by Evelyn Okakwu
The embattled Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, has appealed the judgement delivered by the Code of Conduct Tribunal in his case of alleged false asset declaration.
Mr Onnoghen was convicted by the CCT, led by Danladi Umar on Thursday.
The tribunal which ruled that it had jurisdiction in the matter, also dismissed another application by the defence which suggested that Mr Umar should remove himself for alleged bias.
According to Mr Umar, the tribunal is a body empowered by section 158 (1) of the constitution to perform its duty “without external interference of bodies like the NJC.”
The section it relied on provides for the independence of the CCT and states that it “shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person.”
Mr Umar ruled that the relationship between the tribunal and the presidency “was purely administrative” in nature and insufficient for the defence to accuse him of bias.
According to the CCT chairman, “all judges of superior courts are appointed by the president, Muhammadu Buhari, on the recommendation of the NJC.”
The CCT chairman added that the appointment of the said judges is not be regarded “as a reason for them to act according to the whims of the president”.
“It is to be noted that without the chairman, there is no CCT,” Mr Umar added
The tribunal had also dismissed the request against its jurisdiction after submitting that Mr Onnoghen was being tried “as a public officer and not as a judicial officer.”
Mr Umar also said that the “CCT had powers to overrule him where it finds that it has taken a decision that was wrongly reached.”
Subsequently, the tribunal overruled its earlier decision which freed another Supreme Court Justice, Sylvester Ngwuta, of a similar allegation.
Mr Ngwuta was one of seven judges whose houses had been raided by the State Security Service in October 2016, after President Muhammadu Buhari’s government accused them of fraud.
He was arraigned on false asset charges at the tribunal by the CCT. But the tribunal, also chaired by Mr Umar suspended the case following a decision of a Court of Appeal in a related matter.
The Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal had decided during the trial of another judge, Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, that the only body responsible for the indictment of a serving judicial officer was the NJC.
That decision had forced the suspension of the trial of Mr Ngwuta at the tribunal.
However, on Thursday, Mr Umar regarded the decision on Mr Ngwuta as a wrong judgement and “overruled himself.”
After dismissing the various applications, Mr Umar ruled in his judgement that the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Onnoghen was involved in the alleged breach of the CCT act and found him guilty of same.
‘Three major punishments’
Mr Umar invoked section 23 of the act which allowed the tribunal to issue three major punishments to persons found guilty of such allegations.
The provision demands that a convicted person shall be made to vacate his office for a period, not exceeding 10 years. It also allows the tribunal to order that the convict shall forfeit assets found to have been acquired fraudulently.
But in an appeal to the appellate court, Mr Onnoghen has insisted that the tribunal erred in law when it ruled that it had jurisdiction in the matter.
According to Mr Onnoghen, he was arraigned at the time when he was still a serving judicial officer, therefore the tribunal lacked powers to entertain the allegations against him.
Although Mr Umar overruled the judgement in Mr Ngwuta’s case, Mr Onnoghen cited the January 2018 decision of the CCT which freed Mr Ngwuta as the reason for the tribunal to have ruled against its jurisdiction.
Mr Onnoghen also submitted in his request that the tribunal erred in law when it dismissed the application challenging its jurisdiction.
“Once an allegation of real likelihood of the bias is raised, the Court or tribunal will have nothing more to say except to wash its hands from further proceedings in the matter,” Mr Onnoghen said in his appeal.
The embattled CJN also argued that the failure of Mr Umar to recuse himself vindicated the defence in their submission that Mr Umar was a “person of interest.”
Mr Onnoghen said it was against the principle of natural justice for Mr Umar to sit in judgement of his own case.
He also argued that there was no way the tribunal could have been fair since the prosecution and the tribunal are both bodies working under the instructions of the executive arm of government.
Mr Onnoghen also submitted that the tribunal erred in law when it ruled that he confessed to having committed the allegations against him.
According to Mr Onnoghen, his statement was only meant to clarify the issues raised in the allegations. Mr Onnoghen said he never admitted to not declaring his assets in 2005, as suggested by the charge.
“The Appellant did not admit the fact of non-declaration of Assets from the year 2005 as the Justice of the Supreme Court.
“The Appellant only stated that he did not declare in 2009 as required because he forgot and did the declaration immediately it realised same.
“By the evidence of DWI (Defence Witness:1) and exhibit DW2 tendered, it has affirmed the statement of the appellant that he forgot to make a declaration in 2009 but did in 2010 when he remembered showing there was a declaration after all contrary to count one of the charges,” Mr Onnoghen said.
Mr Onnoghen also argued that the tribunal erred in law when it ruled that the evidence of the first defendant’s witness did not cast doubts on the submissions of the prosecution in the first count.
According to Mr Onnoghen in his appeal, the first defendant’s witness was able to refute the claims of non-declaration of an asset from 2005. “The doubt created by DWI’s evidence no matter how minute ought to be resolved in favour of the Appellant.”
Mr Onnoghen also submitted that his statement suggesting that he failed to include the five accounts in the declaration forms for 2014 because he believed they were not functioning, “does not amount to an admission of guilt.”
Mr Onnoghen explained that the forms for 2014 and that of 2016 were both filed the same day. He added that the declaration form for 2016 had all the accounts in it. According to him, the prosecution should not have accused him of false declaration since both forms were filed by him.
Mr Onnoghen said the submissions by the prosecution that he made a false declaration, based on the omission of certain details is not backed by the CCT Act. He also argued that the standard procedure for the verification of his forms was not complied with by the prosecution.
‘Confiscation of assets illegal’
Mr Onnoghen also challenged the order for the confiscation of his assets on the grounds that the assets were legitimately acquired, as against the provisions of paragraph three of section 23 of the CCB act which only permits the seizure of such assets “if they were acquired by fraud.”
Mr Onnoghen questioned the failure of the prosecution to present the petitioner, Denis Aghanya, before the tribunal.
Mr Aghanya’s petition had birthed the charges against Mr Onnoghen.
According to Mr Onnoghen, all the allegations brought against him “constitute no offence and should therefore not have formed the basis for his conviction.”
“Section 36 (12) of the 1999 Constitution Provides: –
“Subject as otherwise provided by this Constitution, a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined and the penalty therefor is prescribed in a written law.
“The allegations contained in all the six counts of the charge constitute no offence known to the law, as the offence as charged is neither defined in any law nor is any punishment prescribed therefor.”
Mr Onnoghen made seven requests before the tribunal. They include:
– An order that the lower tribunal lacks the jurisdiction to entertain the case.
– An order that the lower tribunal ought to have recused itself from the proceedings before it.
– An order that the charge has become academic.
– An order setting aside the conviction of the Appellant.
– An order setting aside the order for forfeiture of assets made by the Honourable Tribunal.
– An order discharging and acquitting the Appellant.
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