FACT CHECK: Did Justice Onnoghen set free alleged corrupt persons as claimed by President Buhari?
By John Chuks Azu
“It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts”.
These are the exact words of President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday, January 25 when he suspended Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and inaugurated Justice Tanko Mohammed in acting capacity.
President Buhari accused the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Onnoghen of serially setting free persons accused of acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities.
The president added that “since there is nothing the executive arm can do after the apex court of the land has spoken on any matter, several of these individuals walk free among us today, enjoying what are clearly the proceeds of the corruption which for so long has defeated the efforts of this nation to develop and prosper”.
The Supreme Court of Nigeria (SCN), is the highest court in Nigeria. The Court is composed of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and such number of justices not more than 21, appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, (NJC) and subject to confirmation by the Senate. Justices of the Supreme Court must be qualified to practice law in Nigeria, and must have been so qualified for a period not less than fifteen years.
But checks by the Daily Trust on the judgments delivered by the Supreme Court since the inauguration of Justice Onnoghen on March 9, 2017, showed that the Supreme Court delivered only one major corruption case, that of Senate President Abubakar Bukola Saraki, in his favour.
The Supreme Court on July 6, 2018, discharged and acquitted Saraki on the three remaining counts of alleged false asset declaration after the cross appeal by himself and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) challenging the decision of the Court of Appeal.
The appellate court in December 2017 upheld the verdict of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) discharging Saraki of false asset declaration by the EFCC in 15 of the 18-count charges.
The five-member panel of justices of the apex court led by Justice Dattijo Muhammad held that the evidence led by the prosecution in the trial was based on hearsay, and did not have direct link to Saraki.
The Supreme Court delivered a total of 297 judgments in the 2017/2018 legal year. Many of the judgements were on civil appeals and political cases.
There is also no record that the Supreme Court under Justice Onnoghen set free persons accused of acts of corruption who were earlier convicted by the trial and appellate courts.