The Three-Pronged Wahala of Baba Onnoghen, By Simbo Olorunfemi
Baba Onnoghen is only a metaphor for what we have become as individuals, a people and the nation. His is a multi-layered, multi-pronged tragedy that has everyone disingenuously roped in. Not even the reported indictment of the CJN by the National Judicial Council (NJC) will change the minds of those who had queued behind the man, some for agenda only known to themselves.
The case of Baba Onnogen is tragic. In many respects. For the man, the judiciary and the nation. It is the tragedy of a man, interlinked with that of an institution and a nation, with the large scale erosion of our once-cherished values now intrinsically interwoven with our obsession with the matter, to the point where it has become difficult, almost impossible, to tell apart what is right from that which is wrong.
For the man, Baba Onnoghen, the institution – the judiciary, and the nation – Nigeria, it is a multi-dimensional tragedy that offers very little at all levels, for now, in terms of respite. He loses, the institution loses, the people lose, our nation loses. We are all roped in, some forced into the mud, others having the time of their lives in the mud. We can only watch as people now dance shakushaku to a dirge.
From any angle one looks at it, how is it not saddening to see how the case of Baba Onnoghen has been engaged with, just like every other one, in the public space? How troubling can it not be that, as with everything else, it was a case of partisan, religious and ethnic sentiments taking the lead? It is particularly troubling, though not unexpected, to see how in the face of the weighty allegations against Baba Onnoghen, some of which might not be exactly new to some in the inner circle, so-designated senior lawyers were so excitable that they chose to rally a herd behind a man, in pretend-effort at protecting an institution.
It was sad to see some, who were once seen as men, dive head-long into the shallow waters of Baba Onnoghen, without adequate consideration of all the troubling dimensions that emerged with it. It was sad to see that for many, there was little of sure-footed interrogation of the issues, beyond the sound-bites being dispensed by the usual suspects. To see that the efforts were not even based on some thoughtful, sound reasoning but pedestrian parapoism, shamelessly seeking refuge from the umbrella of technicalities and the worn-out filibustering methodologies, which eventually fell flat before everyone, leading to the chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) finally making appearance in court.
With needless bluster invested into the process at the beginning by the senior lawyers, as the media have so christened them, there was little or no room left to wriggle their way out. Having seen the futility of their efforts to uproot the tree from the top, many of the advocates of yesterday beat a speedy retreat, leaving the CJN to a lonely walk in the wilderness. Also, as a result of that initial misstep, the opportunity that might have been there for internal cleansing and redemption of an institution that is decaying from within, would appear to have then been lost.
A close look at the Baba Onnoghen case should have made it clear that this was a multi-dimensional malady and that the arms of the law, as was being applied, were heading in different directions, with the case before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) serving as a strategic bind, which in its disguised simplicity, was only a first step, but a sure one to get him entrapped. But rather than for the man and his army of advisers to see it for what it was, or perhaps because some of them indeed saw the end from the beginning, they panicked into more missteps.
…we ended up with a CJN, who having exhausted all the tactics often employed to delay trial, had to resort to tendering a ‘medical report’ to excuse himself from appearance in court. Who would have thought that with the army of lawyers behind him, the impression we will be left with is a defence caught flat-footed when its no-case submission was dismissed.
So we ended up with a CJN, who having exhausted all the tactics often employed to delay trial, had to resort to tendering a ‘medical report’ to excuse himself from appearance in court. Who would have thought that with the army of lawyers behind him, the impression we will be left with is a defence caught flat-footed when its no-case submission was dismissed. Baba, in his defence, could only bring his driver as witness, only for that one witness to be caught with a sheet of prepared answers at hand. Of course, there is not much room to manoeuvre in the CCT matter with the admission on the part of the CJN that he forgot to declare some asset.
But the CCT matter pales into insignificance, placed side by side with the matter before the NJC. Again, the response by the CJN to the weighty allegations bordering on serial misconduct levelled against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) are so off, if not tragi-comical, that one wonders how we ended up with such a person as CJN, leaving one to wonder at what more harm, unknown to us, his long years of service on the bench must have brought the nation.
Whether to do with the alleged conversion of over N24 million, being surplus from money budgeted for flight tickets for a period of 16 months, by the CJN, directing the protocol lead to pay the money into his personal account, or an alleged payment of estacode to his wife or the matter of a N7 million Mercedes Benz car gift allegedly received from a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Or even to the series of payments by lawyers into his accounts as CJN, including the $30,000 deposit by the same lawyer from who he got the car, the details are not only petty and messy, the response of the CJN to them, from the documents now available, cited as his statement of defence, are rather befuddling.
Baba would want us to believe that he only bought the car in question from the SAN, who just happens to also double as a car dealer. It is not only that no evidence, such as a receipt of payment, was reportedly tendered in support of the claim of purchase, but that the year of sale, according to the account of the supposed seller and the year declared by the supposed buyer in the form did not quite tally. We were told that the supposed buyer, our own CJN, neither provided a trail of payment nor source of income to that effect.
Baba would also want us to believe that the $30,000 said to have been deposited into his account in the name of the SAN was just an instance of the SAN as a courier service or personal assistant who only helped the CJN lodge, into the account at the bank, money given to him by the same CJN. He would want us to believe that the deposits by other senior lawyers who, at various times appeared before him, were no bribe payments but gifts towards a family ceremony, even when the Code of Conduct forbids receipt of such gifts and even such social relationships.
At the time the CJN…finally made himself available for trial, I argued then that sadly Baba opted to do last what he should have done first. If indeed he has now opted for a resignation on the back of a reported recommendation by the NJC for his compulsory retirement, it would appear that he has again opted to do last what he should have done first.
Baba also had the unenviable task of explaining the source of the $1.7 million deposited in his domiciliary account between 2009 and 2016, especially when he only earned the total sum of N91 million between September 2005 and October 2016. He says, savings right from his student days, earnings from practice as a lawyer, estacode payments for annual vacations, medical expenses, international conferences, his service in Gambia and returns from offshore investments, explain the deposit in his account.
How Baba Onnoghen could have thought he could convincingly explain away these allegations, which if proven, would be in clear breach of the rules, with some even bordering on money laundering and other criminal conduct, is one only him and the very senior lawyers representing him could have thought up, in their extreme brilliance. For some of us, it was difficult to see how Baba Onnoghen could successfully navigate the waters.
That he did not immediately opt for a dignified exit once confronted with alleged infractions by the security organs, even if it was just about the non-declaration of asset, is difficult to understand. That the matter would eventually play out in public and the CJN would not simply quit, but settle for the option of facing trial at the CCT, with an eye on returning someday to his seat as the CJN, unmindful or unconcerned about what that means for the institution, was a tad audacious, if not reckless, given the damage the whole drama has done to the institution.
That, urged on by a bevy of senior lawyers and other interests, he chose not to step aside should not come as a surprise. As a people, we have since traded away that sense of shame that used to define us. Baba Onnoghen is only a metaphor for what we have become as individuals, a people and the nation. His is a multi-layered, multi-breasted tragedy that has everyone disingenuously roped in. Not even the reported indictment of the CJN by the National Judicial Council (NJC) will change the minds of those who had queued behind the man, some for agenda only known to themselves. The same people who had canvassed for the NJC to take charge, in the unspoken hope that the body will somehow find a way to place an umbrella above the head of the CJN in the spirit of parapoism, are already alleging that the NJC must have been compelled to follow the president’s leaning. We have traded away the capacity to engage outside of the window of the triad of ethnicity, partisanship and religion.
At the time the CJN, faced with the indignity of being brought in by the police, finally made himself available for trial, I argued then that sadly Baba opted to do last what he should have done first. If indeed he has now opted for a resignation on the back of a reported recommendation by the NJC for his compulsory retirement, it would appear that he has again opted to do last what he should have done first. As I asked back in February, when he finally took the path expected of a man of his standing by simply showing up in court, is it not too late now? Would a resignation, if accepted, redeem what has been lost for the man, the institution and country? Sad to see how low we have sunk as a people. We have sold off our conscience that even those we should look up to as elders, having lost the sense of shame, now play in the bottom league of malfeasance without scruples and any sense of shame.