Tuesday, September 22, 2015 8:49 pm
As expected, the trial of Senator Abubakar Olubukola Saraki on charges of false declaration of assets before the Code of Conduct Tribunal on Tuesday was full of drama. For one, the Police ensured that passers-by and those living in the environ of the court became aware that the accused being brought to the tribunal is a big fish by cordoning off the roads leading to the tribunal at least, one kilometre away.
The law enforcement agency drafted its regular men, riot police and others in the Force bomb disposal unit into the tight security cordon it provided at the in and around the premises of the tribunal. Still, the Police have a hard time controlling the influx supporters of the Senate President, some of whom came in chattered buses all the way from Kwara State from getting access into the premises of the tribunal as hard as they tried.
Thus, it was not a surprise that the courtroom was already full nearly two hours to the commencement of the proceedings at the Tribunal.(#sarakiontrial)
But the courtroom became even more congested when the accused (or is it the defendant, as his counsel, Joseph Daodu will prefer that he is referred to) enter the courtroom with scores of Senators led by Ike Ekweremadu, his deputy accompanying him around 9.35 am. The Senate President and his colleagues came to the tribunal in two Toyota civilian buses and journalists and others were asked to vacate some rows of chairs they have been sitting on give space to the lawmakers.
Saraki sat sandwiched between his colleagues as they wait for the Tribunal to commence proceedings. Meanwhile, the media aides of the Senate President were busy running after the management of the court, impressing them on the need to stop live transmission of the trial which was being transmitted on two television stations as well as to control activities of the still cameramen.
They were successful as an official of the tribunal at their promptings, came to announce that there should be no live transmission of the proceedings. He came back a few minutes later to announce that despite the warnings, one of the television stations was still transmitting events from the tribunal live, an indication that the Senate’s President’s aides were really monitoring the media reportage of the event.
However, just as everyone thought that everything is set for the proceedings to commence, a suspicious power failure threw the courtroom into darkness with the accompanying heat which persisted for over 30 minutes.
Proceedings began at about 10.32 am, few minutes after power was restored to the courtroom, with the entrance of Justice Umar.
The Chairman of the Tribunal apologised for the delay in commencement of proceedings.
The case number was called and he was informed that the accused was in court.
“Where is the accused?,” the Chairman of the Tribunal asked and the Senate President promptly stood up from where he was seated among his colleagues. This kicked off an argument between Rotimi Jacob, the prosecution counsel and Joseph Daodu, the defence counsel as they argued back and forth on where the accused should sit and whether his plea should be taken.
The prosecution counsel told the tribunal that the business of the day is for the accused person to take his plea. Jacob said the issue of jurisdiction has already been ruled on by the Tribunal on Friday and the case has been mentioned. He accused the defence of trying to outstretch the administration of justice procedure, citing the various applications filed at Federal and Appeal Court by the accused. Jacobs insists that the accused person must take his plea.
“The business of the court today is for the accused to take his plea, not any preliminary objection,” said Jacobs. But the defence counsel who was determined to ensure that his client was not docked said the Tribunal is not a court to try criminal cases and as such, there is no need for the accused to enter the dock to take a plea before proceedings can begin backing up his argument with paragraph 18, Subsection 1 of the 5th Schedule of the 1999 Constitution.
He reminded the tribunal that his client has already filed two suits at the Court of Appeal and the Federal High Court to challenge its jurisdiction and as such, it should exercise caution in proceeding with the hearing. The prosecution counsel however drew attention of the court to the Administration of Justice Act, 2015, which according to him, stipulates that a matter could be heard alongside any preliminary objection regarding the tribunal’s jurisdiction. He asked the tribunal chairman to compel the accused person to go to the dock.
The defence counsel insisted that the trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal is not criminal in nature, citing the punishments usually meted out for infractions to buttress his point. At the end, Justice Umar ruled that the matter was criminal and that the Senate President must take his plea to the 13 count charge before the trial will proceed.
“I hold that the trial before the tribunal is purely criminal,” Justice Umar said. Thus, the Senate President was forced to enter the dock for his plea to the 13 charges to be taken.
But even at that, this was not without protests as the Senate President said contrary to the provision of the Act that set up the Code of Conduct Bureau which forwarded the charges to the Tribunal, he was not informed of the discrepancies in the assets declaration forms he filled when he was elected and was leaving office as Governor of Kwara State. He also said since he was in court as the Senate president to indicate his respect for the rule of law and the tribunal, he should not have been compelled to enter the dock. But this did not prevent the taking of his plea by the court.
Saraki pleaded not guilty to the 12 counts of the charge and just before he pleaded not guilty to the 13 count, he reminded the tribunal again that he was not given the opportunity of seeing the charge earlier on.
“The judiciary is on trial,” he declared.
But the prosecution counsel, insisted that the charge was made known to the accused and asked the tribunal to discountenance everything the accused said inside the dock as only his counsel is empowered to speak for. him
Taking up the argument, the defence counsel asked the Tribunal to release his clients so that he can go and study the charge since he is just seeing them. He promised to ensure that the Senate President is present in court at the next adjourned date.
But the prosecution counsel countered, insisting that the Senate President has been served with the charge and all the documents that will be used to prove the case against him at the tribunal. Jacob, who reminded the Tribunal that cases are supposed to go on from day to day when the trial began said he is ready to open his case against the accused. According to him, the prosecution will prove its case against Saraki using the four assets declaration forms he filled in 2003, 2007 and on his exit from office as the governor of Kwara State in 2011.
The defence counsel also told the court that he had his five witnesses who were ready to testify against the Senate President in court on Tuesday.
“I was thinking that he will be ready, I have my witnesses here” Jacobs said of his readiness to go on with the trial. He also told the court that the prosecution only need between two and three days to prove its case against the accused.
However, the courtroom was thrown into laughter when the defence counsel indicated that the title documents for the sale of one of the property which Saraki claimed to have bought in 2003 was signed by former minister of FCT, now, Governor of Kaduna State in 2007.
At the end, Justice Umar acceded to the request of the defence counsel for adjournment while granting Saraki bail on self recognition.
He adjourned hearing on the case till October 21, 2015, an announcement which led to eruption of joy among senators.
This magazine however learnt that the defence is hoping that by then, the two cases filed to restrain the Tribunal, the Code of Conduct Bureau, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation from proceeding with his trial as well as well as another case asking the court of Appeal to stay proceedings would have overtaken his trial at the Tribunal.
Saraki had last Friday and yesterday refused to attend his trial at the Tribunal citing the two suits he had filed at the two courts.
His lawyer had argued that the pendency of the two suits should have led to suspension of the trial of the Senate President by the Tribunal.
But the Chairman of the Tribunal refused and issued a bench warrant asking the Inspector General of Police and other relevant security agencies to ensure Saraki’s present in court last Friday. The Chairman of the Tribunal re-issued the warrant on Monday.
This was just as the Court of Appeal on the same day also dismissed the ex-parte application by Senate President, seeking to set aside the order made on Friday by the Tribunal issuing bench warrant for Saraki’s arrest.
The Court literarily pushed the Senate President back to the Code of Conduct Tribunal as it asserted that it cannot it cannot interfere with the proceedings at the lower court. Instead, it asked that respondents to the suit should to be put on notice.
While refusing the ex-parte application, the court set 29 September date for hearing. The woes of the Senate President were compounded at the Federal High Court where Justice Mohammed refused a similar application by Saraki. He adjourned to September 30 for the hearing of the substantive suit in which the Senate President is challenging the competence of charge before the CCT and the preliminary objection filed by the CCT, Code of Conduct Tribunal and Federal Ministry of Justice.
The Judge said in view of the constitutional and radical nature of the issues raised in the respondents’ objection, it was reasonable for the court not to waste time on interlocutory applications.
Having lost at both courts and with the possibility of their principal being arrested like a common felon, the media office of the Senate President hurriedly issued what looked like a face saving statement indicating that the Saraki will attend his trial at the CCT on Tuesday.
“Following the adjournment for the determination of the motion on notice and the substantive suit before the Federal High Court to 30th of September and the appeal pending before the Court of Appeal adjourned to the 29th of September 2015, the Senate President has decided, as a law abiding citizen, to appear before the Tribunal in the interim,” Saraki’s media office said to indicate he will attend his trial at the Tribunal today.
The Federal Government had, on 11 September filed a 13-count charge of false declaration of assets against Saraki while his arraignment was fixed for Friday. Government had alleged in the 13 count charge that the Senate President failed to declare or made anticipatory declaration of his assets in the assets declaration form he submitted to Code of Conduct Tribunal when he served as Kwara State Governor between 2003 and 2009.
The Senate President was accused of failure to declare to declare his property on Plot 2A, Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos; No 1, Tagus Street, Maitama, Abuja (Plot 2482, Cadastral Zone A06, Abuja) and failure to declare property No 3, Tagus Street, Maitama, Abuja (Plot 2481, Cadastral Properties Limited).
He was also accused of claiming to own claiming to own property on No 42, Gerard Road, Ikoyi and earning N110, 000,000 per annum at a time the property was under construction; failure to declare N375m GTB loan converted to 1.5m Pound Sterling which used to purchase property in London; operating a foreign bank account; transfer of $3.4m from GTB to foreign bank account during his tenure as governor and failure to declare leasehold interest in No. 42, Remi Fani-Kayode Street, Ikeja.
In the same vein, the Senate President was alleged to have made anticipatory asset declaration of a house in Ikoyi in his asset declaration form he submitted to the CCB in 2003. As contained in the charges, Saraki claimed that he owned and acquired No 15A and 15B McDonald Road, 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.
Thus, the Senate President was accused of gross violation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended and 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. Some of his alleged offences 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.