After weeks of back and forth, the Code of Conduct Tribunal last week commenced the trial of Senate President Bukola Saraki over allegations of false declaration of assets. Iyobosa Uwugiaren, who has been covering the proceedings, writes
When the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) slammed a 13-count charge bordering on false of assets declaration on Senate President Bukola Saraki last September, the Senate President’s political associates were said to have advised the strongman of Kwara politics to roll up his sleeves and get ready to fight back. They believed and still hold the view that the case was politically motivated.
The advice, according to an insider, was based on their thoughts on how the minds of those who allegedly scripted Saraki’s charges work.
According to one of Saraki’s associates – a senator in the National Assembly -‘’Those behind the Senate President’s current political battle are well-known to us; they don’t forgive their enemies; and once they perceived you as enemy, they crush you until you are not able to stand up to challenge them.’’
The senator told THISDAY that when it became very clear to them recently that the presidency and the political hawks hovering around it were deeply involved in Saraki’s travails, a suggestion was made to the Senate President’s political associates to reach out to a key figure in the administration for possible intervention. But it was a futile journey, according to the source.
The top official of the administration “was enraged when we tabled the issue of the Senate President before him. He said Bukola Saraki thought he could outsmart them by becoming the Senate President; he said they were going to teach him the political lesson of his life; and that Saraki will vacate his seat in the next few weeks’’, the Senator from Delta State alleged.
It was further gathered that when the peacemakers returned to Saraki and broke the shocking news to him, the Senate President was quoted as telling his colleagues that “no man is God.’’
Saraki’s words at that time might have been a consolation to him and his supporters, but as his trial commenced in Abuja on Tuesday, Saraki may just be saying to himself: “If I knew it was going to be like this I would have moved faster than the step I took months back.”
That may not be unconnected with the unfolding events at the tribunal in the last few days.
But for the power failure at the CCT on Wednesday, the sitting may have dragged till 6pm. The power outage occurred when Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), the prosecuting counsel, was leading a prosecution witness, Mr. Michael Wetkas, in evidence.
Prior to the outage, Mr. Kanu Agabi (SAN), the lead counsel to Saraki, had pleaded with Umar for an adjournment, but the chairman of the tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar, refused, saying he was ready to continue with the case until 6pm. However, the blackout did the work for Agabi, as the outage compelled Umar to adjourn the trial.
The CCB had slammed a 13-count charge of corruption on Saraki. In charge number ABT/01/15, dated September 11, 2015 and filed before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Saraki was accused of anticipatory declaration of assets and false declaration of assets in the forms he filed before the Code of Conduct Bureau while he was Executive Governor of Kwara State.
He was accused of failing to declare some assets he acquired while in office as governor. Other charges against the Senate President include alleged acquisition of assets beyond his legitimate earnings and operating foreign accounts while being a public officer – as governor and senator.
In the estimation of the prosecutor, the offences violate sections of the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, as amended and breached Section 2 of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act — punishable under Paragraph 9 of the said Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
But the Senate President had challenged the competence of the false assets declaration and criminal charges brought against him by the federal government. He had insisted that the charge was politically motivated and in bad faith.
In the objection filed by Agabi (SAN), a lead counsel to Saraki, he averred that the charges could not be sustained in law since due process of law was not observed before it was initiated. He had asked the tribunal to quell or strike out the charges contained in charge No. CCT/ABJ/01/2015 filed last September against him.
Saraki had also asked the tribunal to discharge him from the charges on the ground that the charges were not competent and lawful in the eyes of the law. His grounds of objection to the trial were among others, that the tribunal headed by Umar had no jurisdiction to entertain the charge because a condition precedent to the exercise of jurisdiction had not been fulfilled.
Besides, he also anchored his objection on the fact that the charge was brought in bad faith – brought not in the interest of the public and justice and that the charge constituted a gross abuse of legal process. Saraki further averred that the charge, having been allegedly brought in violation of due process and in violation of his right to fair hearing, he couldn’t lie at the instance of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice.
“We are public servants and you must fill your asset declaration form when you get in office and I did mine 13 years ago. The charges have nothing to do with corruption or money being stolen anywhere. I will have my day in court to prove my innocence of the charge pending against me because it is not about corruption’’, Saraki had stated.
“I don’t understand how the same organisation that cleared my asset declaration to be proper in 2004, 2009 and 2011 can now say that my record is faulted.”
True as his trial of alleged concealment of assets finally got under way Tuesday in Abuja, Saraki expressed happiness that he now had an opportunity to clear his name.
One of his aides said the Senate President’s confidence arose from the first prosecution witness, Michael Wetkas’ testimony that Saraki’s naira account with one of the banks, which his team analysed, had an in-flow of about N4 billion, saying the major source of inflow into the account was a loan taken from Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) within the period of 2005 and 2013.
The trial proceeded with a three-hour legal battle by Saraki’s lawyers, who sought an adjournment of the case to enable them dispose of their client’s appeal, challenging the jurisdiction of the Umar-led Code of Conduct Tribunal at the Court of Appeal.
Justice Umar, however, dismissed the application for adjournment on the ground that the Supreme Court had already rested the issue of jurisdiction.
According to him, “The motion for adjournment based on an appeal challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal at the Court of Appeal is not necessary.”
Paul Usoro (SAN), who represented Saraki’s lead counsel, Agabi (SAN), had requested an adjournment on the strength of a notice of stay of proceedings filed at the tribunal.
He argued that the defendant was challenging at the Court of Appeal, the tribunal’s March 24 ruling, which ordered the continuation of the trial. He, therefore, prevailed on the tribunal to adjourn the matter until the hearing and determination of the application at the Court of Appeal, saying he was not asking for ‘’a stay of proceedings, but for an adjournment of the matter.”
But the prosecution lawyer, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), replied that both terms, ‘’stay of proceeding and adjournment’’, were the same thing.
According to him, after the defendant filed a notice of appeal, he also filed a record of appeal at the Court of Appeal, which was supposed to be confirmed by the tribunal and then forwarded to the Court of Appeal, arguing: “It is only when the tribunal fails to compile the record that the appellant is obliged to do it himself.”
Jacob added that the Supreme Court had already given the tribunal a clean bill to proceed with the trial, saying it would amount to judicial rascality to disregard the order of the highest court in the land.
The prosecuting lawyer further argued, “The application for adjournment is predicated on false and void grounds; I urge your lordship to refuse this application for adjournment because it is becoming too much.”
The argument of both lawyers lasted three hours. The tribunal later reviewed it and rejected Saraki’s application as lacking in merit and asked the prosecution to open its case.
And in what looks like a case of money laundering, and other financial crimes — not falsification of assets declaration, the prosecution’s first witness, Micheal Wetkas, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) detective, who headed the investigation of the Saraki case, later testified at the beginning of the trial proper that Saraki’s naira account with one of the banks, which his team analysed, had an in-flow of about N4 billion, saying the major source of inflow into the account was a loan secured from Guaranty Trust Bank within the period of 2005 and 2013.
He gave a long account of how Saraki allegedly used fake names to launder billions of dollars. The EFCC detective explained how one Abdul Adama, one of Saraki’s personal assistants, allegedly made 50 transactions on the account in a single day, broken down to N600,000 and N900,000 each.
According to him, “When the defendant was governor of Kwara State between 2003 and 2011, the commission received several petitions from various groups. One of the petitioners was the Kwara Freedom Network. They brought several petitions all bordering on abuse of office, misappropriation of public fund and money laundering by the defendant.
“Sometime in 2014, the then executive chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Lamorde, received intelligence reports of suspicious transactions involving the defendant. He set up a team of investigators. Our task was to investigate the intelligence reports”.
He said further: “The investigation report was reviewed by my team. In the course of our investigation, we discovered that there were several companies, which were linked to the defendant. Some of them include Carlisle Properties Investment Ltd, Skyview Properties Ltd, LimKvars Ltd, and TIly-lie Ltd.”
Even though the witness did not give a clear link between Saraki and the said properties, he said that the investigations carried out by EFCC, the Department of State Services (DSS) and the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), which indicted the defendant, were based on properties located at 17A and 17B McDonald, Ikoyi, Lagos; No 2A Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos; No 37 Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos and No 1 Gagus, Maitiama, Abuja, which he claimed were owned by Saraki but were not declared while he was in office as executive governor of Kwara State.
The tribunal admitted the asset declaration forms as exhibits. Saraki’s lawyer, Usoro, however, said he was ‘’reserving his objection for now” over the forms.
When the case resumed on Wednesday, the EFCC’s witness continued his evidence against the Senate President and explained how Saraki continued to get paid his salary by the Kwara State Government after he had stepped down as the governor of the state on May 29, 2011.
Wetkas claimed that Saraki received monthly salaries from June 2011, when he left office as governor of the state, to August 2015 when he served as a senator.
The prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Jacobs, later tendered three documents, which according to him were the details of Saraki’s accounts at GTB, as evidence in the case. And with no serious opposition from Agabi, the tribunal admitted the documents as exhibits.
But Kwara State government has reacted to the claim insisting that the EFCC lied in its evidence. Reacting to the evidence submitted by the witness on the payment of salaries after Saraki had stepped down as the governor of Kwara State, the state government had clarified that there was never a time it paid the former governor’s salary after he left office in May 2011.
A statement from the state government and signed by the Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Alhaji Isiaka Gold, described the allegation against Saraki as “false and uncalled for”.
Gold explained that Saraki’s last salary was N291,474 for the month of May 2011.
According to the SSG, “From June 2011, former Governor Saraki started receiving his pension which was N578,188 as other past governors in the country.”
The statement added that after the review of pensions of former political office holders by the state Pension Board, the former governor’s pension increased to N1,239,493.94 monthly from October 2014 to date. He dismissed as false and misleading the allegation that Saraki received salaries after the expiration of his two-term tenure as governor of the state.
Gold advised interested stakeholders to seek clarification from the appropriate authority to avoid misleading the public.
In another statement, the Director General of the Abubakar Bukola Saraki Constituency Office, otherwise known as Mandate, Hon. Abdulwahab Isa, explained that since Saraki stepped down as governor of Kwara State in May 2011, his pension, which was paid into a special account, is being managed by a group of trustees and used for education endowment for students across the state.
Isa, in a statement yesterday stated that the Senate president does not even have access to the account. He said a group of trustees led by him were mandated to use the money in paying scholarship grants and funds for Joint Admission and Matriculation Board ((JAMB) forms for students across the state.
“We have also used the money to pay for coaching of students who were preparing for JAMB examinations. For example, the most recent beneficiaries from the fund were two University of Ilorin Faculty of Law students who were the best in their set and needed money for their enrollment into the Nigerian Law School,” he said.
Isa added that the funds from the pension account had been utilised in fulfillment of a pledge publicly made by Saraki to the people.
THISDAY gathered in Abuja that with the commencement of the trial proper, nocturnal meetings had continuously been held by both the All Progressive Congress (APC) senators and their Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) counterparts.
An insider in the National Assembly told THISDAY that PDP senators had vowed not to support the emergence of another APC senator as senate president if Saraki was eventually forced out by his on-going trial at CCT.
Speaking on behalf of PDP senators recently, Senator Peter Nwaboshi (Delta North) said instead of supporting APC, they would rather draw senators from APC particularly from Saraki’s camp, senators of like Mind, to make up the required number to produce the next Senate president.
But a source, however, said the presidency is conscious of the slim majority of the APC in the Senate as well as the huge influence that the PDP senators wield in the upper chamber and had conceived a strategy to stop the opposition senators. A source privy to the move told THISDAY that the presidency had opted to tackle the matter in a diplomatic way by having a private meeting with the Senate Minority Leader, Godswill Akpabio, who has financial crimes case hanging on his neck, in view of his perceived influence among the PDP senators. The aim of the meeting would be to persuade his colleagues in the PDP caucus to drop any plan to exploit the on-going trial of Saraki to seize Senate presidency. Even as the trial continues in a couple of days, Saraki’s huge support base in the Senate has continued to express support for the Senate President and has vowed to stand by him all through the trial.