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By Innocent Anaba, Abdulwahab  Abdulah, Ikechukwu Nnochiri & DAPO AKINREFON

ABUJA-After five months of intriguing probe into alleged malpractices at the top echelon of the judicial arm of government in the country, the National Judicial Council, NJC, yesterday, found the President of the Court of Appeal, PCA, Justice Isa Ayo Salami, guilty of judicial misconduct.

He was specifically accused of acting contrary to Rule 1(1) of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Besides indicting him of engaging in unethical conduct that it said eroded public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, the council equally found the PCA guilty of perjury, saying its investigations revealed that all the allegations he raised against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, ab-initio, were false.

Justice Salami lied on oath - NJC Panels
President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami and Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu

The NJC maintained that two separate panels it constituted with a view to ascertaining the cause of the dispute between the CJN and the PCA, established that Justice Salami lied on oath regarding what transpired in the Sokoto state Gubernatorial Election Appeal.

While exonerating the CJN of alleged judicial recklessness in the way he intervened and subsequently decided the case, the NJC said Justice Katsina-Alu 'acted in good faith and was motivated by the apparent urge to protect the administration of justice and avoid breach of peace when he directed that the judgment in the Sokoto Gubernatorial Appeal be 'put on hold' pending the investigation of the petitions he had received on the matter'.

According to a statement that was issued by the deputy director of information at the NJC, Mr Soji Oye, yesterday, 'The NJC at its 6th Emergency Meeting which was held on 9th August, 2011, deliberated on the two separate Reports of its Committees on the allegations levelled against the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, GCON, the President, Court of Appeal, Hon. Justice Isa Ayo Salami, OFR.

'At the end of deliberations the Council decided as follows: that the allegation made by the Hon. President, Court of Appeal, Hon. Justice Isa Ayo Salami, OFR that the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, GCON, instructed him to direct the Sokoto Gubernatorial Appeal to dismiss the appeal by the Democratic Peoples Party of Nigeria is not true.

'Therefore, the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria was exonerated of the allegation of interference with Court proceedings in the Sokoto State Gubernatorial Election Appeal'.

Furthermore, the council said it found out that 'the Hon. Justices of Court of Appeal who served on the Sokoto State Governorship Appeal Panel namely; Hon. Justices Musa Dattijo Mohammad, Paul A. Galinje, John Inyang Okoro, Mas'oud Oredola and Regina O. Nwodo, have no issue to answer.

'That Justice Isa Ayo Salami and other Justices who served on the Ekiti and Osun States Gubernatorial Election Petition Appeal Tribunal namely; Justices Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, O. Ariwoola, Chiman Centus Nweze and Adamu Jauro have no 'issue' to answer', adding that it discovered that 'the call logs relied upon by the petitioners lacked authenticity and evidential value and therefore no sufficient evidence to establish unethical communication between them.

'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 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; and (2) apologise in writing to both the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, and National Judicial Council within a week from today the 10th day of August, 2011.'

It will be recalled that an initial five-man probe panel that was constituted by the NJC, indicted the PCA of perjury, a report that sparked series of protests by his loyalists in the council who contended that it was lopsided and biased.

They challenged the objectivity in the verdict of that panel presided by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Abdullahi Umaru, a crisis of confidence that culminated in the decision of the NJC to set-up a review panel.

Panel recommends sanctions
The second panel which consisted of three Chief Judges, led by the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, not only affirmed the previous probe report, but equally recommended sanctions against the PCA should he refuse to apologise and show heartfelt remorse for his alleged judicial misconduct.

Sources at the meeting told Vanguard that before the setting up of the second panel, some members of the NJC, recommended an outright dismissal of the PCA, as a deterrent to other erring judicial officers,while others pleaded for leniency, saying he should be given an opportunity to retrace his steps.

In the Meantime, investigations further revealed that Justice Salami stands the risk of compulsory retirement should he default in any of the conditions handed to him by the NJC, yesterday.

This disclosure came on a day sources close to the PCA, hinted that he has concluded plans to challenge the NJC verdict in court.

Vanguard learnt that the PCA who was earlier pressed by the council to withdraw the suit he instituted before a Federal High Court in Abuja, has briefed his legal team to promptly re-approach the court.

Though the source said he was uncertain on when the court process would be filed, he however divulged that the NJC, the CJN and the Attorney General of the Federation, AFG, would be joined as parties in the suit.

In the initial suit upon which his indictment came yesterday, Justice Salami in the alleged false affidavit he deposed before the high court, 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 exchange briefs, adopted same and judgment 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.

'When the matter came before the 3rd Defendant [NJC], the Committee set up to look into the complaint vindicated me and in clear terms told the 1st Defendant, he had no Constitutional and Statutory power to stop proceedings in any division of the Court of Appeal as he did. Since then there has been no love lost between me and the 1st Defendant.

'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'.

Salami is a victim of anti-democratic forces - Sagay

In his reaction, Constitutional lawyer, Professor Itse Sagay (SAN) said Justice Salami was a victim of anti-democratic forces in Nigeria. According to him, 'I do not know the details of the report and I do not know the basis on which he was indicted. But I know there was a much bigger panel made up of very senior justices who cleared him of all allegations earlier leveled against him.

In fact, all allegations made against him by politicians, who petitioned the NJC, were found to be false. In my view, there is no justification by the NJC to set up another panel of very junior justices. All I know is that there are powerful people who are not happy with Justice Salami's principles especially his stand during the Court of Appeal ruling which removed some governors from office. All I know is that Salami is a victim of very powerful anti-democratic forces who have survived electoral fraud in Nigeria. In an attempt to clean up the system, Justice Salami appointed credible people to the Court of Appeal. But as far as I am concerned, he is a target of these powerful politicians. In my view, it was improper and inappropriate. The matter should have been left as it was. I see it as a kangaroo trial.'

Sebastian B Ozoana, SAN
I don't know how the NJC was able to find out that the Court of Appeal President, Justice Salami lied on oath regarding the affidavit he deposed to before the Abuja Federal High Court. Though I have not read the probe panel report, I think that asking him to apologize was a soft landing. I have my personal opinion about the entire saga, however, until I see the full report I will not be able to effectively react to the decision of the NJC.

Ugochukwu Osuagwu
The pertinent issue is that neither the CJN nor the PCA challenged the jurisdiction of the panel to investigate the matter and play disciplinary role, therefore both of them are bound by whatever decision the council took. However, the NJC probe panel in the eyes of the law is regarded as a jury, it can only make findings on fact.

It is bereft of the powers to declare any of the parties guilty, only a competent court can do that. Now that it has made its report known, the onus is on Justice Salami to accept or reject the verdict. Personally, I believe the matter should have been resolved administratively ab-initio. Going by the verdict that the PCA should apologise to the CJN and council within one week, I think the two parties should shake hands and let bye gone be bye gone.

Chief Felix Fagbohun, SAN
I am sure that if Justice Salami is not satisfied with the outcome of the report, he has the right to go to court to challenge it. It is clear that perjury is a criminal offence. We do not know the detail now, but from what we read in the newspapers, the public should be concerned about all other reports from different panels. We understand that Ayoola, Akanbi and others have written a report before.

In those reports we were told that the CJN was wrong and the NBA report also stated the same thing. Now, that this panel will be indicting Salami of perjury or lying, how come? We are very concerned that I doubt if the general public will have confidence in that type of report with the conflicts from all these panels.'

Bamidele Aturu
There is nothing bad in the NJC decision constituting the investigative panel but it does not have power to ask the President of the Court of Appeal to apologize. Though, it has some powers to discipline judges, but it has no power to ask a Judge to apologize. What they have done is an illegal recommendation, so their decision cannot stand the legal test.

Professor Chidi Odinkalu
In this tragic comedy, there are only losers. The retiring Chief Justice of Nigerian, CJN, leaves under a cloud; the position of the President of the Court of Appeal is rendered untenable with the claim that his allegation on oath is untrue. The judgment of those who authored this is in severe question. The report itself would probably be called a whitewash and the reputation of the NJC itself is in tatters.'

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, who would prefer that his name should not be mentioned in view of the position he occupies at the bar said: 'The matter is really a delicate one.'

Some people are of the view that the offence of perjury can only be decided by a court of competent jurisdiction and not a mere panel, while others are of the view that the offence committed was in the face of panel, and there was no need to wait till the matter was decided in court before pronouncing whether he is culpable. Which ever way you look at it, the fact still remains that if indeed he deposed to an affidavit and that the facts contained therein were false, then there is a big moral question, which we cannot just wish away.'