When it is eventually determined, the 13-count charge preferred against Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki will definitely not to leave the country the same way. As the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) said in a statement last week, the outcome of the matter will be a test for the judiciary and by extension, Nigeria’s democracy. I cannot agree more.
I do not recall any other matter in which heavyweights in the practice of law in the country have been as divided as in this case of alleged false asset declaration among others.
Last Thursday, legal luminaries including retired justices of the Supreme Court and several erudite lawyers ventilated their opinion on the trial, most of them suggesting that the trial is a misnomer.
Former Supreme Court Justice, Justice Samson Uwaifo who delivered the lead paper at the inaugural Constitutional Law Conference of the Ben Nwabueze Centre in Lagos on that day, was quoted as condemning the refusal of Saraki’s request for a stay of proceedings and being emphatic about the non-criminal jurisdiction of the Code of Conduct Tribunal which makes the application of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 irregular.
In the Friday, March 25, 2016 edition of Vanguard newspaper reported that Justice Uwaifo, citing Section 306 of the Act said as follows: “the Code of Conduct Tribunal cannot come into focus under criminal justice administration, not being a court in any sense. It follows as well that the tribunal could not rely on the act to refuse to grant stay of proceedings” The CCT is only a special purpose court which should not assume this criminal jurisdiction.
Other erudite legal and judicial minds including former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Salisu Alfa Belgore; Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN; former Supreme Court Justice George Oguntade; Justice Nnoruka Udechukwu; Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN; Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN; Chief Emeka Ngige, SAN and Chief Solomon Asemota, SAN all agreed that the CCT was flouting provisions of the 1999 Constitution in the manner it has handled the trial so far.
But the tribunal insists on its competence to sit over this case and relys on the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 in its proceedings. It has also continued to dismiss pre-action procedure of inviting a public officer to explain any discrepancies noted in his or her assets declaration form before an action could be filed as stipulated by Section 3(b) of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act as not weighty enough to discharge him and strike out the trial especially as the 1999 Constitution does not so stipulate.
But this is curious. As it is a trite principle of law that when a law stipulates some pre-action processes before a step is taken, the non-observance of such a procedure nullifies the action so taken. This, in my opinion is the principle established in Longe V First Bank Nigeria Plc.
The foregoing has fuelled insinuations that the trial of the Senate President may have political undertones like he suggested on the day of his arraignment last year.
This was amplified by Uwaifo last week when he said: “It is now open an secret that the power behind the ruling APC did not back him (Saraki) for that office. It is fair to see a connection between that circumstance and the code of conduct matter. There is the rumour that the chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal has an alleged crime hanging over him…looking at the treatment Saraki has received so far in the tribunal presided over by the said Chairman who might, or is deemed to, know that there is the Sword of Damocles hanging over him, would the ordinary, right-minded persons aware of the situation have the impression that there was a real likelihood of bias on his part to deny Saraki justice? All this brings to question the malleability of institutions in Nigeria and how much the country achieves without strong and independent institutions.
But beyond the legal implications of the Saraki trial, there are also political implications not just on the All Progressives Congress (APC) but even the nation. With the stature of the senate president and his popularity amongst his colleagues, the attempt to pull it down whether it succeeds or not is likely to have an effect on the cohesiveness of the party. And when the ruling party is divided, there can be no doubt as to the ways in which such divisions can affect the development of the nation.
While everyone who loves this country desires the end of corruption and impunity, fighting this evil must be done with transparency. Any trial that leaves a doubt it the mind of the people is nothing but a travesty, which may serve temporary political purposes but contribute nothing to the real fight against corruption.