The federal government is not letting up in its determination to get the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen at all cost. It is ramping up its probe into the finances of the CJN.
THISDAY learnt last night that report from the probe reveals that for eighteen months stretch, Onnoghen did not make any withdrawal from his salary accounts and they were wondering why this is so.
But close judicial sources informed THISDAY that insinuating corruption might be premature as findings have so far ignored estacodes, training and conferences as well as other allowances, which form the bulk of the money in his accounts.
In the first official reaction to the planned arraignment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, over alleged non-disclosure of assets, the Presidency yesterday in Abuja said the allegations were being handled in the “normal way”, promising non-interference. In a statement by Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, the Presidency also denied reports that President Muhammadu Buhari had concluded plans to arrest the CJN and frame up three other Supreme Court justices. It said the case against Onnoghen was being handled by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) and other courts, insisting that the trial of the CJN is legitimate.
Also yesterday, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BoSAN) called on all Nigerians, including the executive arm and members of the legal profession, to exercise restraint over the scheduled arraignment of the CJN. the sources further told THISDAY that the Chief Justice never spent his dollars and was meticulous at saving money over time.
Also, preliminary reports by security operatives indicated that Onnoghen’s salary account showed a turnover of N91,962.362.49, from which no withdrawal was made between March 2015 and October 2016.
But a security source privy to the early report wondered why the CJN did not make any withdrawal from his salary between March 2015 and October 2016.
Thus, his salary and allowances had accumulated to N22, 520, 636.27 by October 2016 from N6, 132, 885.24 that it was in March, 2015.
A document obtained by a national newspaper, noted as follows: “Naira Account (Salary Account):
•The balance as at October 10, 2016 was N22,510,636.27;
•The turnover in the account from September, 2005 to October, 2016 was N91,962.362.49;
•His salary in 2005 was N240,202.20 and it rose to N751,082.37 in February 2008. The salary remains within this range till date;
“He did not spend from the salary account from March 2015 to October 2016. The salary and allowances accumulated to N22,520,636.27 in October 2016 from N6,132 885.24 in March of 2015 .
“From the investigation conducted so far, it is possible that the payments into the various accounts might be bribes.
“This is because the sources of the inflows into his accounts other than the salary account in Union Bank of Nigeria Plc are unknown and probably fraudulent, and the nature of the transaction (including structured payments), are not typical of the financial transactions of a Public Servant.”
News reports also revealed that, “Following the screening of the CJN’s accounts, detectives have discovered that the turnover does not tally with funds in other accounts.
“He needs to explain the sources of some extra inflows into other accounts. The government may ask any of the anti-graft agencies to look into the latest discoveries.”
It was also learnt that some salary schedule officers might be interrogated by detectives, according to the report.
But security operatives have also denied any restrictions on the CJN account, particularly the five undeclared accounts of the CJN, believed to have about $3million.
The accounts were not declared by the CJN in his Asset Declaration Form.
Last week, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), acting on the strength of a purported petition by some Dennis Aghanya, a former media aide to President Muhammadu Buhari, recommended the trial of the CJN by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The CJN was subsequently summoned by the tribunal to appear before the CCT to defend himself for failure to fully declare his assets. But the development caused widespread outrage across the country with many reading political motivation to the planned arraignment and trial.
The arraignment was expected to take place on January 14, but the CJN failed to appear in court as his lawyer rushed to a Federal High Court, Abuja, to secure an order restraining the CCT from trying the CJN.
As news of the summon broke last week, lawyers, civil society groups and prominent individuals rose to condemn the government for attempting to humiliate the Chief Justice of the country, warning of unintended consequences that might spiral out of country. The case was adjourned till January 22, on the grounds that the CJN was not properly served.
Again, yesterday, the Body of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (BOSAN) held an emergency meeting at the law school, deploring the attempt to arraign the CJN and insisting that due process must be followed.
However, many had wondered at the speed the petition was written, investigated and referred for trial.
Following the ordeal of the CJN in the hands of the CCB, many recall the reason CCB gave for declining copies of the president’s assets declaration form. They had come under the Freedom of Information Act but CCB declined to release the forms citing the need to protect the privacy of the president.
CCB’s response to Jamiu Akolade, a lawyer, who had written to the bureau demanding of Buhari and Osinbajo to declare their assets, was instructive. The letter, dated August 25, 2015, was signed by Mrs. Ijeanuli Arinze Ofor for the CCB Chairman.
The letter read: “We acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 15th August, 2015 and refer to same.
“In line with the requirement of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) on assets declarations, President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo have declared their assets and the declarations are in the bureau’s custody.
“However, it is conceded that section 1(1), (3) and (4) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2011 guarantees the right of a person to access or request information whether or not in written form, in the custody of any public agency.
“Conversely, by virtue of sections 12 (1)(a)(v), 14 (1)(b) and 15(1)(a) of the same Act, the bureau is not under any obligation to grant your request, which constitutes invasion of personal privacy. Assets declarations by public officers contain such personal information which falls within the exemptions to the disclosure of information in the FOIA.
“Furthermore, paragraph 3(c) of the 3rd Schedule, Part 1 of the 1999 Constitution provides that Code of Conduct Bureau shall make assets declarations of public officers available for inspection by any citizen of Nigeria only on such terms and conditions prescribed by the National Assembly.
“However, the terms and conditions under which that can be done are yet to be prescribed by the National Assembly. In view of the aforementioned, the bureau hereby declines your request.”
Against this backdrop, the question many are asking is why the CCB obliged the accounts of the CJN to the petitioner.
The federal government has preferred a six-count criminal charge against Onnoghen before the CCT over his alleged failure to declare some of his assets. The CCT scheduled Onnoghen’s arraignment for last Tuesday but the arraignment did not take place owing to the absence of the CJN, who claimed he was not properly served with the summons of the tribunal. This led Chairman of the CCT, Danladi Umar, to adjourn till January 22 for the arraignment with an order that the defendant be personally served with the tribunal summons.
Presidency denies plans to arrest CJN
But there were rumours that the federal government planned to arrest the CJN this week and frame up some other justices of the apex court.
The presidency statement denied the rumour and alleged that the insinuation was conceived to put the executive and the judiciary on a collision course to create crisis ahead of the forthcoming polls.
The statement said, “We have read with considerable concern and surprise, the fake news of the Presidency’s alleged plan to arrest the Chief Justice of Nigeria and frame three other Supreme Court Justices.
“This false story is being peddled by the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), apparently, to set the judiciary against the executive and cause major confusion ahead of the forthcoming general elections.
“The story is absolutely false, as the Presidency is not in any way involved in plotting against or framing anybody.
“We note that the findings of the Code of Conduct Bureau against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, and the allegations arising from them, are being handled by the courts in the normal way, as is expected in a democratic society like ours. The Presidency has not, and will certainly not, interfere in the process.
“We, however, want to draw the attention of the general public to this or similar false stories, which are ill-motivated to further the political interests of their sponsors. “While the Buhari administration is very firmly committed to the fight against corruption, we want to assure the general public that government will always pursue its mission with the highest standards of fairness, and in strict conformity with the relevant laws.”
Body of SANs deplores planned arraignment
Meanwhile, BoSAN, after a crucial meeting in Lagos over the CJN’s trial and other matters of national importance, urged careful handling of the issue, saying it is capable of hurting the country’s democracy as well as the administration of criminal justice.
In a communiqué signed by Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN, and Seyi Sowemimo, SAN, BoSAN said it “deplores the situation that has arisen from the preferment of charges against the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and head of the Nigerian Judiciary before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).”
It urged respect for the constitution, the rule of law, separation of powers, due process, and the proper administration of justice.
The communiqué said, “In the prevailing circumstances, all parties are urged to consider the impact of their respective actions on the administration of justice in Nigeria and public confidence in our institutions.
“The body recognises that the matter is sub judice (before the CCT and other courts) and it is therefore not appropriate to comment on the merits or otherwise of any of the cases.”
The body called for a careful and responsible resolution of the matter in the interest of the legal profession and the country.
BoSAN added that it would continue to endorse the core values of good governance, public integrity, sustenance of democracy, and the spirit of the constitution.