Senators plot Saraki’s replacement as Panama Papers heap pressure on embattled Senate president

Bukola Saraki

All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) members in the Senate held secret caucus meetings outside the National Assembly complex on Tuesday to deliberate on likely successor to the embattled Senate President, Bukola Saraki.

Saraki’s corruption  at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) began on Tuesday after all options by his team of legal experts to secure an adjournment of the case failed.

Punch reports that only 23 senators, comprising mainly members of the PDP, were with the Senate President in court while majority of his colleagues in the APC stayed away.

Some senators, including those who had vowed to remain with him to the end of his trial at the anti-graft court, have also asked the Senate President to consider the resignation option so as to save himself and the Senate further humiliation.

Vanguard reports that the option was thrown to him at a special meeting held by a group of some loyal senators, who followed him to his Maitama residence, shortly after the end of Tuesday’s court session.

If pronounced guilty, Saraki would be removed as Senate President, barred from holding any public office for up to 10 years and could be jailed.

The embattled Saraki, however, attempted to put up a bold front on Tuesday, saying he was glad that his much anticipated trial has finally commenced.

In a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Yusuph Olaniyonu, Saraki described proceedings at the tribunal today as quite encouraging and reiterated that he was sure of victory as long as the trial is fair.

He brushed off allegations of wrongdoing concerning his wife’s offshore assets revealed in the Panama Papers, as he went on trial in Abuja on fraud charges.

The latest graft claim emerged from the Panama Papers investigation into a trove of 11.5 million tax documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialises in creating offshore shell companies.

Saraki is alleged to have failed to declare at least four offshore assets listed under his wife Toyin’s name that appear in the leaked documents, according to the investigation’s media partner Nigerian newspaper Premium Times.

Under Nigerian law, it is mandatory for the president, the vice-president, governors and their deputies to declare their assets along with those of their wife and children under 18 when they take office and before stepping down.

But Saraki said he did not do anything illegal and argued that the assets are listed as part of his wife’s “family estate”.

“I’ve fully complied with (the) law on asset declaration,” Saraki said in a statement issued on Monday and posted on his website.

“The law does not require a public officer to declare assets held by the spouse’s family,” Olaniyonu, said.

“It is public knowledge that Mrs Saraki comes from a family of independent means and wealth with numerous and varied assets acquired over decades in family estates and investments.”

A trained physician and former banker, Saraki is considered Nigeria’s third most senior politician behind President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.

Yet anti-corruption campaigners fear that the powerful politician will, like others before him, outmanoeuvre the law.

“The latest revelation about Saraki’s family should not surprise anybody,” Debo Adeniran, chairman of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) lobby group, told AFP of the Panama Papers leaks.

“We suggest that the Nigerian anti-graft agencies should collaborate with their foreign partners to move against Saraki and make him accountable,” Adeniran added.

“If Saraki escapes the Nigerian laws because of the loopholes and leniency in our laws, the international community should not allow him to escape.

“He should get the Ibori’s treatment,” Adeniran said, referring to the case of former Delta State Governor, James Ibori, who was acquitted in Nigeria on corruption charges but jailed in London for a similar offence.

Several high-profile politicians are currently standing trial as part of Buhari’s drive to tackle endemic corruption in Nigeria, Africa’s largest crude producer and biggest economy.