Responding to CCB interrogation in writing, CJN, Mr Walter Onnoghen pleaded his innocence on the issues raised, saying he did not do any wrong to warrant any action, having satisfied the requirements of publicly declaring his assets as a top public officer in Nigeria.
In a written statement to CCB, sighted last night, he explained that he filed the two assets declaration forms on the same day in 2016 after becoming CJN because he forgot to make another declaration of his assets at the expiration of his 2005 paper in 2009.
“Following my appointment as Acting CJN in 2016, the need to declare my assets anew made me to realize the mistake and I therefore did the declaration to cover the period in default,”he explained.
On the seven accounts omitted in form SCN: 000014, he explained that it arose because he believed they were not opened during the period covered by the declaration.
According to him, the $10,000 cash deposits he made at different intervals into his account in Standard Chartered in 2011 came from his earned estacodes for medical expenses while the withdrawals from the accounts were due to paying for his children’s schools fees and for their upkeep abroad.
It was not clear last night if CCB could press ahead with the case against Onnoghen without clearing with National Judicial Council, (NJC) which is headed by him, a body that has vehemently resisted trial of any judge for corrupt practices without being reprimanded by it.
But there were indications that CCB might push the case before CCT this week.
PDP: Presidency plotting to annex the judiciary
PDP deplored the action against CJN, accusing the Buhari presidency of plotting to destabilise and annex the judiciary ahead of the general elections.
The main opposition party said All Progressives Congress (APC) and a “cabal” at the Presidency were hounding Onnoghen and seeking his removal so as to cause a constitutional crisis, instill fear in judicial officers and pave way for the foisting of a pliable CJN that will do their bidding on electoral matters.
“This is particularly following allegations that APC seeks a new CJN that will aid its rigging schemes as well as execute the plot to use the court to detain and put opposition members and outspoken members of Civil Society Organizations out of circulation during the general elections,” it said in a statement.
“This development is a clear recipe for anarchy and a huge crisis capable of fracturing our justice system and derail our democracy as it portends a prelude to a total clamp down on institutions of democracy and rule of law in our country.
“PDP therefore urges all Nigerians, United Nations and all international bodies to unite in the defence of our democracy, especially at this very critical time in our political development.
“Moreover, if President Buhari is committed to cleaning up the system as he claims, we challenge him to allow Inspector General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris, whose tenure has expired and who has also been rejected by Nigerians due to his manifest partisanship, to go.
“Mr Buhari should also ask Mrs Amina Zakari to recuse herself from INEC following her rejection by Nigerians over issues of impropriety in her appointment as Chairperson of Presidential election collation committee”.
Don’t Throw Nigeria into Crisis, Atiku Warns
Also reacting, presidential candidate of PDP, Mr Abubakar Atiku, warned Buhari and APC against throwing Nigeria into avoidable crisis over what he called their desperation to sack CJN.
Atiku, in a statement by his Special Assistant on Public Communication, Mr. Phrank Shaibu, said the principle of separation of powers remained sacrosanct in a democracy irrespective of what Buhari is told by his advisers.
According to him, the plot to sack Onnoghen is a pre-emptive move against the bench in the face of imminent defeat and knowing the role the judiciary plays in the final outcome of elections.
Tambuwal warns against plot to give CJN ‘Saraki treatment’
Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State cautioned Buhari against succumbing to the plea by his associates to give Onnoghen the ‘Bukola Saraki’ treatment for the purpose of having their way at the tribunals post – 2019 polls.
Senate President Bukola Saraki had been tried by CCT for what may believed were trumped-up assets declaration charges dating back to his time as governor of Kwara State.
The trial came after he defied APC leadership to become Senate President.
CCT freed him of the charges.
Speaking at the flag-off of PDP election campaign in Bodinga Local Government Area of Sokoto State, Mr Tambuwal said: “after desecrating the legislature, Buhari administration had set its sight on the judiciary in a brazen effort to return itself to power”.
Three senior advocates of Nigeria (SAN) who spoke on the CJN episode, last night, were scathing in their criticism of the action against Onnoghen.
In his reaction, Sebastine Hon: said: “While I know that the Chief Justice of Nigeria does not enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution, I see this move by Federal Government as dangerously political and tendentious. Suddenly, we woke to see a petition leaked to social media, allegedly received by Code of Conduct on 9th January, 2019. Suddenly, we are told charges have been filed against CJN. Suddenly the Presidency is reportedly asking him to step aside! Was he interrogated or interviewed and his own reactions obtained? Why this supersonic rush? These steps are more political than honest.
“There is an attempt to destroy the Judiciary or gag it; and in the latter situation, to hector it into submission. I personally say no to this! All Nigerians of goodwill must say no to this unprovoked assault on the Judiciary.
“After unsuccessful attempts to reign in National Assembly, the same unholy attention is beamed on the Judiciary. If this arm of government is destroyed, due process, constitutionalism and the rule of law will pave way to whimsical, narrow and brute force, at the instance of one man or a select few! I personally say no to this.
“Nothing stops the Federal Government from deferring, in the interest of national peace and cohesion, the filing of those charges till an opportune time – since there is no limitation of time in criminal proceedings. Why now?
“The Federal prosecutors are also aware of extant decisions of Court of Appeal, to the effect that unless and until NJC pronounces a Judicial Officer guilty, he cannot be arraigned in court. Those authorities know full well that these decisions of the Court of Appeal have not been overruled; but they have decided to humiliate CJN, by rushing some charges to the Tribunal and leaking same to the press over the weekend.
“I strongly counsel CJN not to heed the obviously unholy call that he should step aside. There is light, I am strongly persuaded, at the end of the tunnel!.”
For his part, Mr Yusuf Alli stated: “To say that I am flustered and nonplussed is an understatement. We should not destroy our institutions. The judiciary is one of the most important institutions in any country. We should not toy with the judiciary. While accusing everybody of being corrupt, we should not throw it around just because some people are happy. Chief Justice of Nigeria is the epitome of Nigeria’s judicial system. We should just be very careful so that we don’t end up with the title of Chinua Achebe’s book, ‘ There was a country’.”
Mr Chris Uche, reacting, said, “This is carrying the battle for 2019 too far. To attempt to intimidate and destroy the Judiciary because of the forthcoming presidential election is a ploy that must be stoutly and vehemently resisted by the legal community. The legal community must rise in unison against this attack on all of us.
“We will not allow this to happen otherwise the legal profession is finished. The AGF should not allow himself to go down in history as the one under whose watch the judiciary in Nigeria was destroyed. His predecessors such as Clem Akpamgbo, Abdullahi Ibrahim, Bayo Ojo, and others strove to strengthen the judiciary as an institution. Those who allow their heads to be used in breaking the coconut may not be around to drink the water therefrom.”