Justice Walter Onnoghen: A Symbol for the Equal Treatment of all Nigerians under the Law
Priye S. Torulagha
The law is the law and whoever violates the law should be arrested, charged and tried in a competent court of law. Therefore, if Justice Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), violated the law, he should be arrested, charged and tried in a court of law, in accordance with due process. However, the issue in Justice Onnoghen’s case is not whether he violated the law by failing to declare his assets but rather the selectivity in the enforcement of the law, the rush to force him out without due process and the political manner in which the law is hurriedly being enforced against him by this administration. The Federal Government’s desire to hurriedly arraign and force him out of the CJN position through the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), rather than allow the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC) to probe the matter first, has unleashed a torrent of political debate in the country. Many Nigerians wonder why the Buhari administration is so eager to hurriedly force Justice Onnoghen out of the CJN position for failing to declare his assets without following due process when the same administration has hesitated on numerous occasions to enforce the law on corruption against public officials who are associated with the president and the ruling APC party.
The debate regarding whether the process of attempting to arraign the Justice through the Code of Conduct Tribunal rather than refer the matter to the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC) is appropriate and constitutional or not, has divided public opinion into three major camps. One camp insists that it is appropriate and constitutional to try Justice Onnoghen through the CCT. The second camp insists that it is inappropriate, and unconstitutional to rush him through the CCT without allowing the Nigerian Judicial Council to investigate the matter first. The third camp agrees that Justice Onnoghen might have probably erred or violated the law concerning the declaration of assets but noted that he is selectively being prosecuted in order to pave the way for a more pliable justice to take over the CJN position, in lieu of the coming elections.
The purpose of this write-up is to accomplish two goals: one, determine whether the Buhari administration engages in selective enforcement of the law against corruption and two, determine whether Justice Walter Onnoghen is a victim of a politically motivated effort to force him out of the CJN position through the selective enforcement of the law. In order to determine whether the Buhari administration engages in selective enforcement of the law against corruption, it is necessary to examine various circumstances and cases involving some public officials that have been alleged to have engaged in corruptible practices in the Buhari administration
- Determine whether the Buhari administration engages in selective enforcement of the law against corruption
It is necessary to identity and describe some pertinent circumstances and cases that have taken place during this administration in order to determine whether there is selectivity in the manner corruptionrelated cases are prosecuted.
First, it is agreeable that this administration is very selective in the manner it enforces the law against those accused of corruption, as shown below:
- Since this administration took over the leadership of the country, it has focused its energy in probing the manner in which the People Democratic Party(PDP) gathered funds to conduct its political campaigns prior to the 2015 elections. As result, many PDP members have been dragged to court repeatedly. Unfortunately, while the Buhari administration is working frantically to probe the PDP sources of funding, it does not seem to show any interest in probing the sources of funding for the APC which spent massively prior to the 2015 elections. It is a known fact that Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari did not even have the funds to pay for the APC’s presidential registration form in 2014. He had to take a loan of N27.5 million to pay for the form (https://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/10/jonathan-blasts-buhari-says-buhari-promising/). Yet, the president and the APC were able to amaze huge sums of money to carry out a mammoth campaign, to the point of defeating an incumbent president. So, where did the APC got the funds to sponsor the presidential campaign between 2014 and early 2015? The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nigerian Police Force (NPF), Department of State Service (DSS), and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) generally do not go after those who sponsored the president to find out how they accumulated such a vast sum of money to sponsor his presidential candidacy. As a result, it is apparent that his war on corruption does not target those in the ruling party who were responsible for sponsoring him. Apparently, his financial sponsors are treated as sacred cows who are above the law.
- It is also an acknowledged fact that any politician on the opposition party can escape the probing eyes of the EFCC, NPF, DSS and ICPC by simply jumping ship and joining the All Progressive Congress (APC) party. This means that a corrupt individual can escape the war on corruption by simply crossing over to the APC. Thus, as soon as he or she crosses over, the individual becomes a saint. In fact, the National Chairman of the All Progressive Congress, Adams Oshiomhole, unapologetically informed the entire world that “Once you join the APC, your sins are forgiven.” Therefore, he is openly encouraging members of the opposition to join the APC so that their sins would be forgiven (https://punchng.com/oshiomhole-once-you-join-the-apc-your-sins-are-forgiven/). This reinforces the view that President Buhari only fights the war on corruption against members of the opposition based on the APC CREED which says “Join APC and your crimes are forgiven.”
- The EFCC, DSS and the NPF operate like the Gestapo in the sense that they go after the governors, senators and representatives of the opposition parties. This is why Akwa Ibom, Benue, Ekiti, Rivers and other states have faced constant harassment on the pretext that the federal government is fighting corruption. On the other hand, APC governors, senators and representatives have nothing to fear and can walk freely without being harassed.
Second, the administration fights corruption on one hand while encouraging corruption on the other hand.
- The NPF, EFCC, DSS and the ICPC under this administration did not rush in a gestapo-like manner to probe the allegation of corruption leveled against the top brass in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). It should be recalled that Dr. Ibe Kachikwu had made allegation that contracts worth about $25 billion were illegally awarded by the managing director, Dr. Maikanti Baru without going through proper channels. The president and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) have never spoken about the need to probe the matter after the vice president stated that the allegation was not true. If this allegation was made against a Nigerian who is not a member of the APC party, there is no doubt that the person would have been hounded and dragged all over the place by the EFCC and the ICPC. The Attorney General too would have made statements justifying the need for a thorough investigation of the allegation.
- The presidency recalled and reinstated the former Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Pension Reforms, Abdulrasheed Maina, who was wanted by the EFCC and the Interpol for allegedly embezzling pension funds, even after the Head of Service had warned President Buhari about the political implications of recalling someone who is being sought by the EFCC, back into government service. (https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/246882-reinstated-fugitive-ex-pension-chief-maina-nigerian-govt.html/). The AGF, EFCC, NPF, DSS and ICPC are not scouring every nook and corner to catch Mallam Maina. In fact, Maina stated that he was actually invited by the presidency to come back and resume his position in government. This means that he is a sacred cow and the law does not apply to him.
- Nigerians had to put pressure on the presidency before Babachir Lawal, the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) was let go in October 2017, following allegation of financial corruption over the awarding of grass-cutting contracts to his own companies. The AGF, NPF, DSS, EFCC and ICPC have no desire to use gestapo-style tactics to arrest him. He is a sacred cow and is above the law. In fact, President Buhari does not believe that he committed any offence, hence, he challenged Nigerians to submit evidence that Mr. Lawal actually embezzled money (https://www.vanguardngr.com2019/01/bring-evidence-of-babachir-lawals-corruption-buhari-chalenge -critics/. Thus, any Nigerian who petitions or makes allegation against a member of the APC or a friend of the president is expected to investigate and gather evidence before the federal government acts upon the matter.
- On the other hand, any Nigerian who is not a member of the APC or a friend of the president could be immediately arrested and charged for corruption without the slightest hesitation. Moreover, as soon as the individual is arrested, he or she is presumed to be guilty even without trial. This is why Justice Onnoghen is being forced to vacate the CJN position, without any court trial. The presidency wants to use the Code of Conduct Tribunal to force him out of the CJN position so that Justice Ibrahim Muhammad can take over. Thus, Justice Onneghen is already guilty while Babachir Lawal is not even accosted by the crime-fighting agencies.
- Gen. Abdulrahman B. Dambazau, the Minister of Defence and Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) were major players in the procurement of arms for the Nigerian Army during the Yar’Adua and Jonathan’s administrations. Yet, they are not targeted for investigation while other senior military officers, including Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minimah, Col. Sambo Dasuki and 52 others are being prosecuted or tried for financial corruption (https://punchng.com/arms-scam-probe-dambazau-buratai-ex-military-officers-tell-buhari/). Even the effort by retired military officers to persuade President Buhari to extend the probe to the two senior administration officials is ignored. Col. Dasuki has been detained since 2015. President Buhari also ordered the EFCC to probe the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Vice Marshall Alex Badeh and former Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice Marshall Adesola Amosu (https://vanguardngr.com/2016/01/arms-scandal-buhari-orders-efcc-to-probe-ex-military-chiefs-badeh-amosu-15-others/). Yet, President Buhari is not interested in probing any allegation of corruption against the military, following the repeated Boko Haram attacks against military posts and the repeated lamentation by soldiers that they are being underequipped to fight the Islamist group.
- When Senator Hamman Isah Misau, who represents Bauchi Central Senatorial District, blew the whistle and made allegations of corruption against the immediate past Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, instead of the EFCC, NPF, ICPC and DSS investigating the matter, the Federal Government protected the IGP by dragging Senator Misau to court to stop him from continuing to make allegations against the IGP.
- Even though the DSS issued a report about alleged corruptible practices of Mallam Ibrahim Magu, the Acting Chairman of the EFCC and the fact that the Senate refused to confirm him as the substantive Chair of the commission, on two ocassions, the president continues to retain him. As a result, for three years now, an individual who could not pass the Senate’s confirmatory hearing process continues to serve as the head of a government agency, contrary to the procedure for hiring agency heads in Nigeria.
- Even though the former Chairman of the EFCC, Mallam Ibrahim Lamorde, was removed from the position due to allegations of corruption, the president brought him back to serve as the Commissioner of Police, in-charge of Special Fraud Unit in Ikoyi, Lagos. It is inferable that he is exempted from the letters of the law dealing with corruption because he is a sacred cow that is above the law.
- Even though Prof Usman Yusuf, the Executive Secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), was suspended by the Governing Council of the NHIS over allegations of corruption and administrative infractions and was told not to comeback until the matter is completely investigation, nevertheless, he came back and resumed his position with the assistance of about 50 police officers who escorted to his office, despite protests by workers in the agency (https://). Although, he vehemently denied the allegations leveled against him, he did not wait until the investigation was completed before getting back his job. He made the Minister of Health looked powerless and helpless since he had been suspended twice. The Buhari administration looked the other way and acted as if the allegations were not important enough to warrant legal action by the EFCC or ICPC.
- The EFCC, ICPC, NPF, and the DSS did not raise a voice about enforcing the law when Ahmed Gambo Saleh, the former Supreme Court registrar was brought back to serve in government as the Secretary of the National Judicial Council and the Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee. Again, the law is not the law here because he is above the law.
- Sambo Dasuki continues to be detained for alleged embezzlement of funds allocated for the procurement of arms to fight the war against Boko Haram. In fact, other top military officers too have faced charges in the court of law over their alleged involvement in the arms procurement scams. Surprisingly, Nigerian soldiers who are fighting Boko Haram today continue to complain that they are underequipped, underpaid and underfed to effectively confront the Boko Haram. As a result, Boko Haram has successfully overran a number of military posts. Thus, if Dasuki is being detained for the misappropriation of military funds, then, why are investigations not being conducted to find out whether funds allocated to fight Boko haram are still being embezzled today. There seems to be no interest in probing funds allocated to the military to prosecute the war against Boko Haram today. Why?
- Third, it is obvious that the president is very selective about fighting corruption. The reason is that he was the one who said that Gen. Sani Abacha was not corrupt. Even today, he still does not believe that the general stole tons of money, despite the fact that Abacha’s loot continued to be recovered from various countries in the world. After three years, it is confirmable that even the APC is not interested in fighting corruption. The party cares more about being in power than making a change. The party is interested only in destroying the opposition by any means necessary, so that it can rule endlessly.
Third, it is hypocritical to say that the law must be enforced when it is an open secret that this administration chooses when to obey the law.
- It ignores court decisions whenever it chooses to do so. This is why Col. Dasuki is still in detention despite numerous court rulings that granted him bail.
- When Kemi Adeosun was removed due to political pressure from Nigerians as the Federal Minister of Finance, for allegedly forging a certificate of exemption from National Youths Service Corps (NYSC) service, no legal action was taken against her. She was allowed to leave Nigeria without any legal impediment. This meant that she was a sacred cow.
- Federal Minister of Communication, Adebayo Shittu skipped the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) service, yet, he is still a federal minister without any legal consequence (https://www.premiumetimesng.com/news/headlines/284754-exclusivee-another-buhari-minister-busted-for-skipping-nysc-risks-jail-term.html/). This means that he is a sacred cow and is above the law. As a result, the Code of Conduct Bureau, DSS, and NPF do not go after him. Some Nigerians believe that his case is more serious than that of Kemi Adeosun, yet, he has not been compelled to leave the ministerial position.
- There are allegations that Buhari’s family bought large shares in Keystone Bank and Pakistani Islamic bank, yet, the EFCC and the AGF have no desire to investigate the allegations because the president’s family is a sacred cow. Although, the president’s family and Keystone Bank have denied the allegations, nevertheless, it is a legal duty of the appropriate corruption-fighting agencies to look into the matter. Of course, there is no doubt that the agencies would not investigate the allegations.
- When a video, in which Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State, was seen allegedly receiving bribes burst into the public limelight, President Buhari and his corruption fighting agents did not jump into action and investigate the matter. Instead, the president wondered as to why the governor received the bribes personally instead of allowing someone else to receive the bribe for him (https://www.vanguardmgr.com/2019/01/abuja-town-hall-exposes-buharis-corruption-tendencies-pdp/). The president has not ordered the EFCC, ICPC, NPF, and DSS to investigate the matter. Here again, Governor Ganduje is a sacred cow and is above the law.
- In fact, the presidential candidate of the PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, released a list containing 30 of President Buhari’s officials and associates who are alleged to be corrupt (https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/306916-atiku-releases-list-of-corrupt-buhari-associates.html/). Since Atiku is the opposition’s presidential candidate, it is the responsibility of the presidency to respond by discounting the veracity of the list. Otherwise, the 30 individuals in the list are a further demonstration of the fact that this administration is very selective in fighting corruption by prosecuting some individual while ignoring the transgressions of the law by those who are associates of the president.
- Determine whether Justice Walter Onnoghen is a victim of a politically motivated effort to force him out of the CJN position through the selective enforcement of the law.
First, as indicated by the circumstances and cases identified above, there is no doubt that this administration engages in the selective enforcement of the laws pertaining to corruption. In adhering strictly to the APC CREED, as clearly spelt out by Adams Oshiomhole that “Once you join the APC, your sins are forgiven “, the members of the APC and friends of the president are not liable for prosecution despite engaging in corruptible practices as public officials. On the other hand, the members of the opposition and other Nigerians are automatically liable for prosecution for allegedly engaging in corruptible practices.
Second, due to the selective manner in which cases of corruption are prosecuted, this administration tends to incline towards the view that it is acceptable to violate due process and the constitutional rights of those Nigerians who are not affiliated with the president and the APC party.
Third, the administration seems to adopt a view that none members of the APC and those who oppose or criticize the president can be subjected to immediate arrest, arraignment and trial without according them due process and giving them time to prepare their legal defences. There are many cases to cite from but a few will do here:
- Dasuki and many former public officials in Jonathan’s administration were hurriedly arrested and detained before their cases commenced. Of course, Col Dasuki is still in detention.
- The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) was hurriedly proscribed and treated as a terrorist organization. On the other hand, herdsmen are merely referred to as “bandits” even though internationally, they are regarded as “ terrorists.” Thus, IPOB was rushed by the Federal Government to face the anti-terrorist law while herdsmen are left to continue their destructive path.
- While some high-level public officials in this administration have been alleged to have engaged in corruptible practices, the law is purposely made to walk slower than the speed of a snail in catching with them. On the other hand, the law is fastened to run like a cheetah against Justice Onnoghen and other Nigerians. This clearly shows that the Onnoghen issue is much more than the mere violation of the law. It seems to be a calculated political strategy to achieve a pre-determined goal.
- The fact that most members of the APC publicly support the desire to probe Justice Onnoghen through the CCT and most member of the PDP frown at the speed in which he is being arraigned and the effort to try him through the CCT rather than through the NJC is a testament to the political nature of the issue.
Fourth, this administration tends to take the view that none members of the APC and those who oppose or criticize the president are automatically presumed to be guilty of any corruption-related crime until they prove otherwise in the court of law. On the other hand, the administration tends to create the impression that members of the APC and friends of the president are not presumed guilty of any corruption-related crime until they are found guilty in the competent court of law. Moreover, for this government to arraign any APC-affiliated person, the petitioner of an alleged crime must investigate, gather appropriate evidence and submit the evident to the EFCC or ICPC before the government agency would act. Thus, a double standard has been established for determining who is to be prosecuted and who is not to be prosecuted. The president set the standard when he explained about why the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, has not been arraigned by the EFCC. He said “If there are strong allegations, people should come out with strong evidence like names of companies looted, contracts awarded, then, we take them before the court and ICPC and we have to trust the system and allow them to complete their investigation” (dailypost.ng/2019/01/17/cant-prosecute-ex-sgf-bbachir-lawal-fraud-buhari/).
Fifth, based on the above observation of the tendencies and actions of this administration, it is inferable that Justice Walter Onnoghen is a victim of the APC CREED. There are stories floating around that Justice Onnoghen refused to cooperate in ensuring that election tribunals are filled with individuals who are sympathetic or supportive of the ruling party, in lieu of the coming elections in February 2019.
Sixth, due to the APC CREED, there is a strong desire to force him out of the CJN position since his presence could negatively impact the ability of the APC to win the coming elections in February 2019.
The mind-boggling thing is that federal authorities and the corruption-fighting agencies dragged their feet on the cases of alleged corruption mentioned above, yet, they rushed as if they are running a 100-yards race as soon as a petition was received from the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ACRBDI) to charge, arraign and force Justice Onnoghen to vacate the CJN position within three working days. For instance, the Federal Government filed charges against Justice Onnoghen probably on Friday, January 11, 2019 and he was immediately arraigned on Monday, January 14, 2019 with the hope of pushing him out. They avoided the NJC process in an effort to quickly get rid of him as if he is not a Nigerian. Why is the president and the APC in such a rush to get rid of Justice Onnoghen when they have no interest in probing other violators whose cases are even more serious than that of Justice Onnoghen?
The rush to get rid of the CJN without following due process creates the impression that some Nigerians are more important than other Nigerians. Some Nigerians wonder whether the law is being enforced against Justice Onnoghen in a rushed manner because he is not a member of the president’s family and the ruling party. In fact, news reports indicate that Justice Onneghen is being forced out of the position because he refused to compromise with the APC desire to fill the pre and post-election tribunals with members favorable to the party, in lieu of the coming elections. In particular, it is alleged that they wanted Justice Onnoghen to load the Presidential Election Appeal Tribunal with individuals who support President Buhari (https://www.vanguardngr.com/2019/01/govt-directs-seizure-ofonnofhn-family’s-financial-assets-cupp-alleges/). In other words, the president, his handlers, and the ruling party allegedly want Justice Onneghen out so that they can put someone as CJN who would be favorably inclined towards loading the election tribunals with individuals who are supportive of the ruling party.
It is obvious that the action being taken against Justice Onnoghen is motivated more by political calculations rather than by the need to enforce the law. The reason is that some Nigerians who have been alleged to have embezzled public funds have never been arrested, charged and tried in a court of law, as indicated above. Their sins are easily forgiven because they belong to a certain political affiliation that makes them sacred cows while Justice Onnoghen and some other Nigerians are easily arrested, arraigned, and tried in a humiliating manner because they do not belong to the “ ALLIANCE”. Therefore, in this case, it is more appropriate to examine the political reasons that lead to the sudden arraignment of Justice Onneghen rather than dwell unduly upon the technicality and constitutionality of the process of the law, as many lawyers seem to do. It is obvious that the Code of Conduct Tribunal is being intentionally chosen to try the judge, instead of allowing the NJC to investigate the manner first. The unwillingness to allow the NJC to investigate the matter is attributable to the fear that such a route will take too long to get rid of him before the coming elections. Those who want Justice Onnoghen out of the CJN position do so for political reasons since he is not willing to play ball with them to pre-determine the outcome of the coming presidential election even before the election takes place. Likewise, it appears that there are also those who have motives which are contrary to the strategic interest of Nigeria that want him to vacate the position so that they can put in place someone who identifies with their ideological motives.
Thus, due to the political nature of the issue, it is indeed a waste of time to even debate whether Justice Onnoghen should be investigated by the NJC first or be tried by the Code of Court Tribunal. The reason being that those who want him out have already decided that the Code of Conduct Tribunal is the preferable way to get rid of him as soon as possible since the elections are less than a month from today. Nigerians who care about the separation of powers must work together to put pressure on the administration to stop the political effort to remove the judge before the elections. They should allow the legal process to take its appropriate course and not rush the issue as if the world is coming to an end.
Due to the persistent tendency by this administration to selectively enforce the law, Nigeria is sliding into a lawless entity. The reason is that a law is only good when it is applied equally across the board on everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, region, religion and political affiliation, in any given society. On the other hand, the law becomes meaningless when it is used arbitrarily to violate the constitutional rights of some citizens while protecting others. Consequently, the merit of the law is destroyed when some individuals are treated as sacred cows and are allowed to behave as if they are above the law while others are subjected to the tenets of the law in an arbitrary manner. When a law is applied tactically in an arbitrary political manner, it is no longer a law but a political tool to score political points. When that happens, the citizens have a right to react legally and politically against the system, regardless of the merit of the law.
The most suitable political system for Nigeria is democracy due to the diversity and complexity of the country. Therefore, as far as Nigeria operates a presidential form of government, power must be separated so that the legislative, executive and judiciary branches play their check and balance roles effectively and efficiently. The executive branch cannot be allowed to control the legislature and judiciary branches. Apparently, it is obvious that the executive branch is trying to dominate the judiciary branch of government by trying to impose its will through determining who should be a judge or not. If Nigerians allow the executive branch to tactically control the judiciary branch, the country would end up as a dictatorship.
Indeed, Justice Walter Onneghen has become a symbol for the struggle to standardize and apply the law equally across the board and strengthen government institutions. No political leader should be greater than the institutions that enable a society to work effectively. Consequently, Nigerians should be very careful in choosing their leaders, otherwise, the institutions of democratic governance could easily be sacrificed for the glorification of an individual who believes that he or she is above the law.
The war on corruption must be comprehensive and not partial. In other words, no one should be above the law. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.