Can President Goodluck Jonathan refuse to approve the recall of the suspended President of Appeal Court, Justice Ayo Salami, one week after the National Judicial Council which suspended him asked that he returns to his seat?
Eight months after it handed him a politically motivated but unconstitutional suspension that brought the nation’s judiciary to disrepute, the NJC reversed itself last Thursday by a majority vote of 11 to 7 asking Mr. Salami to return to his office.
By the terms of the constitution, his interim replacement cannot stay any longer on the seat, putting president Jonathan under pressure to make a quick decision.
Presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, told PREMIUM TIMES, Friday evening, the President is yet to receive any communication from the NJC regarding the recall of Justice Salami.
“The president cannot decide a matter that is not before him,” Mr. Abati, said, adding, “Government cannot take action on the basis of newspaper reports.”
Officials of the NJC could not be reached to explain the delay in reinstating the judge but there were widespread speculations that an official communication had indeed been sent to the presidency through the Office of the Secretary to the Federal Government about the judicial body’s decision to recall Mr Salami.
Senior lawyers in Abuja who asked not to be named for this story told PREMIUM TIMES they are “worried by the body language from the Presidency,” hinting that “elements opposed to the judge’s reinstatement appeared to be busy shopping for a court injunction restraining the NJC and the presidency from recalling Mr. Salami.”
Presidential body language
True enough, an Abuja-based lawyer, Amobi Nzelu representing one Wilfred Okoli, rushed to the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja Friday asking that the court restrains the president from accepting the recommendations of the NJC, because the “recommendations were not binding” on the president and that while the NJC had powers to recommend the removal of the President of the Court of Appeal, it lacked power to recommend his reinstatement.
Noted constitutional lawyer and public interest litigant, Jiti Ogunye, told PREMIUM TIMES that he would “score that type of legal thinking a miserable zero” questioning the locus standi of Mr. Okoli who was “neither a member of the NJC, or the Senate, or the current acting President of the Court of Appeal.”
Leaning on the security of tenure provisions of the constitution, Mr. Ogunye said the NJC merely corrected the blemish it created through the controversial suspension last year August, arguing that since no medical records certified Mr. Salami as unfit for office and no trial records adjudged him as guilty of misconduct or in violation of his ethical code, the president merely collaborated in a political abuse of the judiciary by approving the suspension of the straight shooting judge in the fist place.
“Now that the same body that took that unconstitutional step of suspending the judge has reversed itself, what argument will the president advance to demur?” queried Mr. Ogunye.
Clash of egos
Mr. Salami was suspended by the NJC under the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, over what many judicial watchers interpreted as a personality clash between the then heads of the appeal court, and the Supreme Court.
The suspension on August 18, 2011, was partly based on Mr. Salami’s refusal to be elevated to the Supreme Court, and also, on his decision to address the media, accusing the former CJN, Mr. Katsina-Alu, of attempting to interfere in the Sokoto governorship election case that was before the Court of Appeal.
Many saw the punishment as a politically orchestrated move by the ruling party, leaning on a politicized judiciary to remove an uncompromising judge who had supervised the cancellation of two governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun where the ruling party was subsequently defeated.
Members of the Abuja press corps also frowned Friday evening why government functionaries had to distribute the Motion of Notice filed by Mr. Nzelu from the court. “It is curious that the court papers of a private citizen is being circulated by a government agency,” a senior correspondent complained cynically.
Mr. Salami is due for retirement in October 2013.