The Federal Government, yesterday, docked the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, sitting in Abuja, on a 13-count criminal charge that bordered on corruption, false declaration of assets, and illegal operation of a foreign bank account while in office as a public servant.
Saraki, who was docked before the tribunal at 11:24am, yesterday, pleaded not guilty to the charge marked ABT/01/15, which the Federal Ministry of Justice preferred against him following a recommendation by the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB.
In the charge sheet which was signed by a deputy director in the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. M. S. Hassan, he was alleged to have manipulated the assets declaration forms he submitted before the CCB in 2003, 2007 and 2011, by making anticipatory declaration of assets.
The Federal Government maintained that the action of the Senate President ran contrary to the provisions of section 2 of the CCB and Tribunal Act, and punishable under section 15(1) & (2), and 23(2) of the CCB and Tribunal Act, Cap C15, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, as well as paragraph 9 of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
Drama at CCT
Meantime, the trial kicked-off on a dramatic note yesterday, with Saraki initially refusing to mount the dock to enter his plea to the charge.
Immediately the case was called, Saraki, who had arrived the tribunal at about 9:35am, flanked by over 25 other Senators, including the Deputy Senate President, Mr Ike Ekweremadu, declined to indicate his presence by standing up, as usually done by every accused person that appears before the tribunal for trial.
Owing to his refusal to stand up, the tribunal chairman, Justice Danladi Umar, who was obviously looking at Saraki from his seat, asked the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, whether or not the accused person was arrested and produced in court as was earlier ordered.
“My Lord, I cannot see him. I think the first thing is for him to leave his seat and enter the dock, after which counsel can announce their appearances before the charge is read for the defendant to enter his plea”, the prosecuting counsel stated.
Before he could finish his submission, Saraki’s lawyer, Mr. J.B.Daudu, SAN, who led seven other SANs and 20 lawyers for the accused person, challenged the propriety of allowing the Senate President to mount the dock despite the fact that he has raised constitutional issues with regard to the legal competence of the tribunal to try him.
“With profound respect to the chairman and member of this tribunal, I agree with my learned brother that we should enter appearances first. However, I need to place it on record that the order of this tribunal was that the accused should be produced in court today and we have satisfied that order. It was not for him to enter his plea. Prior to the last adjournment, this case was adjourned for mention. There is a fundamental thing that the tribunal has to determine first, which is the issue of our preliminary objection which borders on the jurisdiction of the tribunal to proceed with this matter in the light of existing judicial authority in Igbeke vs. FRN, 2015, 3-NWLR, at part 1445”, Daudu contended.
His argument infuriated the prosecuting counsel, Jacobs, SAN, who accused Saraki of deliberately attempting to rubbish the integrity of the judiciary by engaging in “forum shopping” at various levels of the court with a view to thwarting his arraignment.
Why Saraki must be docked— FG’s Counsel
Highlighting how Saraki ran to both the Federal High Court and the Appeal Court in Abuja with different applications all in his futile bid to stop the proceeding of the tribunal, Rotimi, said: “My lords, having exhausted and overstretched the legal process and failed, the Appeal Court ordered him to come here and face his trial. This court should not be taken for granted anymore. The accused person was a member of the 7th Senate; they were the ones that made the law. They saw the lapses and in their effort to sanitize our criminal justice system, modified the law to the effect that an accused must enter his plea first before raising preliminary objections. That is what is provided in section 396 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015.
“My Lords, the judiciary saved this country yesterday. What would have happened if this tribunal had yesterday (Monday), made an order that contradicted that of the FHC, or the FHC issued an order contradicting that of the Appeal Court? That was the kind of position the accused person wanted to foist on us. The position of the law is that he should enter the dock and take his plea and I urge your lordships to order him to do so. Our law is not a respecter of persons, whether kings or queens. The rule of law is for everybody and must prevail in this case”, the prosecution counsel insisted.
At that juncture, Saraki’s lawyer delved into another line of argument, contending that going by paragraph 18(1) of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 constitution, the proceeding of the CCT could not be classified as a criminal trial.
He further argued that under the law, where the CCT found that a public officer contravened any provision of the Code of Conduct, such person could be punished by being asked to vacate the office he/she occupies, disqualification, seizure and forfeiture of assets in contention, or made to suffer any other penalty as may be imposed by the National Assembly.
“This court is not empowered to try criminal cases, this tribunal is like a disciplinary committee that is meant to punish politicians, not a court where Section 6 of the ACJA applies”, Daudu, argued.
In a short ruling, Justice Umar, while upholding the submissions of the prosecutor, relied on the appeal court decision in the case of FRN vs. Atiku Abubakar, and held that the charge against Saraki was criminal in nature, even as he summoned the accused person to mount the dock and enter his plea before his objections would be heard.
I believe in rule of law — Saraki
Having failed to persuade the tribunal, a visibly displeased Saraki strode into the dock.
As the court clerk read the first count of the charge to him, the accused, took time to lecture the tribunal on the appropriate course of action it ought to have taken before docking him over alleged false declaration of assets.
He complained that he was never afforded the opportunity by the CCB to clarify whatever disparity it observed in the assets he declared while in office as the Governor of Kwara State.
Saraki, who addressed the court from the dock, said: “I am a firm believer of the rule of law. I am happy that some of the good works the senate has done in the justice administration have been made reference to. We were the ones that passed the Code of Conduct Bureau Act.
“I just want to make this brief introduction to show you that I believe in the process of the rule of law. Section 3(d) of the CCB & Tribunal Act says that, if there is a breach in asset declaration, the CCB shall refer the matter to the CCT, after giving a defendant an opportunity to either confirm if those facts were true or not, then the matter shall be referred to the tribunal. I felt that the CCB should have called me according to the law because we have been talking about new Nigeria. We have been talking about Nigeria going forward.
“Mr Chairman, as a layman, I should know why I should be punished like this. We are all watching, we are all before the world not only before Nigerians, I will conform myself with due process, that is why I have come here to subject myself before this tribunal. I strongly believe that I am here today because I am the Senate President. So as I stated before, I want to say that I am not guilty”, Saraki pleaded.
Similarly, when the 13th count of the charge was read to him, Saraki, in what appeared like his closing speech from the dock, claimed that he was only seeing the charge for the first time.
“Mr. Chairman we have institutions in this country. I want to say that your institution, the Senate and the judiciary are undergoing test today. I pray that the interest of this country will lead us to do the right thing to move this nation forward.
“It is my humble opinion that this case is a vivid example that there is still flagrant disregard for due process in our polity. This trial is not only being observed by Nigerians alone, the international community is watching because Nigeria is a key member of this community. So, the executive, legislature and judiciary should do the right thing that will truly demonstrate that we have imbibed the spirit of positive change”, Dr Saraki said.
Before he could finish, the prosecuting lawyer urged the court to expunge all his submissions. “My lords he had sworn to uphold the constitution. He cannot argue points of law from the dock; that is why he has lawyers.”
Released on bail
While praying the tribunal to release the Senate President on bail, his lawyer, relied on section 36(b) of the 1999 constitution and pleaded that he should be given adequate time and facilities to prepare his case, saying: “My lords, you do not presume that he is guilty until so is proven”.
The defence counsel equally urged the court to consider “the sensitive position the accused person occupies”, and grant him bail on self recognizance, saying “it was based on my advice to test the law at the higher court that he did not appear before this court previously. He is a law abiding citizen”, Daudu, SAN, begged.
The prosecution counsel did not object to the bail application. The tribunal after noting that the accused person appeared in court on his own volition, not only acceded to the bail request, but equally vacated the bench warrant that was issued for his arrest by the Inspector General of Police.
“The defendant, having brought himself voluntarily, we are not going to ask him not to go back home. He will go back and present himself for trial at the next adjourned date”, the Justice Umar-led tribunal held.
Besides, the prosecutor, yesterday, confirmed before the court that he was the one that prevailed on security agencies not to arrest Saraki on Monday following a passionate plea from his team of lawyers who he said undertook that they would produce him in court.
The tribunal subsequently adjourned the matter till October 21, 22 and 23 to hear Saraki’s preliminary objections.
Meantime, investigation by Vanguard, yesterday, revealed that the federal government has lined up a total of five witnesses that will testify against Saraki, including the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and incumbent governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Naisr El-Rufai.
El-Rufai is expected to testify that he was the one that sold one of the assets that Saraki bought in Abuja, which the government alleged that he failed to include among the assets belonging to him.
The government said it has already furnished Saraki with the proof of evidence against him, just as it also attached as exhibits, four different assets declaration forms the accused persons submitted to the CCB.
“We have gathered enough evidence to prove that the defendant made anticipatory assets declaration”, Rotimi boasted.
Before he exited the dock yesterday, Saraki, who was all smiles, gaily acknowledged cheers from his supporters who defied heavy security presence within the tribunal premises and thronged the court room in their numbers yesterday.
Aside Ekweremadu, other lawmakers that appeared in court with Saraki yesterday included, Senators Shaaba Lafiaji; Theodore Orji; Mao Ohuabunwa, Tayo Alasoadura, Kaura Tijani, Samuel Anyanwu, Ben Murray-Bruce, Gilbert Nnaji, Peter Nwaoboshi, Rose Okoh, Kabiru Gaya, Sunny Ogborji, Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, Mohammed Ohiare, Isa Hamma Missau, Emmanuel Paulker, Ibrahim Abdullahi, Obinna Ogba, Clifford Ordia, Foster Ogola, Gershom Bassey and Olaka Nwogu.