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Onnoghen: The Man, The Judge, The End

The Gazette Staff
Written by The Gazette Staff

Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, born December 22, 1950, started his career as a pupil state counsel between 1978 and 1979.

He left public service to join the firm of Effiom Ekong & Company (1979 till 1988).

He later became the Principal Partner at Walter Onnoghen & Associates, Calabar from 1988 to 1989.

Soon after, he began a career on the Bench. As High Court judge of Cross Rivers State, he was made the Chairman of the state Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal, a post he held for three years between 1990 and 1993.

In 1998, he served as the Chairman, Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan Zone.

Onnoghen was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1998 from where he served until 2005 when he was elevated to the Supreme Court.

In February 2016, Onnoghen led a seven-man panel of Justices of the apex court who reviewed and upheld the death sentence of Chukwuemeka Ezeugo a.k.a. Rev. King of the Christian Praying Assembly.

In 2007, Justice Onnoghen played a huge role in the 2007 elections which saw the late Umaru Yar’adua becoming the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

He had a dissenting judgment that annulled the presidential election. His position was, however, a minority judgment.

Appointment as CJN Onnoghen’s confirmation as CJN was dogged by controversy following its protracted nature. The National Judicial Council (NJC) on October 10, 2016 recommended him to President Muhammadu Buhari, being the most senior at the Supreme Court after the retirement of Mohammed Mahmud.

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It took until February 7, 2017 for Acting President Yemi Osinbajo to transmit Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.

He was confirmed by the Senate on March 1, 2017 and sworn in on March 7, 2017.

His trial

Onnoghen made unwanted history as the first CJN to be suspended and docked.

Onnoghen’s trial started when a petition was filed by the civil rights group the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI) at the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

It was alleged that he owned “sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself up to as recently as 10 August 2016, which appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials.”

The trial commenced on January 14 but Onnoghen was absent. It was then adjourned to the following week because Onnoghen faulted the summons procedure.

The next hearing was slated for January 22 but he failed to show up in court again. Following his absence again, President Buhari suspended him on January 26 and appointed Tanko Ibrahim as Acting CJN.

Onnoghen’s office was thereafter sealed by the police, which sparked outrage from lawyers and politicians.

Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar described Onnoghen’s suspension as “dictatorship taken too far”, but Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, accused those criticising President Buhari over Onnoghen’s suspension as hypocrites.

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In the course of the saga, different courts gave orders of injunction against his arrest and prosecution, most of which were subsisting before the CCT order that led to his suspension.

Following Onnoghen’s suspension on January 25, the United States issued a statement on the development, with Osinbajo saying he was not aware of the former CJN’s planned prosecution.

Even the Senate weighed in, challenging Onnoghen’s suspension at the Supreme Court. Onnoghen sued the Federal Government over his suspension but lost his bid to stop his trial at the CCT, which ordered his arrest, forcing him to appear for his arraignment, which took place on February 15.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), on February 7, said it traced $30,000 paid to Onnoghen’s account by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

The CCT, on March 29, dismissed Onnoghen’s no-case submission, following which he opened his defence, calling only one witness. He closed his defence on April 3.

After NJC recommended him for retirement, Onnoghen tendered his resignation before the President could act on the recommendation.

The case against Onnoghen

The NJC reached the decision to suspend Onnoghen after reviewing damning evidence by EFCC against him, argued by two brilliant prosecuting counsel Ekene Iheanacho and Rotimi Oyedepo.

They argued successfully that Onnoghen violated the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers.

He was accused of infidelity to the Constitution and violation of other laws prohibiting economic and financial related offences.

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EFCC said he could not prove the legitimate source or origin of the sum of $1,716,000.00 found in his account.

“The respondent, who never declared having $1,716,000.00 in his asset declaration form as cash in hand, wanted this honourable Panel to believe that he accumulated the said sum in his house and only deposited them in the bank between 2009 and 2016 in cash.

“My lords, the respondent also attempted to suggest to the Honourable Panel that the $1,716,000.00 cash deposit was earned by him upon his part-time appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court of Gambia.

“My lords, this explanation, with due respect, is laughable in that the Respondent was appointed on the 22nd day of November, 2012.

“On the face of the appointment letter, it is clear that the Respondent is entitled to the 5,000 GBP and 22,000 Dalasis which is payable per session to be determined by the Chief Justice of Gambia in line with the Rules of the Supreme Court of Gambia.

“The respondent failed to show this panel that consequent upon his appointment in November, 2012 and the assumption of that office in 2013 the number of sessions he sat as a member of the Supreme Court of Gambia.

“The respondent also failed to state how much he earned from Gambia, how he was paid whether cash or through his account. What is clear is that if the respondent is to earn any fee from Gambia it will be GBP and not USD. What is in issue is the USD paid in exhibit P4C.”

EFCC also questioned a Mercedes Benz GL 450 worth N7, 000,000.00 from Mr. Joe Agi (SAN) to Onnoghen in 2009.

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The commission said the SAN also made a cash deposit of $30,000.00 on June 29, 2009 to His Lordship’s account.

“The respondent failed to show this Honourable Panel how he paid for the vehicle from his lawful earnings.

“As a matter of fact, the respondent was confronted with all his account before this honourable panel during cross examination to prove how and the source of the money he purportedly gave to Joe Agi, SAN, as purchase price of the vehicle but couldn’t as there is no such payment.

“Our findings and humble submission is that these defence shows clearly that the respondent is fully aware that by virtue of his appointment as a Judicial Officer, the receipt of car gift worth N7,000,000.00 and $30,000 from a practicing legal practitioner is clearly misconduct under the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers.

“We therefore urge my lords to find in our favour that the respondent received the car gift and the sum of $30,000.00 from the DW2, a practising lawyer who had appeared, appearing and may still appear before him.”

EFCC also said Onnoghen received pecuniary gifts from practising lawyers, namely Ogunsanya Adewunmi (N250,000), Paul Usoro, SAN, (N350,000), Emeka Etiaba (SAN) (N250,000), Onyechi Ikpeasu (SAN) (N300,000), and Eze Duru Iheoma (SAN) (N100,000).

Although Onnoghen said the cash gifts were given to him during his daughter’s wedding, and that the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers does not forbid judges from accepting gifts that are cultural, EFCC said Onnoghen was under the obligation to avoid situations which might reasonably give rise to the suspicion of or appearance of favouritism or partiality with individual members of the legal profession who practice regularly in court where the respondent presides.

“My lords, by the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers, members of the public expect a high standard of conduct from a Judge who, at all time, must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities both in his professional and private life.

“It is, therefore, our humble submission that in view of the evidence before this Honourable Panel, the petitioner has established the breach of the Code of Conducts for Judicial Officers against the Respondent and we urge my lords to so hold,” EFCC said.

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