By Bashir Ibrahim Hassan
The high profile case of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN)Walter Samuel Onnoghen has brought the duo federal agencies, Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), into the media limelight — for good reasons, though, this time around.
The long arm of the law they superintended upon has caught up with an unlikely defendant.
Owing to the circumstances of its action, particular the speed with which the man’s prosecution is being conducted and considering that a number of other high profile cases are yet to be dispensed with, the Federal Government is accused, in some quarters of being bias; but is it? Also, because the suspended CJN was an unlikely defendant, tongues have been wagging—for and against the trial of the suspended CJN. Emotions, sentiments and political affiliation aside a dispassionate analyst is supposed to examine the charges against the Onnoghen and provisions of the law being applied. If we find any incongruity then we can make a case for prejudice.
What are the cases against Mr. Onnoghen? President Buhari went into detail to state them, relying mostly on the petition against him by a Civil Society Organization first became public about a fortnight ago. The president said:
“Although the allegations in the petition are grievous enough in themselves, the security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
“Perhaps more worrisome is the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s own written admission to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, citing ’’mistake’’ and ’’forgetfulness’’ which are totally unknown to our laws as defences in the circumstances of his case.
“One expected that with his moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more so by his own written admission, Mr. Justice Walter Onnoghen would have acted swiftly to spare our Judicial Arm further disrepute by removing himself from superintending over it while his trial lasted.
“Unfortunately, he has not done so. Instead, the nation has been treated to the sordid spectacle of a judicial game of wits in which the Chief Justice of Nigeria and his legal team have made nonsense of the efforts of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to hear the allegation on merit and conclude the trial as quickly as possible considering the nature of the times in which we live.
“Whether deliberately or inadvertently, we have all seen the full weight of the Chief Justice of Nigeria descend on the tender head of one of the organs of justice under his control. There is simply no way the officers of that court, from the Chairman to the bailiffs, can pretend to be unaffected by the influence of the leader of the Judiciary. “
Political interests from the geo-political region of Mr Onnoghen have risen in stout defense of their son. The main opposition party has raised objection to the manner in which the government of the ruling party has handled the issue. Commentators have raised issues with the political implications of the action of government. Representatives of several countries and regional bodies have expressed concern about the timing of the action, vis-à-vis the impending general elections. Sections of the civil society have threatened to take mass actions to protest government’s action.
In addition to the backing of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and other vociferous entities, the man himself has been fighting back, and it is clear that legal fireworks are in the offing before elections.
There are also a large number of people who feel that the man should have honourably resigned if, indeed, he admitted his failure to declare some of his foreign accounts due to forgetfulness, even as they concede government’s untidy handling of the matter. They feel that a government that has committed to fighting corruption cannot pass up the opportunity to deal decisively a high profile case.
However, unperturbed by the uproar, the duo agencies continue to carry on with their work as defined by the provisions of the constitution—the substratum of their mandate and powers. And that could be one of the reasons why all the efforts so far made in the courts, including, lately the Court of Appeal, to stop the CCT from going ahead with the trial of the suspended CJN have failed.
The charges preferred against the suspended CJN include the allegation that he has maintained a domiciliary accounts in foreign currency which he has failed to declare, in violation of the code of conduct for public officers as highlighted above. If we stop at this and examine the law establishing the CCB and CCT, the former CNJ is in clear violation of the extant laws. First, he made an incomplete declaration; secondly, he maintained domiciliary accounts in violation of the provisions of the law governing conduct of the public servants in Nigeria.
The Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, Chapter 58 LFN 1990 outlines the mandate given to the Bureau, namely: “to establish and maintain a high standard of public morality in the conduct of government business and to ensure that the actions and behaviour of public officers conform to the highest standards of public morality and accountability.”
To implement the above mandate, section 3, part of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended has provided an enabling legal environment for the bureau to do the following:
• Receive declarations by public officers under paragraph 12 of part 1 of the fifth schedule to the constitution.
• Examine the declaration in accordance with the requirements of the code of conduct or any law.
Retain custody of such declaration and make them available for inspection by any citizen of Nigeria on such terms and conditions as the National Assembly may prescribe
• Ensure compliance with and where appropriate, enforce the provisions of the code of conduct or any law relating thereto.
• Receive complaints about non-compliance with or breach of the provision of the code of conduct or any law in relation there to, investigate complaints and, where appropriate, refer such matters to the code of conduct tribunal.”
• Receiving documentations of declaration of public servants and following up on what has been declared to ascertain its veracity or not is a routine work at the CCT and public servants that were found to have made false declaration have been investigated, apprehended and arraigned before the court of competent jurisdiction the CCT to answer for their contraventions.
The Implications of non-compliance with the codes is clear and the penalties are severe. They include:
• Removal from office, vacation of official seat in any legislative house; imposition of fine;
• Disqualification from membership of house and from holding any public office for a period not exceeding ten 910) years and seizure; and
• Forfeiture to the state of any property (ies) acquired in abuse or corruption of office.
It is remarkable to note that the powers of the CCT were once contested up to Supreme Court and the verdict was “in matters pertaining to code of conduct the CCT is the highest court that matters”. Among the judges of the Supreme Court then was Onnoghen.
Interestingly, schedule V part (ii) of Nigerian constitution was explicit and lists public servants to include: Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justices of the Supreme Court, President and Justices of the Court of Appeal all other judicial officers and all staff of courts of law.
Thus, on the breach of the provisions of the code, the suspended CJN has questions to answer. On the argument put forward by some commentators that the CCT cannot try the CJN because the National Judicial Council is responsible for disciplining judicial officers, the constitution has settled that by defining a public servant and the judgment of the Supreme court at some point has affirmed the CCT as the court of competent jurisdiction .
The lesson I see in the unfolding saga of the trial of the suspended CJN is the manifestation of the efforts of the present administration to build institutions that are strong enough to implement the provisions of the laws no matter the official or social status of the person involved. This shift, this non-interference in operations of our institutions right across the broad spectrum of officialdom, should continue.
And putting round peg in round holes will help realize this dream.
Leading the CCB today, at this watershed moment in the history of bureau, is Mohammad Isa, a legal luminary, a product of both Ahmadu Bello and Obafemi Awolowo universities. His knowledge of the Nigerian legal system is buttressed by his many years of teaching law at Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto, his alma mater, and Bayero University Kano in recent years.
The CCB has a long and checkered history. Established in 1979, it did not get its legal mandate until a decade later. However, since then, the Code of Conduct provision has maintained a permanency of some sort, in the 5th schedule of all constitutions following thereafter — the 1989, 1993, 1995,1999 and the current 1999 constitution (as amended), confirming the importance of the bureau in the efforts to establish and maintain a high standard of public morality in the conduct of government business.
The government should not lose sight of the need to adequately fund these institutions if they are to deliver on their mandates. The fight against corruption is not an easy one, especially in our country where sentiments easily becloud our sense of reasoning, justice and fairness as the case of Onnoghen shows. We clamour for the entrenchment of rule of law so long as it does not go against our vested interests. But Nigeria must entrench the rule of law to ensure justice, equity and fairness to all.
This is the only road to peaceful, egalitarian and prosperous society we all desire.
Hassan, a public commentator writes from Abuja