The Uncomfortable Facts of Chief Justice Onnoghen’s Code of Conduct Case | By Joe Abah

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LawOpinion

I am greatly saddened that the Chief Justice of Nigeria is even in a position where he could be charged with the breach of any Nigerian law whatsoever. Looking at the issues both from the side of the Prosecutor & that of the Defense, it is difficult to find any positives.

Within three months of appointment, every public officer must declare their assets. This includes ALL bank accounts in your name. It is prudent to wrack your brain to remember ALL your accounts, even those that you may have that may now be dormant for a while or no longer funded.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is not a crime for a public officer to have money. The crime is not declaring it. Also, it is not a crime to have domiciliary accounts in Nigeria. What is a crime is not declaring it. Public servants are forbidden from having accounts overseas.

As the case unfolds, the presumption of innocence must be protected. The Chief Justice is presumed innocent until convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction. Many have pointed to the Nganjiwa case that says that a serving judicial officer must first be tried by the National Judicial Council (NJC) before the courts.

Personally, I do not agree that the Ngnajiwa judgment is a true reflection of the law or of its intentions (Editor’s note: See a Lawyard opinion on Nganjiwa vs FRN). Its saying a judicial officer can only be prosecuted after being sacked has the effect of conferring immunity on judicial officers which is not envisaged by the Constitution.

I am pleased that the EFCC is appealing that judgment. If it is allowed to stand, it will be the Judiciary granting special privileges to its members just because they can. It would be no different from Legislators that currently pay themselves what they like just because they can.

Having said that, the Nganjiwa judgment is the current position of the law until it is overturned. Problem is that those that will overturn it are potential beneficiaries of it, just like those with the power to reduce NASS allowances are – wait for it – NASS members.

That Nigeria is in a position where its Chief Justice is being arraigned for a crime is sad. Some say that it demonstrates that no one is above the law. Question is whether or not this has been done with the same consistency where other high-ranking officials have been concerned.

While a State is perfectly within its rights to decide who to charge for what crime and which crimes to take seriously and which ones to ignore, inconsistency often creates distrust, no matter how noble the intentions. Distrust is more pronounced during charged electoral periods.

The Senate President was docked sometime ago and eventually found not guilty. Personally, I hold politicians in much lower regard than judges. No matter the eventual outcome, arraigning the Chief Justice of a country for corruption is a bigger deal than many people realize.

I can only hope that it somehow strengthens our democracy rather than damages it. For now, I can’t see any positives. In the meantime, we must all remember that the Chief Justice is innocent until pronounced guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. God bless Nigeria.

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Dr Joe Abah is a former Director General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms. This piece first appeared on his Twitter page

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