2019: Who Will Bail Out The Judiciary?

 By Our Reporters

For the first time , a sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, has  been informed by the Code of Conduct   Bureau, CCB,  that he will be prosecuted   over  an alleged petition by one   Dennis Aghanya, , Executive Secretary  of the anti-corruption Research Data-based Initiative.

Aghanya,  according to Ibrahim Alhassan, Spokes person of the CCB,  had petitioned Onnoghen, the CJN, over alleged non declaration of his assets and operating domiciliary accounts.  Acting on the petion which had accused the CJN of being the owner of sundry  accounts  primarily funded through deposits made by himself up  to  August 2016, which he maintains with Standard Chartered Bank Accounts at Wuse ,Zone 2, Abuja,  that were declared by him, SCN:000015, noting that it had been in existence since 2011.

The petitioner was said to have further alleged that Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office or complied with the Constitutional requirement  for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.

More worrisome was the allegation that the CJN had concealed the existence of these multiple domiciliary Accounts owned by him as well as the substantial  cash balance in them. The petition which was cited by The Value News shows that the dollar Account No. 1062650 had a cash balance of $391,401 as at January 2011, the Euro Account No. 5001062686 had a balance  EURO 49,971.71 on January 31, 2011.

It was these domiciliary Accounts, that the petitioner had claimed were not declared in one of the CCB forms file  filed by the CJN , on December 14, 2016.  The Naira Accounts  were also said to have been omitted in the CCB form  of the CJN SCN 000014. ”It is inevitable that the CJN  was a hostage  to the sources of these funds and generally corrupted  by these clandestine interests which might prove injurious to the Judiciary which he heads and by extension, the nation”.

The petition may have given Dr Muhammed  Isah, who was confirmed last December as the  Chairman of the Bureau and his six other members,  the ammunition to confront the CJN  with the petition on Friday, January 11, 2019, preparatory to arraigning him in Court on Monday, January 14, 2019. The CCB officials may have been convinced that the exposure of the CJN underhand dealings  of the alleged suspicious financial  and other transactions as well as collusion with various Banks related to Suspicious  transactions Reporting,STR, cannot  be swept underground.

The CJN , who believes he had done no wrong to warrant the humiliation was said to have responded in written Statement  to the allegations explaining that  he filed  the two Assets  declaration forms  on the same day  in 2016 after becoming CJN but forgot to make  another declaration of his  Assets at the expiration of his 2005 paper in 2009.

He was said to have told his CCB interrogators  :Following  my appointment as the acting CJN in 2016 the need  to declare  my assets afresh  made me  realize my mistake  and therefore did my declaration  to cover the period in default”. On the domiciliary Accounts omitted  in SCN:000014, he was said to have explained that  it arose  because  he believed   they  were not  opened  during  the period covered by the declaration. Given a further insight into the operations of the Accounts,  he reportedly said the $10,000 cash deposits  he made at different intervals  into his Accounts  in Standard Chartered Bank in 2011 were his ‘ earned estacodes for medical expenses while the withdrawals from the Accounts  were due  to paying  for his children’s school fees and their upkeep abroad’ .

The question on the lips of most people is: how such personal information of a highly placed government official leaked to the petitioner when he is not a Staff of CCB , DSS or EFCC operative? . Going by the Law governing Financial Institutions, ” banks  cannot disclose  customers  information’ to third parties ”. But could disclose such information on request to the DSS or EFCC officials, fueling speculations that Aghaya may be acting out a script from a higher Authority to get rid of the CJN.  

 Many may want to know who really  is this Justice Onnoghen?. According to  sources , he was said to have been nominated by Yemi Osibanjo, the Vice President, in his Capacity as acting President in 2017, when the position became vacant with the retirement of Mahmud Mohammed , then CJN.

 Osibanjo, the sources said may have sought the approval of President Muhammadu Buhari who was abroad to keep a date with his physician over his health challenge. The Cross River state born CJN, who incidentally was the most senior Justice in the Supreme Court  at that time was thus, nominated by him to take over from the retiring former CJN.  

Justice Onnoghen: CJN

Many believe that  the decision by the Isah led CCB, to act on the Aghaya’s petition  to arraign the CJN in Court may have a political undertone, going by its content: ”Bearing in mind  the imminence of the 2019 general elections  and the overwhelming roles of the Judicial arm, both before and after, this is a public service ” ARDI and her partners, had said. He was said to have justified the petition in accordance  with the” whistleblower policies of successive Nigerian Administrations  and the current Buhari Administration law”

He may have given the CJN a signal to resign his appointment to give the President  the opportunity to appoint  a new CJN  who would handle the petions that may arise from the 2019 election. Insiders informed the Value News that Buhari  believes that it was the Judiciary who won the 2011, Presidential election for Jonathan and had vowed to reform this arm of government if elected President .

 It was therefore not surprising why he has beamed his searchlight  on the Judiciary since he assumed office as the President and Commander- in-Chief of the Armed Forces in 2015 to remove the suspected bad eggs.

Recall that he had hinted during his inauguration , that the country’s Judicial system needs reform to cleanse itself from the immediate past .  According to him, the country now expects  the Judiciary  to act with dispatch  on all cases , especially on corruption , serious financial crimes  or abuse of office”.

He repeated in 2018 the government plans  to embark on the reorganisation  of the Judiciary in a bid to ensure  effective  fight against corruption in the country.  He had lamented that” it was difficult to fight corruption  under democracy , unlike during a military era  that does not require bureaucracy”.

Political watchers believe that he may have found a loophole to deal with those who may have corruptly enriched themselves in the country through the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC and CCB.  Indeed, the two government agencies  appear to be doing a good job going by the caliber of people that have been arraigned in Court and Jailed. Take for  instance former governors Joshua Dariye  and Jolly Nyame of Plateau and Taraba states  respectively who were prosecuted by the EFCC and jailed last year. The CCB, on its part in 2017, at the instance of the government prosecuted Bukola Saraki, a former governor of Kwara state and now , Senate president over alleged false declaration of assets as part of the grant plot to unseat him and  install their own Candidate as  the Senate President  but lost. There are fears that  Onnoghen may not be as lucky as Saraki because of the forces against him.

Buhari may not have been happy that the EFCC  lost the cases brought  against  Mrs. Patience Jonathan, a former First Lady, Godsdey Orubebe, former minister of Niger Delta, under the Jonathan Administration. Justice  Adeniyi Ademola and Chief Mike Ozokhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, which gave the impression that the” anti-corruption war was losing steam”.

He was said to have said it to the hearing of Onnoghen , the CJN, who was said to have responded: You take that as losing steam? .”If there was steam, it wouldn’t have  been without participation of the Judiciary. Good.  So if  there is losing of steam , you should not  equally relate  it only to the Judiciary”,  he had told the President.

The CJN, who may have gone to the Villa in  2018, to welcome him back from his oversea medical vacation and to thank him for the Confidence  reposed on him to lead the judiciary,  was said to have put up a strong defense for the Judiciary when he had disputed  his claim, insisting that  the ”anti-Corruption  war has not lost any steam”

Buhari may not have found the embattled CJN  response funny for daring to challenge him. He may have angered the President the more when he reportedly said” I have told you that if you are not satisfied  with the judgment  the system  is fashioned and designed  in such a way  that if you lose  in the Magistrate  Court and you are not satisfied, because someone must win and another  must lose, so the loser  has the chance  of testing the decision  on appeal”.  

Appealing to the President  ”don’t  be judgmental  about the judiciary to avoid prejudice”, he insists the judiciary in Nigeria is working. It was a matter of time for the game to play out.

The Nigeria Bar Association , NBA,  who described the CCB,  action against the Onnoghen, the CJN,  as an assault , intimidation and desecration of the judiciary’ as epitomised by the CJN, has warned that it  must stop to void throwing the country into Constitutional crisis.

Paul Usoro , a SAN, who could not hide his feelings noted that ” it was clear  that given the rush  with which  the matter  was conducted  by the CCB, that the CJN was not privy to it and did not  conduct its  mandatorily  required   disciplinary  process  prior  to the filing  of the charge ”. there are fears that the NBA may down tools if the CCB does not drop the charges against the CJN.

Below is the full text on the NBA Statement on. CJN trial :

 “The Nigerian Bar Association unequivocally condemns this assault, intimidation, and desecration of the Judiciary by FGN agencies and demands that it be stopped immediately.

“In Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), the Court of Appeal made it very clear that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer must first be reported to and handled by the National Judicial Council (“NJC”) pursuant to the provisions of our laws. Only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer can the prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed against him.

“As the Court pointed out, these requirements of the law are anchored on the overriding principles of separation of powers between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature and on the need to preserve, promote and protect the independence of the judiciary.

“Our respective liberties and the rule of law are best protected and preserved if the judiciary remains independent and shielded from intimidation and assault by the other arms of the government.

“In Nganjiwa v FRN (supra), the Court of Appeal made reference to Rule 3 of the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of February 2016 (“Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers”) and held that the said Rule 3 “makes provision in relation to fidelity to the Constitution and the Law”.

“The provisions in regard to assets declaration as they apply to all public officers including the CJN are contained in both the Constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act 1991, the enabling law that establishes both the Code of
Conduct Bureau (“CCB”) and the CCT.

“The fidelity which judicial officers, therefore, owe “to the Constitution and the Law” pursuant to Rule 3 of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers encompasses compliance with the provisions relating to assets declarations as contained in the Constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.

“Any infraction in that regard by a judicial officer, as the Court of Appeal rightly held, constitutes misconduct by the judicial officer and becomes the subject matter for discipline by the NJC as a condition precedent to any possible prosecution of the judicial officer by any of the FGN’s prosecuting agencies.

“Why has FGN decided to embark on this anomalous course of charging the CJN before the CCT without first presenting whatever facts it purportedly has against His Lordship to the NJC for its deliberation and determination?

“The Petition that triggered the CCB action was on its face received by the Bureau on 09 January 2019 and the Charge was promptly drafted and is dated the following day, 10 January 2019 – giving the CCB a record 24 hours for completion of its investigation and the drafting of the said Charge and ancillary processes!

“If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on 14 January 2019, 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! Such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration! It is clear, given the rush with which this matter was conducted by the CCB, 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.

“We still wonder why the FGN choose to deviate from the laid down and explicit provisions of the law as expounded in Nganjiwa v FRN (supra). Could it be that it was misadvised? Or is this a naked show of power and force by agencies of the FGN? And why embark on the media trial of the CJN?

“This, unfortunately, is a predilection of the FGN’s prosecuting agencies with the possible exception of the Federal Ministry of Justice. As the NBA pointed out in its International Anti-Corruption Day Statement that was issued on 09 December 2018 “media trial of persons charged with corrupt practices . . . amount to corruption itself.

“Indeed, those orchestrated media trials degrade and corrupt the justice administration system quite apart from the incalculable (but obviously intended) damage that it does to persons who may ultimately be discharged and acquitted.

“In point of fact, it is corrupt practice to use as a license or hide under the cover of the fight against corruption to recklessly destroy the names, characters, and reputations of persons who have not been found guilty of corrupt practices by competent courts and who may ultimately be pronounced innocent of such charges.”

“These media trials must, alongside the on-going desecration and assault of the judiciary, cease forthwith.

“There are two final issues that we must touch upon in this Statement, albeit, briefly. First, could it possibly be a coincidence that the current assault on the judiciary is taking place only weeks to the 2019 National Election? Apart from the conduct itself being wrongful and deplorable, its timing is condemnable. FGN will find it difficult to convince any reasonable person that its assault against the CJN and by extension the judiciary is not aimed at emasculating that arm of the government and intimidating our Judges ahead of the 2019 National Elections.

“In our afore-referenced International Anti-Corruption Day Statement, the
NBA had deplored “conducts that qualify as . . . political non-accountability, absence of transparency and impunity in public service.” The FGN’s conduct in this instance qualifies, amongst others, as “impunity in public service”.

“As a final point, it is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the FGN on the heads of the two independent arms of government, to wit, the legislature and the judiciary, starting with the prosecution of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the CCT and now, the ill-fated prosecution of the CJN before the same CCT.

“The impression must not be created that the agencies of the Executive arm of the FGN are interested in destabilizing and laying prostrate the other arms of the Government and in the process eliminating and destroying any and all voices of dissent and checks and balances.

“That is not desirable for the democracy that we strive to build neither is it good for the image of the Government. We urge restraint on the part of Government and demand that the CCB follow due process in proceeding against the CJN by complying with Nganjiwa’s Judgment (supra) and other similar judicial precedents.

“This continuing attack on the justice sector must cease forthwith.

“FGN and its agencies must desist from debasing the rule of law.

“Paul Usoro, SAN

President”.

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