ABUJA—Temporary reprieve came the way of the Senate President, Dr. Olubukola Saraki, yesterday, as the Supreme Court aborted bid by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, to begin full blown hearing on the 13-count criminal charge preferred against him by the Federal Government.
In a ruling, yesterday, a five-man panel of justices of the apex court, led by Justice John Fabiyi, directed the CCT to ‘tarry awhile’ to enable it look into Saraki’s appeal.
It will be recalled that the Justice Danladi Umar-led tribunal had on November 5 declined to suspend hearing on the case.
The tribunal, while refusing to hands-off the matter, gave the Federal Government the nod to call witnesses to testify against the Senate President on November 19.
Justice Umar anchored his decision on Section 305 (c) of the newly-enacted Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, which he said gave the tribunal powers to conclude the trial and pass sentence, but suspend execution until such a time the appeal before the higher court was considered and decided.
The decision infuriated Saraki’s lawyers who walked out on the tribunal, even as they accused the panel of engaging in “an act of rascality” by refusing to accord respect to judicial hierarchy.
CCT should halt proceedings until…
However, in its ruling, yesterday, the Supreme Court ordered the CCT to stay its proceedings to enable it look into legal issues raised before it by Saraki. Though government had at the tribunal opposed Saraki’s move to stay his trial, it, however, made a U-turn at the Supreme Court yesterday, saying it would not go ahead with the trial until the appeal was determined.
Prosecuting counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, entered an undertaking that “no unusual step will be taken by the Federal Government”, in relation to the charge against Saraki.
He, however, sought an accelerated hearing of the appeal, adding that the Federal Government had already filed a counter-affidavit where it adduced reasons Saraki should be allowed to face trial. He told the apex court that the 25-paragraph counter-affidavit was sworn to by one Samuel Adeyemi on November 10.
Rotimi said his decision to enter an undertaking on behalf of the Federal Government was to protect the validity of Section 306 of the ACJA, 2015, which he said forbids the granting of stay of proceedings in a criminal trial.
He argued that the essence of the section would be defeated should the apex court issue an express order directing the tribunal to stay its proceedings.
“I can give an undertaking not to proceed with the case before the tribunal, but for your lordships to grant stay is what I am concerned about. I am worried about what it will portend for the criminal justice system and for Nigeria”, Rotimi submitted.
Nevertheless, in their unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court judges gave both Saraki and the Federal Government seven days each to file and exchange their briefs of argument.
“In view of the fact that the learned counsel to the respondent has given an undertaking that no unusual step will be taken, it is imperative to state that all the parties, including the Code of Conduct Tribunal, should tarry a while to enable this court determine the appeal before it.
“In effect, further proceedings at the CCT should be stayed, pending the hearing of the appeal. Hearing date will be communicated to all the parties”, Justice Fabiyi ruled.
Prior to the ruling, Saraki had, through his team of eight Senior Advocates of Nigeria, led by Mr. J. B. Daudu, challenged the competence of the 13-count charge and the jurisdiction of the CCT to entertain same.
He maintained that the CCT panel erred when it decided to go ahead with the trial, despite pendency of the appeal before the apex court. Saraki’s lawyer argued that the Justice Umar-led panel ought to have shown respect to the Supreme Court, being the highest court of the land.
He said: “The dignity and finality of the apex court must be preserved at all times to uphold the sanctity of the rule of law and avoid anarchy.”
Saraki sought the intervention of the Supreme Court after he failed to persuade a three-man panel of justices of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, to quash the criminal charge against him.
In his appeal marked SC/852/2015, he prayed the apex court to invoke its powers and quash the 13-count criminal charge against him.
He wants the Supreme Court to set aside the judgement of the appellate court which had on October 30, granted the Federal Government the nod to go ahead with his trial.
He applied for: “An order staying further proceedings in Charge No: CCT/ABJ/01/2015 between Federal Republic of Nigeria vs Dr. Olubukola Abubakar Saraki fixed for hearing on November 5 and 6, 2015 pending the determination of the appeal before the Supreme Court against the judgment of the Court of Appeal dated October 30, 2015.”
Saraki’s grounds of appeal
In his seven grounds of appeal, Saraki, asked the apex court to overrule the appellate court, void all the steps that the Justice Danladi Umar-led tribunal had taken so far, as well as, quash the 13-count criminal charge against him.
He contended that the appellate court panel, led by Justice Moore Adumein, erred in law when it affirmed the competence of the proceedings of the CCT which sat on the appellant’s case with only two members against the three provided for in the provisions of Paragraph 15(1) of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution.
Saraki’s lawyer, Daudu, also faulted the majority decision of the appeal court where it held that there was lacuna regarding the quorum of the tribunal.
He argued that the application of the Interpretation Act to hold that two out of three members of the tribunal could validly sit “is to circumvent and reduce the number prescribed by the Constitution for the due composition of the CCT”.
Similarly, Saraki faulted the majority decision of the appeal court where it held that the CCT was a court of limited criminal jurisdiction and that the charges were validly initiated by a Deputy Director in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr. M.S. Hassan, in the absence of a substantive Attorney-General of the Federation.
More so, he challenged the decision of the appeal court which held that Saraki had been properly served with the charges, at a time when his legal team only filed motion for conditional appearance before bench warrant was issued against him by the CCT.
Saraki’s lawyer further argued that the court of appeal erred in law for refusing to hold that the tribunal violated the order of the Federal High Court in Abuja which he said ordered the tribunal to appear before the court to show cause why its proceedings against Saraki should not be halted.
According to him, the appeal court erred in law when it held that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 was applicable to the proceeding of the tribunal.
The appellate court had in two-to-one split decision on October 30, dismissed Saraki’s appeal against the ruling of the Justice Umar Danladi-led tribunal. Whereas the duo of Justices Adumein and Mohammed Mustapha dismissed Saraki’s appeal and ordered him to submit himself to the CCT for trial, another member of the panel, Justice Joseph Ekanem, held that the 13-count charge was incompetent, even as he discharged the accused person.
Saraki was in the charge before the CCT, marked ABT/01/15 and dated September 11, 2015, alleged to have falsely declared his assets, contrary to the constitutionally requirement.
He was accused of deliberately manipulating the assets declaration form that he filed prior to his assumption of office as the Senate President, by making anticipatory declaration of assets, as well as, operated foreign bank account while in office as a public servant.
The offence was said to have been committed while Saraki held sway as governor of Kwara State.
He was also accused of breaching Section 2 of the CCB and Tribunal Act, an offence punishable under section 23(2) of the Act and paragraph 9 of the said Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.