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Saraki: The Book of Remembrance – By Olusegun Adeniyi

olusegun adeniyiAfter five days of drama and intrigues, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on

Tuesday finally charged the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). The real trial has now been fixed for late next month when he will answer 13 charges bordering on alleged corruption and making “anticipatory declaration” of assets in 2003. And as the saga of the CCT versus Saraki continues, there are perhaps only few Nigerians who can be deemed neutral in the matter. Even at that, as the late Professor Omo Omoruyi was wont to say, “neutrality itself is a position.”

[Image: olusegun adeniyi]

If we accept the fact that the precepts upon which the law is founded are“honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuiquetribuere” (to live honourably; to injure no one; to give each his due), the trial of Saraki can be looked at from three prisms: the political, the criminal and the moral.

First, the politics: There are those who believe that the CCT has been acting beyond the call of duty and that there is no good faith in what is happening to Saraki. The manner in which the number three citizen was sensationally charged on the strength of an infraction allegedly committed 12 years ago, according to a school of thought, shows that the rule of law is being used as an instrument of vendetta. But the counterpoint to that, and you find many saying it, is: even if it is a witch-hunt, did Saraki commit the offences for which he is being tried or not?

Whichever side one belongs, it is difficult not to tie the political travails of Saraki, including the recent widely publicized interrogation of his wife by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), to his controversial emergence as the Senate President against the dictates of “party supremacy”!

The second issue is the manner in which Saraki tried to secure all manner of court processes to avoid his day at the Tribunal. Was it proper for anybody to choose on what terms he/she would subject him/herself to trial in a legally-constituted court? I don’t think the Senate President did himself any favour by the hide-and-seek game that lasted five days before he eventually submitted himself to the law after he ran into a judicial dead-end. It is even more unfortunate that the Senate President was encouraged to resort to judicial black market by very senior people in the bar who ordinarily should have advised him against taking such path.

The third issue which flows from the second is the seeming reluctance to defend what ordinarily are very damaging allegations. The kind of assets credited to Saraki and the manner in which they were allegedly obtained are mind-boggling and one would imagine that he should be interested in clearing his name. But the question remains: are the allegations true? He has pleaded that they are false and that he was not availed due process by the CCB so it is now left for the prosecution to prove its case against him beyond any reasonable doubts. And until that is done, it is important that Saraki be given the benefit of the doubt.

For me, the whole saga is very unfortunate in several respects, especially because Saraki is not just a name I read in the newspaper as it is for many; he is a man I know and have related with over the years, even before he joined politics and became the governor of my state. And for that reason, I will not join those who are jumping into hasty conclusions. However, there are five critical points that we must take note of as events unfold.

The first one is that while the law is not, and should never be deemed to be, respecter of any persons, it should also never be seen to be targeted at particular individuals by some higher political forces. Law and arbitrary power, according to Edmund Burke in his famous 1787 speech against Warren Hastings in the British Parliament, “are in eternal enmity. Name me a magistrate, and I will name property; name me power, and I will name protection. It is a contradiction in terms, it is blasphemy in religion, it is wickedness in politics, to say that any man can have arbitrary power.” 

Even when Burke argued that “Hastings’ government was one whole system of oppression, of robbery of individuals, of spoliation of the public, and of supersession of the whole system,” any discerning person who reads the entire speech can only come to one conclusion: it is dangerous to subject a system to the caprices of arbitrary exercise of power.

For our society to grow, those who hold public offices in trust for the people, at all levels, must be able to distinguish between seeking justice by due process and deploying the instrumentality of the law to exact vengeance for personal injuries. Indeed, to the extent that the real function of justice is to mediate the tension between power and authority, it must at all times serve as a standard for evaluating the law. To do that, we must never leave any room for speculations that could erode the confidence of the people in critical institutions of democracy.

The message here is simple: It is possible that we may not like certain individuals (who may even be guilty of the offences we suspect against them) but once we begin to circumvent sacred principles to achieve a pre-determined end, we are on a slippery slope and the society is endangered.

The second point is the primitive accumulation of material resources by the average Nigerian public official. If we assume that Saraki owns what is credited to him in his assets declaration form (which he has not denied), he would have to explain how he got them, which is why he is standing trial. However, assuming he successfully proves that he got those properties and stupendous wealth legitimately, there will still be the moral dilemma as to why he would stash huge fortunes abroad rather than invest them at home at a time he is expected to be concerned about the welfare of the people over whom he has been elected to serve.

While that may be no more than a moral issue of which many people are also guilty, it nonetheless goes to the real tragedy of Nigeria that most reasonable people believe has enough for the need of the majority but not enough for the greed of a tiny minority who happens to control the levers of power. Of course we are all aware that stashing huge fortunes abroad and buying property that they don’t live in and on which they pay taxes is a common affliction for the Nigerian political/business elite. But the wider implication is that it is also a vote of no confidence in our country and its future by the same people on whom we entrust leadership.

The third point is that now that the CCB has woken up to its responsibility by taking on the number three citizen, whatever the motivation for their action, then we must accept that it is a new day in Nigeria. To be fair, it should be expected. President Muhammadu Buhari came to office with a pledge to fight corruption and most Nigerians believe he can do it not only because of his antecedent in that respect as a former military leader but also because of his famed personal integrity. However, with Saraki’s ongoing trial, the CCB cannot remain the same.

The 1999 Constitution (as amended) which stipulates that every public officer should declare his/her assets “immediately after taking office” and at every four years or at the end of term of office, also empowers the CCB to “retain custody of such declarations and make them available for inspection by any citizens of Nigeria on such terms and conditions as the National Assembly may prescribe.” And with the signing into law of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, passed by the National Assembly, which prescribes the condition for information disclosure, it stands to reason that anybody can invoke that legislation to seek information on the assets declared by public officials. But the CCB has always argued otherwise.

It all started in 2011 when “Daily Trust” sought information on the assets declared by the then President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, on the strength of the FOI Act. The bureau, in trying to be clever by half, in a letter signed by its secretary, Alhassan Ibrahim, said “until the National Assembly prescribes such terms and conditions, the Code of Conduct Bureau would find it impossible to grant” the newspaper’s request.

Aside the fact that the FOI Act has already prescribed the terms and conditions under which such information should be released, there are other issues that make the position of the bureau untenable, if not unreasonable. Since the CCB is to receive from the public complaints of non-compliance, investigate the complaints and where appropriate refer such matters to the CCT, as they are now doing with Saraki, how do they expect to receive complaints if the assets declared are not open to public scrutiny?

The fourth point: The onus is now on Saraki to turn the table against his accusers by proving that, at least on the basis of fact, he is being politically persecuted rather than being prosecuted for infractions that look like serial felony. Even at that, while both the CCB and Saraki may come out bruised and fatally disfigured at the end of this process, if the charges against him end up being proved, Saraki will find himself in a place where his occupation of the exalted position of Senate President would have become morally untenable.

Finally, now that a book of remembrance has been opened on what the Senate President did (or did not do) 12 years ago, the entire saga has provided a clear window on how the CCB can play its critical role as an essential constitutional tool in the war against corruption. But the bureau must first purge itself of past indiscretions, negligence and even outright tardiness in the discharge of its statutory functions. It will in addition need to convince the Nigerian public that it has kept a meticulous record of the various cases of breach by sundry public officers across time and thus establish an order of precedence for the trials that should commence in earnest.

That is the only way to assure a cynical public that this is about probity and not a political witch-hunt against Saraki, simply because he became the Senate President against the dictates and wishes of some implacable power mongers.

To all my Muslim readers, Eid Mubarak!

The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi; olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

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