Saraki: Anxiety As Supreme Court Decides
By AHURAKA YUSUF ISAH
As the Supreme Court is set to deliver judgement for the second time in the appeal arising from the trial of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for alleged false asset declaration, AHURAKA YUSUF ISAH writes that the matter may be laid to rest either way tomorrow.
Justice Musa Mohammed Dattijo-led 5-man panel of the Supreme Court had on April 12 this year fixed tomorrow (July 6) for judgment in the appeal of Senate President, Bukola Saraki, against the ruling of the Court of Appeal in his alleged false declaration of his assets trial.
Unlike in many similar politically potent or exposed cases, Justice Dattijo’s panel adjourned for 85 days to decide whether or not the trial of Saraki on charges of false assets declaration before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), should continue.
Of course, beginning mostly with the Amaechi Vs INEC (2008) 5 NWLR (Pt1080) (p.222) when the apex court heard the appeal on October 25, 2007 and on the same day declared the substitution of Amaechi with Celestine Omehia as illegal, null and void and of no legal efficacy; and went ahead to give reason for the judgement on January 18, 2008.
Justice George Oguntade who read the lead judgement, held that Amaechi, having been validly elected in the PDP primaries remained in the eye of the Law, the candidate who contested the governorship election. Consequently, he ordered Omehia be removed and swear-in Amaechi as Governor of Rivers state immediately.
This tradition was aptly amplified during the determination of several gubernatorial and other forms of explosive appeals the apex court sat on after the 2015 elections. This was to prevent the usual pressure brought to bear on the panel members that sat on such appeals. Every situation deserves its peculiar measure or application, and perhaps that informed the long adjournment in the Saraki’s appeal by the Supreme Court.
However, the Supreme Court is to rule on whether or not there is sufficient evidence for the trial before the CCT to continue.
The two-man panel of the CCT headed by Mr. Danladi Umar had on June 14, 2017 acquitted Saraki of the 18 charges of false asset declaration and other related offences preferred against him in September 2015.
The CCT anchored its decision on the grounds that the prosecution, with its four witnesses and 48 documentary exhibits tendered, was unable to establish any prima facie case against the Senate President.
Umar, in his lead ruling, exonerated Saraki, holding that failure of the prosecution to obtain Saraki’s statement and make it a part of the proof of evidence was fatal to the case. He adjudged as “absurd” that neither Saraki’s statement nor the report of investigation said to have been carried out was produced before the tribunal.
But the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, through its private prosecutor, Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), on June 20, 2017, filed an 11-ground notice of appeal against the CCT’s judgment.
It faulted all the grounds on which the CCT predicated Saraki’s acquittal, describing the entire judgment as unreasonable and unconstitutional. Jacobs subsequently filed an appellant’s brief on July 28, 2017 formulating five issues for determination.
Saraki, through his lead counsel, Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN), also filed his respondent’s brief on August 22, 2017.
However, the Court of Appeal in Abuja ruling on December 12, 2017, restored three out of the dismissed 18 counts and ordered Saraki to return to the CCT to defend the three charges. But both Saraki and the Federal Government were dissatisfied with separate parts of the Court of Appeal’s judgment.
While Saraki had appealed to the Supreme Court against the part of the Court of Appeal’s decision restoring three of the 18 counts, the Federal Government had cross-appealed against the part of the decision affirming the tribunal’s dismissal of the rest of the 15 counts.
At the hearing of Saraki’s appeal and the Federal Government’s cross-appeal on April 12, 2018, the lawyers representing both sides argued against each other’s appeals and in support of their individual cases.
The main concern is whether the Supreme Court will necessarily invoke the power conferred on it by virtue of Section 22 of its Act which mandates it to determine substantive suit as if it is sitting as a Court of first instance. That is if the apex court found a merit in the Federal Government’s appeal. This is the argument in some quarters who opined that what’s the use after adjourning for such longer days (85 days) to deliver judgement in this appeal.
The Supreme Court had on June 23 this year (in the appeal SC.583/ 2016) declared Isah Shuaibu Lau as a senator representing Taraba north and sacked former Sanl Abubakar Danladl in an appeal filed by Lau to decide whether the Taraba state High Court has jurisdiction to hear and determine his Suit because of the involvement of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC as a party to the Suit.
Justice Ashi of an FCT High Court had on July 10, 2015 held that he has no jurisdiction to entertain plaintiff’s claim because INEC, which is a federal agency was included as one of the defendants, and consequently makes it inappropriate for the suit to be heard/determined by States/FCT High court.
Justice Amina Adamu Augie who delivered the lead judgement did not just hold that; ‘’the current position of the law is that in exercising jurisdiction under Section 87 (9) of the Electoral Act, the Federal High Court and the High Court of a state or FCT have concurrent jurisdiction to hear and determine dispute arising from conduct of a party’s primaries’’.
It began when the Federal Government had filed a charge marked ABT/01/15 and dated September 11, 2015, against Saraki who was a two-term governor of Kwara State between May 2003 and May 2011, and a Senate President from June 9, 2015.
The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari wants him tried for breaching Section 2 of the CCB and Tribunal Act while he was a governor, an offence punishable under Section 23(2) of the Act and Paragraph 9 of the said Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
Consequently, Saraki on September 22, 2015, pleaded not guilty to the charge which he said was grossly incompetent and ought to be quashed. Refusal of the tribunal to hands-off the trial resulted to Saraki’s lawyers staging a walk-out on the tribunal on November 5, 2015, after they accused the panel of engaging in acts of “judicial rascality”.
In a related development, Justice Abdul Kafarati of the Federal High Court in Abuja had adjourned to March 22, 2016 to deliver judgment on another suit that Saraki filed with a view to disqualifying Justice Umar from handling his trial. Saraki had in the suit contended that Justice Umar was not fit and proper to try him considering that the judge also has a criminal allegation hanging on his neck.
He told the court that Mr Umar was being investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), over allegations bothering on corruption. Saraki said he would not be accorded fair-hearing by the tribunal, alleging that the charge pending against him before the CCT was instigated by the anti-graft agency. He argued that Mr Umar, in a bid to save himself from prosecution, would dance to the tune of the EFCC which he said usurped the responsibility of the CCB by recommending his trial for an offence that was allegedly committed years back.
He therefore sought an order nullifying the charge and the proceedings of the CCT on the grounds that they allegedly fell short of the requirements of Article 3 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution.
But following online media report (SaharaReporters), Justice Kafarati suddenly recused himself from the case on March 22, 2016 claiming his reputation had been impugned upon. But the intervention of the then CJN, Justice Mahmoud Mohammed, led Justice Kafarati to deliver judgement in the suit on April 15, 2016.
Justice Kafarati held that he lacked jurisdiction to entertain Saraki’s suit, filed under the fundamental human rights enforcement rules, claiming it constituted an abuse of court process. Justice Ibrahim Buba of a Federal High Court in Lagos had about that time declined jurisdiction in another suit Saraki filed before him against the matter in CCT.
The defense team had wanted the tribunal to suspend the trial and allow the Supreme Court to pronounce on the competence of the proceeding. Though the CCT declined to stay proceeding on the matter, on November 12, 2015, a Supreme Court panel headed by Justice John Fabiyi (now retired), directed the tribunal to “tarry for a while” to enable them to look into Saraki’s appeal.
This Justice Fabiyi-led panel ruling was greeted by uproar and the panel was subsequently disbanded. The then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, took over the case and reconstituted a seven-man panel of Justices of the apex court that heard the appeal. This new panel led by Justice Mahmoud Mohammed had Justices Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Chima Centus Nweze and Amiru Sanusi.
Nevertheless, in a unanimous judgment on February 5, 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed Saraki’s appeal, even as it ordered his prosecution before the CCT. The apex court which said it was satisfied that the Senate President has a case to answer before the tribunal, affirmed an earlier verdict of the Court of Appeal in Abuja which on October 30, 2015, gave FG the nod to open its case against Saraki.
In the lead judgement delivered by Justice Onnoghen, he held that, “there was no order of the Federal High Court staying the proceedings of the tribunal which was disobeyed by the tribunal. Ihold the view that the instant issue is an attempt at intimidating the Code of Conduct Tribunal, which is very unfortunate.
“In the circumstance I find this issue, like the others already considered of no merit and is accordingly resolved against appellant (Saraki). In conclusion, I find no merit in the appeal which is accordingly dismissed.
“The judgement of the lower court delivered on October 30, 2015 dismissing the appeal of appellant against the ruling of Code of Conduct Tribunal of September 18, 2015 is hereby affirmed. Appeal dismissed’’, Justice Onnoghen held.
Supreme Court is sitting on appeal filed before it by Saraki over his trial at the CCT for false asset declaration for the second time around. If the apex court deliver judgement in this appeal in favour of Saraki, it will mean it has reversed the judgement delivered by the former CJN Justice Mahmud Mohammed-led 7-man panel on February 5, 2016.
If the apex court affirms the judgement of the Court of Appeal delivered on December 12, 2017, one needs no crystal ball to fore-tell that this will not mark the end of appeal being front-loaded on this trial to the apex court even before the substantive appeal is remitted by either Saraki or the federal government to this final court.
That is if the apex court decides to direct CCT to continue with the already winding and lengthy or endless trial before it. Besides, Mr Danladi may be at cross-road as to the need to reverse self as well, which makes it imperative for the apex court to avoid miscarriage of justice from been occasioned to revert to Section 22 of its Act to decide the matter once and for all on Friday.
Meanwhile, the CCT, on March 8, 2018 suspended its judgment on the false asset declaration charge or the three- count charge FG has proffered against Saraki at the CCT. Mr. Danladi Umar-led two-man panel tribunal announced its decision to “tarry for awhile” in the matter, on a day both FG and Saraki appeared through their lawyers to adopt their final briefs of argument for judgment to be delivered in the case. When the matter was called up, the CCT Chairman, Umar, said the tribunal was hesitant to take further step in the case in view of two pending appeals before the Supreme Court.
However, EFCC on March 3, 2018 filed a two-count criminal charge against the CCT Chairman, Danladi Umar, trying Saraki on an allegation of false assets declaration. The charge numbered CR/109/18, dated January 25, 2018 and signed by Festus Keyamo (SAN) accused Umar, who is presiding over a case with Charge No. CCT/ABJ/03/12, involving one Rasheed Owolabi Taiwo demanding for a bribe of N10 million from Rasheed Owolabi Taiwo, sometime in 2012, in Abuja. According to the charge, the alleged bribe was for procuring favourable judgment for Taiwo, an offence, the EFCC said, goes contrary to Section 12(1) (a) & (b) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2003.
But the same federal government queried Ibrahim Magu, acting chairman of the EFCC, and Festus Keyamo (SAN), over the corruption charges filed against Danladi Umar, chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
Magu was asked to explain what informed the filing of corruption charges against the tribunal chairman having being cleared of corruption allegations on two occasions. Like Magu, the senior Lawyer was given till February 20, 2018, to furnish the office of the AGF in writing the detail of who engaged or issued him with authority to file the corruption charges.