Saraki’s one year in the dock

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The Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, was welcomed this year by a crowd, comprising the young and the old, to the Jabi neighbourhood of Abuja, the home of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, where he is being tried on charges of false asset declaration.

The commencement of Saraki’s trial followed the Supreme Court’s judgment validating the charges preferred against him by the Federal Government.

In an atmosphere of festivity charged by solidarity drumbeats and songs for the Senate President, some of the supporters took to dancing while some lined both sides of the narrow road leading to the tribunal, waving the Nigerian flag as the number three citizen’s convoy drove through.

Some of the supporters brandished banners of varying sizes with bold inscriptions describing Saraki’s trial as mere persecution.

When his convoy finally came to a halt within the tribunal premises, his security details watched his steps as he made his way to the courtroom.

Saraki is being tried by the Code of Conduct Bureau on 16 counts of assets declaration-related breaches.

Moments before the commencement of the court proceedings, the Senate President appeared like someone who had nothing to worry about.

He was welcomed into the courtroom by a large number of supporters, most of whom had travelled down to Abuja from Kwara State, the state Saraki governed for eight unbroken years before moving to the Senate.

After exchanging pleasantries with lawyers in the front row, Saraki proceeded to sit in the gallery and he was wrapped in the  warmth of loyal senators belonging to both his All Progressives Congress and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party.

A number of political supporters milled around him to draw the attention of the former Governor of Kwara State to their presence in court.

But the moment the tribunal panel members arrived the courtroom and his case called, Saraki proceeded to the dock where he remained for the rest of the proceedings.

In his typical white agbada with a cap to match, the Senate President sat in the dock and midway into the proceedings, he would have his legs crossed, with his head rested on his palm – he appeared disinterested in what was going on around him.

Apart from few moments when aides approached the dock to whisper to him or to obtain information that could assist his lawyers in conducting his case, the third most powerful Nigerian was left alone in the dock where he sat, sometimes for between three to four hours.

As the trial commenced, the huge influence wielded by the Senate President came to the fore.  The Senate would be shut down whenever the date for sitting clashed with his trial.

But down the line, the historical record of parading a number of defence lawyers hovering between 26 and 90 during various proceedings and a large number of supporters mobilised from within and outside Abuja to be part of the proceedings, waned.

There were no roadshows to welcome him to recent sittings. The number of senators accompanying him to the tribunal, which at a time was over 60, had since thinned out largely due to the decision by the Senate, after heavy public criticism, to be sitting notwithstanding the absence of Saraki.

For about a year, Saraki has to live very contrasting lives. Like a king in the Senate, he calls the shot from the highest point in the red chamber; conversely, like a man without a voice, he sits in the lowliest of places – the dock, at the CCT.

On September 14, 2015, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation had filed 13 counts, later amended and increased to 16, against Saraki before the CCT.

As of that time, the then new administration of President Muhammadu Buhari had yet to appoint members of its cabinet including the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice.

In one count of the charges marked, CCT/ABJ/10/2015, Saraki was accused of making anticipatory asset declaration in the Assets Declaration Form he completed in 2003.

He allegedly claimed to have acquired a property known as 15A and 15B Mcdonald Road, Ikoyi, Lagos in 2000, through his companies – Tiny Tee Limited and Vitti Oil Ltd.

But the prosecution claimed that the property was sold to Saraki’s companies in 2006 by the Implementation Committee on Federal Government Landed Properties.

In the second count, the prosecution also claimed that Saraki acquired properties known at 17A and 17B Mcdonald, Ikoyi, Lagos from the Implementation Committee on Federal Government Landed Properties between 2006 and 2007 (after he had declared his assets on assumption of office as Kwara State Governor in 2003).

He was said to have bought the properties at an aggregate sum of N497,200,000.

The prosecution maintained in the second count that Saraki’s acquisition of the properties was not fairly attributable to his income, gift or loan approved by the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.

It claimed that Saraki wrongly claimed to have acquired the properties from proceeds of sale of rice and sugar.

Among other alleged breaches, Saraki was also accused of refusing to declare some properties later traced to him.

The acts were said to be an offence under Section 15(1) and (2) of the CCB/T Act and punishable under Section 23 (2) of the Act.

The ex-Kwara governor was also accused of operating foreign bank accounts while in public office contrary to Paragraph 3 of Part I, 5th Schedule to the Constitution and Section 7 of the CCB/T Act.

The prosecution maintained that Saraki was liable to be punished under Paragraph 9 of the said 5th Schedule to the Constitution and Section 23(2) of the CCB/T Act.

But the accused pleaded not guilty.

In the beginning, Saraki fought hard to get the trial stopped – a battle taken to and lost at the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court – the entire course of judicial process.

Upon being served with the original 13 counts and summons on September 16, 2015, directing him to attend court and to be arraigned on September 18, Saraki filed a suit via an originating summons marked, FHC/ABJ/CS/775/2015, before the Federal High Court on September 17, challenging the competence of the charge and his planned arraignment.

He contended that  the charges filed against him were incompetent on the grounds that the charge sheet ought to be have been personally signed by a substantive Attorney-General of the Federation by virtue of Section 24(1) and (2) of the CCB/T Act CAP 15 LFN 2010.

He asked the court to void the charges, set aside the summons issued against him by the CCT and restrain the CCT from proceedings with the plan to arraign him.

On September 17, Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court, Abuja heard a motion ex parte by Saraki.

The Senate President had prayed the judge to, among others things, restrain the CCT and the Federal Government’s prosecutor, Mr. Muslim Hassan (now a judge of the Federal High Court), from taking steps to arraign him.

But Justice Mohammed, in a ruling on September 17, declined granting Saraki’s prayer to restrain the CCT.

Instead, the judge ordered the respondents to appear before the court on September 20 to show cause why the prayers sought by Saraki in the motion ex parte should not be granted.

On the same September 17, Saraki equally filed a motion on notice before the CCT, challenging its jurisdiction to “entertain conventional criminal matters.”

The following day, he refused to attend the sitting of the CCT.

But his lawyers, led by Mahmud Magaji (SAN), who appeared before the CCT, informed the tribunal that their client was absent because he had challenged the competence of the charges preferred against him, the tribunal’s jurisdiction to entertain the charges and the appearance of Hassan as the prosecutor.

Magaji equally drew the tribunal’s attention to the order made the previous day by Justice Mohammed of the Federal High Court.

The tribunal Chairman, Danladi Umar, in a ruling, overruled Saraki’s lawyer, assumed jurisdiction and held that the proceedings were properly commenced notwithstanding the absence of a substantive AGF.

The tribunal proceeded to issue a bench warrant for the arrest of Saraki and his production before the CCT by the police on September 21.

Saraki appealed the ruling immediately, asking the Court of Appeal to quash the warrant for his arrest.

When the court resumed on September 21, Saraki was again absent despite the bench warrant issued for his production by security agents.

He was however represented by a legal team led by Joseph Daudu (SAN), who urged the tribunal to stay proceedings pending the determination of their appeal.

The tribunal, in a ruling, relied on the provisions of sections 305 and 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 and refused Daudu’s application for stay of proceedings, and adjourned to the following day for Saraki to take his plea.

The ACJ Act, which came into force last year, has revolutionised criminal proceedings involving high-profile suspects, who, with the help of very senior and highly influential lawyers, take advantage of the loopholes in the former procedure law to drag their trial endlessly by employing dilatory tactics or get it terminated before full-blown trial could begin.

A typical instance can be found in the case involving a former Governor of Abia State, Orji Kalu, whose corruption trial was stalled for over eight years without the prosecution being able to open its case due to the preliminary objection he raised after he was arraigned at the expiration of his tenure in 2007.

It took the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court eight years to finally pronounce on Kalu’s objection. The apex court, in its judgment last year, dismissed Kalu’s appeal and ordered him to go and face his trial at the lower court.

But with the ACJ Act now in place, many of the high-profile corruption cases filed after the law came into force have made substantial progress.

This is due to the provisions of the new law that clearly prohibit trial judges from granting stay of proceedings on account of appeals filed by the defence to challenge the trial court’s interlocutory ruling.

The new law bars the accused from raising preliminary objection challenging the competence of the preferred charges until the conclusion of trial.

But again, on September 21, the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division refused Saraki’s  motion ex-parte for an interim restraining injunction against the CCT and fixed hearing of the substantive appeal for September 29.

Justice Mohammed also on the same September 21 refused Saraki’s prayer for an interim injunction to restrain the CCT.

Instead of making the interim injunction, the judge fixed September 30, 2015 for the hearing of the substantive suit.

 Having exhausted all the tactics to stop the trial prematurely, on September 22, Saraki finally appeared before the tribunal.

But then, the defence lawyers raised an objection to the immediate commencement of trial. The tribunal dismissed the objection.

Saraki was then arraigned and he pleaded not guilty to the 13 counts, following which the tribunal adjourned till October 21 for the commencement of trial.

But between September 22 and October 21, the defence had appealed against the ruling of the tribunal which dismissed the accused person’s objection.

So, on October 21, upon the agreement by parties, the tribunal adjourned till November 5 to await the judgment of the Court of Appeal on the appeal by Saraki.

On October 30, the Appeal Court gave judgment in Saraki’s appeal and by a split decision of majority two-to-one it upheld the decision of the CCT.

The appellate court affirmed the CCT’s jurisdiction to entertain criminal cases.

It also held that the charge filed against Saraki was properly filed and that the ACJA was applicable to proceedings at the tribunal.

Before the November 5, 2015 slated for the commencement of trial at the CCT, Saraki, on November 3, filed a motion asking the tribunal to stay proceedings on the grounds that he had appealed the judgment of the Court of Appeal at the Supreme Court.

Proceedings at the CCT, however, ended abruptly on November 3, when a team of lawyers that represented Saraki walked out on the tribunal for refusing their application to suspend proceedings pending the determination of their client’s appeal at the Supreme Court.

The defence team, which included three Senior Advocates of Nigeria – Saka Issau, Mahmud Magaji and Ahmed Raji – had applied to the tribunal to suspend hearing pending the Supreme Court’s determination of an appeal filed on November 2, 2015.

But the tribunal, in a ruling, rejected the defence’s application on the grounds that no date was fixed yet for the hearing of the appeal and that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, in Section 306, prohibited the granting of stay of proceedings in criminal trials. It then adjourned till November 19 for Saraki to engage another set of lawyers.

On November 5, 2015, the Supreme Court directed the CCT to suspend proceedings in the trial pending its decision in Saraki’s appeal.

The decision by a five-man bench, led by Justice John Fabiyi (now retired) followed an undertaking by the respondents’ lawyer, Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), to prevail on the CCT not to proceed with the trial until the apex court had made a pronouncement on Saraki’s appeal.

Rather than await the Supreme Court, Saraki filed a fundamental right enforcement application before the Federal High Court, Lagos, seeking among others, an injunction restraining the CCT.

His lawyer, Raphael Oluyede, had argued that he (Saraki) was not likely to get fair trial at the tribunal as constituted, because its Chairman was allegedly being investigated on allegation of corruption by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

But in a ruling on November 6, Justice Ibrahim Buba (of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court) said his court lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the case. He added that it ought to have been filed in Abuja where the cause of action took place, following which Saraki re-filed the suit in the court’s division in Abuja.

On November 16, 2015 Justice Adamu Abdulkafarati, to which the case was later assigned, refused to grant an exparte injunction to restrain the CCT and other respondents in the case.

On February 5, 2016, the Supreme Court gave its judgment in Saraki”s appeal. It dismissed the appeal and upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court’s judgment dampened the fundamental rights suit before Justice Abdulkafarati of the Federal High Court, who, in a judgment on April 15, 2016 dismissed the suit on the grounds that issues in the case had been resolved by the Supreme Court.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, affirming the legitimacy of Saraki’s trial before the CCT, the tribunal informed parties of the commencement of trial on March 10, 2016.

Upon being served with a hearing notice to that effect, Saraki’s new lawyer, Kanu Agabi (SAN), sought a shift of the resumption date to March 11.

At the tribunal on March 11, Agabi objected to the commencement of trial on the grounds that he had filed a motion challenging the tribunal’s jurisdiction. He insisted that the motion must first be heard and determined before further steps could be taken in the matter.

The tribunal took arguments from parties on the motion on March 8 and delivered its ruling on March 24, dismissing Agabi’s motion for lacking in merit. Agabi’s appeal against the tribunal’s ruling on that motion is now pending before the Court of Appeal, Abuja.

Trial eventually opened about five months after his arraignment, when the prosecution was able to call its first witness, Michael Wetkas, on April 5, 2016.

 Wetkas concluded his evidence-in-chief on April 18, (within three adjournments) and the defence started its cross-examination on the same date, but has yet to conclude its cross-examination of the first prosecution witness after 12 days.

On June 21, the tribunal suspended trial and took arguments on the new application by Saraki, asking the tribunal chairman to excuse himself from the case on the grounds that he allegedly made prejudicial statement, when he frowned on the delay tactics of the defence lawyer and warned that the delay was incapable of shielding the defendant from the consequences of his trial.

PUNCH


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