By IKECHUKWU NNOCHIRI
The spiral controversy surrounding suspension and subsequent reprieve granted the embattled President of the Court of Appeal, PCA Justice Isa Ayo Salami, by the National Judicial Council, NJC, on August 18 2011, may have unwittingly exposed the fallibility of justice administration in the country.
It took precisely nine months for all the judicial eggheads in the country to pin-point the way forward, though it is still in doubt if the healing process would be sufficient to erode the shame that has clouted the judiciary in recent times!
Empirically, whenever the relationship between the judiciary and politics turns rosy, probability between compromise and professionalism becomes infinitesimal.
As Nigerians await the amicable settlement of one of the highest-judicial-scandals that has ever rocked the apex institution of justice in the country, history students will in no distant future, cite this particular era as the most turbulent periods in the jurisprudential annals of Nigeria judiciary.
Specifically, the NJC, which is one of the Federal Executive Bodies created by virtue of Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution, had after an emergency rowdy session it held on August 18 2011, suspended the PCA from office, saying he should hand over to the most senior judicial officer at the appellate court.
That decision which was vehemently opposed by some members of the council sympathetic to the PCA, was sequel to Justice Salami’s blunt refusal to apologize to the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, who he accused of attempting to pervert justice in a gubernatorial election appeal dispute involving Sokoto state.
Remarkably, Katsina-Alu who was very close to the presidency at that time and Salami were classmates in the law school.
Their relationship reportedly turned frosty after the ex-CJN, allegedly asked the PCA to disband the appeal court panel that was presiding over the Sokoto state case, after it was perceived that the judgment was tilting against the governorship candidate of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in the state.
Though the Appeal Court had absolute jurisdiction over governorship appeal at that time, however, the ex-CJN wielded his powers and halted the ready verdict of the Sokoto Division of the Appellate court and subsequently entered judgment in favour of the PDP.
However, to get back at the PCA for refusing to “play ball”, Katsina-Alu allegedly hatched plans to technically humiliate Salami by “pushing” him to the Supreme Court Bench, where in terms of judicial hierarchy, he would automatically become the least justice on the revered apex court Bench.
On getting wind of the plot to use him to fill the vacant slot of the South West geopolitical zone at the Bench, Salami proceeded to court, describing his planned elevation as a “Greek Gift.”
Angst by the subterranean plot of Katsina-Alu, the PCA, via an affidavit he personally deposed to before a Federal High Court in Abuja, gave a bit-by-bit account of how the ex-CJN pressurized him to compromise standard in the Sokoto state election saga, saying it was the reason behind the conspiracy to “push” him to the apex court.
Meanwhile, to save the judiciary from imminent ridicule, NJC, urged Salami to withdraw the case, just as it constituted a panel to probe the feud between the warring parties.
The said probe panel which was headed by a former PCA, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, found Salami guilty, even as a review committee headed by the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, affirmed the decision, recommending that Salami should be asked to apologize to both the council and the ex-CJN.
Meantime, Salami who was cross-examined by the probe panel, had insisted that the present CJN Justice Dahiru Musdapher was privy to the meeting where Katsina-Alu was begging him to pervert the course of justice in Sokoto state, a claim Musdapher who was not a CJN then, refuted.
Following refusal of the PCA to recant his allegation, the NJC while announcing his suspension via a statement signed by its Director of Administration, Mr. E.I. Odukwu, maintained that: “having therefore established that the allegation/complaint by the President, Court of Appeal, Hon. Justice Isa Ayo Salami, OFR, against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, GCON regarding the Sokoto Gubernatorial Election Appeal was false. Council decided that it is misconduct contrary to Rule 1(1) of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“Thus Council further decided as follows, that, (1) the Hon. President of the Court of Appeal should be warned for such unethical conduct which eroded the public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary.”
Among those who celebrated Salami’s suspension were former governors of Ekiti and Osun states, Chief Segun Oni and Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, who were both sacked from office by separate appeal panels that were constituted by the PCA.
Besides, it was a sweet relief for President Goodluck Jonathan, who was at that time, finding it difficult to convince the presidential election petition tribunal panel headed by Justice Salami, to dismiss a petition that was filed against his election victory by the Congress for Progressive Change CPC.
Nevertheless, nine months after the NJC persuaded President Jonathan to appoint Justice Dalhatu Adamu as acting President of the Court of Appeal it has unsavourily made a U-turn, imploring that Salami should be recalled from the judicial-Siberia he was erroneously sent to, whilst the major election appeals subsisted!
Though the NJC has kept absolute mum regarding circumstances that precipitated the suspension of Salami, the decision that culminated to the reinstatement recommendation was reportedly brokered at a 2-days rowdy session the council held in Abuja last week.
It was said that despite vehement protestations by a faction of the council against Salami’s recall, after a voting session that saw those in favour of the decision securing marginal victory, the CJN, Justice Musdapher, okayed that President Jonathan should be formally notified.
Despite controversy and kicks emanating from various political circles in opposition to his reinstatement, a cross section of Nigerians have hailed the NJC for the unparalleled courage it exhibited by admitting its error in judgement and seeking public recompense.
So we await the reaction of the presidency, a careful perusal of the facts and events that occasioned the tribulation suffered by the PCA, has agitated so many questions in the minds of pundits, among which are, “what becomes of the suit challenging legality of the actions that were taken by the NJC in relation to the Salami vs Katsina-Alu saga?
Is it true that a sitting CJN attempted to pervert justice in a gubernatorial election appeal matter? Is NJC accepting its wrongs and daring the consequences of sub-judice? How impartial is President Jonathan in the issue? Nigerians await answers to these questions.