The Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), and human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), have condemned the move by the Senate to amend the law setting up the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Code of Conduct Tribunal, with a view to whittling down the agencies’ powers.
The Senior Advocates of Nigeria said the commencement of the amendment of the Act, establishing the CCB and CCT by the Senate, had exposed the intention of the country’s legislators to encourage corrupt practices and shield corrupt leaders from prosecution.
The Senate, on Thursday, passed for second reading, a bill for to amend the CCB and Tribunal Act barely 48 hours after its presentation by the sponsor, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi, (Peoples Democratic Party, Delta North), on the floor of the upper chamber.
It has also set Tuesday next week to begin deliberation on another bill meant to amend the Administration of Criminal Justice Act that will remove the powers of the CCT to try criminal cases.
Both bills were presented on the floor of the upper chamber and read for the first time on Tuesday.
Some observers wondered if the rush to pass the bill to amend the CCB Act was not a ploy by the red chamber to frustrate the current trial of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, at the CCT.
The Senate President is facing criminal prosecution for alleged false and anticipatory asset declaration during his tenure as the Kwara State governor between 2003 and 2011.
Saraki had instituted serial suits at the Federal High Court in Abuja, where he had challenged the constitution of the CCT to try his case.
He also instituted a suit challenging the jurisdiction of the CCT to try him.
The Senate President pursued the suits to the Supreme Court but lost.
Another of his suits seeks to stop his trial before the CCT on the basis that the trial violated his fundamental human rights.
The court has fixed Friday (today) to deliver judgment on the case.
But Sagay said the move by the senators had exposed the level of lack of moral integrity on the part of the members of the red chamber.
Sagay stated, “It’s a surprise to me, because I really don’t know that our mentality has degenerated to such a level of self-service that the people, who were sent to the National Assembly to make laws for the benefit of all Nigerians, have started a process that will allow a complete crisis; an Act that corruption cannot be prosecuted.
“To me, this is the highest level of shameless misconduct by the generality of the members of the red chamber. Obviously, there is no limit to the level of disgusting things they can do.”
Falana, in his reaction on Thursday, described the proposed amendment of the CCB/T Act and the ACJ Act as an ill wind that would blow no good to those behind it.
Speaking with one of our correspondents on the telephone, Falana said the proposed amendment amounted to a conflict of interest because it was being proposed because of one man.
He, however, pointed out that even if the amendment succeeded, by virtue of the provisions of the constitution, it would not have a retroactive effect, adding that it would not have any effect on cases already pending in court.
Falana said, “Any amendment of the law under the constitution cannot and will not have retrospective effect. The amendment will not have any effect on pending cases in court.
“The excuse being advanced for the devilish agenda is jejune because the CCT, whose members are screened for appointment by the Senate, cannot be said to be under the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation.
“The proposed amendment also amounts to a conflict of interest because you cannot, because of one man, amend the law of the land. It will amount to an exercise in futility.”
Another SAN, Mr. Kunle Ogunba, believed it was doubtful that the Senate would want to take such a step, especially in view of the public outcry against corruption in the country.
Ogunba, who said having not seen the provisions of the said bill, he could not give a detailed response, doubted whether any amendment to the CCT Act could affect a trial that was already ongoing before the CCT.
Ogunba said, “Well, I have not seen the provisions (of the bill) and I don’t know if it will have a retroactive effect to the extent that it will affect a case that is already instituted and ongoing.
“For me, it is still a subject of speculation. And I don’t think that the Senate, in view of the outcry that has attended the ongoing trial of the Senate President, will do anything that will further enmesh that august institution in further controversy by passing a law to undermine or terminate the proceedings.
“But if it is true, it is very condemnable.”
In his lead debate, Nwaoboshi said the Act, promulgated in 1989, came into operation in 1991 based on the provisions of the 1979 Constitution.
He explained that the Act captured in the 1999 Constitution had two schedules, dealing extensively with the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
The Bureau, he said, was vested with power to receive declarations by public officers made under paragraph 12 of Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and examine the declarations in accordance with the requirements of the code of conduct or any law.
He stated that the CCB was empowered to retain custody of such declarations and make them available for inspection by citizens of Nigeria on such terms and conditions as the National Assembly might prescribe.
Nwaoboshi added that the bureau was meant to ensure compliance with, and where appropriate, enforce the provisions of the Code of Conduct of any law relating to it and receive complaints about non-compliance with or breach of the provisions of the CCB.
He, however, said he was proposing an amendment to Section three of the CCB and Tribunal Act to give every public officer appearing before the Bureau fair hearing as provided for under Section 36 (2)(a) of the CFRN 1999.
The section, he said, “provides for an opportunity for the person whose rights and obligations may be affected to make representations to the administering authority before that authority makes the decision affecting that person”.
Nwaoboshi said, “In my proposed amendment, the section now looks like this; “The functions of the Bureau shall be to – (a) receive asset declarations by officers in accordance with the provisions of this Act; and (b) take and retain custody of such asset declarations.
“It shall examine the asset declarations and ensure that they comply with the requirements of this Act and of any law for the time being in force if otherwise the Bureau shall invite the public officer concerned and take down his statement in writing.
“It shall receive complaints about non-compliance with or breach of this Act and where the Bureau, having regard to any statement taken or to be taken after such subsequent complaint is made, considers it necessary to do so.
“It shall investigate the complaint and where appropriate, refer such complaints to the Code of Conduct Tribunal established by Section 20 of this Act and the constitution in accordance with the provisions of sections 20 to 25 of this Act.
“From the above, it is clear that sub-section 3(a) has been retained while sub-section 3(c) now becomes sub-section 3(b) and sub-sections 3(c) and (3d) have been altered to give fair hearing, equity and justice to every public officer that is invited to appear before the Bureau in line with the constitutional provision as enumerated above.
“Paragraph 17 of the Third Schedule to the Principal Act is amended by completely deleting same.
“This is because if you look at the caption of the Act, after Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, it reads, “An Act to provide for the establishment of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal to deal with complaints of Corruption by Public Servants for breach of its provisions.
“It is clear that the Act does not contemplate criminal trial so the usage of Criminal Procedure Act and the Criminal Procedure Code should not be used as a procedural template in the Tribunal.”
The senator pledged to present to the Senate, in due course, a comprehensive amendment of the Third Schedule to the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Rules of procedure which should be the Distinct Rules for proceedings in the CCT.
Senators Dino Melaye, Barau Jubrin, Samuel Anyanwu, Biodun Olujimi, Buka Abba Ibrahim and Ibrahim Gobir, who contributed to the debate, described it as a welcome development, saying the bill deserved the support of all senators.
But the Senator representing Kebbi North, Yahaya Abdullahi, cautioned his colleagues against the passage of the bill at the time when Saraki was facing trial before the CCT.
Abdullahi said, “I just rise to raise a point of caution. I have read and gone through the areas where the amendments are sought and I am not against it, but what I have against is the timing.
“We must be ready on the issue of public perception about the position of the Senate in this regard.
“Perception can be reality, the Nigerian people can easily interprete the action we are taking today to mean that for all these years, a decree, which became law since 1991, is not being challenged until today because our principal officer is standing trial before the same tribunal.
“I think for the credibility of this Senate, I think we should re-examine whether the timing is right for this bill to go through the second reading or not.”
But the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided over the plenary, ruled out the observation of Abdullahi, arguing that the bill was not meant to frustrate Saraki’s trial at the CCT.
Ekweremadu said, “Let me just say that this bill absolutely has nothing to do with the proceedings going on at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in which the Senate President is involved because his trial has commenced as you are aware.
“If you look at the commencement of the bill of the last paragraph, of course, on the bill which says ‘this bill may be sighted as a code of conduct bureau tribunal Act amendment bill, 2016’.
“That means that the bill is not being made retrospective as to affect the proceedings at the code of conduct tribunal; certainly it has nothing to do with it. We are only doing our work as parliamentarians.”
The senators voted in support of the passage of the bill for the second reading and Ekweremadu referred the bill to the committees on Public Petitions and Judiciary and asked them to report back in two weeks.
Investigations by our correspondent revealed that the bill would eventually be passed in the next two weeks and transmitted to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.
The Senate is also set to begin deliberation on the bill to amend the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, with a provision to strip the CCT and courts martial and other tribunals in the country.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Isa Misau, and read for the first time on Tuesday, had been slated for deliberation next week Tuesday.