THE Senate President, Bukola Saraki, on Tuesday entered the dock at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja where he was arraigned for false assets declaration chargesSaraki arrived at the tribunal at 9.20am in company with 50 senators, beating by 40 minutes the 10am deadline the judge had set for the Inspector General of Police to provide the Senate president.
He pleaded not guilty to all the 13 charges slammed on him by the Code of Conduct Bureau and his trial has been scheduled to hold on October 21, 22 and 23.
Saraki appeared at the tribunal after the courts had refused his request that the proceedings at the CCT be stopped.
From the dock on Tuesday, the Senate president said he was hearing about the charges against him for the first time, saying he ought to have been invited and briefed by the CCB as the Senate president.
He said, “I am the Senate President and I have respect for the rule of law. Mr. Chairman, I observed that they have made reference to the good work the Senate has done in the administration of criminal justice. If there is an allegation of false declaration of assets, the Code of Conduct Bureau shall refer the person involved to the tribunal after giving the person an opportunity to explain if the facts are true. But in this case, I was not given the opportunity.
“I thought the CCB should have called me and given me the right to fair hearing. I am hearing about the charges for the first time. We are all here and the whole world is watching when we said we are in new Nigeria. I want to state here that I am not guilty.”
Saraki’s lawyer, Joseph Daudu, SAN, challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal, saying the CCT was not a court of criminal jurisdiction and as such, the administration of criminal court did not apply.
Citing Section 693, paragraph 18 (1) of the Constitution, Daudu reminded the tribunal of the ruling of a High Court in a case involving a former governor of Plateau State, Joshua Dariye, which held that the CCT did not have jurisdiction over criminal cases and submitted that the tribunal lacked the jurisdiction to try the accused under criminal act where he would be required to be docked.
But the prosecution counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, opposed the application, saying the tribunal had ruled on jurisdiction last Friday. Jacobs submitted further that Section 2 (1) of the Administration of Justice Act gives the tribunal powers to handle the criminal charges against Saraki.
After listening to the arguments of both parties, Justice Danladi Umar held that the tribunal had the jurisdiction to compel the Senate President to not only appear in person but to also be moved to the dock.
He said, “It is in the view of the tribunal that the trial before it is criminal in nature and it has jurisdiction over criminal matters, the defendant should therefore proceed to the dock.”
While proceedings to the dock, Saraki expressed shock that the tribunal had chosen to be ignorant of the stipulations under which the defendant could be brought to court.
He was however granted bail in self recognition and the warrant the tribunal had issued for his arrest was quashed.
As a governor of his home Kwara State between 2003 and 2011, Saraki was alleged to have make false declaration of his assets, including an alleged anticipatory declaration of asset yet to be acquired.
He is also being accused of owing an American Express credit card account during his tenure as governor. Public officials are forbidden from operating foreign accounts while in office.
But Saraki had earlier shunned the CCT and asked a Federal High Court in Abuja to stop the tribunal’s proceedings against him.
However when he failed to appear before it last Friday, the tribunal chairman had issued a warrant, compelling the IG to arrest the Senate President.
The warrant had spurred Saraki to run to the Appeal Court, asking it to quash the warrant and to stop the procceding of the tribunal.
The two courts on Monday refused his requests.
“To appear before the tribunal is not a death sentence,” Justice Morri Adumein of the Court of Appeal had told Saraki.
The senators that followed Saraki to the tribunal on Tuesday included his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu; Shaaba Lafiaji, Theodore Orji, Mao Ohuabunwa, Samuel Egwu, Ben Murray-Bruce, Aliyu Wamakko, Gilbert Nnaji, Kabiru Gaya, Alasoadura, Samuel Anyawu and Foster Ogola.
Others were Sunny Ogborji, Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, Isa Hamma Missau, Emmanuel Paulker, Obinna Ogba, Kaura Tijani, Clifford Ordia, Ibrahim Abdullahi, Peter Nwaoboshi, Rose Okoh, Mohammed Ohiare, Gershom Bassey, Olaka Nwogu and Lanre Tejuosho.
Meanwhile, some senators on Tuesday expressed confidence that Nigeria and its democracy would be the ultimate beneficiaries at the end of the trial of the Senate President.
The spokesman for the Senators, Ibrahim Danbaba, said this while reacting on behalf of his colleagues to the arraignment of Saraki at the CCT.
Dambaba said, “We also want to state here, on behalf of our colleagues, that the Senate remains solidly behind Senator Saraki and we express our unalloyed support for his leadership.
“We reiterate the fact that he is our choice for the post of Senate President and no politically motivated, mischievous and vindictive trial will change our opinion of him.”
In a statement after the tribunal proceedings, Saraki said he was being tried because he was the Senate president and that his trial indicated flagrant disregard of due process.
The statement by his spokesman, Yusuph Olaniyonu, read in part, “Today, I appeared before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for the commencement of my trial in a case concerning the asset declaration form I filled in 2003 after I have explored the opportunity to defend my fundamental human rights in other courts.
My appearance in court today once again demonstrates my belief in the rule of law and respect for the judiciary of our country.
As I stated while taking the plea in the case, I reiterate my belief that the only reason while I am going through this trial is because I am Senate President. If I were to be just a Senator, I doubt if anybody will be interested in the asset declaration form I filled over 12 years ago.
“It is my humble opinion that this case is a vivid example that there is still flagrant disregard for due process in our polity. This trial is not only being observed by Nigerians alone, the international community is watching because Nigeria is a key member of this community. So, the executive, legislature and judiciary should do the right thing that will truly demonstrate that we have imbibed the spirit of positive change.”