Not many Nigerians know Prof. Norman Ornstein. He is a political scientist, thinker and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a leading Washington, DC think tank. He has established a reputation for himself as an expert on the US Congress.
Prof. Ornstein has not been far from the mind of this writer since the trial of Senator Bukola Saraki began. For it was Prof. Ornstein who propounded the theory that the US Congress suffers from low ratings based on changes in the electronic and print media which have led to a greater emphasis on negative and unwarranted sensationalisation of happenings inside the hallowed chambers of the U.S. Congress, which he termed “tabloidisation”. Senator Bukola Saraki is the President of the Nigerian Senate and the tabloidisation of his trial derives from the exalted position he holds!
Since the beginning of the trial, supposed experts in “polit-judicial” matters and every Tom, Dick and Harry have turned it into a punching bag to show off or impress with pseudo-expertise, unnecessarily but amazingly attracting large following, especially on the social media.
Questions to answer
Though political undertones have been expectedly and appropriately read into the case against Saraki, the facts cannot be slaughtered on the alter of tabloidisation. It must have been, no doubt, appalling to many well-informed and dispassionate observers that the tabloidisation has mostly been based on the politics that clearly instigated the trial than on the hard facts of law necessary to secure conviction.
The tabloidisation has therefore been overtly restricted to some postulations, mainly that the moment he became the President of the Senate, contrary to the wishes of some “principalities” within his party, Saraki became a marked man and doomed. As much as these do not constitute the case before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), those on the side of justice and who desire justice in the case are ensconced in the firm belief that justice is defined by facts and not tabloidisation.
The case against the Senate President can best be described as demeritorious. It began in September last year, with the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) announcing it would dock Saraki on a 13-count charge bordering on false declaration of assets, at the CCT.
Based on the alleged falsely declared and undeclared assets as Governor of Kwara State, listed by the CCB, especially the mention of No. 15A and 15B McDonald Road, Ikoyi; No. 17A and 17B McDonald Road, Ikoyi; Plot 2A and Plot 37A Glover Road, Ikoyi; No.1 and No. 3 Tagnus Street, Maitama, Abuja; the inclusion that he was accused of deliberately manipulating the assets declaration form that he filed prior to his assumption of office as the Senate President, by making anticipatory declaration of assets;
failing to declare some assets he acquired while in office as governor; and that he owned and operated foreign bank accounts while serving as a public officer, the media quickly picked them up and the tabloidisation began. Not even Saraki’s response that the CCB’s 13-count charge of breach in asset declaration, coming 13 years after he declared his assets as governor, was frivolous and political witch-hunt, and that he would defend the charges could withstand the cacophony of hailings the announcement received, especially on the social media.
Saraki has since been on trial with every step marked by tabloidization. He has staunchly insisted on his innocence and his defence has been consistent. He has insisted that he declared his assets as required by law at every point before resuming any political office. And if the Code of Conduct Bureau had followed their processes in which after a declaration is submitted, they carry out verification of the assets and ascertain the claims made, they would not have waited till 12 years later to point out alleged inconsistencies in a document submitted to them in 2003, especially as he submitted asset declaration form in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
What about the fact that contrary to the procedure indicated in the law setting up the CCB, the Bureau never wrote to Saraki to complain of any inconsistency in his asset declaration forms?
History repeats itself
History has a queer way of repeating itself. Saraki’s innocence may eventually be proved by his acquittal. If that happens, it will not be the first time a sensational case that was thought would lead to the conviction of the suspect will end up with the suspect’s innocence proved. In July last year, a Federal High Court in Lagos discharged and acquitted former Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, of N19 billion money laundering charges.
In her judgment, the judge , Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia, said the prosecution’s case was “feeble” and failed to provide “copious evidence” linking Mr. Fani-Kayode to money laundering. That case began in 2008, and was marked by media sensationalism, with many predicting the eventual conviction of the former minister.
There has also been the celebrated case against former Governor Timipre Sylva of Bayelsa State, who was accused of corruption by the EFCC but who had his charges quashed last year, when the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) showed up in court for that singular purpose.
And a final word for the media, especially the mainstream, which unexpectedly has a growing number of practitioners who bask in sensationalism or tabloidisation. Sensationalism sells, but the media should thrive to be fair at all times, a situation which is presently lacking in the reportage of the Saraki case. It is hoped that when justice is eventually served, the tabloidisation of this case will come to an end with the ironic sensationalisation of the good tidings.
By Dafe Umukoro
*Dafe Umukoro wrote from Benin.