The first day of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen’s alleged false asset disclosure trial took off rapidly on Monday morning, as the prosecution used the top jurist’s absence to begin mapping out a case for suspicious financial dealings against him.
Mr Onnoghen is the first chief justice of Nigeria to be put on trial for criminal charges, coming barely two years after he assumed office in March 2017, and a year after associate Supreme Court Justice Sylvester Ngwuta was discharged in a similar trial.
He was absent when the first hearing opened at the Code of Conduct Tribunal at 10:05 a.m. on Monday, but a team of 47 senior lawyers, led by Wole Olanipekun, entered appearance to extricate him of the charges.
The charges have been overshadowed by partisan political rhetoric, with South-South governors demanding after what a source present described as “a livid” meeting on Sunday night that Mr Onnoghen should shun the trial they saw as a vindictive and undemocratic process.
It was not immediately clear whether or not the demand by South-South governors and other members and supporters of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party was amongst what informed the top jurist’s absence.
Mr Onnoghen is the defendant in six false asset declaration charges brought by the Code of Conduct Bureau. The allegations involved questions about whether Mr Onnoghen failed to disclose some bank accounts holding humongous local and foreign currencies while sitting on the Supreme Court.
The top jurist said in his initial response to the bureau, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, that he forgot to disclose the bank accounts, which contained dollars, pounds, euro and naira denominations totalling more than N300 million. He, however, said in documents obtained by PREMIUM TIMES he had since disclosed the asset in his most-recent filings in late 2016.
Although considered criminal, asset disclosure violations, which only apply to public officeholders, do not necessarily attract jail terms, but a convict could face up to ten years’ ban from public service, and sometimes in addition to heavy fines and forfeitures.
Hammering on technicalities
But rather than offer categorical grounds for why Mr Onnoghen should not be convicted of the charges, Mr Olanipekun argued that the court has no power to hear the charges at all.
The senior lawyer said the National Judicial Council had not previously investigated the allegations, and perhaps had not even been informed of their details. The claims were raised in a petition sent to the Code of Conduct Bureau by Dennis Aghanya, leader of a civic anti-corruption group with long ties to President Muhammadu Buhari.
The Nigerian Constitution requires in Section 292 that a serving judge must first be investigated and indicted by the National Judicial Council before dismissal or trial for misconduct in open courts. The NJC regulates the Nigerian judiciary.
Mr Olanipekun also said the tribunal summons to Mr Onnoghen were delivered to his personal assistant and not him personally, arguing that this was an anomaly and added to the reasons for his absence.
The prosecution led by Umar Aliyu from the Federal Ministry of Justice rejected the argument, saying Mr Onnoghen was duly served and should be available for trial.
The prosecution also said Mr Onnoghen should not have been afraid if he really believed the charges against him were trumped up, suggesting that the judge’s failure to appear could mean a more rigorous probe of his past financial dealings. He, however, agreed that another summon could be dispatched to Mr Onnoghen to enable him appear before the tribunal.
Danladi Umar, the tribunal chairman, adjourned further hearing until January 22. He ordered that Mr Onnoghen must appear to be docked for the charges against him, as well as listen to arguments on whether or not the tribunal could assert jurisdiction.