ABUJA — The trial of Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged false declaration of assets turned dramatic, yesterday, as Saraki’s lawyers, comprising three Senior Advocates of Nigeria and 24 other lawyers walked out of the court abandoning the Senate president in the dock. The defence lawyers staged a walk-out following the refusal of the tribunal chairman, Justice Danladi Umar to suspend the trial until Saraki’s appeal before the Supreme Court is determined.
The Senate President had gone before the apex court to challenge the constitutionality of the charge which was preferred against him by the Federal Government, as well as the jurisdiction of the two-man tribunal to entertain same. He prayed the Supreme Court to set aside an appeal court judgment that gave the tribunal the nod to try him.
Meantime, Saraki’s lawyers, yesterday, accused the tribunal of engaging in an act of “judicial rascality”, by refusing to accord respect to the apex court which they said was already seized of the facts of the case, saying they would not take part in an “illegal proceeding”.
When the matter was called yesterday, the prosecutor, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, informed the tribunal that the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal had in a judgment it delivered on October 30, paved the way for full-fledged trial to commence on the criminal case against Saraki. Rotimi insisted that the appellate court, in its verdict, settled Saraki’s contention with regards to the jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him.
He said: “The Appeal Court held that the charge was proper and the tribunal properly constituted to sit with two members. We have the Certified True Copy of that judgment. This matter was adjourned till today for us to report the outcome of the proceeding before the appeal court and for continuation of trial. The appeal court, having disposed of the case before it, my lords we are ready to open our case against the defendant. Our witnesses are present.”
Confirming the judgment of the appellate court panel which he said was split, Saraki’s lawyer, Magaji, SAN, told the tribunal that his client would like to make a fresh application.
“My lords, we have an application to make. It is true that judgment was delivered by the Court of Appeal on October 30. Sequel to that judgement, there was a split decision of the court of appeal. As a result of the dissenting judgment, the defendant filed a notice of appeal to the Supreme Court, challenging the decision of the Appeal Court”, Magaji submitted.
He told the tribunal that the notice of the appeal marked SC/852/2015 and dated November 2, had been served on all the parties in the matter, adding that the record of the proceedings of the appellate court has already been transmitted to the Supreme Court.
More so, Saraki’s lawyer, said his client had also filed a motion for stay of proceedings of the tribunal, at the apex court. He said that the tribunal was duly notified about the pendency of the appeal at the Supreme Court via a letter addressed to its chairman, Justice Umar, on November 4.
“In essence, we are saying that we have a valid appeal before your lordships at the Supreme Court”, Magaji added, arguing that for the tribunal to begin hearing on the matter would amount to an affront and disrespect to the judicial hierarchy.
Saraki’s counsel relied on the decided cases of Achebe vs Mbanefo, 10-NWLR, 2007, part 1043, and AGF vs Fakunwa-Onikoyi, 18-NWLR, part 1010, and argued that the tribunal, as a lower court, was constitutionally bound to put its proceeding in abeyance pending determination of the appeal before the Supreme Court. He argued that they are expecting a date for hearing of the appeal, saying they would apply for the apex court to abridge its proceedings so that the matter could be expeditiously determined.
Meanwhile, prosecuting counsel, Jacobs, SAN, vehemently opposed Saraki’s application, describing it as a ploy by the defendant to frustrate his trial. He argued that going by the provision of Section 287(2) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, the tribunal, including the parties before it, have no option than to enforce the appeal court judgment that ordered the trial to go on.
The government lawyer argued that Saraki’s application was unconstitutional and contrary to Section 306 of the newly-enacted Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, which he said prohibits courts from staying criminal trials.
“I am happy that the lawmakers that made that law are here today (yesterday). They are the ones that said that we must move from the era where corruption cases were handled with levity. They can confirm that the aim and spirit of the ACJA is for speedy and efficient management of criminal cases.
“Section 396(3) and (4) of the same Act says that after plea has been taken, criminal cases must he heard on a day-to-day basis. As it stands, there is no order from the Supreme Court. Besides, it is a fact that the apex court is presently hearing appeals lodged before it since 2012. Is the defendant asking your lordships to adjourn and wait until the next two years for his appeal to be determined?
“I pray your lordships not to fall for this invitation. Since this matter started, they have brought one motion or the other to frustrate this trial. They have gone before the Federal High Court, the Appeal Court and now the Supreme Court. Even now my lords, they have filed another case in Lagos State where they joined everybody, all in a bid to stop this case.
“I urge your lordships to reject this application. He wants to deprive us of the fruit of our labour. The court should rise and stop this disturbing trend in our criminal justice system”, Jacobs added.
He also relied on the authority in Dariye vs FRN, 2013, 10-NWLR, part 1457 and that of Ajiboye vs FRN, 2013, 4-FWLR, part 694, and urged the tribunal to refuse Saraki’s request.
Replying on points of law, Saraki through another lawyer in his camp, Mr. Ahmed Raji, SAN, contended that the only issue for the tribunal to decide was whether it could continue with the proceeding despite the appeal before the Supreme Court.
He said: “All we want is to let the head move the tail and not the tail moving the head”.
Meantime, in a ruling it delivered after a one-hour stand down, the tribunal refused Saraki’s application, even as it directed the Federal Government to immediately open its case against him.
According to Justice Umar, “the tribunal has painstakingly analysed all the arguments from both counsel. However, as lawyers, we are ministers in the temple of justice and must at all times advice our clients accordingly and with the interest of justice at heart.
“This tribunal hereby in strength of the provision of Section 305(c) of the ACJA, which gives us the power to conclude trial and pass sentence but suspend execution until such time when an appeal before a higher court is considered and decided, order the prosecution to open its case.
“The essence of the ACJA is to ensure that criminal cases are expeditiously and judiciously thrashed within a short time. The tribunal hereby upholds argument of the prosecution. Moreover, the defendant will never suffer any injury, miscarriage of justice or harm in anyway if the proceeding continues. This tribunal is a sacred institution that took an oath to do justice to all and sundry. The prosecution is hereby ordered to open its case against the defendant”, Justice Umar held.
Immediately the prosecutor, Jacobs, SAN, made move to call his first witness, Saraki’s lawyer, Magaji, SAN, told the tribunal that all the defence counsel would not be comfortable to take part in what he termed “judicial rascality”.
“I therefore hereby withdraw my legal services to the defendant”, he told the panel.
Likewise, Raji, SAN, said: “In my capacity as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, I have not seen where this kind of conduct will be exhibited against the apex court of the country and I don’t want references to be made in future that I was part of such proceeding. I find it most impossible to sit down here and participate in a proceeding whose legality is being challenged at the Supreme Court. We are asking for the indulgence of your lordships to leave,” a request to which Justice Umar replied: “You are all free to go.”
At that juncture, Jacobs noted that though most of his witnesses came from outside Abuja, “we will, however, allow the defendant to make alternative arrangement for lawyers or decide to defend himself.”
Speaking from the dock after all his lawyers had left, Saraki told the court that he had limited knowledge of the legal system, even as he begged for time to seek legal assistance.
“Mr. Chairman, I find myself in a new terrain. Firstly is the fact that my lawyers walked out on me. I need time to go and beg them to come back and in any event that they refuse, I need to look for best hands to defend me. I need to ask them why they did what they did today (yesterday). If they refuse to come back I will then know where to go from there,” Saraki pleaded.
While not opposing Saraki’s plea, the prosecutor, Jacobs, urged the court to adjourn the matter till either today or next week for trial, saying “what happened yesterday is a demonstration of the bad legal advice the defendant has been receiving since this matter started”.
His application did not go down well with Saraki who pleaded with the tribunal to adjourn the matter for one month to enable him make wide consultations with a view to procuring quality legal services.
After listening to Saraki’s plea, Justice Umar, declined to grant one month adjournment on the matter, even as he adjourned the case till November 19 for hearing. Nevertheless, Justice Umar berated Saraki’s legal team, saying “the action of the defendant’s team smacked of disrespect”.
Saraki was accompanied to the tribunal yesterday by Senators from both the All Progressives Congress, APC, and the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
Among the lawmakers that stood by him yesterday included the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, Senate Majority Leader, Ali Ndume, Dino Melaye, Bath Nnaji, Andy Uba, Shehu Sani, James Manager, Danjuma Goje, Abdullahi Adamu, Stella Odua, Adamu Aliero, John Eno, Mao Ohuabunwa, Abdulaziz Nyako, Alhaji Abubakar Kawu Baraje, among others.
Specifically, 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 constitutional 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 a governor.
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.
Government, among other offences, alleged that Saraki, claimed that he owned and acquired No 15A and 15B Mc Donald, Ikoyi, Lagos, through his company, Carlisle Properties Limited in 2000, when the said property was actually sold by the Implementation Committee of the Federal Government landed properties in 2006 to his companies, Tiny Tee Limited and Vitti Oil Limited for the aggregate sum of N396,150,000, 00.
He was alleged to have made false declaration on or about June 3, 2011, by refusing to declare Plot 2A, Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, which he acquired between 2007 and 2008 through his company from the Central Bank of Nigeria for a total sum of N325,000,000, 00.
Similarly, Saraki was said to have refused to declare No1 Tagnus street, Maitama, Abuja, which he claimed to have acquired in November 1996 from one David Baba Akawu.
Some of his alleged offences while in office as governor, which are said to be punishable under section 15(1) and (2) of the CCB and Tribunal Act, Cap C15, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, were allegedly committed between October 2006 and May 2007.
His actions were classified as a gross violation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended.
SERAP wants NBA to probe Saraki’s lawyers on walk-out
Meanwhile, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has called on the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to “urgently investigate the conduct of lawyers to the Senate President Bukola Saraki, for walking out on the Code of Conduct Tribunal after the tribunal refused their application for stay of proceedings.
The organisation said that “It is the role of Sakari’s lawyers to serve their client’s best interests but in doing so they should not act in a manner that would put the administration of justice and the society’s confidence in the judicial system and the fight against corruption at risk.”
In a statement signed by SERAP’s executive director, Adetokunbo Mumuni the organisation said that, “Walking out on the Code of Conduct Tribunal for simply and correctly applying Section 305(e) of the newly enacted Administration of Criminal Justice Act is disrespectful. It offends the basic rule that lawyers should act with integrity and professionalism, maintaining his or her overarching responsibility to ensure civil conduct.
“SERAP believes that a lawyer’s duty to the court is a fundamental obligation that defines a lawyer’s role within the adversarial system. Lawyers should at all times act to promote the rule of law and the public’s confidence in the administration of justice and not be seen to undermine it or facilitate an infringement of the law.
“As we have seen many times, without the rule of law, the rule of the jungle takes hold and the economically and socially vulnerable fall victim to the strong and nobody is safe.”“Senior lawyers especially have a responsibility to act as the guardians of the rule of law by contributing to a strong judicial and legal system which is crucial to a well-functioning democracy and which in turn is necessary to satisfactorily prevent and combat years of official corruption in the country.”