President Muhammadu Buhari says he was left with no choice but to suspend Nkanu Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of the Federation in the first month of the New Year.

Onnoghen was suspended by the president as Chief Justice on January 25, 2019, after the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) commenced investigations on him for alleged corruption and non-declaration of suspicious monies in different currencies traced to his domiciliary bank accounts.

On June 9, 2019, President Buhari accepted Onnoghen's resignation and retirement from service following his arraignment at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).

'Reluctant' suspension

During a meeting with the All Progressives Congress (APC) National Leader, Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu, and chieftains of the Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, Afenifere, at the presidential villa on Tuesday, June 25, President Buhari said he wonders what kind of conscience men like Onnoghen possess.

“What I do is when a person cannot justify what he has or fails to declare as the constitution specifies… some of them swear to almighty God that their property doesn’t belong to them until we show them their bank accounts and their companies, right then we have some peace.

Onnoghen on trial at the CCT after his suspension (Pulse)
Onnoghen on trial at the CCT after his suspension (Pulse)

“Anybody who cannot account for what he has and for refusing to declare, we will have to do something about it. I will tell you Afenifere leaders that that was why I had to deal, though reluctantly, with the former Chief Justice of Nigeria because there were millions of dollars, euros not to talk of naira which were not declared.

“I wonder what sort of conscience some of us have. How can you sit and preside and lock people up for years and even sentence some to death and yet you are not doing what the constitution says you should do by occupying that vital institution?”, Buhari asked rhetorically.

Onnoghen's trial

The following amounts of monies were reportedly found in Onnoghen’s bank accounts by intelligence agencies during the investigation stage.

  • USD account from October, 2012 to September, 2016 — $1,922,657.00
  • GBP (£) account from 2012 to September, 2016 — £138, 439.00
  • Euro account as at September 30, 2016 — €55,154.00
  • Naira account from September, 2005 to October, 2016 — N91, 962.362.49

The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) and other security agencies like the Department of State Security (DSS) were also believed to possess dossiers of Onnoghen’s illicit financial dealings and records of his phone conversations with individuals intent on perverting the course of justice.

Cross River State born Onnoghen is 68 years of age. He was appointed acting CJN on November 10, 2016.

In April 2019, Justice Onnoghen was convicted by the code of conduct tribunal for false declaration of assets. He was also banned from holding public office for 10 years and ordered to forfeit monies in his bank accounts to the federal government.

It would be the first time a Chief Justice of Nigeria would be put on trial and convicted.

President Buhari suspends Onnoghen, swears in Tanko Mohammed as acting CJN in January (Presidency)
President Buhari suspends Onnoghen, swears in Tanko Mohammed as acting CJN in January (Presidency)

Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen at the time was considered suspicious. The CJN was suspended only weeks before the nation’s general elections.

President Buhari was accused of meddling with the judiciary in the event that the outcome of the presidential election—in which he was a major contestant--was challenged in court.

Buhari would go on to win the February 23 presidential election on the platform of the governing APC. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the opposition PDP is currently challenging the result of the election in court.

Justice Tanko Mohammed was named by the president to succeed Onnoghen in January.