When Bukola Saraki defied the gods of party supremacy, scaled over all the booby traps set for him by his party, and put the crown of the Senate president on his head, he thought everything was okay. But as things unfolded and the party bigwigs bared their fangs trouble came knocking at the door of this warrior who wrestled his own father, the kingpin of Kwara politics, Olusola, to the ground. The old man never recovered from the humiliation until he went away.
Saraki, a two-time governor of Kwara State, has been doing numerous trips to several courts with his army of lawyers trying to get the noose around his neck removed. He is being given a 13-count charge of violating the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act by a false and improper assets declaration. He made several dodgy legal moves, issued several political statements accusing some thinly veiled politicians of trying to use the Code of Conduct Tribunal to settle political scores. He has said several times that the reason he is being “persecuted” is because he is the president of the Senate, a position his enemies did not want him to occupy. And when he refused to appear at the Tribunal the judge issued two bench warrants in quick succession for his arrest. This compelled him to appear with his senator friends in tow. By October last year, his supporters in the Senate had passed confidence votes on him twice and most people wondered what was the real worth of those confidence votes if not to show that the Senate was simply jogging in the jungle.
By these votes of confidence they were apparently trying to tell his “persecutors” that there is no shaking, that they stand by their man, that they believe in the independence of the Senate. Or they were trying to tell the Code of Conduct Tribunal Judge that they are behind the man that sits in the accused box before him. Besides, some of the senators made it a point of duty to follow him to the court whenever he was to appear thinking that their presence may intimidate the judge. But it appears that the number of senators trooping to the court with him is getting thinner and thinner as the stories about the man as given in court become messier and messier.
Look at it this way. Would judges leave their duty posts to go and support a judge in court who is being tried on criminal offences? Would ministers of the Federal Republic abandon their offices to go and support a minister who is being tried in court on criminal charges? I doubt it. If the Judiciary and the Executive would not do that why is the legislature (Senate) doing it? Saraki is not pronounced guilty of any of the charges but a shadow hangs over his integrity by these criminal allegations. From Ilorin to Lagos to Abuja to London and to Panama the stories are similar, sordidly similar and similarly sordid. Saraki is a handsome man but he is not sitting pretty right now because all those undenied stories of corruption and graft and money laundering have tended to erode his moral authority to lead the Senate. The senators apparently believe that their man is Simon Pure and they need to swim or sink with him. There is something ugly, awkward, anomalous and morally reprehensible for the Senate President to walk out of a dock labelled “Accused Box” and a few minutes later walk into the coveted seat of the Senate president to make laws for the good governance of Nigeria.
He is not guilty of the charges against him. That is legality but the morality of his situation is suspect. Certainly he has a moral load on his head which is weighing him down and tends to give the Senate’s reputation a dent. The current Senate is made up of very eminent persons: 15 former governors, some ex-speakers of State Houses of Assembly, captains of industry and retired generals. The composition gives it the kind of prestige and aura that you associate with the British House of Lords or the American Senate. The constitution has appropriately armed them with some pre-eminent powers that set it apart from the House of Representatives. For instance, ministerial confirmation hearings which many admit were very badly managed.
But the Saraki saga is about to make the Senate the laughing stock in the eyes of the watching public. Accompanying Saraki to court gives the impression that they are a bunch of idle fellows who do not care about the jobs for which they are enormously remunerated. Secondly, the attempt to amend the CCB and CCT Act at this material time that Saraki is being tried and the haste with which it was being pursued gave the impression of a self-serving body that is ready to subvert the law to save its man. No matter how it is dressed Nigerians could see through it. Supposing they had passed the bill and the President withheld his assent could they have mustered 2/3 of the votes to defeat the President? I doubt it. When push came to shove, the public rose against it. What made the amendment of this Act more urgent and more important than the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) which has been gathering cobwebs for years in the Senate?
Thirdly, the stories of budget padding coupled with the exotic cars with highly inflated cost tags at this time of national economic crisis is not melodious music in the ears of the public. It tends to show the Senate as an institution that is selfish, uncaring and reckless. If the labour unions and civil society organisations moved against them on these issues they would have the wrath of the people felt. However, they have been saved from disgrace and they have now swallowed their sputum. Do they think their performance so far is applauded by the people who voted for them?
The invitation given to the judge handling Saraki’s case to appear before the Senate when taken together with the attempt to amend the CCB and CCT Act is disgraceful. The deputy Senate president is labouring hard to tell the public that neither of the two actions is related to the Saraki matter. He can tell that to the marines. There is an African proverb that says if the owl cried yesterday and the child died today there is a nexus between the cry and the death.
The judge has responded to the invitation that he has court duties to perform and will not be able to appear before them. The Senate must be careful about its powers to invite people to appear before them especially if the matter for discussion even remotely connects the Senate or any of its members. They must remember that their power to summon people is not absolute and is challengeable. The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke, went to court during her tenure when it appeared that the Senate’s regular invitation to her was an attempt to humiliate her rather than to seek enlightenment on the affairs of her portfolio. The court ruled in her favour.
In 1980, the Senate under Joseph Wayas invited Tony Momoh, who was editor of the Daily Times, to appear before it. The Daily Times had carried a story in its Grapevine column stating that some senators were busy going round government ministries and parastatals combing for contracts instead of sitting in the Senate to do what they were paid to do. Tony Momoh refused to appear before the Senate. Instead, he headed to the court. Gani Fawehinmi defended him while Rotimi Williams appeared for the Senate. The Lagos State High Court ruled that the Senate had no right to invite the editor to come and disclose his source of information.
It will be a big shame if the present Senate made up of very eminent people chooses to act in a manner that derogates from its dignity and integrity as it is doing now because of one man: Saraki. Right now the Senate which sits only for three days in a week is run in a jaga-jaga fashion, or not run at all because both the Senate president and his Deputy are always in court. Saraki’s lawyer, Kanu Agabi, was asking the judge to not hold court sessions on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays so that Saraki could preside over the sitting of the Senate on those days. Happily, the judge has rejected the request because as he put it the Senate is not on trial. But the Senate is on trial in the court of public opinion.
In the public service of Nigeria if any government official is charged with a criminal offence he is normally put on suspension otherwise known as interdiction until the case is decided. That is what was done with the Pension fraud suspects. The Senate is part of the public service, isn’t it? The senators are public servants paid from the public purse. So what obtains in the other arms of the public service, must of necessity, obtain in the legislature. The senators should pluck up courage and ask Saraki to resign or they must suspend him from work both as the Senate president and as a senator. If and when he is declared innocent by the court he will then regain all his benefits. In fact, it is in his own interest to resign honourably now so that he can concentrate on the task of defending his good name. And it is also in the interest of the Senate to stand guard over its reputation before the Saraki saga shreds it.