Saraki: Gavel in the Dock, by Ken Ugbechie
As you read this, Dr. Bukola Saraki is still the President of the Senate, Federal Republic of Nigeria. He is a medical doctor, businessman and politician. He is brilliant; a successful man in every sense of the word. As President of the Senate and Chairman of the National Assembly, he exerts so much power. He can do and undo. He can influence decisions including those verging on the fate of the country. Such are the multifarious privileges that he enjoys as the leader of the national legislature.
But Saraki is at this moment embroiled in a mesh of legal twists and turns. He is standing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), the special ‘court’ of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB). He is being accused of false declaration of assets while serving as Governor of his home state, Kwara. The manner the CCT suddenly came alive on this matter was in itself suspect. The matter, long buried, was exhumed when Saraki, against the wishes of the oligarchs in his party, the APC, became the President of the Senate. His emergence as Senate President was dramatic. It’s a real case-study in political suavity and sophistry. But that was all his traducers needed to turn the screw on him.
It’s a familiar script in the nation’s baleful democratic space. Obasanjo persecuted the late Chuba Okadigbo when the latter as President of the Senate insisted on the independence of the legislature. He was haunted out of office, disgraced via impeachment in spite of his towering sagacity, erudition and cerebral ethos. His successor, Anyim Pius Anyim, seen then as a lackey of President Obasanjo also had a taste of the bitter broth from Obasanjo when Anyim tried to assert authority against the wish of the principality in the Presidency which was what Obasanjo at that time represented. It was a miracle that Anyim was not disgraced out of office. Instead, he left office stronger than he was upon assumption of office. Audu Ogbeh who was chairman of his party, the PDP, joined forces with Obasanjo and other recruits including the maverick one, Senator Nzeribe, Dr. Sam Egwu, the then Governor of his Ebonyi State and the ICPC under the leadership of Justice Mustapha Akanbi but Anyim stood firm, unshaken and later prevailed including winning a libel case against Senator Nzeribe.
So, what is happening to Saraki today is not new. In the treacherous Nigerian polity once your interest crosses the interest of the potentates in your party, get ready for a fight. It is not likely that Senator Saraki would ever have been docked if he did not emerge the President of the Senate and in the manner he did. He would still have remained the ‘good, loyal party man who worked assiduously to deliver CHANGE both in his state and at the centre.
Not this time. Saraki has turned the corner; asserting his own authority and invoking the canon of separation of power which is the universal incontrovertible corpus of democracy. But politics, especially Nigerian politics, is unforgiving. For his derring-do and unvarnished hubris against the potentates, a book of remembrance was opened for him. It was then they remembered his many ‘sins’ while in office as Governor donkey’s years ago. This is the sense in which Saraki may be said to be a victim of political persecution. But it ends there.
The reality of the moment is that Saraki, the man with the gavel with all its powers is now Saraki, the man in the dock without an once of power. But the gavel and the dock do not mix. The gavel is an instrument in the hands of men of high moral rectitude, adjudged so by those who overwhelmingly elect them to lead the legislature. The dock is a place where men of challenged character, morals and principles go to either to prove their innocence or to be damned, condemned and robed in the cassock of infamy. This is the dilemma before Saraki. Can he in all decency combine the grandeur of the gavel with the odium of the dock? The answer is no; hence he should just step aside, resign or whatever. Bottom line is: quit now.
Quitting his job as Senate President does not make Saraki guilty as charged. It is simply a mark of honour, something Nigerian politicians rarely do. Resigning as this time to clear his name does not confer victory on his accusers; it ascribes honour on Saraki, the office he occupies, the entire legislature, his family and the nation. He must see it as sacrifice for democracy. If he resigns now and he is at the end acquitted by the tribunal he becomes yet another hero of democracy; he would have joined the pantheon of a few African politicians like Goodluck Jonathan, a man who took the shame of losing an election for the glory of democracy. Today, the world decorates him with epaulets and laurels of democratic honour.
And if Saraki does not see any good in the Jonathan narrative, he should be encouraged by the gesture of former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, who announced his resignation in 2007 on the back of a swirl of allegations of corruption.
“In the present situation, it is difficult to push ahead with effective policies that win the support and trust of the public,” Mr Abe said in his announcement. The key factor here is ‘trust of the public’ or ‘public trust’. Continuing to hold on to the gavel while sitting out in the dock erodes public trust both in Saraki and in the Senate. The gavel and the dock just don’t mix in this circumstance. Saraki is not the accuser; he is the accused. Senator Anyim was able to mix the gavel and the dock because he was the accuser. He accused Senator Nzeribe of defaming his character and he won roundly with cost awarded against Nzeribe.
Just recently, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the Prime Minister of Iceland resigned after he was linked to graft in the Panama Leaks. There are many more instances of public office holders who resigned to clear their names and bounced back stronger. Abe did it in 2012 when he and his Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) regained power. He is Prime Minister till date.
Saraki may need to consider this path. It is not a path of ignominy; it is a path of honour. There is political life after the Senate Presidency; there is political life beyond the bounds of the National Assembly. But first, he must clear his name; and he cannot do it with the gavel in the dock. It is a crude, toxic mix. He should retreat from the clattering din from his colleagues who egg him on. In the solemnity of his solitude, Saraki should ask himself this question: ‘what if I am convicted?’ He would lose his seat as Senate President with his head bowed in shame. Again, the other question: ‘what if I am set free?’ He would return to the Senate in triumphal swagger. And then, he can be anything going forward. He can still return to his seat as Senate President by the grace of his faithful colleagues; he can be Vice President or even the President of Nigeria some other time. In fact, he can be anything. Age is still on his side. And most of it all, he would be a free man, shorn of immoral encumbrance; not a felon, a convict or a villain. The choice is his; and the glory shall be to democracy. My candid advice: drop the gavel and clear your name!
· First published in Sun newspaper, Sunday, April 24, 2016