As Pulse covered proceedings inside the courtroom of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on Thursday, April 18, 2019, there was a point when suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Nkanu Walter Onnoghen looked like he could use a hug. A bear hug.

There he sat on a long bench with black leather upholstery, looking lost, alone, forlorn, embarrassed and disgraced. You could tell from his body language that he knew the end was near. 

Nigeria’s number one law interpreter was the cynosure of all eyes on a humid Abuja afternoon for breaking the law. For theft. For corruption. For not declaring his assets as the law had prescribed. 

Justice Walter Onnoghen during his sentencing in court on Thursday, April 18, 2019 (Pulse)
Justice Walter Onnoghen during his sentencing in court on Thursday, April 18, 2019 (Pulse)

In that grey, over-sized suit of his, Onnoghen forced a smile. But you could tell that the smile was as fake as they came. He didn’t like being at the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. He was uncomfortable in this courtroom and it showed.

To be accused of corruption is bad enough. To now have to defend yourself before lawyers, before subordinates who once deferred to you and trembled at your presence, is the very height of disgrace. 

Moments later, Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) Chairman, Danladi Umar, prescribed Onnoghen’spunishment after finding him guilty.

Onnoghen, the CCT ruled, has now been removed as Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC). He has also been banned from holding public in 10 years and unexplained monies found in his bank accounts will be seized and forfeited to the federal government of Nigeria. 

Chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar, ruled that Onnoghen was guilty as charged (Punch)
Chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar, ruled that Onnoghen was guilty as charged (Punch)

Onnoghen was suspended as Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, 2019 following recommendations by the CCT. 

It would later be established that Onnoghen hid monies, in different currencies, in a slew of bank accounts—monies that some say were well above his pay grade. 

The monies were:

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

Onnoghen would later declare that he forgot to declare some of his monies and that he had made a mistake. 

“My asset declaration form numbers SCN 00014 and SCN 00005 were declared on the same day, 14/12/2016 because I forgot to make a declaration of my assets after the expiration of my 2005 declaration in 2009. 

“Following my appointment as acting CJN in November, 2016, the need to declare my assets anew made me to realize the mistake.

“I then did the declaration to cover the period in default. I did not include my Standard Charted Bank account in SCN 000014 because I believed they were not opened”, he said. 

But it was too little, too late for Onnoghen at this time.

Onnoghen being counselled in court (Sahara Reporters)
Onnoghen being counselled in court (Sahara Reporters)

There are many who have read all kinds of ethnic and political meanings into Onnoghen’s travails because doing so fits their agenda. However, while we do so, we shouldn’t forget to pose the germane questions: did Onnoghen really commit the crimes he was accused of? Did he carry himself in a manner a senior judge should not? Was he corrupt? Should a CJN even reach the point where people begin to question the source of his wealth and integrity?

Onnoghen should have resigned as soon as he was dragged to court and questions asked about the monies in his bank accounts. He didn’t. Now, his legal team has announced that he would challenge the CCT’s ruling at the appeal and apex courts. He really shouldn’t go down that route any longer. But knowing him, he will.

For far too long, Nigerians have railed against pervasive corruption in the judiciary, about how favorable judgments are handed to the highest bidders, about how lawyers have turned temples of justice to temples of injustice. In Nigeria, the bar and bench are now playthings for the highest bidders.

If there are lessons to be extrapolated from Onnoghen’s trial, it should be that the judiciary has to make a conscious effort to cleanse itself and put the “bad eggs” out in the sun to dry.

President Buhari appoints Onnoghen as CJN in 2017 (Presidency)
President Buhari appoints Onnoghen as CJN in 2017 (Presidency)

To have the number one judge in the country become a subject of ridicule like Onnoghen has become, should lead to fast-paced reforms of the judiciary if we are being serious here. This should be treated as a national emergency.

Onnoghen may have been left alone on a court bench on a humid Thursday afternoon in Abuja, but there’s no way he’s the only judicial officer who has one or two integrity questions to answer, in a society where corruption has been elevated to an art form.