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Saraki for trial today....Senate suspends Ameachi's Screening

THE Senate on Tuesday suspended its plenary and the ongoing screening of ministerial nominees, apparently to pave the way for the commencement of the trial of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, for false asset declaration, the PUNCH has reported.

The Code of Conduct Tribunal had adjourned till October 21 to commence Saraki’s trial for the 13 charges preferred against him by the Code of Conduct Bureau, which alleged that the Senate president made false asset declaration as Kwara State governor between 2003 and 2011.

The Senate president had appeared before the tribunal on September 22. The Justice Danladi Umar-led tribunal, after Saraki was arraigned, had fixed October 21 for the commencement of trial.

The Acting Clerk of the Senate, Mr. Nelson Ayewo, issued a late statement on Tuesday, stating that further plenary at the upper legislative chamber had been postponed till Thursday (tomorrow), meaning the screening of the nominees would not continue today as scheduled.

However, Saraki on Tuesday filed a fresh application for stay of the proceedings of the CCT.
The Punch, learnt late on Tuesday that the Senate president’s legal team, led by Mr. Joseph Daudu (SAN), filed the motion for stay of proceedings before the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal.

Saraki had during his arraignment pleaded not guilty to the charges of false asset declaration.

It however remained unclear as of Tuesday night whether the Senate President would appear before the tribunal on Wednesday (today) in view of one of his lawyers’ reaction to Monday’s inability of the Court of Appeal to deliver its judgment on Saraki’s main appeal, in which he is challenging the validity of the charges preferred against him at the tribunal.

One of its lawyers, Mr. Mahmud Magaji (SAN), had told our correspondent on Monday that the CCT would no longer have the power to continue to hear the charges until the Court of Appeal delivered its judgment.

The fresh motion for stay of proceedings filed by Saraki’s lawyers on Tuesday seeks an order of the Court of Appeal staying proceedings of the CCT pending when the appellate court would deliver its judgment.

The Court of Appeal had on Friday struck out a similar application for stay of the CCT proceedings by Saraki after hearing his main appeal.

The Justice Moore Adumein-led tribunal appeal panel said it would amount to judicial waste of time if it went ahead to hear the appeal and had to deliver a separate ruling on it after the main appeal had been heard.

The Court of Appeal in Abuja had promised to deliver its judgment on the case before the next scheduled appearance of the Senate president before the tribunal on October 21. But the appeal court had on Monday curiously deferred indefinitely its ruling on the appeal.

No new date was fixed for the judgment as lawyers, journalists and a large number of people interested in the case met the courtroom already locked by 2pm when the three-man panel was scheduled to sit on Monday.

It was learnt that the filing of the fresh motion for stay of proceedings was due to the Monday’s failure of the Court of Appeal to deliver judgment in the appeal by Saraki as earlier scheduled.

The lead prosecuting counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), on Tuesday night confirmed to one of our correspondents on the telephone that he had been served with Saraki’s motion for stay of proceedings.

The Senate president is challenging the trial on among other grounds that the CCT not being a court could not exercise judicial powers and that the charges filed at the time an Attorney General of the Federation had not been appointed were incompetent.

But the respondents’ counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), asked the Court of Appeal to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the appeal lacked merit and was based on misconception and wrong interpretation of the law.

Meanwhile, the Senate on Tuesday again postponed the screening of a ministerial nominee and a former Governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi. The postponement was the third in two weeks.

The Senate leadership had at about 10am ordered the withdrawal of the initial Order Paper produced by the Rules and Business Committee as the official guide for the day’s proceedings.

Our correspondent, who was in possession of the original order paper, observed that Amaechi’s name was the third on the list of eight ministerial nominees scheduled to appear before the senators for the day.

The first list had the following names in this order: Adebayo Shittu (Oyo); Heineken Lokpobiri (Bayelsa); Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers); Khadija Abba-Ibrahim (Yobe); Bawa Bwari (Niger); Ocholi James (Kogi); Mansur Muhammed (Zamfara); and Zainab Ahmed (Kaduna).

But the ex-governor’s name was not included in the second order paper that was produced. The paper had only three three names listed for screening: Mr. Adebayo Shittu (Oyo); Omoleye Daramola (Ondo); and Khadija Abba-Ibrahim (Yobe). Daramola was also not eventually screened before the Senate closed for the day.

No explanation for the reduction in the number of nominees to be screened was offered.

The Chairman, Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Senator Babajide Omoworare, declined comments when asked to explain the development.

But, a member of the committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told one of our correspondents that the directive to withdraw the first order paper was given by the leadership of the Senate after a closed- door meeting on Tuesday.

“We have produced a clean copy of the order paper and had even circulated it online, that is why the nominees concerned came to the Senate for their screening. We don’t really know why the Senate leader directed our boss to make some corrections and withdraw the first order paper,” the Business and Rules Committee member said.

The Peoples Democratic Party caucus in the Senate however met behind closed doors for about two hours on Tuesday to discuss the Amaechi matter.

The meeting was presided over by the Minority Leader, Godswill Akpabio.

Those at the meeting, including Akpabio declined letting journalists into what the PDP senators discussed and agreed upon but some of them told our correspondent that the meeting was called to “soften the minds of some PDP senators that are bent on opposing Amaechi’s ministerial ambition.”

One of the senators from the South-West geopolitical zone, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Basically, the meeting was convened to talk to ourselves on the need to move forward on the issue of Amaechi but those against his clearance appeared not ready to shift grounds.

“We hope to resolve the issue as soon as possible in the interest of the nation.”

The PUNCH had reported in its Tuesday edition that the Senate might again postpone Ameachi’s screening given the unresolved issues surrounding his nomination, including the petition against the former governor by a Port Harcourt based Integrity Group.

Meanwhile, the senator representing Imo North, Nneji Achonu, on Tuesday submitted 10 petitions against the nominee from his state, Prof Anwuka Gozie. Also, a group made up of professors submitted two petitions against the nominee from Osun State, Prof Isaac Adewole.

Adewole is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan.

Senate President Bukola Saraki referred the petitions to the Ethics and Public Petitions committee. He asked the committee to submit its report on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the nominee from Oyo, Shittu, while answering questions from the senators, denied ever indicted by his state government over religious intolerance allegations and also explained why he lost a governorship election.

On why he lost election, he said, “Even though our party then, the Congress for Progressive Change was formed less than a year to that election, I still scored 15,000 votes.

“With due respect to those that were in ANPP, ANPP was a senior party at that time but the ANPP scored 2,000 votes to my own 15,000.”

He denied being indicted for religious intolerance when questioned by Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe.

Shittu said, “I say with all sense of responsibility that I have never been indicted by any panel of enquiry. I recently became aware of a gazette and I have a copy of that gazette. What happened in that year 2000, I was the secretary of the national committee on hajj and throughout the period that the crisis occurred I was away in Saudi Arabia on a national assignment so I was not even in the country when the crisis occurred.”