Senate President Bukola Saraki has become a superstar of some kind. It is not the type of stardom associated with public entertainers. Saraki is in a disheartening situation, something he did not set out to attain in life. Fate, that indeterminable aspect of life, has ensured that even in his position as Senate President, Saraki will never have a rest of mind until he has been cleared of the allegations of false declaration of assets for which he is currently facing prosecution at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The first time I saw newspaper photographs of Saraki arriving at the CCT to defend the charges brought against him, I thought something was demonstrably wrong. If you focus, for one moment, on the photos of the crowd that accompanied Saraki to the tribunal, you may have thought that the internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter and member of the U2 band, Bono, was in town or that, perhaps, the winner of the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria beauty pageant was being accompanied by supporters to a public performance in Abuja.
Take a look at the group of supporters marching confidently behind Saraki as he approached the tribunal. An ordinary citizen could not muster such a crowd that consisted of honourable senators whose mandate, by the way, is to make laws for the good governance of the country, not to abdicate their responsibility by travelling to the tribunal to show solidarity with their troubled leader. Legislators in the National Assembly, we must remind ourselves, are expected by law to engage in serious business.
Saraki is in public spotlight and undergoing scrutiny at the moment because of substantial allegations made against him. Charges of false declaration of assets, if proven, carry grave consequences for Saraki. If he is convicted on any of the allegations, the guilty verdict would have deleterious consequences for him at two levels. First, a conviction could see Saraki relinquishing the position he currently occupies as senate president.
Can you visualise how painful it would be for a high profile politician occupying the eminent position of Number 3 Citizen in a country of over 150 million people suddenly downgraded to a nonentity or a commoner. That is why Saraki is fighting with all his might and resources available to him the charges levelled against him. Not only will he be stripped of the title of Senate President if he is convicted, he will also lose all the financial benefits and the powers that are accredited to the holder of that position. Second, a conviction could also damage irreparably his reputation as a two-time governor of Kwara State, a qualified medical doctor, and a rising politician with an eye on the presidential ticket.
For these reasons and perhaps more, you will find that while everyone sleeps with their two eyes shut, Saraki has opted to keep one eye open just in case the unthinkable happens to him. It will be catastrophic. But life can be tragic anyway.
Saraki is in a predicament because the CCB has alleged that he made false declaration of assets when he was governor. The CCB is an agency of government that describes itself, in its website, as the first anti-corruption organisation “set up by the Federal Government of Nigeria” (http://www.codeofconductbureau.gov.ng/). The agency says its mandate is “to establish and maintain a high standard of morality in the conduct of government business and to ensure that the actions and behaviour of public officers conform to the highest standards of public morality and accountability.”
However, for the 26 years since the agency was set up, not many Nigerians can say with confidence that they have heard about it and many more cannot even attest that the agency has successfully tried and convicted a high profile public officer. So, it was something of a shock when the bureau dusted itself up and filed charges against Saraki on the basis of false declaration of assets, years after he had ended his term as governor. This is, perhaps, why Saraki’s supporters see a conspiracy in his current troubles. Why, they ask interminably, did the CCB wait till Saraki had been elected Senate President before the agency realised there were outstanding allegations of false declarations against the man?
One problem I have with the trial of Saraki and the high drama associated with it is the prosecution’s insistence that he must sit inside the dock before the court commences official business. During the first and second appearances that Saraki made at the tribunal, both the prosecution and defence lawyers spent much time arguing back and forth about the appropriateness of the Senate President being compelled to sit in the dock. Saraki’s lawyers argued vigorously and commendably that their client did not have to sit inside the dock to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges.
It is important to understand why the debate had to hold over whether or not an accused person should sit inside a dock in a court of law or tribunal. The dock, you must remember, is not a comfortable place decorated with leather chairs. It is a confined space furnished with hard wood. So, anyone who is taken inside that enclosure has to endure the pain of planting their buttocks on the solid wood until proceedings come to an end. It is, therefore, vital to avoid sitting in the dock if an accused person’s lawyers could argue their case successfully. Sitting in the dock is not a pleasant experience. If in doubt, ask Saraki.
I would also argued that the prosecution is absolutely correct (on grounds of procedure) when it insisted that Saraki must take his position in the dock before the tribunal could commence business. The dock is a place reserved for people, who, in the eyes of the law, have a case to answer. The dock is not a respecter of social status or political title or financial wealth.
To make sure the location of the dock is not in doubt, administrative officials at the tribunal have dutifully placed a marker or label entitled “Dock” so that Saraki and his lawyers could not say they were unable to sight or locate the dock.
Perhaps, one reason the prosecution has been adamant on Saraki sitting inside the dock is the pitiable image a Senate President confined to a dock would convey to the public. That image, I would argue, is incompatible with the high office the accused person holds. Sitting in the dock would damage the high office of the senate president, the integrity of the holder of that title (Saraki), and the reputation of all senators.
I am not sure that any senator would be happy to see their leader sitting pathetically in a dock being subjected to an inquisition or something close to that. That would be an eyesore. The indirect message conveyed by the prosecution is that if senators are not happy with their president sitting in an enclosure meant for people with cases to answer, they should do something about it. Doing something about it is a codeword for impeachment. Although not stated plainly, senators who are not happy with the image of Saraki in the dock can move to impeach him to preserve the honour of the senate, the high office of senate president, and the image of his senators.
Right from the day Saraki was elected Senate President, he was marked out as enemy number one by the APC leaders. Saraki drew the ire of the party leaders because he went against the decision of the leaders and put himself up to context for the position of Senate President. That was seen as a violation of the party’s preference for Ahmed Lawan. Despite the indignation expressed by APC leaders and all the swearing to “deal with Saraki”, the man stayed on and refused to shift ground.
APC leaders who are unhappy with Saraki have a major challenge and, indeed, a limited range of options. Only senators can recant their position and remove Saraki as Senate President. Another option is for Saraki’s position to be overturned by a court of law on the basis of conviction for corrupt practices or misconduct. This is why APC leaders are praying and hoping that Saraki would be found guilty by the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
Whether the current impasse is resolved or not, the more concerning issue for many people is the impact that Saraki’s long drawn out trial would have on the political process, on the ability of the Senate to discharge its responsibilities, and on the ability of President Muhammadu Buhari to get his policies and programmes that require legislative approval successfully endorsed by the National Assembly. The longer Saraki’s trial drags, the less time he would have to concentrate on managing the senate. A Senate President whose attention is divided between his trial at the CCT and effective management of the senate would be a lame duck.
At the end of all the drama, regardless of whether Saraki survives or perishes, a troubled Senate will not be in anybody’s interest. Both Saraki and those seeking to destroy him could bring legislative business in the Senate to a blind alley. When that happens, the nation will be the loser.