Monday, September 21 was a particularly stressful day for embattled President of the Senate, Abubakar Bukola Saraki.
In the early hours of the day, a large number of supporters and close political associates of the nation’s number three citizen had thronged his official guest house located in the highbrow Maitama area of Abuja. The sprawling structure shares the same fence with the official residence of the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Solomon Arase.
Saraki’s supporters were on hand to show solidarity with him over his ongoing travails with the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), which slammed a 13-count charge of false declaration of assets on the Senate President. Looking flustered and troubled while the session lasted, the number three citizen was, unarguably, a shadow of himself in spite of the brave face he tried to put up.
About one hour later, the Senate President with his guests in tow, headed straight to the Asokoro residence of Alhaji Kawu Baraje, one of his closest political associates for another round of consultations.
Curiously however, his retinue of security men comprising of operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) and policemen, stayed back at the guest house allegedly on Saraki’s instruction.
The meeting at Baraje’s house was to deliberate on the ruling of the Court of Appeal and the Federal High Court in Abuja, which declined Saraki’s request to stall his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
Sources disclosed that a top lawyer, who is a member of Saraki’s legal team, was on hand to brief the house on the imperative of obeying the ruling of the CCT, which had summoned the Senate President to appear before it unfailingly on September 22.
The Senior Advocate of Nigeria hinged his position on the “unfavourable” rulings of the Appellate Court and FHC, which failed to stall Saraki’s trial at the CCT.
But minutes before the meeting at Baraje’s house ended, a signal was dispatched to the security men who arrived well on time and escorted Saraki to the National Assembly complex.
Arrival of Ekweremadu and other Senators
Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, arrived moments later and joined Saraki in his office. And in twos and threes, many senators loyal to the Senate President arrived to consult with him.
Expectedly, the main agenda of the meeting that took place between Saraki and his loyalists centred on the appearance of the former in court the following day for the commencement of his trial at the CCT.
Some of the lawmakers include Dino Melaye, Ben Murray-Bruce, Ighoyata Amori, Peter Nwaoboshi, Gilbert Nnaji, Emmanuel Paulker, Samuel Anyanwu, Gershom Bassey, Ibrahim Dambaba, Rafiu Ibrahim, Shaaba Lafiagi, to mention but a few.
The Nation gathered that all the senators present pledged their unalloyed loyalty to Saraki, and also restated their resolve to stand by him in his ordeal.
Shortly before the meeting drew to a close however, one of those present expressed worry by the relatively small number of senators present. The import of his statement was not lost on the gathering.
In the last few weeks, particularly after Saraki’s asset declaration saga became public knowledge, there have been fears that some lawmakers under the aegis of ‘Like Minds’ Senators, the group loyal to the Senate President, have become battle weary and toying with the idea of withdrawing their support.
But the Senate President, a source said, reportedly responded that some of those absent are presently on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, adding confidently that he can still vouch for their loyalty to him.
Saraki reaches out
Though the Senate President has kept a stoic face that he is on top of the dire situation he is entangled in, a source disclosed that behind the scene, he has in the last couple of days reached out to three of the nation’s former leaders and other influential Nigerians to intercede on his behalf to the President.
While one of the ex-leaders indeed spoke to the President on the issue, the two others allegedly declined and instead asked him to make peace with his party at “whatever cost.”
The euphemism for “whatever cost”, according to a source is for Saraki to either step down or accede to his party’s position on the composition of principal offices in the Senate.
An attempt by Saraki to also co-opt the Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi (an old student of the prestigious Kings College like Saraki) was also futile as the monarch failed to extract any commitment from the President.
Battle on many fronts
The next few months will, no doubt, be the most trying period in the political career of the former Kwara State governor.
Right now, he is currently entangled in four complex cases involving himself; his wife, Toyin; his business associate, Kennedy Izuagbe, a former Director of the defunct Societe Generale Bank and Managing Director of one of Saraki’s business concerns, Carlisle Properties and Investments Limited and the alleged forgery of the Senate Rules.
Izuagbe was recently declared wanted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over the alleged discrepancies in Saraki’s asset declaration forms.
The development, sources noted, suggest that the EFCC may also reopen the probe on the collapse of SGBN under Saraki’s watch.
A statement by the Head of Media and Publicity of the EFCC, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren, said Izuagbe is wanted for alleged laundering of about N3.6 billion. Izuagbe has since got an injunction from a Federal High Court restraining the EFCC from effecting his arrest and interrogation.
The EFCC is also investigating Toyin Saraki over alleged questionable business transactions during her husband’s tenure as Kwara State governor from 2003 to 2011 and may likely press charges against her once findings are concluded.
The alleged forgery of Senate Rules, which the Police have reportedly concluded its investigations on, may also resume once the legal obstacle erected by Senator Gil Nnaji, a staunch Saraki loyalist, who some weeks ago, secured an injunction to stop the Police from pressing ahead with the case, is set aside.
Would he fight back?
Within the last four months that Saraki has been at daggers drawn with his party and the Presidency, he has proved that he is not one to be cowed easily.
It would be recalled that after his controversial election as Senate President in June, an opportunity for Saraki to mend fences with the APC leadership soon presented itself on the selection of principal officers of the Senate.
In a ‘no victor, no vanquished’ compromise that would have resolved the Senate leadership tussle, the APC National Chairman had written a letter to Saraki intimating him on the decision of the party to have Senator Ahmed Lawan (Yobe), Saraki’s main rival for the Senate Presidency picked as the Senate leader with Senator George Akume (Benue) as his deputy.
For the position of the Chief Whip, Prof. Olusola Adeyeye (Osun) was the party’s choice, while Senator Abu Ibrahim (Katsina) was to serve as his deputy.
In total defiance of his party, Saraki instead named Senator Ali Ndume and Bala Ibn Na’Allah as the Senate Leader and Deputy Senate Leader respectively, with Senator Francis Alimikhena picked as Deputy Chief Whip.
He was, however, silent on the candidate of the South-West geo-political zone, who was expected to fill the Senate chief whip post. Saraki hinged his decision on the letters he received from the North-East, North-West and the South-South caucuses of APC. Curiously, he was silent on the position of Chief Whip that Senator Olusola Adeyeye was pencilled down to fill.
Like in a movie thriller with several twists and turns, the Saraki saga took another dimension with the quizzing of Saraki’s wife, Toyin by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over alleged shady contracts during her husband’s tenure as the governor of Kwara State.
EFCC acted on a petition allegedly written by the Kwara State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). But a few days after Toyin Saraki’s appearance at the anti-graft office in Abuja came the denial from Kwara PDP that it forwarded any petition against the former Kwara first lady to the EFCC. Insinuations were rife then that the volte face by the Kwara PDP was at the instance of its national headquarters.
Again, Saraki refused to be beaten to submission. On August 25, the Senate Committee on Public Petitions and Ethics summoned the EFCC Chairman, Ibrahim Lamorde, to appear before it over allegations of N1trillion fraud.
The invitation was sequel to a petition written by Dr. George Uboh, Chief Executive Officer, Panic Alert Security Services.
Uboh had alleged that the EFCC boss diverted multi-billion naira funds, including the loot recovered from a former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun.
The petitioner had also alleged that EFCC operates accounts in banks to warehouse recovered funds, which do not reflect in EFCC’s audited accounts; doctoring and manipulation of bank accounts to conceal diversion of funds; release of recovered funds to unidentified persons and EFCC officials and movement of funds from its recovery accounts to the agency’s operations accounts from where it diverts same.
Other allegations are that over 95 percent of EFCC’s recoveries in foreign currencies, other than those from multinational companies have been diverted; trading with recovered funds through bank deposits and placements; colluding with real estate companies in order to grossly undervalue seized assets before they are sold to cronies; non-accountability of offshore recoveries, while over half of the assets seized from suspects are not reflected in EFCC exhibit records.
The petitioner and Lamorde were to appear before the Committee for questioning over the alleged fraud allegedly committed during Lamorde’s tenure as the Director of Operations of the EFCC between 2003 and 2007, as well as the Acting Chairman of the commission between June 2007 and May 2008.
Lamorde failed to turn up at the Senate hearing, even as not a few believed that Uboh may have acted at Saraki’s behest to get back at EFCC for “the embarrassment meted to his person by his wife’s invitation.”
The obstinacy displayed by the Senate President so far in his “war” with his opponents has raised fears that he may have some “jokers” up his sleeves in response to his arraignment at the CCT.
Options before Saraki
That Saraki is not willing to go down without a fight is becoming clearer every passing day.
And he has loyal comrades in PDP Senators who are said to be absolutely angered by his trial at the CCT, and are poised to go for the broke with the Presidency, which they believe is behind Saraki’s travails.
With the commencement of the trial of Saraki fixed for October 21, the Saraki camp, The Nation learnt, has returned to the drawing board to perfect its plot against the Presidency.
One of the options being considered is that in the event that Saraki is convicted by the CCT, a new Senate President from the PDP would be elected to replace him. Security agencies are in the know of the plot, it was gathered. The PDP senators are banking on the support of the APC senators loyal to Saraki to achieve this plan, a source disclosed.
There are also speculations that pro-Saraki lawmakers have “laid an ambush” for President Muhammadu Buhari’s ministerial list, which would be made public anytime soon.
“The list may be rejected along with the previous appointments made by the President in protest against Saraki’s trial,” The Nation further learnt. Some of these appointments include those of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Assets Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), among others. The game plan, sources insist, is to frustrate the President.
Though it is not clear yet how the PDP senators intend to frustrate the ministerial screening, but an APC senator who spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity, said they may rely on a Senate rule, which stipulates that any ministerial nominee that fails to secure the endorsement of at least two Senators from his state would be not be cleared.
When reminded that the rule was jettisoned by the 7th Senate in the clearance of Senator Musiliu Obanikoro, whose ministerial nomination by ex-President Goodluck Jonathan was vehemently opposed by the three senators from Lagos State- Mrs. Oluremi Tinubu, Ganiyu Solomon and Gbenga Ashafa-the PDP Senator replied, “You have forgotten that Obanikoro’s nomination scaled through, because the then Senate President, David Mark, was on the same page with the Presidency. But the scenario we have now is completely different, because Saraki, who is being frustrated by the APC, would remain on his seat when ministerial screening gets under way.”
Beside the endorsement of two Senators from the state of origin to clear every ministerial nominee, another Senate rule stipulates that former lawmakers at state and federal levels would only be asked to “take a bow and go,” though it is not clear yet if these rules would be strictly enforced this time around.
The powers of the Senate President, it was gathered, may be brought to bear in the clearance or rejection of the nominees. “David Mark could have acceded to the demands of the Lagos Senators to reject Obanikoro’s nomination, but he used his powers as the presiding officer to thwart that move. Trust Saraki to also deploy his powers for maximum effect,” said the PDP senator.
Crack in Saraki’s camp
While the plot to frustrate the Presidency is afoot, a seeming crack has reportedly ensued within the pro-Saraki group known as the ‘Like Minds Senators’ over the most feasible method to resolve the crisis.
Some weeks ago, Senate Leader, Ali Ndume (a Saraki loyalist) paid separate visits to President Buhari and the National Leader of the APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu.
Ndume’s visits to the two leaders were to seek for their “understanding and forgiveness” on the role he, in concert with others played in installing Saraki as the Senate President.
But to Ndume’s shock, both Buhari and Tinubu reportedly restated their loyalty to the supremacy of the party and that the minimum irreducible condition for peace was for Saraki to obey the party’s position on the composition of the leadership of the National Assembly.
Ndume’s peace initiative, however, allegedly did not go down well with Saraki, who was quoted to have boasted: “We (Senators) don’t need the President; he is the one who needs us.” This statement soon got to the ears of some trusted aides of the President and APC leaders, a source disclosed.
Signs that all may not be well in the Saraki camp emerged last week during his appearance at the CCT, as many of his known supporters in the Senate were absent.
Later that evening, Saraki’s Media Office issued a statement claiming that about 50 Senators accompanied the Senate President to the Tribunal in solidarity with him. But as it later turned out, only 25 senators were counted as having gone with him to the venue of his trial.
Several excuses have been adduced as reasons for the senators’ absence. While some of them like Ndume were away in Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage, a few others particularly Dino Melaye (spokesman of Like Minds Senators), were believed to be battling with their cases at the Election Petition Tribunal, with others also believed to have stayed away in order not to be “caught in the crossfire between Saraki and his opponents.”
Other (un)likely options
In most political disputes where no idea for settlement is considered impossible or unlikely, a few options are presently being bandied to resolve the Saraki saga once and for all.
The possibility of the “combatants” agreeing on a political solution is being talked about within the APC circles. And that would mean the President intervening to save Saraki from his ordeal.
But sources in the party have dismissed this option, insisting that the President will not under any circumstance influence the wheel of justice in the spirit of his anti-corruption agenda.
Political observers say another likely or unlikely option Saraki is faced with is to eat the humble pie, resign and make peace with his party leaders. That way, his trial at the CCT, which his sympathisers describe as “political,” may be thrown out.
But this option has a major challenge. It would make nonsense of the President’s anti-corruption stance and rubbish his integrity.
The third option is for the Senate President to enter into a plea bargain, and this way, gets a light or no conviction but forfeit his assets to the government. “That is very, very unlikely. The Leader (as Saraki is fondly addressed by his associates) would never agree to that,” said one of his loyalists, a former commissioner in Kwara State.
The Nation gathered that none of these latter options sound as sweet music in the ears of both the pro and anti-Saraki camps.
While the Saraki group believe accepting these options is akin to pleading guilty to the charges against him, his opponents are also sufficiently infuriated enough that they are not willing to give him any breather at this stage.
The other option before the two camps is to dig in and allow the judicial process to run its full course.
“He is not shaken,” said a source close to him, adding, “With majority of senators solidly behind him, the Senate President will retain his seat come what may.”
But can Saraki retain the loyalty of his colleagues (some of whom are battling to save their skins) as his trial gets into full swing next month? Would he survive this battle which has undoubtedly been the most testing in his political career or get consumed in it?
The next few months may well provide answers to the posers.