The Code of Conduct Tribunal sitting in Abuja has adjourned till Thursday to rule on a new application filed by the president of the Nigerian Senate, Bukola Saraki, seeking to disqualify the chairman of the tribunal, Danladi Umar, from proceeding with his trial.
Mr. Saraki is facing charges of alleged false and anticipatory declaration of assets.
At the resumed hearing Wednesday, the defence and prosecution teams, as well as Mr. Umar, argued over the “moral standing” of the tribunal chairman to credibly proceed with the case.
It led to a heated exchange that lasted for most of the hearing.
In an application submitted by Ajibola Oluyede, a counsel to Mr. Saraki, the defence attorneys said they want to see Mr. Umar disqualified from the case because he had allegedly obtained a bribe for which he is currently being investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
Mr. Umar had initially declined to entertain the motion, but prosecution counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, urged him to admit the application thus it could be argued in order to avoid a mistrial.
The motion dwelt on a 2014 petition sent to the EFCC, in which Rasheed Taiwo, a retired Customs official, claimed to have been pressured by Mr. Umar for a ₦10 million bribe.
Mr. Umar denied the allegation, but one of his close aides at the time, Gambo Abdullahi, was found to have received a ₦1.8 million deposit in his Zenith Bank account from Mr. Taiwo, the source of which he was unable to clearly explain to investigators, the EFCC said.
However, the EFCC maintained that after a thorough investigation, it found no strong evidence that linked Mr. Umar to any crime in the case, but noted that the CCT chairman acted in the “most unethical and highly suspicious” manner.
Mr. Oluyede, in moving his motion, said Section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, addressed the issue of bias and the rules of natural justice.
“Your lordship should not be sitting on this case because of the negative impression it would give to reasonable onlookers,” Mr. Oluyede said.
Mr. Oluyede called the attention of the court to a letter written to a former Attorney-General, Bello Adoke, by a former EFCC chairman, Ibrahim Lamorde, in February 2015, which was part of the exhibits he obtained against Mr. Umar.
Mr. Oluyede read out paragraph four of the letter:
“There are indications that the tribunal chairman might have demanded and collected money from the complainant through his said personal assistant.
“However, efforts made to recover the telephone handset used by Justice Umar proved abortive, as he claimed that he had lost the telephone in 2012.
“This has made it impossible to subject it to independent scientific analysis with a view to corroborating the allegation. In the same vein, the complainant could also not make available his telephone set for analysis on the grounds that he had lost it.
“Justice Umar also admitted that he met privately with the complainant in his chamber at the tribunal. This is a most unethical and highly suspicious conduct on his part,” he said.
Mr. Oluyede further argued that the EFCC is responsible for the renewed doubts over Mr. Umar’s integrity because the agency has so far failed to appropriately exonerate the tribunal head off allegations of financial impropriety.
“All these problems originated from the EFCC. How could EFCC write and say that they have circumstantial evidence against a judge on the bench?
“Why is EFCC holding a sword of Damocles over your lordship’s head? Why can’t they just write the attorney-general that they have exonerated you?” Mr. Oluyede said.
In his objection, the lead prosecutor, Rotimi Jacobs, said Mr. Oluyede’s motion was a mere criminal allegation which remains same, adding that the defence team was trying to harass the court as part of its tactics to frustrate the trial.
“It’s a criminal investigation that remains just that, criminal investigation,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Your honourable justice is not under any criminal trial.”
Mr. Jacobs urged the chairman to dismiss the application because a similar one had been previously rejected at the Federal High Court, Abuja.
But Mr. Oluyede denied that a court had already ruled over the matter, adding that it was, in fact, the FHC that assured him that the motion can be heard at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
“The Federal High Court said these same constitutional safeguards are available to us at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and that the Code of Conduct Tribunal has a duty to uphold those constitutional safeguards so we should come here,” Mr. Oluyede said.
Mr. Umar adjourned ruling on the application until Thursday (tomorrow), but added that he will continue cross-examination after the ruling, a statement that the defence team played down as a “mere slip of tongue”.
Mr. Jacobs told reporters shortly after the adjournment that the motion to disqualify Mr. Umar was an attempt to evade justice, adding that “it should never be entertained”.
“There’s no basis for this application. The application was just filed to harass the members of the tribunal. So, it’s just to create confusion and to prevent justice,” Mr. Jacobs said. “That’s why we argued that it should never be entertained.”
But Mr. Oluyede, in a similar interview, denied the allegation, saying the application was only intended to ensure that the judicial process was not tainted.
“What we’re concerned about is the dispensation of justice in this country,” Mr. Oluyede said.
“We need to understand that the maxim that it is better for ten guilty people to escape judgement than for one innocent person to be convicted. It is the bedrock of justice.”
“It is not about convicting persons, it is not mob justice. It’s about ensuring that the institutions are working.
“It’s not because of Senator Bukola Saraki, it’s about you. It’s about the masses.
“If Senator Bukola Saraki is put through this kind of oppressive proceedings, then what hope do the other Nigerians have?
“And that is the reason we have brought this before the court. It doesn’t talk about whether Senator Saraki is guilty or innocent. It talks about the purity of the stream of justice. It talks about the impartiality of the panel that wants to seek injustice over a fellow Nigerian,” Mr. Oluyede said.
Mr. Oluyede further alleged that there was a conflict of interest between the EFCC and Mr. Umar, adding that his motion was not aimed at frustrating the Senate president’s case.
“You can’t have somebody who has the sword of Damocles dangling over his head deliberately by the EFCC sitting in judgement over a case that the EFCC is presenting to him.
“They’ve said that over and over again, but did you see any frustration today?” he queried.