Former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, yesterday bemoaned his removal, saying claims that he met with former vice president, Atiku Abubakar in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, preparatory to the 2019 general elections, was one of the major ploys used by his adversaries to remove him.
Onnoghen, who bared his mind freely in Abuja at the unveiling of a book titled ‘Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009, Practice, Procedure, Forms and Precedents’, authored by a legal luminary, Chief Ogwu James Onoja (SAN), said prior to his removal, he was accused by the Executive meeting with Atiku.
Onnoghen said rumours about the meeting with Atiku was thick and spread fast, but that he decided not to react to it because he never travelled to Dubai or held any meeting with anybody, including Atiku.
The former CJN, however, said he was surprised that despite the fact the federal government had all the machinery to investigate the allegation of the rumoured meeting with Atiku, it never did, but opted to go after him and his office.
Onnoghen said he was not surprised when all of a sudden, his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal was arranged, even when he had not been invited to defend the allegation or any wrongdoing.
He said the action of the government against him got to the peak when in the course of the trial and when parties had joined issues, an ex-parte was suddenly brought in, and what followed was his illegal and unlawful suspension as the CJN.
“Prior to suspension, I was confronted with no allegation. There were rumours that I met with Atiku in Dubai. As I am talking here today, I have never met Atiku one on one in my life. As if that was not enough, I was also accused of setting free, high-profile criminals, whereas I ceased to be a High Court Judge as far back as 1978.
“In Supreme Court, I did not sit alone, we sat in panel. In all these rumours and outright accusations, I was not given opportunity to defend myself.
“Let me make it clear that the office of the CJN was not for Onnoghen but for all Nigerians who had sworn to guide and protect the Constitution of the Federal Republic.
“As I have said severally, judicial officers must be courageous. And I want to beg all serving judicial officers not to be discouraged by what happened to me in the hand of the executive arm of the government.
“Emerging brand Nigerian judges should not go the direction of injustice because without courageous judges, Nigeria is doomed. Democracy will be dead.
“Here, let me sound this note of warning that the appointment of judicial officers must never be allowed to be politicised, otherwise, democracy and democratic governance will be dead.
“During my tenure, the problem of Nigeria was not the Nigerian judiciary, but those who had no regard for the rule of law. We must therefore be committed to the rule of law and dispense justice without fear or favour.
“Truth stands, crush it, it will stand because it is truth,” Onnoghen said.
He said his ordeal in 2019 was not the first, adding that at a point during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure, a Commission was set up and that he was indicted of wrongdoing, even when he was not invited or allowed to appear before the Commission to defend himself.
Onnoghen, however, said because Obasanjo was a leader who listened to advice, the matter was referred to the NJC for review.
He said at the Council, truth surfaced before he was appointed to the Supreme Court.
He urged legal practitioners to be courageous enough to stand by truth by defending the rights of Nigerians because only justice can rescue Nigeria.
He stated that Nigeria may not record any meaningful development until Nigerians were able to free the nation’s judiciary from the stronghold of politicians.
He said if the judiciary “is not freed from political manipulation,” the dispensation of justice, in accordance with the rule of law, would be a mirage.
According to him, Nigeria is structured on the rule of law and that any democracy not founded on the rule of law is a dictatorship.
Onnoghen emphasised that justice is possible when “you know who is dispensing justice,” adding the surest way to guarantee justice and democracy is to adhere to the rule of law.
“It’s only when the rule of law prevails that you can get justice,” he said.
The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) had in April 18, 2019, ordered the immediate removal of Onnoghen as CJN, after finding him guilty of breach of Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
In January 2019, the federal government, through the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), arraigned Onnoghen on a six count of criminal charge bordering on failure to declare his assets to the bureau between June 2005 and December 14, 2016 as required by law for public officers.
He was also accused of false assets declaration on December 14, 2016, having not declared his domiciliary Dollar, Euro and Pound Sterling-denominated accounts, as well as his two naira accounts, all maintained with the Standard Chartered Bank (Nig.) Ltd.
In the lead judgment delivered by Justice Danladi Umar, the tribunal ordered his sack from office and banned him from holding public office for the next 10 years.
The panel also ordered him to forfeit all the monies in the five accounts which he failed to declare to the federal government.
Before his conviction and subsequent removal, President Muhammadu Buhari, acting on an exparte order, had on January 25, 2019 suspended Onnoghen as CJN.