At the resumed trial of Senate President Bukola Saraki Wednesday in Abuja, the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), Mr. Danladi Umar, entertained the hearing on the motion of notice seeking his disqualification on the grounds that he lacks the moral justification to preside over his (Saraki’s) trial.
Saraki, who is standing trial for false declaration of assets when he was the governor of Kwara State between 2003 and 2011, insisted that the CCT chairman was under investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the same agency that allegedly investigated and filed criminal charges against him at the tribunal.
In the motion argued by one of his lawyers, Ajibola Oluyede, Saraki claimed that since the EFCC is largely responsible for the trial and also responsible for investigating the N10 million bribery allegation against the chairman, there was no way the chairman would be objective and impartial in the prosecution.
Oluyede argued that Umar owed the EFCC, which exonerated the tribunal chairman of wrongdoing, a favour and was likely to convict Saraki at all cost to repay that favour.
EFCC last week cleared Umar of the N10 million bribery allegation made by one Mr. AbdulRashid Owolabi Taiwo, in his petition to the commission.
Taiwo, who was being tried by the CCT, alleged that Umar had demanded the N10 million bribe from him.
He claimed that part of the money was paid into the bank account of the personal assistant of the chairman, prompting him to write a petition against the chairman to the EFCC.
However, whilst Umar’s personal assistant is standing trial for accepting the bribe from Taiwo, the EFCC went against the recommendation made by the then Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Mr. Mohammed Adoke, in 2014 that the CCT chairman should be prosecuted.
At Saraki’s resumed trial yesterday, Oluyede claimed that since the Sword of Damocles is dangling over the tribunal chairman’s head, he would be tempted to dance to the tune of the EFCC, if only to rescue himself from the allegations against him.
Oluyede, whose submissions made the CCT chairman visibly uncomfortable on several occasions, asked Umar to honourably recuse himself from presiding over Saraki’s trial in the interest of justice.
The counsel insisted that available facts had proved that EFCC was largely responsible for the investigation of Saraki and that it was the same EFCC that filed the charge and allegedly deployed its main lawyer, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), to prosecute the matter.
The only witness called so far by the prosecution during Saraki’s trial at the tribunal is Mr. Michael Wetkas, a detective with the EFCC.
Oluyede insisted that in the course of the investigation into the N10 million bribery allegation, the CCT chairman was indicted in a report signed by a former Chairman of EFCC, Mr. Ibrahim Larmode, and that the purported letter of EFCC clearing the chairman of the allegation well over a year after his indictment could not stand on the face of the law because it did not emanate from the AGF being the appropriate authority to clear him.
“Mr. Chairman, with all these facts placed before this tribunal, the legitimacy of this proceeding is questionable because the chairman may not be impartial.
“There is something wrong with the EFCC for it to have accused Your Lordship of having audience with the accused in his chambers and there is circumstantial evidence that your lordship collected the bribe, only for it to come out now with a letter of clearance. That is suspicious; it is a cloudy relationship between the EFCC and the tribunal chairman.
“We do not know what prompted the EFCC to recant on the indictment of the CCT chairman when there are sufficient grounds for the EFCC to request for the call logs of the conversation between Umar and one Rashidi Taiwo from whom the N10m bribe was demanded,” Oluyede said.
However, in his objection to the motion, the prosecuting counsel prayed the tribunal to dismiss the motion for lacking in merit.
Jacobs reminded the tribunal of one of its earlier rulings where it held that the charges against Saraki were filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and not EFCC.
He also accused Saraki of harassing the tribunal chairman by making reference to a bill before the Senate, which he said was designed to whittle down the powers of the CCT chairman.
He said that by asking the tribunal chairman to disqualify himself, Saraki was trying to render Umar incapable of carrying out his official functions even though Umar had not been charged with any offence.
But Jacobs, in the main, did not appear to address the allegation by Saraki that he could not get justice at the tribunal as long as Umar remained at the helms of affairs.
He said: “The absurdity of this application is that the defendant here is still performing his duty as the Senate president and still presided over the Senate as of today.
“He has been charged to court, whereas the investigation of the CCT chairman by the EFCC remains an investigation. He has not been charged to court or convicted.
“It is the defendant that has been charged to court. The issues raised in the application are matters of sentiment which has no place in law.”
Despite the claim by Saraki’s lead counsel, Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN), that Oluyede was a member of the defence team, Jacobs again objected to his appearance, saying: “Mr. Oluyede has never appeared for Saraki at this tribunal at the time he filed the motion, he is not a counsel on the record as at the day he filed his motion.”
He also faulted the application for the chairman of the tribunal to disqualify himself on the grounds that the application presumed EFCC to be a party, whereas the commission was not.
The tribunal will rule on the application today.
However, before the arguments on the motion began, Umar had warned against posting video clips of the tribunal’s proceedings on the social media.
Umar said the tribunal would not hesitate to apply the full weight of the law against the culprits.
A video clip of the chairman’s heated exchange with Oluyede last week was posted on the internet.
According to Umar, those who posted the video did so with the sole purpose of misleading the public about the actual proceedings in the tribunal.
He said the CCT would discuss with both the prosecution and defence counsel on the possibility of inviting NTA, AIT, and Channels Television networks to broadcast live to avoid misrepresentation.
Umar also directed all armed security personnel attached to the Senate president to vacate the venue of the tribunal.
According to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), there was a high presence of armed security personnel within and outside the CCT Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Saraki yesterday got some support from unexpected quarters when 17 opposition political parties demanded the immediate resignation of Umar over his alleged compromise and bias in the ongoing trial of the Senate president.
The political parties also faulted his clearance by the EFCC, saying: “The only way President Muhammadu Buhari can prove that his government is indeed serious about fighting corruption is to direct an immediate investigation into the circumstances that led to the EFCC issuing this so-called letter of clearance to Mr. Umar.”
Similarly, a rights group under the aegis of Coalition of Civil Society and Pressure Groups has decried the occupation of the National Assembly by a group known as #OccupyNASS, alleging political motives behind the protest.
While addressing reporters yesterday in Abuja, the National Chairman of Labour Party, Abdulkadir Abdulsalam, who spoke on behalf of the parties, said it was clear that Umar is an interested party in the case, “hence, he should step down from the Saraki trial”.
Some of the political parties represented at the press briefing included Labour Party, PPN, AA, MPPP, NCP, DPP and ADC, among others.
“We believe his continued stay on the bench while this defendant is appearing before the tribunal supports the conspiracy theory that there is an agenda to convict Dr. Saraki by all means.
“President Buhari needs to act now, not to stop Saraki’s trial, but to ensure that the process of fighting corruption does not end up being even more corrupt than the corruption it seeks to eliminate,” they said.
While stressing that they were not against the corruption fight or were in anyway canvassing that Saraki should not be tried, the political leaders said: “We are only insisting that the trial should follow the due process of law and be transparent. This is the only way the outcome would be credible and acceptable to all citizens and the rest of the world at large.
“We affirm that if Mr. Danladi Umar continues to sit in the Saraki case, this would only serve to further strengthen the narrative that the Senate president is merely being persecuted as a result of intra-APC politics and not because of any genuine commitment to fight corruption.”
Abdulsalam further stated that there were genuine fears that the current anti-corruption drive of the Buhari administration might go the way of previous ones if nothing urgent is done to steer it away from its selective and vindictive tendencies.
“We however wish to note that this is not the first time that a president of this country would be declaring war against corruption. In fact, the reason corruption is still a primary issue for the Buhari administration is that previous attempts were not as successful as they should have been.
“We aver that one of the major obstacles in the fight against political corruption in Nigeria over the years, is the way and manner it has been fought so as to give the impression that the fight is selective and targeted only at the perceived enemies of government.
“Once an anti-corruption action is perceived as politically motivated, then the entire war against corruption easily gets reduced to a means of settling political scores rather than a genuine commitment to fighting corruption. We are afraid that if care is not taken, President Buhari’s avowed commitment to fighting corruption may end up in the way of his predecessors,” he said.
Also the civil society group, which operates under the name, #SAVENASS, called for the absolute independence of the National Assembly and for the security agencies to ensure that politicians in the ruling APC are not allowed to carry over their intra-party squabbles into the legislative chambers.
Addressing reporters in Abuja wednesday, the spokesperson for the group, Ambassador Phil Roberts, urged the security agencies to secure the National Assembly premises from attacks by sponsored political jobbers operating as self-styled anti-corruption protesters.
He alleged that the demonstration by #OccupyNASS was sponsored by politicians and some government bodies in order to force Saraki to resign.