Travails and Triumphs of the Senate President
By Wale Olaleye
Perhaps, it was President Muhammadu Buhari’s comment on last Friday’s Supreme Court ruling in a case of false asset declaration involving Senate President Bukola Saraki that best describes the state of the country’s judiciary and the typical disposition of the average Nigerian.
Buhari had said in a statement, “I have seen many instances, where individuals and groups seek the destruction of the judicial institution in the foolish thinking of saving their skin instead of going through the painstaking process of establishing their innocence.
“In the case of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, I have seen him take the tortuous path of using the judicial process. He persevered, and in the end, the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, says he is not guilty as charged.
“This is what I have done in the three elections in which I was cheated out, before God made it possible for me to come here the fourth time I ran for the office.”
Three years of back-and-forth allegations in court between a sitting President of the Senate and the state was not a pleasant sight to behold. Apart from the toll on the collective image of the country, it literally sets out to undo what ordinarily could have been the gains of the current democratic experience, especially given the strongly rooted assumption that the charges were trumped up to teach him some lessons for being a deviant.
Saraki’s trial was suspect ab initio. This, understandably, was because it was not until he won his election as President of the Senate against all odds that “it was discovered that he had a case to answer.” And for someone who was said to have played a critical role in the election of Buhari, the trial marked the start of the many misfortunes that currently beset the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
With a timeline that grossly depicted a tough legal battle, Saraki, though somewhat confident, knew justice might not come easy. He was dragged to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on September 18, 2015, three months after he emerged Senate President, but he did not appear. This immediately compelled the prosecution counsel, Muslim Hassan, on September 18, 2015, to ask the tribunal to order his arrest for failing to appear before it, arguing that Saraki has no power to halt a trial of the CCT.
Saraki’s counsel, Kanu Agabi (SAN), however, argued that his client did not appear because the composition of the CCT at the time was illegal and consequently rendered the trial ultra vires – that is, of no legal effect. Eventually, Saraki appeared before the tribunal on September 22, 2015 and pleaded not guilty to the corruption charges.
On April 24, 2016, Saraki filed a motion to stop the CCT trial, but it was dismissed by the tribunal. On April 28, 2016, Saraki was re-arraigned on an amended 16-count charge. And by May 11, 2016, a witness, who testified against Saraki, told the tribunal that property declared by the senate president did not exist. That, of course, fired up sentiments that further drew attention to the trial.
But on June 7, 2016, Danladi Umar, the now embattled chairman of the CCT, accused Saraki of tactically delaying his trial to avoid “consequences”, a language use that elicited public outcry. But the shock of many observers was that between January 11, 2017 and February 23, 2017, the charges against Saraki had been increased to 18.
All these eventually came to naught, when the CCT discharged and acquitted Saraki of all the 18-count charge on June 14, 2017.
The news of his acquittal did not, however, come as a shock to the critical few, because a religious monitoring of the case had shown that, ultimately, it might end a no case submission and the reason was not far-fetched. After the initial two years of the naming and shaming proceedings, with its attendant media blitz, the government and its many witnesses still had nothing to substantiate their allegations. Then the law, without any form of interference, stamped its feet. That, of course, reflected the submission by the CCT, which acquitted Saraki.
Unfortunately, the sparkly mood that greeted the news of the acquittal was not going to tarry for long, as the presidency immediately kicked and this, naturally, paved the way for a Court of Appeal ruling on December 12, 2017, which ordered a retrial of the case, albeit on three-count charge. Saraki challenged this and approached the apex court. The case eventually came to a denouement last Friday, after the Supreme Court discharged him of the false asset declaration charges.
In its judgement delivered by Justice Centus Chima Nweze, the apex court set aside the decision of the Court of Appeal and affirmed the decision of the CCT, which had earlier upheld the no case submission of Saraki’s counsel, Agabi. The Supreme Court held that the prosecution failed to call material witnesses to support its case against the senate president and agreed that all those, who had knowledge of facts, were not called to testify in the matter. In addition, the court held that those, who tendered documentary evidence against Saraki during the trial, were not makers of the document and as such, their evidence on the documents was hearsay and lacked probative value.
The fact of the case is that everything about Saraki’s trial had been mismanaged from inception and was therefore deemed flawed ab initio by many observers. From the timing, which came nearly 15 years after the alleged offence was committed, to the mercurial nature of the charges, there were clear hints about the way it eventually ended.
It was three years of incalculable distraction and time-wasting for both the major players and a critical institution in the nation’s democratic evolution.
The mere thought that it took about 15 years before the authorities could spot that Saraki had committed an infraction is considered disappointing by many. This is in addition to the fact that the trial was set in motion immediately he emerged President of the Senate against the wish of the establishment.
The outrage of undertaking a trial for nearly three years without being able to provide evidence to seal the fate of the accused is a burden Saraki’s accusers would have to bear for a long time to come as the price of their legal misadventure.