Politics in the Court

The 2007 governorship elections are long past, but the ripples generated by the petitions which followed the elections – especially the ruckus created by two lawyers, Yahaya Mahmood of Arewa Chambers, Kaduna, and Alfred N. Agu of Renaissance Practitioners, Abuja – kicked off the seemingly unending fight between the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Aloysius Katsina-Alu and the suspended President of the Court of Appeal, Isa Ayo Salami.

The elections, by most accounts, were possibly the worst ever in the annals of the country. The legal challenge by the presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party, Muhammadu Buhari threatened the legitimacy of the presidential poll that the electoral body said was won by Umaru Yar’Adua and his running mate, Jonathan.

The Justices of the Supreme Court, the final arbiters of the disputed election, immediately became the objects of affection of interested politicians, who proceeded to shower them with cash to make sure they confirmed the legitimacy of the election of Messrs Yar’Adua and Jonathan, according to secret US diplomatic cables leaked to the whistleblower site Wikileaks.

According to the cables, filed to Washington by then US ambassador to Abuja, Robin Sanders, the source of this information was none other than the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole.

Following a two-hour meeting with Mr Bankole on May 5, 2009, Ms Sanders filed a report to the US State Department in which she said the House Speaker told her he had proof that the venerable justices were bought and paid for with cash supplied by a former governor of Delta State, James Ibori.

Mr Bankole denied ever accusing Supreme Court Justices of collecting bribes. The former speaker who said he met the US ambassador in the presence of other House leaders, had challenged the American authorities to prove “the wild allegations that strike at the integrity of Nigerian judicial institution and its foremost anti-corruption agencies”.

But the effect on the judiciary was more telling, as Messrs Katsina-Alu and Salami engaged each other in spates of accusations and counter accusations of bribery which has now resulted in the controversial removal of Mr Salami from office. Mr Katsina-Alu’s tenure as Chief Justice has, incidentally, also come to a close at the weekend, albeit legally.

The National Judicial Council had, after considering Mr Salami’s allegation against the CJN, ordered the former Appeal Court president to apologise to the CJN. The Council said the allegations by Mr Salami against Mr Katsina-Alu, were falsehood and amounted to misconduct by a judicial officer. It ruled that Mr Salami should apologise in writing to both Katsina-Alu and the National Judicial Council within a week.

Instead of an apology, Mr Salami approached the court to challenge his indictment. Following his refusal to apologise to either Katsina-Alu or the council, Mr Salami was placed on an indefinite suspension by the NJC, which held its 7th emergency meeting on August 18, 2011 over the matter

The council specifically ordered him to hand over the affairs of the appellate court to the next most senior justice of the court, adding that it had forwarded a recommendation to Mr Jonathan for his immediate retirement from judicial service.

A terse release from Rueben Abati, Mr Jonathan’s spokesperson, stated that the president had approved the recommendation of the NJC to suspend Mr Salami and announced the choice of Mustapher Dahiru as his replacement, pending determination of the suit on the matter.

But the decision of the NJC, and the manner in which it arrived at the decision, has stoked further controversy that might further erode the credibility of the judiciary.

Only eight members of the body of 20-member body were said to be present at the meeting, upon which the Director of Administration, E.I. Odukwu, announced that Mr Salami should proceed on suspension from August 18, 2011.

The decision would not have come as a surprise to Mr Salami, as he had raised an alarm several months ago about alleged scheming against himself.

Since Mr Katsina-Alu, being Chairman of the NJC, could not preside over his own case, he drafted in Moses Bello, President of Customary Court of Appeal, who is said to be a kinsman of the Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke.

Mr Adoke is accused of being the one to have brokered the deal of getting Mr Bello to chair the meeting, as a sop to the CJN whom sources said was instrumental to Mr Adoke’s nomination to his current position.

Henry Iyanya, an Abuja based legal practitioner who spoke to NEXT, said “it is interesting to note that the constitution does not provide for Moses Bello to chair the NJC. It is either the CJN or the next Justice to CJN, who is Dahiru Musdapher.”

NEXT gathered that Mr Musdapher, who takes over from Mr Katsina-Alu this week, ought to have chaired the NJC sitting. But he hurriedly asked to be allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia for the lesser hajj to avoid being caught in between devil and deep blue sea, as it were. There are strong ties between Mr Mustapher and Mr Salami, and the former did not want to be seen to jeopardise his chances of becoming the next president of the court of appeal by involving himself in the controversy.

How Salami was voted out

According to sources, those who voted in support of Mr Salami were: Justice Adejumo, President of the Industrial Court; Retired Justice of the supreme court, justice Aderemi, and the Edo State Chief Judge.

Those who voted against him included the Lagos State Chief Judge, Inumidun Akande; the Benue State Chief Judge, Iorhemen Hwande; Moses Bello, the Customary Appeal Court president; Peter Umeadi, from Anambra State and retired Justice Akpiroro from Edo State.

Civil society groups including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and Access to Justice have both faulted the NJC and the presidency over the decision.

The President of the NBA, Joseph Daudu, said it was wrong for the NJC to proceed with the suspension of Salami, when the suits he filed were pending in court. The NBA further called for the restructuring of the NJC membership and functions, in such a way as to make the body functional and less prone “to dictatorship and abuse of power”.

The presidency has also clarified its position, saying Mr Salami was only suspended pending the determination of the suit he filed against the NJC.

A long epic battle

The controversy erupted with the attempt by Mr Katsina-Alu to elevate Mr Salami to the Supreme court, which the latter resisted. Mr Salami dragged the Chief Justice of Nigeria before a Federal High Court in Abuja over what he said was his unsolicited elevation to the bench of the Supreme Court. In the originating summons filed by Lateef Fagbemi on his behalf, Mr Salami alleged that Mr Katsina-Alu asked him to compromise the Court of Appeal’s verdict on the protracted Sokoto governorship legal tussle by either disbanding the original panel, which he (Katsina-Alu) believed was about to give a verdict adverse to the governor’s interest or direct the panel to give judgment in the governor’s favour.

Following the intervention of the NJC, a Federal High Court in Abuja struck out the suit by Mr Salami challenging his elevation to the Supreme Court.

Mr Salami in a letter addressed to Mr Katsina-Alu, who is also the Chairman of the National Judicial Council, alleged that his planned removal was initiated during meetings of the Federal Judicial Service Commission held while he was away at Ilorin, Kwara State.

In a letter dated February 4, 2010 and addressed to Mr Katsina-Alu, Mr Salami alleged that the action was a validation of months of rumours of his planned ousting.

He further faulted Mr Katsina-Alu for instituting a discussion which concerned him at the council meeting without first consulting with him; and expressed his disappointment that the CJN presented the issue even when “the subject was not part of the agenda of the day”.

Mr Katsina-Alu had told members at the meeting that Mr Salami should be appointed to the Supreme Court. He said his move would ‘strengthen’ and ‘add value’ to the apex court. He further assured the council members that Mr Salami would not lose his seniority by the new appointment.

However, Mr Salami in his letter stated, “I regret to say I am not taken in. I am contented with being the President of the Court of Appeal. Indeed it is common knowledge that I had even in a more auspicious moment declined for good reason to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Nothing has changed since then”.

Mr Salami asked Mr Katsina-Alu to desist from the “present unholy move to push me out of the Court of Appeal for whatever reason”.

“I do not therefore think that it will be fair for the Chief Justice of Nigeria to seek to create a dangerous precedent which may give rise to chained reactions,” Mr Salami said.

The impasse between both men, who were both sworn into their respective offices in December 2009, has created a lingering tension in the judiciary. This was notably evident in March 2010 when Mr Musdapher disqualified himself from adjudicating over the re-run governorship elections in Sokoto State, following an electoral dispute between the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.

“I had taken part in discussion pertaining to the case between the CJN and the President of the Court of Appeal,” Mr Musdapher said. “I did not personally feel comfortable to adjudicate in this matter. I am uncomfortable hearing this case because of the fact that I had taken part in discussion on issues pertaining to this case.”

In the case of Mr Salami, several groups have called for investigations into alleged clandestine telephone calls between him and leaders of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) during the hearing of the appeal cases of governorship elections in Osun and Ekiti States.

Olagunsoye Oyinlola and Segun Oni, the former governors of Osun and Ekiti states respectively, who were removed from office by the Appeal Court, had petitioned the National Judicial Council and President Goodluck Jonathan claiming that Mr Salami was influenced to give judgment in favour of their opponents in the 2007 elections. The petitioners say they have evidence of the call exchange between Mr Salami and leaders of the ACN.

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