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CORRUPTION ALLEGATION: DARK CLOUDS SURROUNDING MUHAMMAD, ONNOGHEN’S REIGNS AS CJN

CORRUPTION ALLEGATION: DARK CLOUDS SURROUNDING MUHAMMAD, ONNOGHEN’S REIGNS AS CJN

Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad has resigned as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). He reportedly tendered his resignation in a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, citing health reasons

Muhammad had stepped into office after Walter Onnoghen, his predecessor, was suspended on a controversial note in 2019.

Although the events that dominated their times in office differed, the duo, who were Nigeria’s number one judge, shared similar things that surrounded their reigns.

Muhammad resigned amid the corruption allegation some Supreme Court judges levelled against him. In a protest memo signed by 14 Supreme Court judges, Muhammad was accused of not giving justices their legitimate entitlements.

The justices said their annual foreign training, meant to enhance capacity building for the country’s judicial process, had been blocked by Muhammad.

The main issues put forward by the justices in their letter through a welfare committee were; non-replacement of poor vehicles; accommodation problem; lack of drugs at the Supreme Court clinic; epileptic electricity supply to the Supreme Court; increase in electricity tariff; no increase in the allowances for diesel; lack of internet services to residences and chambers.

Similarly, Onnoghen was suspended in 2019 after a civil rights group, the Anti-corruption and Research based Data Initiative, filed a petition against him at the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

The petition read in part, “Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on 8th March 2011 into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650; On 7th June 2011, two separate cash deposits of $5000 each were made by Justice Walter Onnoghen, followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each.

“On 27th June 2011, Justice Onnoghen made another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each and made four more cash deposits of $10,000 each on the following day, 28th June 2011.

“Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office, contrary to Section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.”

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission also accused him of receiving illicit payments and bribes from lawyers. He was later convicted by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, barring him from holding public office for 10 years and ordering forfeiture of his undeclared assets

Muhammad in a statement titled,‘Re: State of Affairs in the Supreme Court and Demand by Justices of the Supreme Court’ by his spokesperson, Ahuraka Isah, denied the allegations levelled against him by the judges.

He described the Supreme Court Justices as “dancing naked at the market square”, lamenting the effect of Nigeria’s economic situation on the apex court.

He said, “The Supreme Court definitely does not exist outside its environment, it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country. Besides that, the Apex Court has to a larger extent been living to its constitutional responsibility.

“When a budget is made, it contains two sides, that’s the recurrent and the capital, yet all the two are broken down into items. The Federal Government releases the budget based on the budget components. And it’s an offence to spend the money meant for one item for another.

“Take, for instance, the Supreme Court budgeted this year to re-roof and rehabilitate its complex built over 30 years ago and that is being done. The work on the extension of the complex is near completion, the esthetic lawns and cleanness of the perimeters are being well-kept, and security and water supply are adequately provided for his brother Justices in their offices and residences. During the pandemic, a profound and extra-care was maintained to avoid casualties among them as well as the staff generally. It would have amounted to an act of irresponsibility to divert money meant for the above for otherwise.”

At a book lunch held in Abuja in March 2021, Onnoghen also denied some allegations that pitched him against President Muhammadu Buhari.

Among others, he denied to have met with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who was Buhari’s main rival in the 2019 general elections and faulted the allegation that he was setting corruption suspects free.

He said, “Prior to my 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 sit in a panel. In all these rumours and outright accusations, I was not given the opportunity to defend myself.”

Resignation

Unlike some past CJNs who retired from office, both Muhammad and Onnoghen resigned amid controversies bordering on their integrity. Onnoghen tendered his resignation shortly after he was suspended by President Buhari over the corruption allegation.

Though Muhammad was not suspended, he also resigned days after the Supreme Court justices accused him of corruption and injustice. However, he claimed to have resigned on health grounds.

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