CJN Walter Onnoghen and the Reputation of the Judiciary, By Jibrin Ibrahim
The chief justice of Nigeria must respond to the present crisis around his person and the judiciary in a way that would save the institution. He must explain to Nigerians the sources and legitimacy of the huge amounts of money in his accounts and his properties.
Sometimes, only poets can fully express what is on our minds. Thinking about the travails of Chief Justice Walter Omoghen, I recall the poem by one of Nigeria’s national treasures – Professor Niyi Osundare:
My Lord, please tell me where to keep your bribe
Do I drop it in your venerable chambers
Or carry the heavy booty to your immaculate mansion
Shall I bury it in the capacious water tank in your well laundered backyard
Or will it breathe better in the septic tank
Since money can deodorise the smelliest crime
Osundare’s poem was published shortly after the Department of State Services (DSS) raided the houses of certain judges in October 2016 and found tons of money in naira and foreign currency there. The raids on multiple residences in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Gombe, Kano, Enugu and Sokoto demonstrated to Nigerians that many judges own money they could not have earned legitimately. At the residence of Justice Ademola, for example, the DSS recovered at least $400,000 and N39 million in cash, in addition to documents of landed properties belonging to the federal judge.
The conclusion of most Nigerians was that these amounts could only have been the proceeds of bribes received. The implication was that for some judges, justice was for sale and that their judgments were based on financial inducement, rather than the facts that emerged during trials. As the monies were proceeds of crime, they were hiding them in their bedrooms. Many lawyers came out very strongly to condemn the raids on the houses of judges and characterised the action of the DSS as an attack on the judiciary and the rule of law. The response of the DSS was that they had been thoroughly investigating corrupt acts of the said judges and reporting these to the National Judicial Council (NJC), but all the NJC ever did was to retire the judges and allow them enjoy the proceeds of the crime they had engaged in for the rest of their lives. Judges, they argued cannot be above the law.
The story about judges and tons of money re-emerged last weekend with the Walter Onnoghen case. We discovered with shock that the head of the judiciary had disregarded the law and not declared all his bank accounts and properties, claiming, according to the reports, that he had forgotten to do so. It was interesting that he forgot to declare the accounts with lots of money in them and remembered those with smaller amounts. The matter is in court and we shall await the verdict, as the presumption of the innocence of the chief justice must be maintained.
It is interesting that Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen is challenging the jurisdiction of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to try him for the alleged non-declaration of asset. The Nation newspaper of yesterday argued that he had given judgments affirming the Tribunal’s powers previously.
While waiting on the court, a lot of us were surprised with the patterns of the payments into the accounts. For example, he was reported to have deposited U.S. dollars into one of his Standard Chartered Bank (Nig.) Ltd accounts in the following manner: five different cash deposits of $10,000 each ($50,000 total) on March 8, 2011; two separate cash deposits of $5,000 each ($10,000 total); followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each ($40, 000 total), all on June 7, 2011; another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each ($50,000 total) on June 27, 2011; and four more cash deposits of $10,000 each ($40,000 total) on June 28, 2011.
The bigger question was from where and how he got money amounting to millions of dollars stashed away in numerous bank accounts. After the story broke, I posted a message on my social media handles saying: “Whatever the facts, prosecuting the Chief Justice of Nigeria one month before elections is troubling and unwise. He is the leader of the judicial branch of government.” I received hundreds of very critical responses accusing me of defending criminality and judicial impunity. Many of the respondents argued that cases are prosecuted when they are found and there was no need to wait for a “favourable” political context. Others supported my post, saying that the case against the chief justice was a political witch-hunt which must stop forthwith. I was not comfortable with both the people who criticised and those who supported what I had posted.
My post was actually based on the press release of the Nigerian Bar Association, which came out almost immediately after the story broke. The body said that the case was based on a petition received from a civil society group on the previous Wednesday and that by the next day, Thursday, charges had been filed within 24 hours without proper investigation. NBA concluded that it was a political case and I felt that if what it said were the facts, then election time was not the best for the prosecution of such a case. The Nigerian law enforcement should therefore spend more time on investigation and not allow political interpretations and mess up the smooth organisation of elections.
It is interesting that Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen is challenging the jurisdiction of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to try him for the alleged non-declaration of asset. The Nation newspaper of yesterday argued that he had given judgments affirming the Tribunal’s powers previously. In one of the judgments delivered on July 12, 2013, he held that the CCT had exclusive jurisdiction to deal with all violations contravening any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau. He also held that the provisions “expressly ousted the powers of ordinary regular courts in respect of such violations.” Therefore, what is good for the goose should be good for gander.
Over the past three years, there has been a drastic fall in the reputation of judges. Nigerian judges must begin to take decisive action to show that they are not self-serving in their actions. Already, the courts have been striking out many cases filed against judges and the only subsequent action has been the compulsory retirement of such judges by the NJC…
We must be beware of the dangers of a self-serving judiciary. In December 2017, the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, struck out criminal charges filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against a serving judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa. The judge had been arraigned on a 14-count charge before Justice Adedayo Akintoye of the Lagos State High Court. The judge was alleged to have received a total of $260,000 and N8.65 million (about N81,705,000) gratification from some lawyers to enrich himself. The appellate court panel presided over by Justice Adejumo Obaseki quashed the 14 charges against Justice Nganjiwa. The judge argued that the EFCC lacked the power to charge the judge to court on the basis of the allegations made against him. The argument made was that by virtue of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution, only the National Judicial Council (NJC) had the power to deal with the kind of allegations brought by the EFCC against a serving judge.
The implication of the judgment was that judges can continue to take bribes with reckless abandon to subvert the course of justice and no one can prosecute them. In other words, judges now have immunity against criminal prosecution. The key problem here is that the National Judicial Council’s administrative power in the appointment and administrative discipline of judicial officers is now elevated above criminal issues and if a judge commits murder today and the NJC does nothing, s/he gets away with it. It is very strange that the administrative procedure for the discipline of judges has been elevated to the level of granting immunity to judges on criminal matters. Justice Walter Onnoghen is currently entering the same door by arguing that he cannot be tried before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. It is a very disturbing situation.
Over the past three years, there has been a drastic fall in the reputation of judges. Nigerian judges must begin to take decisive action to show that they are not self-serving in their actions. Already, the courts have been striking out many cases filed against judges and the only subsequent action has been the compulsory retirement of such judges by the NJC, so that they can go and enjoy the riches they have corruptly acquired. I am aware that in a few cases, the National Judicial Council has allowed certain judges to be tried for their criminality but there are simply too many that are being protected by their peers. I also understand the argument of many lawyers who say that the houses of judges should not be raided and that they should be treated with dignity. The principle of the rule of law is, however, that it is not the person but the act that is important. If judges cheapen themselves by receiving bribes and delivering jankara judgments, it is wrong to seek to protect them simply because they are judges. The reputational erosion of Nigerian judges has become so deep that radical action is required to save the judiciary. The fight back mechanism by the judiciary to protect the corrupt within them is an unfolding tragedy that must stop. Corrupt judges have no integrity or reputation and must be treated as the criminals they have become.
The chief justice of Nigeria must respond to the present crisis around his person and the judiciary in a way that would save the institution. He must explain to Nigerians the sources and legitimacy of the huge amounts of money in his accounts and his properties. Given the fact that the information on his wealth is in the public domain, it is impossible for him to generate respect among citizens and stakeholders without a satisfactory explanation. I do not see how he can do his job properly in the present context and he could help the judiciary by realising that.