Nigeria: Why Justice Onnoghen 'Resigned'

Walter Onnoghen.

Persistent pressure from the executive and the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to President Muhammadu Buhari may have prompted the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, to tender his resignation to President Muhammadu Buhari, our reporters gathered yesterday.

Though Presidency sources were not definitive at press time, Daily Trust Saturday learnt that Justice Onnoghen Thursday reportedly tendered his resignation.

Details of the letter were not made public and the Supreme Court could not confirm the resignation reports yesterday. Born on December 22, 1950, Onnoghen was due to retire on December 22, 2020 upon attaining the statutory age of 70.

The office of the Chief Registrar, Uwani Mustapha and the Director of Information in the apex court, Dr Festus Akande, told Daily Trust Saturday that the reports were "still mere rumours".

But a reliable source close to the CJN informed our reporter that his resignation was to resolve the issue and earn his retirement benefits. "He was expected to send in the letter on Thursday, so we are not surprised if he has," he said.

The source said pressure had been mounted on Onnoghen to step down right from the onset of the case, adding that the report of the NJC was the final straw.

"The NJC saw his resignation as a way to salvage the image of the judiciary and prevent further efforts to dig into unnecessary issues about him," the source said.

Staff of the office of the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court claimed ignorance of the letter. The NJC on Wednesday forwarded its report on the petition against Justice Onnoghen by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to President Muhammadu Buhari to act.

The council, according the Director of Information, Soji Oye, decided not to make its findings public before conveying it to the president.

But there are reports that the council recommended compulsory retirement for Justice Onnoghen as a way of resolving the impasse in a win-win manner following the findings on the EFCC petition.

Spokesman for Onnoghen, Awassam Bassey, did not respond to calls.

The EFCC had in its petition alleged financial impropriety and keeping a total of $1,716, 000 ($1.7m) in his bank accounts which it said was far above Onnoghen's lawful income. It added that Onnoghen received monetary gifts from some lawyers into his bank accounts.

But Onnoghen had said the unsolicited funds were for his daughter's wedding, and no other payments from lawyers could be traced to him before or after the wedding.

Onnoghen is facing a six-count charge of non-declaration of assets by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).

Both the Federal Government and Onnoghen have closed their cases, while he was given 14 days to submit his final address and adjourned to April 15.

Presidency not definitive

The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, declined comment but said after the president left for Jordan on Thursday, some letters were brought for his attention.

Over the telephone, Shehu said, "I don't want to pre-empt Mr. President but there are many letters waiting for the president which were brought after he travelled.

A top government source told Daily Trust Saturday that the NJC recommendation on Onnoghen was "unclear". He said the refusal of the NJC to cite misconduct in their recommendations, "put the government in a tight corner".

"What the NJC recommended would not have been acceptable to the government without his resignation becuase under the constitution the president can only retire him (Onnoghen) on the basis of NJC recommendation.

"NJC did not say this and that's why an action has not be taken by the presidency. Outside gross misconduct, the president cannot act," he said.

Buhari has been proven right - APC

The APC National Publicity Secretary, Malam Lanre Issa-Onilu, said President Muhammadu Buhari and the party had been proven right following the "resignation".

Issa-Onilu said the party knew that Buhari did not act on frivolities by suspending him based on the CCT ruling. He said the rule of law was now fully operational in the country after heads of the judiciary and National Assembly had been seen in the dock, adding that Nigerians might witness any president who misbehaved in similar situation in future.

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