At different instances, the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Danladi Umar, who is currently handling the trial of Senate President Bukola Saraki has shown flashes of his inability to be fair and just, the latest being his allusion to Saraki suffering certain “consequences”. Shola Oyeyipo writes
In practically all cases, the sanctity of the court is well revered. The judges are demi-gods because they command absolute respect from those standing trial before them and the reason is simply because they are deemed fit to be dispassionate in justice delivery. Though judges are the sole administrators in their courts, events that surround court trials around the world have also played significant parts in how the quality of judgments is rated.
For instance, in Nigeria, while the burden of proof that an accused person is actually culpable in an allegation lies absolutely with the accuser, someone standing trial is always presumed innocent until it is proved to the contrary.
These two constitutional provisions are enshrined in the Nigerian legal framework and in adherence to these provisions, not a few politicians and private individuals have restrained themselves from passing comments on an ongoing litigation until it is resolved.
But the Code of Conduct Tribunal ((CCT) Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar, threw caution to the wind last Tuesday, when he was quoted to have said that Saraki would face the full consequences of the charges of alleged false declaration of assets brought against him by the federal government in spite of purported delay of his trial.
“I am not happy at the delay tactics employed by the defence counsel. And I must say this thing out that this delay tactics will not reduce the consequences the defendant will meet from this tribunal at the end of the trial,” Umar said.
Though the statement was in reaction to the prosecution counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs’ (SAN) allegation that the Saraki team is deploying delay tactics as a way to frustrate the trial, the weight of such utterance which depicted that Saraki would suffer the full consequences of the trial and charges by the tribunal is suspicious. It is actually prejudicial because the trial is still ongoing and the accused person is still proving his innocence.
That is by every standard unprofessional on the part of the judge considering the very sensitive nature of the case, particularly amidst the fact that Saraki has persistently claimed that his trial is because he became the Senate President without the approval of some powers that be and many Nigerian are aware that there is political undertone to the ongoing trial, so, not a few follower of the case would agree that Mr. Umar ought to have uttered such an unguarded statement.
The reason is simple. Those in Saraki’s camp have simply interpreted it to mean that the tribunal chairman already had a mindset to convict Senate President Saraki, whereas he should still be considered innocent in the face of the law.
But the weight of Umar’s comment was not lost on Saraki’s lead counsel, Mr. Kanu Agabi (SAN), who expressed shock and tacit disapproval for the statement by the CCT chairman, when he asked Umar what he meant by the consequences of the tribunal. He expressed personal worries and on behalf of his client, saying the judge’s action is assumed prejudices.
“From the defence side, we are not worried about the law and facts that will be placed before this tribunal by the prosecution. But we are worried about enemies, who may wish to use this tribunal to achieve their ulterior motives. As the tribunal chairman, we love you, we respect you, but we are afraid of consequences, especially as just stated by this tribunal this morning. Our fears have been reinforced, but we pray against consequences that are against natural justice,” said Agabi, the former Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), in reaction to the Umar’s statement.
Faced with overwhelming disapproval reaction of lawyers to his remarks, the chairman was compelled to reassure the people that nobody would be prejudiced. It is however not clear if Saraki loyalists are persuaded by Umar’s reassurance that the Senate President is not facing a pre-determined trial because of some statements credited to the same CCT chairman in recent past.
At the resumed hearing on the 16-count criminal charge against Saraki Umar, said he was under “serious influence” during the trial of former Lagos State governor and a national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator Bola Tinubu. He revealed that pressure was mounted on him from a certain quarter to take specific decisions. Though he did not disclose those, who attempted to influence him, he said he was resolute and ensured that justice was eventually done in the matter.
“During the trial of Bola Tinubu, we were under serious influence. But you saw what happened. We did what we needed to do based on what was before us,” Umar said.
While this statement could have been designed to allay the fear that the tribunal might dance to the whim and caprice of Saraki’s traducers, the fears of Saraki and his lawyers that the tribunal was being manipulated by external influence did not subside.
Recall that the federal government charged Tinubu before CCT over allegations that he falsely declared his assets and operated 10 foreign bank accounts while in office as governor between 1999 and 2007 but discontinued further hearing on the three-count charge in 2011, even as it discharged and acquitted Tinubu on the grounds that the federal government failed to fulfill the necessary conditions precedent before the charge was filed.
It held that the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), which recommended the prosecution, never accorded the defendant the opportunity to explain alleged discrepancies in his assets declaration form as it should be. But now that Saraki is facing similar charges before the same Umar, who presided over Tinubu’s case, who had prayed the tribunal to equally discharge him the same way it discharged Tinubu because he was not also allowed by CCB to offer explanations.
While denying Saraki’s prayer, Umar, in a ruling on March 24, admitted that the tribunal discharged Tinubu in error.
“The tribunal has since realised that the decision it made on the case between FRN vs Tinubu was in error and has clearly departed from it,” Umar reportedly said.
He was also quoted to have said: “I swear by the Almighty Allah to do justice. On our part, the insinuation that we are being influenced to see to the conviction of the accused (Saraki) is false. During Bola Tinubu‘s case, we were under influence to convict him but we did the right thing”.
As much as a lot of Nigerians would prefer to stand with Umar – believing that he would ultimately do justice as he vowed, the truth is that the activities of the tribunal has remained of immense interest to the people, who are closely monitoring development from therein.
For example, during the inaugural Constitutional Law Conference of the Ben Nwabueze Centre in Lagos with the theme: “The code of conduct enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria and its crucial importance in the fight against corruption,” legal luminaries, including retired and serving Supreme Court justices, picked holes in the trial, stressing that the CCT had no judicial powers to try criminal matters.
Some of the very prominent lawyers who insisted that the CCT was flouting provisions of the 1999 Constitution in the manner it had handled the trial so far, included former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Salisu Alfa Belgore; Professor Ben Nwabueze (SAN); former Supreme Justice, Justice Samson Uwaifo; Justice George Oguntade; Justice Nnoruka Udechukwu; Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN); Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN); Chief Emeka Ngige (SAN) and Chief Solomon Asemota (SAN) among others.
Also showing interest in the epic trial, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), said the outcome of the trial will determine the faith of Nigerians in the judiciary and democracy.
The CLO president, Mr. Igho Akeregha, warned that the courts must not allow the hallowed chambers to be used by politicians to settle scores but ensure that justice was not only done but also seen to have been done.
“The CLO, therefore, urges the CCT handling this case to be fair and upright in its adjudication by not giving in to any form of intimidation, inducement or harassment. Anything to the contrary poses a grave danger to the judiciary and the nation’s democracy.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the CLO believes and supports the drive to combat corruption in all its ramifications from our polity but we recognise that there are imperfections that have increasingly come to the fore as a result of its prosecution. It is our, duty as one of the gatekeepers of democracy in Nigeria, to ensure that the processes of governance are not distorted by Dr Saraki,” Akeregha said.