The Code of Conduct Tribunal’s determined cavalry charge at Senate President Abubakar Bukola Saraki could reach a shattering climax this morning when the police are expected to produce him to enter a plea with respect to charges brought against him for offences allegedly committed when he was Governor of Kwara State.
Last week ended on a note of high drama when tribunal judge Justice Danladi Umar issued a bench warrant for Saraki’s arrest. The police were eager to execute the warrant; their spokesperson said at the weekend that as soon as they receive the warrant, Nigeria’s third highest ranking official will be arrested before Monday.
Ordinarily, this episode should be celebrated as a Nigerian triumph of equality before the law. Yet, even before the accused person launched a propaganda blitz to discredit the process, there were a few things that could not but puzzle an observer. For one, CCB and CCT are traditionally the most timid of this country’s anti-corruption agencies. Even though they sit atop piles of potential exhibits, i.e. public officers’ assets declaration forms, the two agencies seldom make use of these until there is a serious political interest involved. Only recently, CCB spent quality time explaining to the public why it could not reveal the President and Vice President’s assets declaration forms. About the only notable cases I can remember these agencies ever pursuing in the last 20 years were ones against former FCT Minister Lt General Jerry Useni and one against Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, each backed by obvious political interest.
Therefore, CCB and CCT’s determined charge at Saraki, aided by a resolute prosecutor from the Federal Ministry of Justice, could not but raise suspicions. The tribunal was so determined that it rejected summons by a Federal High Court and asserted for itself that it is a court of equal status. Also puzzling was the haste with which it issued a bench warrant for Saraki’s arrest. Usually in Nigeria, a judge gives an accused person enough rope to hang himself before he issues a bench warrant.
On the other hand, the Senate President’s combined legal, political and media response to the charges conveys the impression that he is not keen to disprove the charges against him, putting it mildly. The charges against Saraki are serious, including that he maintained a foreign bank account and wired a lot of money into it when he was a governor. He was also accused of making an “anticipatory declaration of assets,” that is, listed assets he did not have upon taking office in order to cover up for ones he may acquire whilst in office. I am not saying that legal technicality is not important in this age but for a politician intent on winning the battle for public opinion, morality is more important than legal technicality.
Instead of sitting down to answer the charges one by one, Saraki deployed high profile lawyers to try to stymie the process through a series of court actions. He also launched a media campaign to discredit the bureau and tribunal, and he alleged that it is political enemies that are trying to get at him.
I will shortly return to Saraki’s allegation but before that, this case reminded me of a story that then Central Bank Governor Professor Chukwuma Soludo once told at a breakfast meeting in Washington, DC. Soludo said a bank managing director went to see him because his bank’s board of directors suspended him based upon six grave allegations. As soon as the man sat down, he told Soludo that the allegations were part of a tussle between Ijebus and Egbas. So Soludo said, “The charges they made against you are specific. Let us go over them one by one. Is it true for example that you approved a loan far above your approval limit as MD? If you are able to disprove the allegations, then we can come to the motives why they made false allegations against you.”
To borrow from Soludo’s formula, Senate President Saraki should now tell Nigerians whether or not it was true that he made anticipatory provisions in his declaration of assets and whether or not he maintained a foreign bank account when he was governor, against express provisions of the law.
That is for Saraki. However, his allegation that high powered people are after him stands to reason. Weeks before CCB and CCT went after Saraki, EFCC went after his wife over some things that happened when she was First Lady of Kwara more than five years earlier. The fact that this happened in the midst of the Senate leadership crisis that pitted Saraki against other APC chieftains was more than coincidental, from what we can see from here. Last week, EFCC also declared wanted a former director of Societe Generale, the bank Saraki once headed. All indications are that some powerful hand is tightening the noose around Saraki.
The motives for this are not hard to seek. While the leadership crisis in the House of Representatives ended with Speaker Yakubu Dogara conceding top House positions to a faction supported by Tinubu and President Buhari, Saraki’s Senate camp made no such concessions. His faction cornered all the top positions for itself even after he himself snatched the Senate Presidency against party leaders’ wishes.
That President Buhari is angry with Saraki and has refused to meet with the Senate President since his election in early June is public knowledge. The only occasion on which the two men appeared together in public was at the Eid prayer ground last July. There is going to be another Eid prayer in four days’ time; maybe that is why the Presidency is determined that the two tall men do not again stand shoulder to shoulder. At the weekend, a group called Northern Ethnic Nationalities Unity Congress (NENUC) called on Saraki to resign from his office. That looks to be the aim of the plot all along.
Now, this concerted effort to topple Saraki suffers at least from poor timing. The president is expected to submit his list of ministerial nominees for Senate screening within the next nine days. It could be that State House is determined that Saraki should not handle its list. Trouble is, if the gambit fails to topple him, then the ministerial nominees will arrive to face a very foul mood in the Senate. Daily Trust on Sunday reported yesterday that pro-Saraki senators were holding meetings to plan their counter moves. They are as dirty as their rivals; in answer to EFCC’s invitation to Mrs Saraki last month, pro-Saraki senators tried to drag EFCC chairman Ibrahim Lamorde before a Senate committee for allegedly mismanaging confiscated assets.
One ace up Saraki’s sleeve is the guaranteed support of PDP senators, 50 of them. All he needs is about 15 APC senators to maintain a Senate majority. Earlier in this Republic, presidents often got legislators to do their bidding and to remove recalcitrant Senate Presidents and House Speakers. The main tool they used for achieving that goal was the Ghana Must Go bag. It is doubtful if the Buhari State House can use such a tool at this early stage, in which case it has fewer aces up its sleeve.
Angry though Nigerians usually are with corruption by top officials, they are quite often put off by the appearance of selective justice. Malam Nuhu Ribadu was by far the most committed anti-corruption czar this country ever produced but he suffered a grave image problem when his 2007 election eve “advisory” tallied neatly with President Obasanjo’s political enemies.
How is this matter likely to end? There were reports that APC leaders were holding frantic meetings in Kaduna to broker a truce under which Saraki will replace the Senate Leader and Whip with more favoured men. If that ever happens and CCB, CCT and Federal Ministry of Justice then back off or slacken on the case against him, then it will prove skeptics’ suspicions that the Presidency and APC leaders used state anti-corruption agencies in a partisan political fight. That will be a moral burden for the Buhari regime’s anti-corruption campaign.