Media hysteria over acquittal of Bukola Saraki
A righteous indignation, albeit steeped in ignorance of the law, against corrupt politicians or a corrupt judiciary isn't going to clean the system.
The discharge and acquittal of Nigeria's Senate President, Bukola Saraki, by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on the 14th of June, 2017 was a disappointing end for many Nigerians who are eager to see a 'powerful' politician punished by our criminal justice system for acts of corruption. Unsurprisingly, there have been very strong outbursts of anger on social media, with the judiciary taking the brunt for what is perceived as an invidious ruling.
The public furore has included accusations and counter-accusations of bribery and attempt to influence the outcome of the trial of one of Nigeria's most power politicians. Sahara Reporters published a report that the Senate President spent huge sums of money to bribe the Chairman of the tribunal. Saraki's Special Assistant on New Media, Bamikole Omishore, released an audio recording of Itse Sagay, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), allegedly trying to influence the decision of the tribunal to ensure Saraki was found guilty. (Prof. Sagay has expressed his unequivocal displeasure with the CCT decision.)
Saraki's trial was a blockbuster, filled with many legal twists and turns. Although he publicly maintained a cool and unperturbed composure all through the trial, he showed his apprehension through the different strategies adopted by his legal team. The different senior lawyers who represented him at the various stages of the trial adopted divergent strategies. This was evidence of how frightened the Senate President was.
We witnessed objections to the competence of the charge and the legal status of the Code of Conduct Tribunal. The case to stop the CCT trial went all the way to the Supreme Court. There was the suit filed at the Federal High Court Abuja, challenging the proceedings at the tribunal. An application prayed that the Chairman of the Tribunal, Mr. Danladi Umar, recuse himself. The crossexamination of a prosecution witness, Michael Wetklas, went on for months. This was a fight to the finish, in favour of Saraki.
This writer has refused to make comments or legal analysis on the decision without reading the entire ruling. Notwithstanding, suffice to say from the reportage of it, there are some legal points I agree with, while there are others I disagree with. This article is, therefore, not about the correctness or otherwise of the ruling. My focus is on the collective reaction to the CCT ruling.
What troubles me as a citizen and a lawyer is not the fact that Saraki was discharged and acquitted, but that this is the second high-profile 'corruption' trial in recent times that ended with the court, or tribunal as in this instance, upholding a 'no case submission.' The trial of a Federal High Court judge, Justice Adeniyi Ademola, came to the same end. This means that the defendants were not even called upon to put in a defence.
Any appeals that arise from these decisions, even if they were allowed by the appellate courts, would ask that the accused be called upon to put in their defence. If the subsisting decisions were to be overturned by the appellate courts, it would not mean that the defendants have been found guilty. There is a high probability that the cases would be sent to another judge or panel to be tried de novo (from the beginning). Therefore, though it is not a permanent loss, the prosecution suffered a great defeat. What is worrying is that I do not believe we have learned much from these cases.
One of the surest ways to repeat the same mistakes is to learn nothing from them. Furthermore, one of the surest ways not to learn from your mistakes is to put the blame for the outcome of the mistakes on other factors except yourself. So, as a nation, we scream that corruption is fighting back; we say the judiciary is corrupt and is aiding criminals who loot us to escape justice.
If we work with the assumption that this is true, why are we fighting corruption as if we expect the 'corrupt politicians' and 'corrupt judiciary' to willingly surrender? The prosecution wants us to believe it knows that it is taking a corrupt politician before his corrupt judge-friend, and yet it still makes a point of doing a shoddy job. It would not be unfair, therefore, if one were to tag such prosecuting team as being part of the corruption ring.
The allegations we make in the social media don't make it to the courtroom. Even if they did, they would be destroyed under the scrutiny of smart defence lawyers. In effect, our use of the media in the fight against corruption has become shallow, mostly characterized by scurrilous attacks on one another and visceral reactions. This social media community of conspiracy theorists and complainants has produced analysts and commentators, including me.
When a scandal breaks in some parts of the world, it is often interesting to watch because documents are published and
flashed across TV screens to both put things in perspective and the powerful individuals involved in trouble. In my country, the mainstream media mostly has a political angle to their reportage and it is usually devoid of objectivity. I fear we have collectively lost something important as a nation in this fight against corruption – and that thing is our sense of objectivity. We need to look at the facts of each case and each allegation objectively. Let us stop these outbursts of emotional reactions to every court decision, alleging that corruption is fighting back. There is no way we can learn any lessons and improve our society through hysteria.
Many people who have made comments about the decision of the tribunal do not have the facts of the case. As far as they are concerned, since Saraki was a two-term governor of a state in Nigeria, he must be guilty of something, anything. I frankly share those sentiments. But is he guilty of what he is being accused of? And if he is, was the documentary evidence placed before the tribunal?
We are not bothered about finding out the facts and why the tribunal gave its ruling. The tenor in the atmosphere is that once you are a politician charged with allegations of corruption, you are guilty. And a judge who has declared a politician not guilty is corrupt. As far as we are concerned, an acquittal is tantamount to a compromised judgement, regardless of the facts.
Irrespective of our irrational reactions, the judiciary will not start to convict people for offences based on public sentiments no matter how much bashing it gets. Permit me to do a little comparison with the Bill Cosby's sexual assault charge, which also ended last month in a mistrial. It was adjudged so because the jury, comprising of regular men and women could not unanimously agree that he was guilty, despite months of media coverage of over sixty accusers who had come out.
By the very nature of our system of government, the success of the war against corruption would always be determined by how you can sufficiently prove your case in the courtroom. The popular saying, “the devil is in the detail” is apt. We can only become truly objective and intellectual in our discourse, and in proffering solutions, when we are seised of the facts and substance of each case, rather than by the general diatribe that everybody is corrupt.
If we take each case at a time, scrutinize the allegations, and weigh the evidence presented, we would be able to decide for ourselves if our problem lies with an inept prosecution, a corrupt or simpleminded judiciary, or an overburdened and obsolescent criminal justice system filled with loopholes for criminals to escape; or perhaps all of the above.
A righteous indignation, albeit steeped in ignorance of the law, against corrupt politicians or a corrupt judiciary isn't going to clean the system. We would only be making ourselves stooges in the already rehearsed and scripted theatrics that makes itself into our news cycle.
Nigerian Senate President, Bukola Saraki