By Rafiq Raji, PhD
The president of Nigeria’s Senate, Dr Bukola Saraki, is on trial for alleged false asset declaration. There have been calls for him to resign. If he chooses to stay on, he would not be violating any law. The ‘right to fair hearing’ is one of the fundamental rights stated in Chapter IV of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution. He is innocent until proven guilty. Still, the fundamental question is: what is the right thing for him to do, for himself and for country? His ongoing trial certainly hurts the prestige of the Senate. That said, his travails are not random. It is clear he was targeted by powers that be within the ruling political party who are unhappy about his emergence as the leader of the legislature – the party machinery endorsed somebody else, who clearly still desires the office. In any case, it is not all too clear he would succeed should Dr Bukola Saraki resign or is removed by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) – the quasi-legal body charged with trying public officials when they are accused of not abiding by the government’s code of conduct; its chairman, Justice Danladi Umar, has been somewhat controversial, having only recently been cleared of bribery allegations by another anti-corruption agency – the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) – for lack of evidence. I do not agree however with those who think Justice Umar would be biased. Yes, he seems a bit temperamental and somewhat eager. But attention has not been given by the media to other reasons why he could be so. The CCT is largely a very boring posting for judges. Thus, any judge at the CCT would welcome an opportunity to do some actual work, albeit fairly. This in my view is why Justice Umar is determined to ensure the Senate President’s case reaches a logical conclusion. It is important to him I think that public officers fear the CCT as much as they do the more effective EFCC. Just like Dr Saraki is entitled to fair hearing, so is Justice Umar entitled to exercising the powers of his tribunal. Thus, I am willing to give the clearly boisterous but brilliant judge the benefit of the doubt. In any case, Dr Saraki has right of appeal if he is dissatisfied with the judgment of the CCT – which could be as far-reaching as removal from office or ban from public office upon a guilty verdict. Judging from his recent open letter, Dr Saraki intends to remain as president of the Senate until he has exhausted all the legal options open to him – ill advised in my view. He could appeal a guilty verdict by the CCT up to the Supreme Court. In the intervening period, the prestige of the Senate would certainly be hurt. This is why it is important that he seriously considers resigning the presidency of the Senate.
That said, it has been quite surprising Dr Saraki did not seem prepared for the high stakes game underpinning his travails. Apart from the fact that very large egos were bruised by his emergence as Senate President, Dr Saraki violated some key rules of victory. As his victory was tenuous, it was unwise of him not to accommodate some of the candidates proposed by his party for key positions in the Senate. And his opponents – who have proven to be better strategists – have had more arduous training and are certainly more experienced. Dr Saraki’s response to his troubles has bordered on fatalism. And with his opponents smelling victory, he has limited options. Considering he knows those throwing stones at him also live in glass houses, it has also been a little surprising he has not been able to even the scales. With little leverage, small wonder his attempts at seeking a political solution have been futile. I also get the sense Dr Saraki’s strategists have been unwilling to consider the possibility of their principal not being Senate President. And because of that, they are bound to be irrational up to a point. Resigning is better than being removed. He wanted to be Senate President. Well, he succeeded. And no one can change that. It is time he moves on. His advisors would do well to tell him that sometimes to get a better view of the front, you need to withdraw to a vantage position. If he resigns with a plan in mind – not for a return to the Senate presidency surely – on how to either become president of the country, his ultimate ambition, or increase his influence within the ruling party if he is unable to, that would not be an entirely bad outcome. The worst possible outcome of his current troubles would leave him utterly battered. He would do well to cut his losses while he still can.
More importantly, the ongoing disagreements between the two arms of Nigeria’s government – writ large in the continuing 2016 budget impasse – brings to fore the need to strengthen the principle of separation of powers. There is no way the legislature would be able to independently check the executive if its leadership does not enjoy prosecutorial immunity. Of course, none of that can be corrected while Dr Saraki is still being tried for corruption. When his trial is over, the Senate should as a matter of urgency put in measures to ensure it could not be unduly influenced or punished by the executive arm of government. And unlike popular opinion, I strongly believe the CCT’s place is not under the office of the country’s top scribe but in the judicature. The proposed amendments to the relevant legislation should be re-considered once Dr Saraki’s trial is over. This is because I fear a great deal that President Buhari’s power may grow significantly in the coming years, making him prone to dictatorial tendencies. It is also no longer just coincidental that the Senate seems to always be at odds with the executive whenever a former military general leads the latter. More fundamentally, Dr Saraki’s trial has made the legislature seem subordinate to the executive arm. This should not be so. Under the Nigerian Constitution, the executive, legislature and judicature are on the same level but with responsibilities for specific dimensions of governance. To safeguard the country’s democracy, the leadership of each arm has to be fully protected. It must also be pointed out that President Buhari’s anti-corruption fight would suffer a perception problem if it seems only those who are not in his good graces end up being prosecuted for corruption. Bottom-line, Nigerians are simply tired of all the bickering. Almost 200 million people must not be held hostage to the political troubles of one man. If Dr Saraki would not resign for his own sake, he should do it for country.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column. See link viz. http://businessdayonline.com/2016/04/saraki-should-resign/