By Akanimo Sampson
Ahead of the coming general elections, the President Muhammadu Buhari All Progressives Congress (APC) administration appears to be taking measures to ease the victory of his party in all fronts.
On Monday, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, is scheduled to be arraigned before the Danladi Umar-led three-man panel of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for allegedly failing to declare his assets as stipulated by law.
But, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is not seeing it so. Instead, the party is accusing the Buhari Presidency of allegedly plotting to destabilise and annex the Judiciary arm of the Federal Government ahead of the 2019 general election petitions.
The party is also alleging that the APC and cabal at the Buhari Presidency are hounding Justice Onnoghen and seeking his removal so as to cause a constitutional crisis, instill fear in judicial officers and pave way for the foisting of a pliable CJN that will do their bidding on electoral matters.
Party Spokesman, Kola Ologbondiyan, who made this known claimed that this was particularly following allegations that the APC was seeking a new CJN that will aid their rigging schemes as well as execute the plot to use the court to detain and put opposition members and outspoken members of civil society organisations out of circulation during the general elections.
According to the PDP, “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. We are therefore urging 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.
“Furthermore, we challenge Mr. President to also commence plans for the immediate prosecution of members of his campaign organization, including his co-Chairman, Bola Tinubu and the factional National Chairman of his APC, Adams Oshiomhole over allegations of corruption against them.”
PDP then counsels the APC to note that it has been rejected by Nigerians and as such should end all its actions and schemes that overheat the polity and place our nation on the precipice.
In the mean time, the government has asked the embattled CJN to vacate office over the alleged corrupt practices. This follows an application filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for CJN’s arraignment and commencement of his trial on a six-count charge levelled against him by the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
A civil society group, Anti-corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI) had purportedly petitioned the CCB over some alleged illegal transactions discovered in the bank accounts of the CJN. The letter dated January 7, bore a CCB ‘received’ stamp allegedly from the office of the chairman of the bureau on January 9.
Some of the allegations contained in the petition read that the CJN “is the owner of sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself up to August 10, 2016, which was allegedly operated in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials”.
The group also alleged that Justice Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on March 8, 2011, into Standard Chartered Bank Account No. 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 petition further stated that Justice Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office. This, it held, was contrary to section 15 (1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, and was also accused of violating the constitutional requirements for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.
Others include that the CJN’s Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day and that acknowledgement slips were issued for both of them on December 14, 2016, ‘’at which point Justice Onnoghen has become the Chief Justice of Nigeria.’’
Justice Onnoghen however, assumed office as CJN on March 6, 2017, and not in 2016 as quoted in the petition. Though he was serving on an acting capacity at the time. The group equally 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.”
ARDI, in the petition, listed that Justice Onnoghen is the owner of Standard Chartered Bank dollar account No.1062650 with a balance of $391,401.28 as at January 31, 2011; Standard Chartered Bank Euro account 5001062686 with the balance of EURO 49,971 .71 as at January 31, 2011 as well as a Standard Chartered Bank pound sterling account No. 5001062679 with the balance sum of GBP23,409.66 as at February 28, 2011.
The petitioner described as “curious”, the fact that such domiciliary accounts were not declared in one of the two CCB Forms filed by Justice Onnoghen on the same December 14, 2016.
The group held that the petition has succeeded in establishing suspicious financial and other transactions against the CJN, stressing that the collusion between him and various banks related to “Suspicious Transactions Reporting (STR) and financial transactions not justifiable by his lawful remuneration at all material times.”
Head, Press and Public Relations, CCT, Abuja, Ibrahim Al-Hassan, in a statement informed that the tribunal has scheduled Monday, January 14, for the commencement of trial against the CJN “for alleged non-declaration of asset. This was consequent to an application filed by CCB to the CCT Chairman last Friday for the trial to commence against the CJN on six-count charge.
“However, service of the summons has been effected to the defendant. The three-man panel led by Justice Danladi Y. Umar will commence the trial on Monday, January 14, at its courtroom at about 10 am.”
The letter to the CCT contained the six-count charge bordering on non-declaration of assets,was filed on Friday, January 11 by the operatives of the CCB, and signed by one Musa Ibrahm Usman and Fatima Danjuuma.
A Warri-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria in Delta State, Albert Akpomudje, has described the situation as very sad, pointing out that charging the CJN, who is the highest judicial officer in the country to court, is an embarrassment to the administration of justice.
“The action is suggestive of political undertone, especially, considering the delay the CJN had in getting confirmed for the office. It is sad. While I believe that nobody, no matter how highly placed is above the law, charging the CJN to court is an embarrassment to the administration of justice. People may read political undertone to it particularly when it took an unwarranted delay to confirm his appointment”, he said.
For Dr. Abiodun Layonu (SAN), in spite of the threat of arraigning the CJN, he cannot be constitutionally removed without the endorsement of the National Judicial Commission (NJC) and the National Assembly, adding that his removal outside the constitutionally prescribed process can only happen if he resigns.
According to him, “you cannot constitutionally remove the CJN without NJC and the National Assembly. It is a lie. Unless he resigns, which I have not heard”.
Justice Onnoghen’s battle for survival as the CJN began as soon as his predecessor, the former CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed retired from office in November 2016. He was expected to assume office immediately to avoid any vacuum in the judiciary. But he was abandoned on acting capacity until March 2017, following the delay in transmitting his nomination to the National Assembly by President Buhari, for screening and confirmation.
The seeming persecuted CJN has however, pleaded his innocence on the issues raised by the CCB, claiming 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.
He is claiming 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 realise the mistake and I therefore did the declaration to cover the period in default”, he said.
Continuing, he said 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.