The trial of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, on 13 counts of false assets declaration is to resume March 10 before the Code of Conduct Tribunal…and the call for his resignation is getting louder again.
A seven-man panel of the Supreme Court presided over by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, unanimously ruled in its judgement on February 5 that Saraki’s appeal against the jurisdiction of the CCT and the competence of the charges lacked merit.
Justice Walter Onnoghen, who delivered the lead judgement, dismissed all Saraki’s seven grounds of appeal, affirming that the charges instituted against him were valid and that the tribunal was validly constituted with requisite jurisdiction to try him.
The CJN and other members of the full panel of the apex court, comprising Justices Tanko Muhammad, Sylvester Ngwuta, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Chima Nweze and Amiru Sanusi, also consented to the judgement.
The judgement of the Supreme Court terminated an earlier order of a panel of the apex court presided over by now retired Justice John Fabiyi, which had on November 12, 2015, stayed proceedings in the trial of the senate president.
In the 13 counts initiated by the Federal Government, Saraki was said to have made false assets declaration in his forms submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau as a two-term governor of Kwara State between 2003 and 2011.
The senate president, who was said to have submitted four assets declaration forms which were allegedly investigated by the CCB, was found to have “corruptly acquired many properties while in office as governor of Kwara State but failed to declare some of them in the said forms earlier filled and submitted.”
He also allegedly made an anticipatory declaration of assets upon his assumption of office as governor, which he later acquired.
Saraki is also accused of sending money abroad for the purchase of property in London and that he maintained an account outside Nigeria while serving as governor.
Saraki initially refused to appear before the tribunal prompting it (the CCT) to issue a bench warrant against him.
The senate president failed in his bid to get the Danladi Umar-led tribunal to quash the 13 counts, after he was arraigned on September 22, 2015.
He appealed to the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, against the decision of the CCT to continue the trial.
But by a two-to-one split decision of its three-man bench led by Justice Moore Admein, the Court of Appeal dismissed the senate president’s appeal.
Saraki, in his further appeal to the Supreme Court, asked the apex court to quash the charges filed against him on the grounds that the CCT lacked jurisdiction to try him as it was constituted by two instead of three members.
The Supreme Court verdict of last week Friday which gave a nod to the trial of Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, for allegedly declaring on oath, assets he had yet to acquire as of the time he was sworn-in as the Governor of Kwara State in 2003, has heightened tension and anxiety among members of the red chamber.
The development took everyone by surprise, coming especially at a time when all hands seemed to be on the deck at the upper chamber with all the 65 committees chaired by both loyalists of the senate president and those who are opposed to his leadership, have started carrying on legislative activities in an atmosphere of peace and harmony, putting behind them the leadership crisis that rocked the chamber at inauguration.
Indications that Saraki had fully established himself among his colleagues manifested when no fewer than 83 out of the 109 senators passed a vote of confidence in him in July last year following his prosecution at the CCT.
Some of his loyalists across the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party in the chamber openly mobilised themselves to the court in solidarity and pledged their loyalty.
The Anti-Saraki senators, under the aegis of the Senate Unity Forum, cried foul at the decision of Saraki to continue to preside over the chamber instead of resigning his position on moral grounds having been docked by the tribunal for alleged criminal act.
An attempt by the spokesperson for the SUF, Senator Kabir Marafa, to raise a point of order on the floor on the issue was frustrated by Saraki, who used the gavel to rule him out of order on the grounds that any matter pending before a court of law could not be subjected to a debate on the floor.
Saraki’s Like Minds Senators thereafter appeared to be winning the game of supremacy between them and the SUF, as most of the arrow heads of the “Ahmad Lawan for Senate President” group were appointed as chairmen of “juicy committees”, a development which drastically reduced their attacks and opposition to Saraki’s senate presidency.
Many observers therefore saw the verdict of the Supreme Court as an anticlimax coming at a time when membership of the SUF had suffered a great depletion with only a handful of them appeared to still be showing strong commitment to the struggle as others had started identifying with the Saraki’s leadership.
Investigations by our correspondent revealed that the SUF had stopped holding regular meetings for a very long time before the apex court ruling which gave the members a ray of hope that their ambition might be realised after all if Saraki should lose his case at the court.
Further checks also revealed that the SUF had now regrouped and are perfecting strategies to draw local and international attention to the implication of Saraki still presiding over the affairs of the senate while facing criminal prosecution.
Some members of the group confided in our correspondent that they would not create any scene on the floor because the issue of removing Saraki as the senate president would be an uphill task since majority of the senators were of the view that the man is presumed innocent until otherwise decided by a competent court of law.
However, Marafa, who spoke with our correspondent after the verdict of the apex court last Friday, demanded the immediate resignation of the senate president to enable him to concentrate on his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
He nevertheless explained that Saraki was free to return as a presiding officer after his case at the CCT. Marafa noted that the image of the Senate and the entire senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria would continue to be battered in the public view if Saraki continues to preside over the affairs of the red chamber while answering criminal charges at the courts.
Marafa said, “We really pity the Senator Bukola Saraki, but I think this issue has dragged for too long. We have indulged him thus far because we believe that he is presumed innocent until otherwise decided by a competent court of law.
“Now that the Supreme Court has decided that he has a case to answer, I think that the best thing for Senator Saraki is to resign in order to face his trial.
“He could, however, return and contest as a presiding officer in the chamber if he is declared innocent by the court, but at the moment, the leadership of the senate should ask him to step aside.
“At the moment, the image of the senate does not worth anything in the eyes of Nigerians because of the attitude of its president, who ordinarily should have resigned in a sane clime.
“However, if the senate president refuses to resign and neither the leadership nor the entire senate mount any pressure on him to do so, then we will call on Nigerians to recall all their representatives in the senate because we have failed in our responsibilities.
“We have tried for him enough. We can no longer wait and watch someone who is answering criminal cases in court come out of the dock always to preside over the affairs of the senate.”
However, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, Senator Samuel Anyanwu, who moved the motion which led to the vote of confidence passed in Saraki last year, said that calls for Saraki’s resignation at this stage was uncalled for.
Anyanwu, a member of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, told our correspondent that the issue of factions among members of the senate ended when over 80 senators across the two main political parties in the red chamber passed a vote of confidence in the senate president.
Likewise, some senators across the two main political parties in the upper chamber expressed divergent opinions on the calls for the resignation of Saraki.
A good number of the lawmakers believed that Saraki should have resigned while others asked him to stay on until his fate would have been decided by the CCT.
For instance, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Science and Technology, Senator Robert Boroffice, said he would have resigned if he were in Saraki’s shoes in order to save the image and integrity of the senate.
He said, “My position is not personal. I have nothing personal against the senate president but what I am saying is that if the matter had happened in advanced countries and if I was in his shoes at the moment, I would have resigned”
Boroffice, however, urged his colleagues to approach the matter with caution by allowing justice to take its course, adding that the country could not afford any major crisis in the senate.
But the Chairman, Senate Committee on Banking, Insurance and Other Financial Institutions, Senator Rafiu Ibrahim, said calls for Saraki’s resignation were unnecessary.
He said, “Let me be quoted unequivocally that the senate president enjoys a stronger support in the National Assembly. Whoever, in his or her dream, thinks there is a way to call for his resignation should understand that such dream can never come true by blackmail but the channel of the Senate Chamber.
“We shall continue to respect the rule of law and the constitution of our country. On the heels of these, we are very hopeful that the senate president would come out of these politically-motivated controversies innocent and victorious.”
Ibrahim said his interaction with senators indicated that their solidarity with Saraki remains stronger than ever.
He said, “We cannot deny to have heard of some renewed hallucinations in the media trailing the ruling by the Supreme Court. Let me state in clearer terms, immediately, that our colleagues remain firm in their support for the Senate President.
“From what we have experienced in the 8th Senate particularly the leadership and the concord pattern it has drawn among its members, it is not hidden from Nigerians that Saraki is loved beyond imaginations.
“Not just that, his leadership remains the centre of unity in the senate. It must be noted that the rapid feats of the present legislature is not disconnected from the innovative ideas introduced by Saraki which has always received a warm welcome and support from the well-meaning members of the eight Senate.
“As a member of the Senate and a true Nigerian, I’m no way surprised to see comments accredited to Senator Kabir Marafa of the ‘defunct’ Unity Forum. To me, those agitations reflect nothing but the mirage on the path of a man who is been taken for a jester on the floor of the eighth Senate.”
Other senators who spoke with our correspondent on the issue though on the condition of anonymity, expressed different opinions on the calls for his resignation.
For instance, a senator from the South-East said Saraki should be allowed to continue with his work since the case against him was a mere allegation while another from the North-East said he should step aside for now.
The incident, however, generated increased public discourse early in the week as both the SUF members and their colleagues in Saraki’s camp held separate meetings to strategise over the new development.
The senators rose from their meetings and threatened a showdown at the resumption of plenary next Tuesday if the issue of resignation was raised by any senator or group of senators.
Investigations by our correspondent revealed that the trouble started when some pro-Saraki senators held a meeting on Sunday evening and decided to issue a statement declaring the full support of the upper chamber for the embattled senate president.
The pro-Saraki senators incurred the wrath of their colleagues in the SUF, when the statement, signed by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, indicated that it was the position of the entire members of the red chamber.
But a ranking senator from the South-West, who is also a strong member of the SUF, told our correspondent on the condition of anonymity that the press release did not represent the opinion of the senate.
The senator, who said the South West caucus would react officially at the appropriate time on the issue, accused the senate spokesperson of abuse of office as he was only expected to make public, the resolution of the senate taken at plenary by either simple majority or two-third majority.
The spokesperson for the SUF, Senator Kabir Marafa, expressed shock at the contents of the press statement.
He said, “In as much as I want the whole world to know that members of the SUF do not have any personal problem with the senate president, we believe that as lawmakers, we should respect the law. I am not aware of any meeting of senators where that decision was taken and we are not part of it.”
Another member of the SUF from the North-Central said the group would make its position known at the appropriate time.
He said, “We will definitely pass our message across to the senate using the normal channels. We will not join issues with anyone on the pages of newspapers.