20 April 2017

Nigeria: Saraki's Trial - Between Legal Issue and Political Interest

opinion

THE recent move by some Senators loyal to the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, requesting for the withdrawal of his ongoing trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT raised a question on whether such a legal matter could be traded for political exigencies or not.

At their meeting recently with the leadership of the All Progressive Congress, APC, party caucus, particularly those who queue behind Saraki gave conditions for smooth relationship of the Senate with the Executive arm at the federal level to include but not limited to stopping Saraki's trials as well as "giving them due consideration" on appointment issues by the President.

Their counterparts in the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, led by the minority leader, Sen. Godswill Akpabio, have also opposed the alleged intervention of the executive arm of government in the affairs of the Senate. They have demonstrated their unalloyed support for Saraki's leadership in spite of all odds.

Symbiotic relationship

Now the question on every lip is how do these arguments justify the issue before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, as well as the relationship between the National Assembly and the Presidency?

A lawyer and don at the Lagos State University, Gbenga Ojo argued that the "two arms of government has symbiotic relationship which is difficult to divorce. Though the judiciary is part of the arms of government, but it is distinctive in its appointment, operations and modus. In fact, it's the only arm of government that only survived then when the military struck.

"This is to show you that basic understanding between the two mentioned above arms of government are important for the growth of our democracy, no doubt."

Ojo's comment was also supported by another Lagos based lawyer, Mr. Lanre Omotoyinbo, who said, "Nigerians outside or who doesn't understand how the politics and its mechanism work, will be wondering what does the passage of budget or approval of nominees list need to do with the criminal trial of a Senate President.

"However, there is much to it, since the arms of government work as checks to balance the equation, every opportunity available will be exploited by all. So, whenever there is opportunity to exploit, each arm of government will make use of it."

Ask if this is good development in line with the principles of the Rule of Law and good conscience, the lawyer answered: "It's not, but go and study the politics all over the world including America and Europe; it's always an issue of politicking. Only our leaders have to know that we have to be reasonable in whatever we do to ensure all actions taken or about to be hatched must be the one that will be beneficial to all and sundry."

All those who have argued in support of the continuation and conclusion of the trial of the Senate President opined that stopping the action will amount to lack of seriousness in our polity and President Muhammadu Buhari's administration fight against corruption.

However, another lawyer, Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni, who also is executive director of Socio-Economic Rights Advocacy Project, SERAP, said: "I am absolutely not in support of any attempt to sweep the committal of any criminal offence under the carpet by the adoption of any extra-legal machinery.

"It will be a sad day for all known sound principles upon which democracy is anchored namely rule of law, equality before the law and equal treatment of citizens under the law."

Also a Senior Advocate, Mr Babatunde Fashanu said: "It is unfortunate that the matter has been allowed to degenerate to this level. Arraigning the Senate President before the CCT was a move applauded by well-meaning Nigerians as sending the message that there is no sacred cow no matter how highly placed that cannot be taken up under the anti-corruption drive of the Buhari regime.

"In more advanced democracies, the Senate President would have stepped down to clear his name at the trial, but this is Nigeria where anything goes and he has been using the procedures of the law to delay the process, and, in the meantime, clinging on to the seat while the legislature, apparently in solidarity with him, holds the executive to ransom in respect of many things they ought to do together for the wheels of governance to run smoothly"

Those who said there can be adjustments to diffuse the heat generated by Saraki's trial and other national issues causing disaffection between the executive and legislature however argued to the contrary. Mr. Omotoyinbo submitted that "all these while, the trial is political in nature. Yes, they can posit that the man, (Saraki) didn't declare certain assets in his forms, but he used the same forms to contest election on the platform of the APC. His political party checked the documents before he was nominated to contest election.

"He has been there for a while, now when he failed to yield to the dictates of some party men on the leadership of the Senate, there were arguments. We should let things move ahead rather than allow us remain stagnant in this manner." Omotoyinbo submitted.

Besides, many have argued that the manner in which the case is being prosecuted gives room for concern. For instance, Mr. Ojo said: "It was clear abi nitio that it was political manipulation, in the first instance, this man was in Peoples Democratic Party, PDP and crossed to APC.

Problem of the leadership

He was a darling in the party. Everything went normally, no prosecution and nothing. Now they move to the election of the leadership of the National Assembly, because he outsmarted and out maneuvered them they brought these charge from nowhere.

"They opened allegations and dusted their books, starting to fight him politically. Therefore, the man has to fight them politically as well with all what he has in his arsenal to a standstill. Their budget may not see the light of the day, unless they negotiated with him and leadership of the National Assembly. No appointments again, unless they negotiated that trial. I do not see the justification of that crime at all.

If not for the problem of the leadership in the National Assembly, would anybody mention this matter? They used him to win Kwara and Kogi states, now they are now fighting him. So, the man has every right and moral justification to fight them with every means available to him."

On prima facie case, Ojo said: "No, that is begging the question, he may have been impeached, that is what the law has provided, no doubt about that. Nobody is accusing him of stealing but that he didn't declare assets. That is all. That is not how to fight corruption. That is different from Dasuki's case. Even in that case, they cannot secure conviction. They have lost so many cases on corruption now. The list is endless. Did they not investigate before the commencement of those cases? I support him to fight them with whatever he has." He said.

Ojo further queried the rationale behind the several amendments that have dogged the charges preferred against Saraki.

Specifically, he noted that the charges have undergone three amendments since his arraignment on September 22, 2015.

Foreign accounts

First, he was arraigned on a 13-count "false/anticipatory declaration of assets, operated foreign accounts while in office as Kwara State governor between 2003 and 2011."

He argued that the prosecution sought for another amendment on which he was "re-arraigned on April 28, 2016, on an amended 16-count corruption charge."

There was third amendment which increased the charges to an amended 18-count charge. While submitting that prosecution can seek amendment of charge at any stage of trial, Ojo queried, "is it that they did not carry out their investigation properly or they are just looking for a charge to nail the man. As a lawyer, I see their action as ordinary window shopping. It has been motion without action." He submitted.

On other side, Fashanu, SAN, said: "That political solution must be one that does not leave either party biting the dust and will have to be well worked out by both sides. President Buhari is in an invidious situation right now as regards this matter, for, if he gives a soft landing to the Senate President as regards the CCT trial, he will be perceived as weak and the anti-corruption crusade which is the hallmark of his regime will be seriously dented.

"However, the government must work with the legislature to ensure smooth governance, hence; a political solution must be found. I must also add that President Buhari's government must start making moves to bring to book, or, at least, investigate some of the personalities in his own government that have been accused of corrupt acts here and there so that the public is not left with the impression that it is only people that his regime has an axe to grind with like the Senate President (notwithstanding that they are in the same party) that are prosecuted in his anti-corruption drive.

Also, taking on the chairman of the tribunal Mr. Danlami Umar and his veracity to preside over the alleged case of corruption, a coalition of non governmental organisations, the Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC) recently called on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC to re-investigate the alleged N10 million bribery allegation and abuse of office leveled against him for probity.

According to the coalition, comprising over 150 anti-corruption organizations, in its petition to the anti-graft agency through its national chairman, Mr. Olanrewaju Suraju, said the myriad of witnesses on the alleged issue of bribery and allegation of abuse of office in a case between the CCT chair and a retired Comptroller of Customs, Rasheed Taiwo call for further investigation.

CSNAC stated: "Mr. Umar was alleged to have demanded a N10 million bribe from a retired Comptroller of Customs, Rasheed Taiwo, who was at the material time prosecuted at the CCT for allegedly failing to declare his asset while in office.

Implicating statement

It was stated that the retired Comptroller of Customs, Mr. Taiwo had reported the demand to the EFCC and was advised to play along, leading to the payment of alleged N1.8 million to the Chairman of CCT through the latter's Personal Assistant."

However, the Head of Public Relations of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Ibraheem Al-hassan, had disclosed vehemently that the allegations leveled against Justice Umar were mere suspicious and consequently insufficient to successfully probe him or secure prosecution against him. He was quoted in a letter with reference number EFCC/P/NHRU/688/V.30/99, and dated April 20, 2016, signed by the secretary to the commission, Emmanuel Aremo.

In the same vein, a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory recently ruled in a trial within trial to determine whether a statement implicating the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) boss in a N10 million bribery case was freely made by his Personal Assistant and Protocol Officer, Ali Gambo Abdullahi.

The court dismissed the claim by Abdullahi that the implicating statement he made in 2013 was done under duress and inducement from the operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). With these arguments canvassed, only time will tell how this issue will eventually be resolved.

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