S-Court, NJC feign ignorance as suspended CJN, Onnoghen resigns

By Ikechukwu Nnochiri ABUJA – The Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council, NJC, on Friday, feigned ignorance on the reported resignatio

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By Ikechukwu Nnochiri

ABUJA – The Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council, NJC, on Friday, feigned ignorance on the reported resignation of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen.

OnnoghenSuspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen

Onnoghen, who is facing corruption charges, had reportedly succumbed to pressure and formally tendered his resignation letter to President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday.

His action came barely 24 hours after the NJC revealed that it had forwarded the report of its investigation into a petition the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, lodged against him, to President Buhari for consideration.

Meantime, in separate reactions to a query from Vanguard, Directors of Information at both the apex court and the NJC, described reports on Onnoghen’s resignation as “mere rumour”.

According to the Director of Information at the Supreme Court, Dr. Festus Akande, “I have been inundated with calls from both within and outside the country on this issue. What I can tell you is that it is not true, let us just call it a rumour. But once I get any contrary information I will definitely let you know”.

Similarly, his counterpart at the NJC, Mr. Soji Oye, who said he was out of town, also denied knowledge of such development.

Oye said he was not aware that the suspended CJN wrote or submitted any resignation letter to the legal body.

In the same vein, a senior official at the Supreme Court who pleaded not to be mentioned, wondered how the suspended CJN could bye-pass the judicial bodies to directly tender his resignation letter to the Presidency.

“To the best of my knowledge, the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court has not received such letter. I would not know if the NJC has it, but till this moment, we are not aware that my lord has resigned”, the source added.

Repeated calls to the telephone line of the media aide to the embattled CJN, Mr. Awassam Bassey were not answered, just as he had yet to return the call as at the time this report was filed.

Nevertheless, a member of the suspended CJN’s legal team, who craved anonymity, confirmed to Vanguard that Justice Onnoghen indeed resigned his position as the CJN.

“Please don’t quote me. But I have spoken with his lordship and he confirmed to me that he voluntarily resigned on Thursday”.

The senior lawyer however declined to disclose if Onnoghen’s action was informed by NJC’s report to President Buhari.

It will be recalled that the NJC had in a statement on Wednesday, said it convened an emergency meeting to consider the report of the five-man committee it constituted to investigate allegations of misconduct that were levelled against both Onnoghen and the Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad.

However, the NJC, said it decided to refrain from considering the allegation that Onnoghen failed to declare his assets, saying it would amount to subjudice since the matter is already before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, in Abuja.

“Council decided that the allegations relating to assets declaration that were levelled against Hon. Mr. Justice W. S. N.Onnoghen, GCON were subjudice and therefore abstained from considering them.

“Council reached a decision on the petitions written by Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and others and conveyed its decision to President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR.

“Council also resolved that, by the nature of the decision reached, it would be inappropriate to publicise it before conveying it to Mr. President”, the statement read.

Regardless of the decision of the NJC to shield the outcome of its probe, reports ascribed to multiple sources indicated that the legal body recommended to President Buhari that Onnoghen should proceed on a compulsory retirement, even as it gave clean bill of health to the Acting CJN.

The NJC had on February 13, said it was satisfied that corruption allegations against Onnoghen who was suspended from office on January 25, deserved to be looked into.

The Council equally okayed probe of the Acting CJN, Justice Muhammad, on the allegation that he engaged in misconduct by making himself available to be sworn by President Buhari as Onnoghen’s replacement.

Pursuant to Rule 20 (1) of the Judicial Discipline Regulations, the NJC, constituted a five-man investigation panel headed by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice S. A. Akintan, to look into allegations against the two top judicial officers.

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The CCT had earlier fixed April 15 for adoption of final briefs of argument in the six-count charge the federal government entered against Onnoghen.

Aside allegation that he failed to declare his assets contrary to section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, FG, in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, also alleged that he operated five foreign bank accounts, an action it said was forbidden for public officers.

Though the charge against Onnoghen was a fallout of a petition dated January 7, 2019, which was sent to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, by a civil society group under the aegis of Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, the EFCC, also levelled sundry allegations of financial impropriety against the suspended CJN.

Meanwhile, Onnoghen had in his response to the NJC, queried the competence of two petitions the EFCC lodged against him, even as he accused the anti-graft agency of raising “malicious and speculative” allegations against him.

Specifically, EFCC had in its petitions, alleged that Onnoghen received car and monetary gifts from lawyers, some of whom it said had pending cases in court.

For instance, the agency, said its “intelligence report” had indicated that Onnoghen received a Mercedes Benz Gl 450, valued at N7 million, from a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Mr. Joe Agi.

EFCC said its investigation disclosed that the senior lawyer subsequently appeared in a case that was handled by a Supreme Court panel that included the CJN.

The commission maintained that the car gift was aimed at persuading the suspended CJN to pervert the course of Justice to favour Agi.

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Likewise, EFCC, alleged that he collected various monetary gifts from five other SANs, among whom it said included the current President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr. Paul Usoro.

It gave names of the other lawyers their fund transfers were traced to accounts of the CJN as Mr. Emeka Etiaba, Dr. Onyechi Ikpeazu, Mr. Eze Duru Iheoma and Mr. Ogunsanya Adewunmi.

According to the EFCC, the funds, which ranged between N250,00 and N300,000, were deposited into Onnoghen’s accounts sometimes in 2015, before he eventually became the CJN.

More so, the petitioner alleged that Onnoghen had on different occasions, received huge amount of dollars as estacodes.

It insisted that the estacodes which were handed to him in cash, was above the approved limits.

In a bid to justify its claim that the embattled CJN siphoned public funds under the false pretence that they were estacodes that accrued to him over time, EFCC, told the NJC that Onnoghen had between 2017 and 2018, received a total of N24,169,452 from one Ngozi Nwankwo, who it identified as the Chief Protocol Officer at the Supreme Court.

The agency said it decided to file the petitions before dragging the suspended CJN to court, considering that the NJC is the body with the statutory powers to okay the prosecution of serving judicial officers.

It alleged that funds that were traced to accounts of the Respondent were suspected to be part of proceeds of illegal transactions.

Following NJC’s directive, Justice Onnoghen, in his response to a query that was issued to him, refuted all the allegations, insisting that he was being unnecessarily witch-hunted.

Contrary to EFCC’s allegation, Onnoghen, said he never received any car gift from Mr. Agi, SAN, saying he bought the car from the lawyer who he said had car dealership licence in America.

He noted that Agi had also testified before the NJC panel to the effect that he was duly paid for the car.

He insisted that the car was never a gift to sway him to compromise in the discharge of his judicial duties.

According to Onnoghen, “Mr. Agi, in his appearance as a witness, had informed this Honourable Committee that the car issue happened in 2008 and that His Lordship ordered for the car and paid for it by installments.

“The referenced case was in December 2010. Joe Agi, SAN also stated that the car was neither a bribe nor a gift but was purchased by His Lordship.

“He stated that he was the one that informed the EFCC voluntarily about the car His Lordship bought through his U.S Company which has a car dealership licence in the United States so to illustrate his long standing relationship with His Lordship. Surprisingly, the EFCC then turned around to label it as a bribe.”

Onnoghen maintained that it was not tenable that he could collect a car gift to pervert justice in a case that was decided by a five-man panel of Justices that included the immediate past CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed and the current Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad.

He gave other panel members in the case EFCC claimed that Agi later brought to the apex court, as Justices Francis Fedode Tabai (now retired) and Christopher Michell Chukwumah-Eneh (now late).

“It is thus malicious to link the appearance of Joe Agi, SAN, before the Supreme Court in the above matter to any purported gift to one of the Justices who sat on the Panel,” Onnoghen argued.

Though the CJN admitted that he indeed received monetary gifts from five lawyers, he insisted that it was not a bribe, but a goodwill gesture and an unsolicited support that was extended to him during the wedding ceremony of his first daughter in 2015.

To substantiate his claim, Onnoghen, tendered the wedding invitation card in evidence before the NJC, contending that gifts that followed were part and parcel of the customs and traditions of the people he said judicial officers were by law, allowed to receive.

According to Onnoghen’s defence team, by Rule 13.5(2) of the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial officers (Published February, 2016), a judicial officer is permitted to accept: “Personal gifts or benefits from relatives or personal friends to such extent and on such occasions as are recognized by custom”.

The CJN argued that linking the gift to cases that were handled by the Supreme Court was baseless since he did not even sit on one of the cited cases.

He gave names of justices that handled the case EFCC referred to in its petition, as Musa Dattijo Muhammad, (presided), Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kudirat Motonmori O. Kekere-Ekun, Ejembi Eko, and Sidi Dauda Bage.

More so, Justice Onnoghen noted that whereas the goodwill gesture was extended to his daughter in 2015, the said case was decided by the Supreme Court in 2017.

He further noted that one of the cases in which he was accused of collecting gratification was concluded four years before his daughter’s wedding, even as he gave names of other justices that handled the said case in 2011 as Aloysius Katsina- Alu (then CJN), Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, John Afolabi Fabiyi, Olufunlola O. Adekeye, Suleiman Galadima, and Bode Rhodes Vivour.

He argued that linking the “customary gift” he received from the NBA President, Usoro, SAN, to a member of the Panel of seven Justices, was “in conflict with common sense”.

“Could Paul Usoro, SAN, have given a gift of N300,000 to 7 Supreme Court Justices through one of the Justices in 2015 due to a case he lost before the Supreme Court 4 years earlier?”, Onnoghen’s legal team queried.

Likewise, Onnoghen said he only received estacodes that were due to him, after it was calculated by relevant accounting officials.

He said it was the practice of the apex court for judges to be paid estacodes, stressing that no judge was in the position to determine what should be paid to him, though they sign to collect it in cash.

Onnoghen’s claim was backed by the Director of Finance at the Supreme Court who also testified before the NJC to the effect that it was a regular practice for Justices to collect their estacodes in cash.

The embattled CJN said he did not violate any law, adding that all Justices of the Supreme Court, both serving and retired, were always handed their own estacodes in cash.

Meantime, payment schedules before the NJC had revealed that Onnoghen received between $20,000 and $36,000 for each trip he made between 2017 and 2018.

Onnoghen responded to all the allegations EFCC raised against him, even though he noted that the petitions were not based on any direct complaint that was filed against him by anybody with respect to the discharge of his judicial functions.

He contended that the NJC has the mandate to look into allegations of misconduct levelled against judicial officers, and not to investigate alleged crime that was based on “intelligence report”.

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