Tope Ajayi gives an account of his experience for one day during the trail of Senate President Bukola Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal
I finally made out time to attend the ongoing trial of the Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Jabi area of Abuja this past Wednesday. I wanted to watch the proceedings myself and gauge whether the allegations of bias against the Tribunal Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar carry any weight. My discovery was truly shocking. In that court, the scale of justice does not appear even. It is heavily tilted against Dr. Saraki.
There were two issues before the tribunal for the day. The first was the request by the Counsel to Saraki, Ajibola Oluyede for the Tribunal Chairman, Mr. Umar to recuse himself from the case due to likelihood of bias because of his curious relationship with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which until a while back, investigated him for corruption. The other was the cross-examination of Michael Wetkas, a prosecution witness from the EFCC by the Defence.
Umar was cheerful and exchanged banters with all the counsel before him that Wednesday. People around me appeared shocked; a man sitting close by volunteered it was the most cheerful he had seen of him ever. Back to the business of the day: Oluyede moved the motion that Umar should disqualify himself from the case because the EFCC which is practically prosecuting the case also had an outstanding issue with him. He argued that the letter which purportedly cleared Umar could not be considered a clearance.
A little background on the matter: In 2012, petition was sent to the EFCC by Rasheed Taiwo, a retired Customs official, who claimed to have been pressured through persistent phone calls by Mr. Umar for a ₦10 million bribe. Although Mr. Umar denied the allegation, his personal Assistant, Gambo Abdullahi, was found to have received a ₦1.8 million deposit in his Zenith Bank account from Mr. Taiwo. The suspicion was that the said PA acted as a conduit for his boss, Umar.
After investigating the matter, the EFCC wrote to the former Secretary to the Government, stating that: “There are indications that the Tribunal Chairman might have demanded and collected money from the complainant through his said Personal Assistant. However, efforts made to recover the telephone handset used by Justice Umar proved abortive, as he claimed that he had lost the telephone in 2012.
“This has made it impossible to subject it to independent scientific analysis with a view to corroborating the allegation. In the same vein, the complainant could also not make available his telephone set for analysis on the grounds that he had lost it. Justice Umar also admitted that he met privately with the complainant in his chamber at the Tribunal. This is a most unethical and highly suspicious conduct on his part.”
However, the EFCC concluded that there was not enough evidence to charge Umar as “the facts as they are now against Justice Umar raised a mere suspicion and will therefore not be sufficient to successfully prosecute him for the offence.”
Oluyede’s argument was that the letter does not constitute clearance since nowhere in its content did it exonerate Umar, only stating that for the material time, there were not enough facts to prosecute him. “But that may change later,” he said.
The prosecution counsel, Rotimi Jacobs (SAN) argued in the opposite direction that the letter constituted exoneration and that Umar should go ahead with the trial since he had not been charged before any court, not to talk of being found guilty of any crime.
It was an interesting exchange, as should be expected of opposing counsel. But my concern was the judge, Umar. His body language and comments clearly showed an obvious bias and antagonism towards the defence, and suggested collusion with the prosecution to achieve a predetermined end.
After the niceties at the beginning of the proceedings on that fateful Wednesday, Umar reverted to his old angry, and emotional self. He threatened to jail Oluyede, one of Saraki’s lawyers, for his passion in pleading the motion that Umar should disqualify himself from the case. This led to an emotional outburst from the judge, followed by the threat of jail. In my layman understanding of the judiciary, judges should be people of honour, sober and emotionally stable.
This judge was not sober and issued threats as if they were pan cakes. But if that were all, it would not have raised a red flag for me. Judges are, after all, humans and can be vexed. It was Justice Umar’s comments when ruling on the motion by Oluyede that showed his bias and made me give up on him as a neutral and fair referee of the matter at hand.
Oluyede’s motion sought to disqualify Umar from the trial, stopping him from further hearing the case based on the reasons stated above. In considering ruling on it, Justice Umar made a Freudian slip and said, “shall we decide on this ruling now in my chamber and continue with the cross examination later?”
What this suggests is that the judge had made up his mind to dismiss the motion even before carefully considering all the facts before him. If not, he would have known that the success of the motion, which should be a possibility with a fair-minded judge, would have foreclosed his further handling of the case. It was therefore no surprise when he dismissed the motion the next day.
What I personally observed that day corroborated the reports of likely bias by Umar. The recent complaints had come from unlikely quarters – former Supreme Court justices and legal luminaries. Justice Samson Uwaifo captured it better when he said, “It is now open secret that the power behind the ruling Party APC did not back (the Senate President) 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, which might give the impression that he may be willing to act as the hatchet-man over Saraki to save himself from the prospect of the alleged crime not seeing the light of day by way of prosecution.”
I believe a judge does not have to force himself to hear a case, especially when one of the parties feel strongly that there is a huge likelihood of bias, except he has a special interest in the matter. Now, no judgment from the court would be deemed to be fair, which defeats the aim of justice which should not only be done but manifestly seen to be done.
-Ajayi writes from Lagos