By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
Activities at the National Judicial Council, NJC, is currently under topsy-turvy, following the investigative report that allegedly indicted the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Isa Ayo Salami, of lying under oath.
The report, which was submitted by a 5-man probe panel headed by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Abdullahi Umaru, had allegedly found the PCA, Salami, guilty of perjury, even as it exculpated the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, of complicity over allegations of judicial recklessness levelled against him in relation to the role he played in the 2007 gubernatorial dispute in Sokoto state.
Investigations by Vanguard revealed that some members of the NJC loyal to the PCA, have continued to stage vehement protest against that report, insisting that it biased and lopsided.
They contended that considering the opprobrium the unusual impasse between the two legal eggheads attracted to the entire judiciary, that the panel ought to have recommended and that there was prima-facie evidence suggestive of an accumulated acrimony between the warring parties.
Consequently, the pro-Salami group at the NJC rejected the probe panel report on the premise that it was masterminded by the CJN.
However, in a bid to restore confidence of its members, the legal body, presently presided by Justice Dahiru Musdapher, had constituted a fresh 3-man panel headed by the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, charged with the responsibility of subjecting the previous report to an intensive scrutiny.
The new panel was equally given the mandate of recommending a befitting sanction for the PCA should it affirm the verdict of the Justice Abdullahi’s panel. It was specifically mandated to submit its own report before August 9.
On the establishment of evidence of conviviality between the PCA and the ACN politicians, the new panel in a terms of reference handed to it by the NJC, was asked to determine if Salami had run foul of Rule 1, 2, (A) of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers, which states that:
“In performance of his duties a Judicial Officer should observe the following rules: Rule 1 (2) (a): A Judicial Officer must avoid social relationships that are improper or give rise to an appearance of impropriety, that cast doubt on the Judicial Officer’s ability to decide cases impartially, or that bring disrepute to the judiciary.
Uncomfirmed report indicated that the Auta panel might have recommended a stiff sanction against Justice Salami.
It would be recalled that the 5-man initial probe panel which was expected to have submitted its final report before May 9, a day the CJN lost his wife in a bizarre home accident, could not do so till last week
Though the CJN is statutorily the head of both the Supreme Court and the NJC, however, he was asked to step-aside for his deputy, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, to enable the judicial body to objectively investigate all the allegations of official misconduct levelled against him and the PCA, Justice Salami.
According to the 1999 constitution as amended, the NJC is the only organ vested with powers, functions and responsibilities to recommend the appointment, removal and to exercise disciplinary control over all judicial officers in the federation.
The legal body had in its 5th ad-hoc meeting held in Abuja on March 9, 2011, deliberated on the various petitions written against the PCA and six other justices of the Court of Appeal, and subsequently constituted the 5-man investigative panel with a view to conducting a holistic investigation into the matter.
In aberration to its normal schedule, the NJC ordered the CJN who by virtue of his position always superintend over its meetings, to step aside from performing such function considering that he cannot be a Judge over his own case.
Though NJC expressly gave the panel 2 months to conclude its investigations and submit its final report on the matter, the verdict however emerged after 5 months of intensive closed door hearing of the case.
In a press statement that was issued by the NJC through its secretary, Mr. Danladi Halilu, on March 10, it maintained that, “after considering all the Petitions and the comments by the Hon.
Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. President of the Court of Appeal, and other Justices of the Court, Council constituted a Panel to investigate the allegations contained in the petitions with the following Membership: – Hon. Justice Umaru Abdullahi, CON, Chairman, Hon. Justice E. O. Ayoola, CON, Member, Hon. Justice D. O. Edozie, CON, Member, Hon. Justice M. E. Akpiroroh, Member and Hajiya Rakiya S. Ibrahim, MON, Member.
“In view of the number of the petitions involved and the gravity of the allegations contained therein, Council gave the Panel a time-frame of two months within which to submit its Report”.
The panel swiftly ordered all the accused judicial officers to promptly file their defences to plethora of petition against them.
The six court of Appeal Justices also involved were, Justices Clara Ogunbiyi, M. L. Garuba, Paul Galinje, C.C Nweze; Adamu Jauro and O. Ariwoola.
They all participated in the 2007 election appeal panels that sacked former governors Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola and Chief Segun Oni, of Osun and Ekiti States respectively.
Whereas it is incumbent on the CJN to approve and swear in members of election appeal tribunal, it is however the sole responsibility of the PCA to constitute such panel.
Both former governors Oni and Oyinola who were members of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Osun and Ekiti State chapters, had accused the election petition tribunal panels of engaging in unethical conversation with some chieftains of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, which they alleged aided the favourable judgements that the party got in both Osun and Ekiti state governorship election appeals.
The petitioners further furnished the Justice Abdullahi led probe panel with records of call logs between the accused tribunal judges and politicians that allegedly secured favourable verdicts against the sacked governors.
Following pressure from both Civil Society groups and other petitioners, the NJC summoned the CJN and PCA to appear before it for interrogation.
The invitation letter which was issued to them through the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr Sunday Olorundahunsi, read, “it was revealed that the 5th Emergency meeting of the National Judicial Council has been scheduled for 9th March, 2011, particularly to deliberate on various petitions and allegations leveled against Your Lordship and the Hon. President, Court of Appeal, Hon. Justice Ayo Isa Salami, OFR.’
“I therefore, forward herewith a copy of the petition I have received dated 24th February, 2011 by one International Society of Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, against you and the Honourable President of the Court of Appeal. It is self-explanatory. Your Lordship would kindly oblige the Council your response to the petition before 9th March, 2011, please”.
Despite that the panel opted to conduct its proceedings in camera, Vanguard however gathered that it had on March 26, ordered all the accused judicial officers to appear before it on April 11, just as it equally asked the petitioners to come before it with their substantive proof of evidence and witnesses if any.
The said summon was signed by NJC’s Director of Administration, Mr. E. I. Odukwu.
While the panel specifically grilled Katsina-Alu over accusations by Salami that he mounted pressure on him to compromise in the Sokoto State gubernatorial appeal, his accuser on the other hand is answering to allegations of corruption and unethical conduct in the handling of Sokoto, Ekiti and Osun states governorship appeals.
Salami had in an affidavit he personally deposed before a Federal High Court in Abuja, alleged that the CJN urged him to either disband the Sokoto State Gubernatorial Election Petition Appeal Tribunal (Appeal Tribunal) or alternatively direct the Appeal Tribunal to enter judgment for the incumbent Governor Aliyu Wammako.
Justice Salami had in the wake of his aborted “un-holy promotion” to the Supreme Court bench, accused the CJN of corruption, even as he declined the elevation, describing it as a “Greek gift”.
The CJN in a memo he issued with a view to justifying his intervention in election tribunal affairs, averred in part that: I am not oblivious of powers vested in the Court of Appeal by law to constitute the election petition tribunals.
However since the birth of this republic, it has been observed with a lot of concern that there are some judges who have been continuously serving on the election petitions tribunal, spanning two to eight years.
“While some of the judges were appointed on the recommendation of their heads of court, others were appointed without any input by their heads of court; they lobbied for the appointment.”
“Reports of the returns of cases before the council have shown that some of the judges had backlog of cases before their appointment as members of the election petitions tribunal. They did not make any effort to reduce or clear the cases and it is on record that the performance of some of them has been generally very low. Such judges should no longer be re-appointed to serve on the tribunal.”
Meanwhile, both Justice Salami and the four other Justices that sat on the Ekiti State governorship appeal panel told the NJC probe panel that their call logs obtained by former governor of the State, Chief Segun Oni, amounted to an invasion of their privacy.
Ex-governor Oni had alleged that the panel sacked him and enthroned Governor Kayode Fayemi sequel to deals allegedly cut in the course of making the recovered telephone conversations.
In their defence dated March 3, 2011 and signed by all the justices, they maintained that the petitioners violated their right to privacy as enshrined in Section 37 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and sought protection from the NJC in order to preserve the independence of the judicial system.
They neither denied engaging the politicians mentioned in the call logs in conversation nor expressly admitted that they exchanged calls with the politicians.
Tagging the call log evidence ‘meaningless and useless’, they further insisted that “The said call logs offend Section 37 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which provides that ‘the privacy of citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.”
In acknowledging the powers of the NJC to sanction erring judicial officers in the country, the jurists also called on the council to be protective of its officers in situations like this, so as to preserve the independence of the judiciary and shield judicial officers from attacks while performing their statutory functions.
The respondents further stated that the petitions against them were vexatious and a ploy to muzzle them, adding that it was the continuation of the harassment they had suffered since they determined the Ekiti appeal in consonance with their conscience.
Meantime, after due consideration of all the proof of evidences before it, the Justice Umaru led panel, reportedly exonerated the CJN of the alleged offence, though it indicted the PCA of lying on oath, an offence it classified as high classed perjury.
In the said affidavit that culminated to his indictment, Justice Salami alleged that his relationship with the CJN went awry from the day he refused to comply with a directive that he should disband the panel of Appeal Court Justices that sat over the Sokoto matter.
According to him, “I have all along enjoyed my work as President of the Court of Appeal and did not have any issues or disagreement with the 1st defendant, Katsina- Alu, until the controversies over the gubernatorial election petition in Sokoto state came to light.
“Following my appointment as the President of the Court of Appeal, I found among the pending election petition appeals, the Sokoto State Gubernatorial election petition appeal.
“I set up panels of the Appeal Court to dispose of the pending petitions including that of Sokoto. I was however shocked when subsequent to the setting up of a panel on the Sokoto Gubernatorial election petition appeal, and after all parties had filed and exchanged briefs, adopted same and judgement reserved, the 1st defendant summoned me by telephone to his office in Abuja.
“The 1st defendant asked me to disband the panel I had set up for the appeal on the excuse that if the panel allowed the appeal and removed the Governor, the ripple effect would lead to a removal of our highly revered Sultan of Sokoto.
“The 1st Defendant could not convince me on the logic predicating his reasoning more especially as the Sultan was not a party to the election petition and as there is no nexus between any of the parties and the sultan, so I told him I would not disband the panel. The 1st Defendant then said in the alternative that I should direct the panel of justices to decide against the Appellant.
“To this again, I still said No that I would not do anything to pervert the cause of justice. Since then there has been no love lost between the 1st Defendant and me.
“That the appeal in the Sokoto Gubernatorial election petition which was pending before the Sokoto Court of Appeal was eventually dismissed by the Supreme Court on 21st November, 2010 notwithstanding that the appeal was not before the Supreme Court” he averred.
Beside the perjury indictment, the probe panel equally established a prima-facie convivial relationship between the PCA and chieftains of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, an amorous judicial romance that former Governors Oyinola and Chief Segun Oni of Osun and Ekiti states respectively, insisted had occasioned their subsequent sack from their respective offices.