By Emma Peters
A civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI), has launched a legal move to remove Walter Onnoghen as the chief justice of Nigeria.
ARDI has petitioned the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), listing a number of allegations against Onnoghen — notably false declaration of assets.
The petition was stamped “received” by the office of the CCB chairman on January 9, 2019.
The CCB is empowered by the constitution to investigate public officers, after which it would forward its findings to the appropriate body for trial if the allegations are confirmed.
What are the core allegations?
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”.
In the petition seen by TheCable, the group 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.
The campaigners 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.
Also alleged against him is 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 — at which point, they said, Onnoghen had become the CJN.
Onnoghen assumed office as CJN on March 6, 2017.
ARDI alleged that prior to 2016, 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”.
These account balances were listed against his name by ARDI:
The Standard Chartered Bank dollar account 1062650 with a balance of $391,401.28 on January 31, 2011
The Standard Chartered Bank Euro account 5001062686 with a balance of EURO 49,971 .71 on January 31, 2011
The Standard Chartered Bank pound sterling account 5001062679 with a balance of GBP23,409.66 on February 28, 2011.
“It is curious that these domiciliary accounts were not declared in one of the two CCB Forms filed by Justice Onnoghen on the same day, 14th December 2016,” the group said.
ARDI said it believed its petition had established cases of “suspicious financial and other transactions against His Lordship, collusion between His Lordship and various banks related to Suspicious Transactions Reporting (STR) and financial transactions not justifiable by His Lordship’s lawful remuneration at all material times.”
What happens next?
The Code of Conduct Bureau, according to section 3 (e) of the Third Schedule (part 1) of the 1999 constitution, shall “receive complaints about non-compliance with or breach of the provisions of the Code of Conduct or any law in relation thereto, investigate the complaint and, where appropriate, refer such matters to the Code of Conduct Tribunal”.
However, since judicial officers are disciplined by the National Judicial Commission (NJC), it is unlikely the CCB will refer his case to the Code of Conduct Tribunal if the allegations are found to have substance.
It could be referred to NJC, of which Onnoghen is the chairman, but he would have to recuse himself in the process.
If found guilty, he could be asked to vacate his office as CJN, in addition to other punishments.
No chief justice of Nigeria has ever been subjected to trial, although the President Muhammadu Buhari administration has charged judges to court over allegations of graft and money laundering.
An early morning raid was conducted by the secret police on the residences of some judges in 2016 and substantial amounts of money in local and foreign currencies were recovered.
What is the link to elections?
ARDI linked its petition to the elections and the role the judiciary plays in the final outcome, and this could lead to speculation that it is a preemptive move against the bench.
The group said it is “inevitable that His Lordship is also by these acts a likely hostage to the sources of these funds and beholden to or generally corrupted by their clandestine interests which might prove injurious to the Judiciary which he heads, and by extension the nation”.
ARDI in the past defended actions by Buhari — including the alleged purchase of $496 million aircraft from the US without due process.
“The president’s only sin is that he did not seek the approval of NASS for the release of the fund; he did not embezzle it. For anyone to think of impeachment process against him is not right. We have many problems at hand. Violation of a constitutional provision is bad but it is worse to act in an immoral manner,” Dennis Aghanya, the executive secretary, said at the time.
What does Onnoghen think?
When contacted, Awassam Bassey, media aide of Onnoghen, said he had not seen the petition and would not want to comment on the issue.
“I have no comment whatsoever to make on this issue. If the petition was sent to the Code of Conduct Bureau, then they are in the best position to state if the CJN declared his assets or not,” he told TheCable via telephone.
Asked to react to the allegations of foreign accounts, Bassey said: “I have just told you that I haven’t seen the petition. How can I comment on an issue that I don’t know the genesis? I have no comment whatsoever. Thank you.”
In September 2017, Bassey had said Onnoghen had nothing to hide and was open to investigation.
“It is the first time he is being aware of any allegations or intelligence against him, neither has he been invited or called upon to offer any explanation on any impropriety. However, the Hon. CJN wishes to assure the public that he has nothing to hide and is open to investigation,” he had said.
“As a committed patriot who has spent all his adult life in the temple of justice, the Hon. CJN is ready to pay the required price to make the nation a better place.”
A senior lawyer told TheCable that the ruling party “does not trust Onnoghen to do their bidding in rigging the elections and giving judicial affirmation to their shenanigans, as you can see in the court cases that have gone against APC in recent weeks”.
A former governor from the south-south is allegedly behind the petition.