became necessary “bearing in mind the imminence of the 2019 General Elections and the overwhelming roles of the Judicial Arm both before and after”.
ARDI said 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”.
The petitioners further said Onnoghen 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.
They said Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office, contrary to section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act; and that he did not comply with the constitutional requirement for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.
They alleged that his Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day and the acknowledgement slips were issued for both on December 14, 2016.
We await the CJ’ s action on Monday – whether he’d show up in the Tribunal in Abuja or not, or if other actions would be taken by all the sides concerned to the benefit of all.