The acquittal on Wednesday of Senate President Bukola Saraki by the Code of Conduct Tribunal automatically ended two years of one of the most celebrated corruption trials in the country, writes Olawale Olaleye with additional information by Anayo Okolie
The news of the acquittal and discharge of Senate President Bukola Saraki did not come as a shocker to the critical few. A religious monitoring of the facts and figures as presented during the proceedings had indicated that ultimately, it was going to end a clear case of no submission.
The reason is not far-fetched. If after two years of naming and shaming with so much media blitz and glitz, government still had nothing to substantiate its allegations, then the law, without any form of interference, would stamp its feet. That, of course, was what happened in the case of Saraki.
Saraki is definitely not a saint nor is any mortal. He is by no standard infallible. But everything about his trial was flawed ab initio. Neither the timing, which came nearly about 15 years that the alleged offence was committed nor the mercurial charges suggested anything further than the way it eventually ended on Wednesday, July 14, two years after incalculable distraction and time-wasting of both a major player and a critical institution in the democratic evolution of the country.
The Grounds for Acquittal
The CCT last Wednesday upheld the no-case submission of the Senate President and consequently discharged him of all the 18-count charge brought against him by the federal government. Chairman of the tribunal, Danladi Umar, in a ruling on the no-case submission filed by the defendant, held that the prosecution failed to establish a prima facie case against Saraki.
The tribunal stated that the evidence of the prosecution witnesses was manifestly unreliable and that no court could attach value to such let alone convict on it. The tribunal also stated that the testimony of the third prosecution witness, who admitted that his report was based on information from his team members, rendered the whole evidence linking the defendant to the alleged offences invalid, adding that no conviction could be made on hearsay.
The tribunal explained that the admittance of the first prosecution witness under cross-examination that the defendant was not invited for clarification on the grey areas in his assets form grossly affected the competence of the charges, adding also that the claim by the second prosecution witness that all documents it had linking Saraki to the alleged offences were lost in a fire accident further neutralised the evidence.
It was against these backdrops and more that the tribunal agreed with Saraki that the evidence so far presented by the prosecution in the case against him was unreliable and did not warrant him to open his defence.
The Road to Acquittal
Suffice it to say that in the days leading up to the Wednesday ruling by the CCT, it was clear that the case of discrepancies in assets declaration filed by the federal government against Saraki had reached the terminal stage. It was certain that after two years, the tribunal was going to take a decision on whether to sustain the claim by Sarakiâ€™s defence team, headed by Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, to either throw out the case or reject the claim by Sarakiâ€™s legal team and then compel them to open their defence proper.
At this time, the public interest aspect of the case was that as the tribunal took a decision, it must situate its ruling in the context of what would best serve the national interest between upholding the plea of the defence team or affirming the submission of the prosecutors, who had spent the last 23 months seeking to justify their case.
Besides, Saraki had consistently claimed that the CCT case against him represented persecution rather than prosecution and that it was the fallout of the contest for office of the Senate President, which he won. At this point, Umar and his colleague, Peter Atedze, had the opportunity to examine this claim more dispassionately than they had ever done.
And since there had been suggestions in several quarters that diligent and forensic investigation had not been done by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Code of Conduct Bureau, both of whom had collaborated to bring the case to court, thereby occasioning sloppiness in the case of the prosecution, the tribunal had the singular opportunity to intervene expeditiously.
The intervention of the tribunal, expectedly, would be to the effect of terminating the case and saving the nation unnecessary tension, preventing wastage of public resource, averting travesty of justice and unwarranted heating up of the polity as had been witnessed in the last two years that the trial started.
However, to do this, it became incumbent on the tribunal to demonstrate its commitment to justice. The two judges, for whatever it was worth, must be bold and ready to ignore the distraction which was sure to come down the line, if as usual, the game of blackmail resumed again with existential claims in certain quarter that the tribunal members had been compromised to deliver its ruling in a certain way or the other.
It is worthy of mention that the trick of raising allegations against judges on the eve of delivering judgment was witnessed, when the case filed against the entire proceeding came up at the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal last year. There were instances, where judges presiding over cases had to recuse themselves. This, perhaps, had prepared the tribunal members better in delivering justice, regardless of whose ox is gored or the interest it might serve at the end of the day.
Although expectation was that the ruling could have gone either way, one common factor, however, in a case of quasi-criminal nature like the asset declaration matter that involved Saraki is that the prosecution must have to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. And from the proceedings so far, it did not appear that the prosecution headed by Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, had done this and there were reasons to believe huge gaps existed in the case of the prosecution.
For instance, while the star witness, Mr. Michael Wetkas, appeared in the witness box, people pointed out some holes and many thought they would use subsequent witnesses to tidy up the case and strengthen their evidence. However, subsequent witnesses turned out to be way below the Wetkas performance. If anything, the subsequent witnesses actually diminished the case of the prosecution.
It was therefore not unexpected that if on the basis of the performance of the prosecution, it would be difficult to decide the case in their favour. Of course, if the ruling had gone south for Saraki, it was definitely not going to be his end. The worst that could have happened was that if the tribunal had ruled against his no-case submission, the defence lawyers would go full blast to present his case, which they seemed not to have from all indications.
And that, of course, would be a long haul trial. But with full politics certain to commence early next year, it was unlikely that the trial would also survive the political dynamics that would have dominated the horizon. But the tribunal was smart enough to see that the trial was a highway to nowhere and indeed, a sheer waste of time and expectedly, dispensed with the case on the no-case grounds.
The Politics of Interests
It was no wonder, therefore, that mixed reactions, a majority of them positive, immediately trailed the CCT ruling, because mostly, the discerning could relate with the politics of the trial than the faÃ§ade of combating corruption, which was the face presented to the public.
It is however sad that quite a few, many of them very educated Nigerians, had a premeditated expectation of what the decision of the CCT should be on the Saraki matter, whether or not the facts support their mindset. The preponderance of these tilted debates would rather embrace double standards in this case, because it is Saraki and not because the facts of the case stand firmly in their support.
For example, when the CCT freed former Lagos State Governor, Mr. Bola Tinubu on nearly the same grounds, he was applauded all over in what was largely termed â€œthe persecution of the generalissimoâ€. But when the same CCT freed Saraki on Wednesday, the judiciary was branded compromised and the roof was almost pulled down for two days running as many of these people would rather Saraki was thrown behind the bars, whether or not he was found guilty.
A renowned professor of law, Itsay Sagay, for instance, when Tinubu was freed said â€œAsiwaju Bola Tinubuâ€™s trial was politically motivated. There is no prima facie evidence against the former Lagos governor. And since you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand, the trial is bound to fail.â€
But the same Sagay, while commenting on the acquittal of Saraki by the CCT, reasoned differently. Hear him: â€œThere is nothing political about Sarakiâ€™s trial. A crime is a crime, no matter whoâ€™s committed it. I was shocked by the ruling. The amount of evidence against Saraki is overwhelming. The war against corruption must undergo serious review.â€
That, unfortunately, was not all about the double standards that have so far typified Sarakiâ€™s trial and eventual acquittal. When he hired five SANs to pursue his case at the CCT, he was heavily criticised, but when President Muhammadu Buhari employed the services of 13 SANs over his certificate matter, they saw nothing wrong with it, because after all, the president must fight his case well.
Former Lagos State Speaker, Hon. Adeyemi Ikuforiji, was tried by the EFCC for corruption but did not vacate his speakership throughout his trial and it was okay then. But when Saraki started his trial at CCT and did not vacate as president, they almost pulled down the roof because it was Saraki, querying why he would be going to trial as senate president, number three citizen of the country.
What more, Ikuforiji was acquitted of a 54-count charge by the court after a-no-case submission and no one accused the judiciary of colluding with him for a favourable ruling. Today, in a most resentful sense, Saraki and Justice Adeniyi Ademola were freed under similar circumstance after a no-case submission was filed and the judiciary has been accused of complicity.
Clearly, the law functions strictly on the basis of facts and not fictions before it, regardless of the weight of the case or the assumption that may have preceded proceedings. At the end of the day, after dealing with the facts if there were any, judgment would not be given outside the precinct of the evidence as provided by all concerned.
It is bad enough that it would take nearly 15 years for the authority to spot that Saraki had committed an infraction, soon after he emerged President of the Senate against all odds, that he would go through the embarrassment of sitting in the witness box in a trial that last nearly two years without his accusers being able to provide evidence is shameful and given a different scenario, he should have been awarded damages for wasting his time and distracting him from concentrating on a more important assignment.
Therefore, when persons who should know better decide to be partisan in their commentaries, because they do not like the characters involved in a particular matter, then justice and its process are being put in harmâ€™s way and deliberately so. Interestingly, such dissenting views have not stifled others, who could reason with clear heads and see the trial for what it was.
The senator representing Ogun East senatorial district in the National Assembly, Buruji Kashamu; the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian National Summit Group (NNSG), Mr. Tony Uranta, and Deputy National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Timi Frank, were amongst the first to react to the development as they hailed the ruling as victory for democracy and the rule of law.
Kashamu in a statement said: â€œI received with joy the news of the dismissal of the 18-count charge against Saraki, and his discharge from the trial by the CCT. This development gladdens my heart, because it will help to deepen our democracy and further entrench the principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law.
â€œI salute the judiciary for proving yet again that it is the fulcrum of our democracy and sacred institution that can be relied upon in resolving disputes between the state and individuals without fear or favour,â€ he said praising his colleagues in the National Assembly, especially the Senate, for standing by Saraki while the trial lasted.
â€œThe resilience and support of my colleagues at the National Assembly, especially the Senate, no doubt, would have served as a strong elixir for Saraki while the dark cloud hovered over his political firmamentâ€¦While the trial lasted, Saraki stood strong with his belief in the Almighty Allah. He showed that he was a rare leader, who knew his onions; unbowed, savvy and sagacious. He never allowed his trial to hamper his job as the Chairman of the National Assembly and President of the Senate.
In his statement made available to THISDAY, Uranta said the nationâ€™s faith in the judiciary is further strengthened, noting that it is apt for every accused person to have their day using the court of law to prove their innocence or otherwise.
â€œSaraki was accused, had his days in court and has been dischargedâ€¦meaning heâ€™s been exculpated. Our faith in the judiciary and the rule of law has yet again been justified! It is better to take time to investigate thoroughly, give every accused person their day in court, and allow the law take its full course, rather than let mob anarchy or trial-by-media substitute for due process. Also, we all must stop seeing accused persons through the distorted narratives lens of partisan or ethno-religious prejudice.â€
However, Frank, on his part said the verdict of the CCT freeing Saraki of corruption charges would help the upper chamber to focus more on making laws that would positively impact on humanity.
In a statement in Abuja, Frank said the ruling that the prosecution team failed to prove the allegation against the Senate President showed that â€œit was initially a mere political victimisation engineered by a section of the ruling class.â€
While commending the tribunal for allowing justice to prevail at the end, he said the judgment would make the Senate President to be more focused in making laws that will positively impact on humanity.
The APC Deputy Publicity Secretary thanked all the party leaders and supporters across the country that stood by and believe in the leadership of Saraki even while the case was going on.
â€œNow that the case has been laid to rest, I call on our leaders to come together and form a united force for the sake of our party and the progress of Nigeria project,â€ he urged, noting that the victory was not for Saraki alone but Nigerians at large and called on both the executive and the legislature to work together to raise the living standard of Nigerians.
TIMELINE OF SARAKIâ€™S TRIAL
*September 11, 2015: Justice Ministry filed an application at the CCB asking for the commencement of trial of Saraki on a 13 count-charge
*September 17, 2015: Saraki filed an application asking the tribunal to quash the charge against him.
*September 18, 2015: The prosecution counsel, Muslim Hassan, asked the tribunal to order Sarakiâ€™s arrest for failing to appear before it, arguing that Saraki had no power to halt a trial of the tribunal. But Sarakiâ€™s counsel argued that his client did not appear because the constitution of the CCT was illegal and consequently rendered the trial ultra vires
*September 18, 2015: The tribunal dismissed Sarakiâ€™s application and issued a bench warrant for the Inspector General of Police to produce hi in court.
*September 22, 2015: Saraki appeared before the tribunal, pleaded not guilty to 13-count charge of corruption.
*April 24, 2016: Saraki filed a motion to stop CCT trial but dismissed by the tribunal.
*April 28, 2016: Saraki was re-arraigned on an amended 16-count charge of corruption. But his lawyer said he was rich before becoming governor.
*May 11, 2016: Witness alleged that property declared by Senate President did not exist.
*June 7, 2016: Danladi Umar, chairman of the CCT, accused Saraki of tactically delaying his trial.
*February 23, 2017: Saraki re-arraigned on amended 18-count charge
*May 5, 2017: Prosecution closed its case
*May 26, 2017: Saraki filed application for a no-case-submission.
*June 14, 2017: Finally, after 21 months, Saraki was discharged and acquitted of the 18-count charge.