By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — The Judicial panel of inquiry constituted by the National Judicial Council, NJC, to investigate the face-off between the Chief Justice of the Nigeria, CJN, Justice Alloysius Katsina-Alu and the President of the Court of Appeal, PCA, Justice Isa Ayo Salami has failed to meet the deadline for the submission of its report.
The five-man panel headed by the immediate past President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, according to Vanguard investigations, is still meeting in camera as a result of the unexpected flood of petitions forwarded to it by concerned stakeholders.
The panel was expected to have submitted its final report on the uncanny impasse between the two judicial eggheads before May 9, which was a day the CJN lost his wife in a bizarre home accident.
The CJN, who is statutorily the head of both the Supreme Court and the chairman of the NJC, was hitherto asked to step aside for the deputy chairman, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, to enable the judicial body to objectively investigate the allegations of official misconduct levelled at him and Justice Salami.
The legal body during its 5th ad-hoc meeting held in Abuja on March 9, 2011, deliberated on the various petitions written against the duo and six other justices of the Court of Appeal, and consequently constituted a 5-man investigative panel with a view to conducting a holistic investigation into the matter.
In aberration to its normal schedule of things, 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.
It expressly gave the probe panel 2 month to conclude its investigations and submit its final report on the matter.
Though most of the national dailies initially mis_reported the time frame, however, in its bid to clear all doubts, the NJC through a press statement it issued on March 10, which was signed by its secretary, Mr. Danladi Halilu, 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”.
In a swift reaction, the investigative panel ordered the accused judicial officers to promptly file their defence against plethora of petition against them.
The six court of Appeal Justices enmeshed in the alleged corruption saga 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 Ogun 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 Governors Oni and Onyinola 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 judgments 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”.
Though the probe 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, indicted the CJN of corruption, even as he declined the elevation, describing it as a “Greek gift”.
The CJN had 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 have
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.
The four other justices that filed a joint defence alongside Salami before the panel are Clara Ogunbiyi; O. Ariwoola; C.C Nweze and Adamu Jauro.
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
However, 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.
Further hearing in the petitions has been slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, (May 18 and 19), respectively.
By employing the face to face method that allows the accused to meet the accused, the duo of ex-governors Oni and Onyinola may be confronting the panel of jurists that ousted them from office this week.