By Segun Ayobolu
It promised to be the flagship and major demonstration case of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s exuberantly advertised war against corruption. I refer to the arraignment on Thursday, February 23, 2016, of Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCB) on an 18-count charge of forgery and money laundering. Many observers believed the wily Saraki had been snared in a trap from which there was nary an escape route. The unseemly sight of the head of the country’s National Assembly appearing regularly in the dock to defend himself against grievous corruption charges was the ultimate humiliation and media crucifixion from which it seemed impossible for Saraki to resurrect. But the adroit politician remained seemingly unperturbed and unruffled. His legal team seemed bent on both endlessly delaying and preventing commencement of trial than proving their client’s innocence and thus permanently silencing his traducers.
But throughout his legal travails, Saraki maintained a remarkable talismanic spell over his colleagues. They flocked in and out of court with their leader. For most of them, he was only being unjustly persecuted for what was perceived in some quarters as the intra-party intrigue and betrayal-laden route that led to his emergence as the country’s number three citizen. In any case, was he the only former public officer guilty, if true, of questionable assets declaration? It did not matter apparently that an alleged transgressor against the law cannot claim immunity from legal culpability because other alleged trespassers of the rules are walking free.
Not even the eruption of other scandals whirling around the Senate President could diminish Saraki morally or politically before his colleagues. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) linked Bukola Saraki’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Gbenga Makanjuola, Kathleen Erhimu, reportedly the Senate President’s account relationship officer at Access Bank as well as Robert Mbonu of Melrose General Services Ltd, an associate of Saraki from the defunct Societe Generale Bank to an alleged sum of N3.5 billion laundered through the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) from the Paris Club loan refund to states. Saraki’s other principal aides allegedly involved in the deal include Obiora Amobi, Kolawole Shittu and Oladapo Idowu. All payments received by Melrose General Services Ltd. were allegedly diverted by the Senate President’s aides either directly by cash or indirectly through transfers. It did not matter. The Senators could care no less. Their sensibilities remained deadened either to the ravages of negative public perception or the ever increasing fragility of their collective institutional integrity.
A luxury exotic vehicle, reportedly imported on behalf of the Senate President with forged papers thereby denying the Federal Government of legally stipulated revenue was impounded by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). Rather than allow a thorough investigation of the affair by the relevant anti-corruption agencies, the Senate decided to be the judge in the case against its beloved leader and naturally cleared him of any legal infractions. At the same time the Comptroller General of the NCS, Col. Hameed Ali, was subjected to a high degree of intimidation and harassment by Senators over the petty matter of his appearing before them in official uniform. It was only a court injunction that offered the embattled but no less stubborn Comptroller General some respite.
Many analysts averred that Bukola Saraki would lose his iron grip on majority of Senators across party lines once the case against him before the CCT was proven and he was adjudged guilty as widely expected. The CCT’s final verdict was the legal and political equivalent of a resurrection from the dead for Saraki. The duo of the CCT Chairman, Danladi Umar, and his colleague, Hon. A. Agwadza, was emphatic in upholding the no-case submission made by Saraki’s legal team. The mercurial Senate President was discharged and acquitted. The Tribunal ruled that the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses were so thoroughly discredited under cross examination that they could constitute no credible basis for conviction by any reasonable court. Of course, the Federal Government has filed an appeal against the decision of the CCT. But for now it is Saraki and his supporters that are chanting hymns of triumph. No one in my view can claim to believe in the rule of law and yet credibly condemn the decision of the CCT or impugn the motives of its members without concrete evidence. Until and unless the CCT’s judgement is overturned by a superior court, Saraki remains guiltless before the law.
You may hate him or love him. He may attract or repulse you. What you cannot deny is the political astuteness of Bukola Saraki. He certainly learnt invaluable lessons at the feet of his father, Oloye Olusola Saraki, the grand master for decades of Kwara politics. You cannot accuse Bukola Saraki of lack of leadership ability and even some degree of charisma. As chairman of the Nigeria Governor’s Forum (NGF), for instance, Saraki reorganized and revitalized the body significantly enhancing its influence and efficacy in national politics. The main grouse of some of his critics against him is that Saraki’s no mean leadership skills are more directed towards personal pecuniary and political gains than the collective good in the utilitarian sense of pursuing the greatest good of the greatest number of the citizenry. He achieved some tangible gains as Kwara State governor in agriculture through the Zimbabwe Farmers scheme, the establishment of the Kwara State University and some degree of infrastructure uplift in Ilorin. But he surely had the unfortunately largely unrelieved capacity to have done much more.
In the same vein, Bukola Saraki has done a remarkable job in wielding the Senate into a cohesive group despite the controversial and divisive nature of his emergence as Senate President. He has offered the National Assembly the kind of strong leadership that Buhari, perhaps because of ill health as well as his political taciturnity and cultural insularity, has been unable to offer the executive arm of government. For some time, I thought that Saraki’s vibrant leadership of the National Assembly, his unrelenting effort to protect the autonomy and authority of the legislature against the excesses of the dangerous cabal in effective control of the executive under the Buhari presidency, was a blessing in disguise no matter his personal failings.
I have, however, authoritatively learnt that Saraki is actually working very closely with the dominant faction of the badly fractured Buhari presidency’s kitchen cabinet. There is not a pin, I am reliably told, not a visitor to the inner recesses of Aso Rock that Saraki is not aware of almost instantaneously. It is certainly not coincidental that in the Senate’s battle against Ibrahim Magu’s confirmation as EFCC Chairman, which Saraki has led with great tenacity coupled with subtlety, he has enjoyed the unalloyed support and cooperation of the Department of State Services (DSS). That speaks volumes of the man’s wide ranging network, pervasive influence and instinctual understanding of the workings of the system. Yet, Magu’s crime is clearly not incompetence or proven lack of moral integrity but the EFCC’s unyielding probe under his leadership of a number of Senators with Saraki also within its investigative radar.
One can understand the Senate’s new found boldness and audacity in threatening to wield its power of impeachment against what it perceives as slights by the executive particularly the continued retention of Magu as Acting Chairman of the EFCC despite its refusal to confirm him in substantive capacity. I advise the Senate to immediately seek the Supreme Court’s binding decision on this contentious issue. It is not impossible that Saraki and his Senate foot soldiers mistake Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo’s unassuming and introspective mien as a sign of weakness or timidity. They are badly mistaken.
Behind Osinbajo’s serene exterior lies the boldness and courage that only untainted character and integrity can confer. Besides, his singular lack of political ambition and unstinted loyalty and fidelity to an unfortunately incapacitated boss has endeared Osinbajo to millions of Nigerians across partisan and sectional divides. The Senate must be careful not to provoke a popular uprising against its excesses especially when it is seen as hounding and harassing a patriotic intellectual and cleric in government pursuing the public good on behalf of his temporarily absent boss without seeking to profit personally or politically.
Ayobolu is a columnist with The Nation