Twenty-six lawyers representing Senate President Bukola Saraki, who is standing a 13-count trial for false declaration of assets, walked out on the judges of the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja, on Thursday.
The walkout thwarted the scheduled continuation of the trial by the lead prosecuting counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), who said at the beginning of the hearing on Thursday that his witnesses were before the tribunal ready to testify.
Three Senior Advocates of Nigeria – Messrs Saka Issau, Ahmed Raji and Mahmud Magaji – who appeared for Saraki, led 23 juniors out of the courtroom after registering their protest against the ruling of the tribunal which directed that trial must commence on Thursday despite their appeal to the Supreme Court against the jurisdiction of the tribunal.
Speaking during the proceedings, an aggrieved Magaji, who announced that he would withdraw from the case, described the ruling as “judicial rascality,” on the grounds of the tribunal’s alleged refusal to wait for the decision of the Supreme Court on the appeal Saraki had filed in the case.
“I hereby submit that in the circumstance of your ruling, I will avoid to be part of what I call judicial rascality,” Magaji said before leaving the courtroom.
As Magaji stepped out, Raji also picked up the microphone and said that the ruling of the two-member tribunal partly anchored on section 305 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 was wrong.
Raji said, “The section 305 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act which you based your ruling on talks of when you are making reference to a higher court. There is nothing like that here.
“Be that as it may, on behalf of all the defence counsel, we find it most impossible for us to sit down here and participate in the proceedings in respect of which there is a stay of proceedings before the higher court. We thank your lordship and we shall be asking your lordship to allow us to withdraw our appearance.”
As soon as Raji finished speaking, the third Senior Advocate of Nigeria on the team, Issau, and the rest of the 23 junior lawyers appearing with them left the courtroom.
The development forced the Justice Danladi Umar-led tribunal to adjourn the trial till November 19, 2015 to enable Saraki to engage new lawyers that would defend him in the case.
The tribunal chairman said the action of the defence lawyers “smacks of disrespect to the tribunal.”
Jacobs, who had said he was prepared for the trial to commence, was forced to accept an adjournment of the case in view of a request by Saraki to engage a new set of lawyers.
When the tribunal chairman directed that he should be asked if he was prepared to defend himself or would need the services of new lawyers, Saraki said, “I have now found myself in a new terrain. I will need a month to brief and engage new lawyers.”
But Jacobs objected to one-month adjournment and suggested that Saraki should be given only one week to procure the services of new lawyers.
“It is another way of getting the stay of proceedings through the backdoor,” Jacobs said.
In response, Saraki added, “I have found myself in a strange terrain. My lawyers have walked out on me without telling me why. I will need time to meet with them and either convince them to come back or decide whether to get other hands to defend me.
“It took me time to get these ones. I will need time to look for another set. I have submitted myself to the process and I am ready to go through it.”
A two-to-one split decision of the Court of Appeal in Abuja had on October 30 dismissed Saraki’s appeal against the competence of the tribunal and the charges against him comprising 13 counts of false declaration of assets while he was the Kwara State governor in 2003.
The Umar-led Code of Conduct Tribunal had on October 21 adjourned the Senate President’s trial till November 5 (Thursday) to await the ruling of the appellate court.
The tribunal had while adjourning the case on October 21 directed that prosecution should be prepared to call its witness if the appeal court affirmed the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
In dismissing the defence team’s request for further adjournment on Thursday, the chairman of the tribunal, in a ruling, held that Section 306 of the ACJ Act had prohibited the tribunal from entertaining application for stay of proceedings, regardless of whether it was filed before the trial court or a higher court.
“It is an obvious fact that where a counsel wants to stay proceedings pending before a lower court, he/she promptly rushes to a higher court to stay the proceedings before the lower court. That is the same with what has happened in this case,” he said.
He also cited the provisions of Section 305 of the ACJ Act 2015, which he said allowed the tribunal or court to conduct trial but postpone its judgment or sentence as the case may be till when the issue of law referred to the higher court was determined.
He maintained that the ACJ Act was enacted to ensure expeditious determination of criminal cases.
He ruled, “The defendant will never suffer any injury or miscarriage of justice or harm in anyway if those proceedings continue. The tribunal is a sacred institution that took an oath to do justice to all and sundry.”
The Thursday’s proceedings were disrupted by senators loyal to Saraki as they intermittently voiced disapproval to some lines of argument by the prosecution and sometimes the decision of the tribunal.
The situation got to a point when Jacobs had to call on them to be decorous.
In arguing the application, Magaji said the defence having filed a notice of appeal before the Supreme Court which on October 30, 2015, affirmed the judgment of the tribunal, the CCT could no longer go ahead to hear the case until the Supreme Court determined the appeal.
“We filed the notice of appeal on November 2, 2015, and we transmitted the record on November 3 and we were given the appeal number SC.852/2015. So, the appeal is deemed to have been filed,” Magaji said.
Adding that his team had filed a motion of stay of proceedings of the tribunal, Magaji said by the virtue of other authorities of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal in the case of Achebe V Mbanefo, the lower court was bound to stay proceedings in any case which had become a subject matter of an appeal to higher courts.
But Jacobs, in his response, described Magaji’s application as unconstitutional, arguing that it negated the provisions of the section 287(2) of the constitution, which stipulated that the decision of the higher court must be binding on lower courts.
He also argued that the application for an indefinite adjournment also infringed on section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 which provided that no motion for stay of proceedings with respect to a criminal matter would be entertained.
Jacobs said, “That decision of the Court of Appeal delivered on October 30 is binding on all parties, including the defendant, counsel and even the tribunal.
“By the virtue of the provisions of section 287(2) of the constitution, the decision of the Court of Appeal shall be enforced by all authorities including the tribunal.
“The decision of the Court of Appeal says the tribunal is properly constituted and that it should go ahead with the trial. The application by the learned silk is unconstitutional by the virtue of section 287(2) of the constitution. It is also contrary to section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.
“By the virtue of the provision of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, your lordship cannot even entertain the application for stay of proceedings.”
Jacobs said the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal authorities cited by the defence were decisions that had been overtaken by the coming into force of the ACJ Act.
He added that currently, the Supreme Court was still battling with criminal appeals filed two years ago, adding that calling for an adjournment because of an appeal which had not been fixed for hearing would amount to requesting two years adjournment of the case.
Jacobs also commended the senators in attendance for the passage of the new law which he said was made to ensure speedy and effective management of criminal cases.
“I must be grateful to the senators who are here; they gave us this law,” Jacobs said.
But Raji, who took the floor to respond to Jacobs on the points of law, said the section 306 of the ACJ Act cited by the prosecution was not applicable to the case, since the application for stay of proceedings was filed before the Supreme Court and not before the tribunal.
“Section 306 is not applicable to this case because the application for stay of proceedings was not filed before this tribunal, it was filed before the Supreme Court,” he said.
“I was surprised about the submission of my learned silk that the decision of the Supreme Court had been overridden by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act. That is fallacious and it’s the most ungrounded submission I have ever heard in my life,” he said.
Jacobs added, “It is unfortunate for the senators to invade the courtroom and disrupt proceedings by making noise and shouting as if they were on the floor of the Senate. The court is different from the floor of the Senate. The court is not where you play politics.”
Some notable senators who attended the Thursday’s proceedings in solidarity with Saraki were Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, Ali Ndume, Theodore Orji, Abdullahi Adamu, Stella Oduah, Dino Melaye, Gilbert Nnaji and Andy Ubah.
Saraki’s move to mobilise supporters flops
Meanwhile, all appears not to be well in the camp of Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, as some of his loyalists in the Senate refused to accompany him to the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Abuja, where he is currently facing trial for alleged corrupt charges.
Ostensibly aggrieved by their non-inclusion in the leadership of the 65 standing committees inaugurated by Saraki, on Wednesday, some of his erstwhile die-hard allies allegedly leaked a text message meant to mobilise them to court in solidarity for Saraki.
Our correspondent learnt that the Director of Protocol in the Office of the Senate President, Mr. Arthur Ndiwe, allegedly sent a text message, on Wednesday evening, to all the loyalists of his principal asking them to converge on his residence in order to move as a team to the court on Thursday.
It was gathered that the release of the committees’ leadership list by Saraki on Wednesday affected the solidarity show as many of the loyalists who were dissatisfied with the committees allocated to them, failed to follow Saraki to the court.
Others, according to findings, apparently saw no need to go to the court since their reason for the solidarity in the past, which was to be rewarded with juicy committees, had been achieved.
One of the senators dissatisfied with the committees was also said to have forwarded a text message sent to him and his colleagues to an anti-Saraki senator, who in turn, forwarded same to a journalist.
The text message reads, “Gd evening, Distinguished. Wish to inform dt buses are available 2moro mrnin to convey Senators wishing to accompany HE d Senate President. Departure is at 9am frm d house@22 yesderam str. By IGP’s House Maitama. Rgrds.Arthur (dir.of prot.SP.”
The development, according to sources, informed the handful of senators who accompanied the senate president to the court as the figure dropped from 80 on October 21 during the last sitting to about 40 on Thursday.
SERAP calls for probe of Saraki’s lawyers
In another development, a human rights group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, has called on the Nigerian Bar Association to probe Saraki’s lawyers, who walked out on the Justice Danladi Umar-led Code of Conduct Tribunal during Thursday’s proceedings.
The group called on the NBA to investigate and punish the senior advocates for professional misconduct, saying their action offended “the basic rule that lawyers should act with integrity and professionalism, maintaining his or her overarching responsibility to ensure civil conduct. (sic)’’
SERAP, which took this position in a statement by its Executive Director, Adetokubbo Mumuni, on Thursday, said by walking out on the CCT, Saraki’s lawyers put the administration of justice and public confidence in the judiciary at risk.
The statement read in part, “Walking out on the Code of Conduct Tribunal for simply and correctly applying section 305(e) of the newly enacted Administration of Criminal Justice Act is disrespectful. It offends the basic rule that lawyers should act with integrity and professionalism.
“SERAP believes that a lawyer’s duty to the court is a fundamental obligation that defines a lawyer’s role within the adversarial system. Lawyers should, at all times, act to promote the rule of law and the public’s confidence in the administration of justice and not to be seen to undermine it or facilitate an infringement of the law.’’
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Joseph Nwobike, said no rules authorised any lawyer to walk out on a court to protest against a ruling.
He said that the fact that Saraki’s lawyers did so in his presence showed that he was in agreement with them.
Another SAN, Mr. Kunle Ogunba, described the action of Saraki’s lawyers as judicial rascality, stressing that they disrecptected the judges by walking out.
‘‘It is like defecating in our common pool,’’ Ogunba said.