Eminent Nigerian lawyers and a state governor yesterday faulted the explanations of suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, on how he got the foreign currencies he deposited in his domiciliary accounts and asked him to quit now that the odds still favour him.
Ahead of his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on Monday February 4, 2019, Onnoghen had given details on how he got the money to open the controversial domiciliary accounts.
But, in separate interviews with LEADERSHIP WEEKEND yesterday, the lawyers said that Justice Onnoghen would do himself good, give the judiciary a lease of life and integrity and his family and well-wishers a sense of honour and pride, by resigning from office.
They argued that if he takes a bow now, it will give him the opportunity to negotiate for soft-landing rather than giving explanations which will further criminalise him.
They also said that the question shall arise in the court for instance for him to explain how he got the money to start his ‘’Bureau De Change’’ business outfit.
Besides, the lawyers said that it is against the code of conduct for judicial officers for him to involve himself in other businesses, except farming.
It is not dignifying for him according to the lawyers to be listing items such as trading in foreign exchange (forex), AGRICODE, while other investment returns were from proceeds of his investments.
The lawyers insisted that there is no way the prosecution will not add these items as part of the charges brought against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) or any other courts he would be taken to for trial.
Rather than appearing before the courts he left 30-35 years back in the course of his judicial career to go and take a plea, he should muster enough courage to preserve the honour and prestige of his present position and take a bow.
Among lawyers, who advised Onnoghen to leave without further delay, is the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN).
He said: ‘’It is against the code of conduct of judicial officers to be involved in other businesses except agricultural production.
‘’Rather than deepening and deepening himself in the criminality, he should do himself a favour, give the judiciary a lease of life and integrity and his family and well-wishers a sense of honour and pride by resigning from office.
“The question shall be asked as to where he got the money to start the Bureau De Change business, and since it is against the code of conduct of his profession and that of civil service in general, the prosecution would be right to add that to charges brought against him.’’
In his own case, Barr Alasan Samaila said: ‘’The greatest casualty in this Justice Onnoghen foreign account saga is the image of the judiciary in Nigeria and outside world. It would be advisable for Justice Onnoghen to take a quiet exit instead for allowing the retinue of his defence counsel to be plunging him, his family name, the judiciary and the nation further and deeper in the mess called trial.
‘’The so-called AGRICODE, whatever that means to him can’t be taken for agricultural production business. It is euphemism for Bureau De Change which he is not entitled to be involved in as a judicial officer.
‘’All these explanation as to how he got the humongous foreign currency account balances and transactions won’t take away the age-long position that judges are allegedly trading with judgements they deliver in courts.
“No average Nigerian would believe him, irrespective of the explanation he gives, that these monies are not proceeds of sales of judgements,’’ he said.
In his view, Mr. Ahmed Raji (SAN) said that Onnoghen cannot be prosecuted for forgetfulness
According to him, once a civil servant forgets to declare his asset and he was able to correct it, he cannot be prosecuted.
Raji said: “I don’t think he can be prosecuted for forgetfulness since he has been reminded and has promptly corrected it”.
Similarly, former secretary-general of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Barrister Afam Osigwe, said that he would not like to comment on the matter since it is already before the courts.
He however said that failure to declare is different from forgetting to declare.
“In my view, I think these are the issues his lawyer will put forward before the court.”
Another lawyer, Malam Abdu Gomu, asserted that Justice Onnghen has not committed any criminal offence by saying that he forgot to declare his asset and for the fact that he corrected it later.
“Let me tell you, forgetting to declare your assets is not a criminal offence once your attention is drawn to it and it is corrected.”
Section 3 of the CCB Act does not criminalise forgetfulness.
The section says that “the Code of Conduct Bureau is empowered to receive complaints about non-compliance with or breach of this Act and where the Bureau considers it necessary to do so, refers such complaints to the Code of Conduct Tribunal established by section 20 of this Act in accordance with the provisions of sections 20 to 25 of this Act:
“Provided that where the person concerned makes a written admission of such breach or non-compliance, no reference to the tribunal shall be necessary.”
Mr. Niyi Akintola (SAN), said: ‘’I am a lawyer, you don’t expect me to be commenting on matters in the court. It is subjudice and I can be held for contempt of court. The court should be allowed to determine whether what he tendered is right or wrong.’’
In his reaction, Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State said that for Onnoghen to claim that he forgot to declare the millions of dollars traced to his domiciliary accounts meant that he is richer than the richest man in Africa, Aliko Dangote,
He argued that even Dangote would never forget a million dollars in any bank account and therefore advised Onnoghen to resign as the substantive CJN.
He spoke yesterday when members of the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) protested to the Government House in Kaduna the continued stay of Onnoghen in office.
El-Rufai said that it was shocking that with just over 20 years in public service, Onnoghen had possibly made more money than Dangote.
“The case of Justice Onnoghen is one in which somebody who has worked in government for past 20 years suddenly has millions of dollars in his account.
“He has admitted, but says he has forgotten about them. I want to express happiness to all of you for coming together to convey this very clear statement from the people of Kaduna State that in Kaduna, we do not support corruption; in Kaduna; we do not support injustice; we are 100 per cent behind the integrity of our President.
“The case with Justice Onnoghen is a very sad one. Othman Dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, wrote that the worst form of corruption you can find in any public service is judicial corruption,” he said.
But, in a press statement last night, the national president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr, Paul Usoro (SAN) praised lawyers in the country for obeying the court boycott directive by the association over the Onnoghen saga.
He said: “I write to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to all our members for the overwhelming support that the NBA NEC received from you in regard to the boycott of courts that was mandated by NEC at its emergency meeting held on 28th January 2019. Reports from the chairmen of our branches across the country confirmed overwhelming compliance with the NEC directives on the two-day court boycott on 29th and 30th January, 2019. There were of course pockets of non-compliance in some branches, but these were isolated incidents and in the extreme minority.
“In that regard, all the resolutions of the NBA NEC at its afore-referenced emergency meeting remain extant and binding on all of us. We continue to call on the Executive arm of the federal government to reverse its various actions against the CJN and stop his trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal,” Usoro said.
The CCB had queried Onnoghen over his failure to fully declare his assets.
But, in his reply to the query, Onnoghen said that he forgot to do so.