By Nwobodo Chidiebere
THE trial of Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki, has been a burning issue in the court of public opinion, since his emergence as Senate President. This is against the political permutation of some chieftains of his political party, the APC. As a result of the propaganda instigated by Sen. Saraki’s adversaries, a section of the public is already reaching a premature guilty conclusion on the case, even before the trial starts at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
The recent Supreme Court verdict that empowered Code of Conduct Tribunal to commence this high profile trial has once again raised fresh discourse in the Court of Public Opinion. Whether the trial is seen as prosecution or persecution depends on the side of the argument one belongs.
Senator Saraki pleaded not guilty when the charges were read for the first time at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. In furtherance of the argument of his defence counsel, not guilty is the plea of a person who claims not to have committed the crime of which he is being accused. Everyone charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent, until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (Article II of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
The presumption of innocence sometimes referred to by the Latin expression; Ei Incumbit Protatio qui dicit, non qui negat (The burden of proof is on he who alleges, not on he who denies), is the principle that one is considered innocent until proven guilty. In practice, the presumption of innocence is animated by the requirement that the prosecution proves the charges against the defendant beyond reasonable doubt.
This school of thought falls in line with the fundamental tenets of our criminal justice system cum jurisprudence. It is explicitly elucidated in section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which provides that every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until he is proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
There is no doubt that corruption has dealt a heavy blow on the growth and development of Nigeria. The people at the receiving end of this monster called corruption are always the masses. This necessitated the mob support being generated by the current anti-corruption drive of the present administration led by President Buhari. The Nigerian populace has become so allergic and fed up with this menace called corruption, that has eaten deep into the fabric of our nationhood, to the extent that any public official accused or charged with corruption, will get automatic conviction in the Court of Public Opinion, long before the trial begins at the court of competent jurisdiction. Even when the said corruption allegation trial, is being driven by political exigencies, the masses tend to form deaf ears and sealed lips, at the detriment of our laws that made the provision for “not guilty until proven otherwise” principle.
The creeping danger associated with the emotional reactions of the masses, to allegation against highly placed public officials, is that the potency of dictatorship is now being strengthened, using anti-corruption fight as a smokescreen. Any discerning Nigerian who insists on rule of law in prosecuting alleged corrupt officials, is seen as a compromised accomplice of the accused. Personal ambition, which entails constitutionally, and the recognised freedom to vote and be voted for is at risk again. Rule of law, which is the foundation of every democracy is no longer being respected not only by those who want to install tyranny, but the same masses that may be later consumed by elements of authoritarianism.
The fundamental right of the accused to defend himself and remain innocent until proven otherwise, as enshrined in 1999 Constitution (as amended), cannot be eroded by uninformed Court of Public Opinion. Those trying hard to exploit the moral aspect of Sen. Saraki’s trial, to pressurize him into resignation as Senate President, when the latter is still as free as every other person, are implicitly or explicitly playing into the hands of political desperadoe.
As part of the arguments being canvassed in the Court of Public Opinion, some Nigerians have equally ignorantly accused Sen. Saraki’s defence team led by imminent jurist, former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Kanu Agabi (SAN), of buying time with his current application of motion that Code of Conduct Tribunal and Attorney General of the Federation lack powers to proceed with the trial, after the apex court had given a verdict on a related matter in favour of CCT. But, what those of this school of thought fail to understand is that it is still part of Sen. Saraki’s fundamental rights in the nation’s criminal justice system to question both the jurisdiction of CCT and its powers to try him, if he feels that the CCT was not properly constituted ab nitio or is seen as being biased in its handling of the case.
Some analysts have alleged that Sen. Saraki’s defence team is exploiting legal technicalities of our laws to prolong this trial, thereby paving way for political “settlement”, which may see CCT dropping those charges against the Senate President. Those making these assertions have obviously passed the guilty verdict on Senate President Bukola Saraki, even before the commencement of the trial. They have turned upside down section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which provides that every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until he is proven guilty.
Those waiting to see Sen. Saraki convicted of these criminal charges, should also bear in mind that he has to defend himself using every legal option available.
It is no longer news that the alleged offence was said to have been committed in 2003 when Sen. Bukola Saraki was the governor of Kwara State. It was the same set of individuals that shouted on top of their voices, accusing the President Jonathan-led PDP government of witch-hunt.
•Chidiebere writes from Abuja via