Friday, March 11, 2016 9:46 am
As much as his supporters in and outside the National Assembly may have tried to downplay the import, today is a day Senate President Bukola Saraki would wish never came.
But the die is cast. Thus, the nation’s number three man will have no option, barring unexpected developments, but to enter the dock of Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT on Friday morning.
9.34 am :The courtroom of the Code of Conduct Tribunal is already filled up except for the five benches reserved for Senator Bukola Saraki and the senators who are expected to accompany him to the Tribunal.
Most of those who arrived in court early are aides of the Senate President as well as members of his political family from Kwara State, journalists and lawyers.
Kanu Agabi, SAN, former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice who is Saraki’s new lead counsel is also already in court. As expected, he came with a retinue of lawyers.
The prosecution counsel is also already in court with his team of lawyers. The lead prosecution counsel, Rotimi Jacobs came in around 9.40 am
The trial is being conducted under very tight security. Police has deployed scores of officers from its regular, anti riot and anti terrorism squad to ensure that trouble makers are kept at bay.
The police have restricted youth group who came to support the Senate President to some metres away from the Tribunal premises. The trial is expected to kick off at 10 am.
Inside the dock, the Senate President is expected to be confronted by witnesses who will testify that he lied in the assets declaration forms he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB during his eight years tenure as governor of Kwara State.
In the 13-count charge of false assets declaration filed against the Senate President at Tribunal on September, 2015, CCB had alleged that he made false claims in the four assets declarations forms he submitted on his assumption and exit from office at different times between 2003 and 2011.
Specifically, the Senate President was in the 13 counts charge alleged to have corruptly acquired many properties while in office as Governor of Kwara State.
Consequently, CCB said some of the assets traced to him at the end of his tenure as governor were not declared in the assets declaration forms he filled and submitted on assumption of office.
In the same vein, Saraki was accused of making anticipatory declaration of assets as some of the assets he listed as belonging to him upon his assumption of office as governor was discovered to have been acquired later.
The Senate President was also accused of transferring some funds abroad for the purchase of a property in London while he also operated an account outside Nigeria while he was governor contrary to the code of conduct guiding Nigerian public officials.
Rotimi Jacobs, the Federal Government prosecution counsel had indicated that he will not need more than four days to prove the government’s case against the Senate President.
The prove of evidence filed along with the charges indicated that the prosecution may call a total of eight witnesses made up of detectives and staff of CCB who investigated the four forms submitted to the CCB by Saraki as a two-term governor.
On his part, Saraki seemed to have also prepared for the trial as a soldier will prepare for an epic battle with hiring of batteries of Senior Advocates of Nigeria led by Kanu Agabi, a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation. It will be up to the lawyers to allow the trial to proceed smoothly.
Bringing Saraki to trial has not been easy. Indeed, today’s trial would not have happened if all the legal shenanigans embarked upon by the Senate President and his initial team of lawyers had succeeded.
For one, Saraki was compelled to attend the trial on 22 September, 2015 only after the Tribunal issued a bench warrant against him. The Senate President who was accompanied to the Tribunal by scores of Senators had pleaded not guilty to the charges during that dramatic first appearance at the Tribunal.
Saraki had futilely tried to get the Tribunal to abandon the trial, arguing that it was not empowered to try criminal cases.
When he failed, he took his case to the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, asking the appellate court to declare his trial by the CCT as unconstitutional among other requests.
But he did not find succour in the appellate court justice who dismissed his appeal in a two-to-one split decision.
Not one to give up, the Senate President appealed to Supreme Court, the highest court in the country.
The Senate President had in his seven grounds of appeal at the apex court said the charges against him should not be allowed to stand because the CCT lacked jurisdiction to try him as it was constituted by two instead of three members.
He also asked the court to declare that the tribunal was not a criminal court and thus lacked the power to issue bench warrant or apply the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 in its proceedings.
In the same vein, the Senate President also argued that the charges preferred against him were incompetent because they were filed in the absence of the Attorney-General of the Federation in office among others.
But delivering their verdict on the case on 5 February, a full panel of Supreme Court led by Justice Walter Onnoghen threw away the arguments of the Senate President against his trial.
The Justices, in a unanimous decision held that contrary to Saraki’s contention, the Danladi Umar-led CCT was validly constituted by two members.
The apex court Justices also ruled that the CCT can issue bench warrant or apply the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 in its proceedings because it has “a quasi-criminal jurisdiction” and that “the power of initiating criminal proceedings by any officer of the department of the Attorney General of the Federation is not dependent on the office of the said Attorney-General of the Federation having an incumbent,” among others.
In between, the two chambers of the National Assembly had also tried to browbeat Danladi Umar, the Chairman of CCT with a hurriedly set up probe into some corruption allegations against him. If the probe which failed when the accusers of Umar failed to show up to prove his allegations during the sittings of the committees saddled with task of investigating the claims had succeeded, Saraki supporters would have succeeded in halting the trial of the Senate President, albeit, extra judicially.
This is because the Senate is the approving body for appointments into the Tribunal and with the fate of Saraki hanging in the balance.
That ruling of the apex court as well as the failure of the Senators to get Justice Umar out by crooked means opened the way for the commencement of the Senate President’s trial today.
But there are also some Senators, especially, members of the Unity Forum who are opposed to Saraki’s leadership of the upper chamber had argued that the honourable path for the Senate President is to resign his position as the number three man in the country as he undergoes the criminal trial.
Their argument is that the former banker should spare Nigerians the agony of seeing the chairman of their National Assembly being tried like a common criminal. In other words, he should not bring the exalted office of the senate presidency into disrepute.
Outside the National Assembly, many Nigerians have also argued that the former governor should vacate his position, at least until the end of his trial. But Saraki who had argued that his trial is political had so far stubbornly refused to heed such advice.
And to prove that he enjoined support of majority of his colleagues he had always ensured that he closed down the National Assembly to enable senators accompany him the few times he had attended his trial at the Tribunal.
He will not need to do so on Friday as the National Assembly usually ended its week on Thursday.
However, how long Saraki will remain at the helm of the Senate may well depend on how damaging the revelations from the trial which will unarguably be closely watched by Nigerians and even, members of the international community are, according to analysts