Onnoghen’s trial to continue as Presidency, lawyers deny deal with ex-CJN
The Presidency did not enter into any deal with the embattled Justice Walter Onnoghen before he decided to resign his appointment as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, PUNCH has learnt.
Onnoghen, who is undergoing trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for failing to declare his assets, resigned his appointment on Thursday.
There are speculations that he resigned after reaching a deal with the Presidency through the intervention of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.
But a Presidency official, who spoke with one of our correspondents on condition of anonymity on Saturday, said, there was no such deal.
“There is no such thing that the Vice President brokered any deal that made the CJN to resign. It is not true,” he said.
He also insisted that there was no deal with Onnoghen, with or without Osinbajo.
The source said it was clear to all from the beginning that the allegations levelled against the former CJN were weighty.
He said Onnoghen apparently waited for the verdict of the National Judicial Council on the petitions against him before he took the decision to quit.
“There is absolutely no deal at all. What I know is that the CJN waited for NJC before he chose to resign.
“The allegations against him were clearly weighty,” he said.
No deal to withdraw charges against ex-CJN –Prosecutor
Meanwhile, the prosecution and defence teams involved in the trial of Onnoghen at the CCT remain undeterred in the pursuit of the case despite the news of the embattled top judicial officer’s resignation which broke on Friday.
The news filtered in on Friday that Onnoghen, who had been on suspension since January 23, 2019, had, on Thursday, submitted his letter of resignation to President Muhammadu Buhari, barely 24 hours after the NJC, reportedly recommended him for compulsory retirement.
Although the news of his “resignation” has not been confirmed through any official channel, two of his lawyers, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), and Mr. Rafiu Lawal-Rabana (SAN), had, on Friday, confirmed to one of our correspondents that the suspended CJN had resigned.
The news of Onnoghen’s resignation has fuelled speculations that he had entered into a deal brokered in the NJC’s recommendations for him to quit office and have the false and non-declaration of assets charges preferred against him withdrawn.
But checks by on Friday and Saturday showed that both the defence and the prosecution teams were still trying to meet the deadlines for the filing of their final written addresses ahead of the April 15 proceedings where the two sides would canvass final arguments before a date for judgment would be picked.
Although Awomolo, who leads Onnoghen’s defence team at the CCT, could not be reached on Saturday for his comment on the speculated deal between his client and the Federal Government, it was learnt that the team was, as of Saturday, still trying to meet the Monday deadline given by the CCT for the filing of their final address.
The tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar, had, at the April 3 proceedings, given the defence up till Monday, April 8, to file and serve its final address on the prosecution.
The prosecution was given up till Thursday, April 11, to respond.
Any further reply on points of law by the defence to the response of the prosecution must be filed by April 15, the tribunal chairman said.
“We are working on our address and we will file it on Monday. We are not aware of any deal for the withdrawal of charges; so, we are not going to let that hold us down,” a senior lawyer in the defence team, who sought not to be named because he did not get authorisation to speak on the matter, said on Saturday.
Awomolo did not answer PUNCH’s repeated calls to his mobile on Saturday.
But the leader of the prosecuting team, Mr. Aliyu Umar (SAN), told one of our correspondents on Saturday that he was not aware of any deal for the withdrawal of the charges.
He said the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), who issued him the fiat to prosecute the case on behalf of the Code of Conduct Bureau, had also not told him anything.
He said the reported resignation of Onnoghen had also not been confirmed to him.
He said, “First of all, I am prosecuting this matter on behalf of the Code of Conduct Bureau, which means I’m under the control of the Attorney General of the Federation and I was even given a fiat by the Attorney General for the purpose of the prosecution.
“Up till this time (Saturday), nobody has confirmed to me that his Lordship has resigned. I only read it in the news.
“Then, concerning what you just told me about a deal, I don’t know anything about it.
“But you know under the Nigerian system, there is what we call plea bargain. But honestly, up till this time, the Attorney General has not told me anything. If that is the situation, I think the Attorney General will appear personally on April 15 when we are going back for our final addresses.
“But honestly I really don’t know; nobody has contacted me.”
The Federal Government on January 11, 2019 filed six counts against Onnoghen, including failure to declare his assets between June 2005 and December 14, 2016.
The rest of the five counts bordered on allegations that the suspended CJN made false declaration of his assets on December 14, 2016 by allegedly omitting to declare his domiciliary dollar, euro and pound sterling accounts as well as his two naira accounts, all maintained with Standard Chartered Bank (Nig.) Ltd.
Onnoghen had pleaded not guilty to the six counts.
On January 25, President Buhari, acting on an order of the CCT, suspended Onnoghen and sworn in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as acting CJN.
The Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, and its Executive Director, Mr. Dennis Aghanya, whose petition informed the charges filed against Onnoghen at the CCT, had subsequently sent the same petition to the NJC, the body saddled with the appointment and discipline of judicial officers.
Also, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, through its acting Chairman, Mr. Ibrahim Magu, had sent two petitions dated February 4, 2019, and March 5, 2019 to the NJC, accusing Onnoghen of “financial impropriety, infidelity to the constitution and other economic and financial crimes-related laws”.
There were also two other petitions by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), and the Actions Peoples Party, sent against Muhammad accusing him of allegedly submitting himself to be sworn in illegally as the acting CJN without being recommended by the NJC.
Following the petitions it received in respect of allegations of misconduct against the two judicial officers, the NJC had, at its February 13, 2019 meeting, considered the complaints worthy of being investigated.
The council then set up the five-man panel led by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice S. A. Akande, to investigate the petitions, and issued queries to the judicial officers.
On April 3, the NJC reviewed the report of the investigation panel.
The NJC’s Director, Information, Mr. Soji Oye, said in a statement that the council had sent its recommendations to President Muhammadu Buhari.
Curiously, it said it would not share its recommendations with the public until after Buhari received it.
The NJC, however, said it did not investigate the petition containing allegation relating to assets declaration levelled against Onnoghen.
The petition, which the NJC refrained from considering, was by a civil society group, the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, and its Executive Director, Mr. Dennis Aghanya.
The NJC said it refrained from considering the petition because it would be subjudice to do so because it was the subject matter of the ongoing trial of Onnoghen at the CCT.
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