By NBF News

Former president of the Court of Appeal and pioneer chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Justice Mustapha Akanbi has pointedly described the move by Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu to elevate the president of Appeal Court, Justice Ayo Salami to Supreme Court as an attempt to either humiliate or punish him.

The Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) has called on the parties to maintain the status quo pending the in-house amicable resolution of the crisis while leading lawyers have also expressed grave concerns over the development.

To save the judiciary from further embarrassment, Justice Akanbi also called for the sustenance of status quo as far as the issue of Justice Salami's planned promotion was concerned.

The retired jurist said the CJN was wrong to have said Justice Salami would not lose his seniority if promoted.

'I understand the CJN said he would not lose his seniority. If the CJN said so he is wrong because you take your seniority the day you enter the court. There are examples; when Alfa Belgore came to the Court of Appeal and was placed above those he met there, Lekan Ademola and others who were there before him protested and they removed Alfa Belgore and put him behind them.

'Also when Mondarikan, who left Supreme Court to the defunct Western Court of Appeal to be the president, other justices protested that he cannot take seniority over them. Even in this case many of these chaps are by far junior to Salami. Many of them have worked under him. Then he will leave his court where he controls judges for the Supreme Court,' he stated.

According to Justice Akanbi, 'I see the CJN's plan to promote the Appeal Court president as either an attempt to humiliate him or to punish him. This is why some people are advocating that the chairman of NJC should not be a serving chief justice. That somebody who is detached should be the chairman.

'If the CJN says he is a good judge then why the plan to move him? Does he want to weaken the Court of Appeal to strengthen the Supreme Court? It has never happened before where the president of a Court of Appeal who apparently is far senior to most of those who have been in the court would now be pushed to the Supreme Court. I don't know the motive of the learned CJN for wanting to push him there when the man had already rejected being appointed to the court. When I was in the National Judicial Commission (NJC), he said he would rather stay in the Court of Appeal and that if he is lucky to get the post of president, he would prefer that.

'I know there is Sokoto palaver. Maybe, that problem is still there and maybe the CJN wants him out of the place before he himself retires. I am not looking at the issue from the point of view of Salami, rather, I'm looking at it from the point of view of the judiciary. I only hope that what happened at the Federal Judicial Service Commission will not happen. The NJC members should be able to say no,' he said.

Leading senior advocates and lawyers have also expressed grave concerns over the crisis.

Reacting to the development, Emeka Ngige (SAN) described it as a bad omen for the nation's judicial system, democracy and the country at large.

According to him, 'in the last 12 months, a lot of unprecedented things have been happening in the judiciary and this happens to be the climax. This development calls for concern.

'It appears that some people are hell bent on destroying the judiciary for their selfish political gains. They are trying to destroy and erode the legacy of the Bench icons like Justices Emmanuel Esho, Chukwudifu Oputa, Nnaemeka Agu, Obaseki, Idigbe, Irikefe among others who have left great legacies at the Supreme Court. What will we tell our children is our own legacy as members of the judiciary? I am calling on those concerned to leave Justice Salami alone.

'We cannot allow the judiciary to become tools in the hands of politicians who do not care for the mandate of the people to count.'

Leading Professor of Law and constitutional expert, Itse Sagay (SAN) in his reaction said the move to promote the president of the Court of Appeal has having no precedent in the history of the nation's judicial system.

'It is no promotion but demotion; an attempt to humiliate him. When the Court of Appeal was created, Justice Dan Ibekwe was posted from the Supreme Court to head it. When Justice Ibekwe died, Justice Mamman Nasir also from the Supreme Court and who had served as his deputy replaced him.

'It is a deliberate policy. When the Western Nigerian Court of Appeal was established in 1972, Justice Madarikan from the Supreme Court was posted to head it.

'To say you are promoting Justice Salami to Supreme Court is a demotion and humiliation. You cannot force the promotion down his throat.

'It is very unfortunate that politics has been allowed to creep into the system and it is a dangerous signal. It means if you have a judge who is disciplined, incorruptible and of sound integrity, he can be removed just to please politicians. You can quote me anywhere; Justice Salami is a man of integrity and highly respected.

'As we are speaking, the same CJN has done nothing about the embarrassing conduct of Justice Thomas Naron and members of his panel that first sat on the Osun State election petition. They were found to be engaging in conferences with a lawyer to the defendant. No disciplinary action has been taken against them by the same CJN in spite of the petitions sent with avalanche of evidence. What we are witnessing is sending a dangerous signal,' he said.

On his part, Babatunde Osilaja condemned in strong terms the move as one to promote Justice Salami into irrelevance.

'If you read the letter of the president of Court of Appeal, you cannot fail to see the expose of the mischief of those involved. It has no precedence at all in our judicial system. Appointment to the Supreme Court is by federal character. Justice Salami is from North-central and I can tell you that there is no vacancy in that zone now. What we are seeing is a result of political infiltration into the bench. We have seen the handwriting on the wall. This is the fallout of election petitions because we have somebody who is incorruptible at the helms of the Court of Appeal and because the judgments delivered by the court did not favour the ruling party in certain cases, then, everything must be pulled down.

'We must be very careful. It is very unfortunate for the judiciary to allow itself to be led by the nose by the politicians. They might as well be the one to divide this great country. We have seen what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt and several other countries. We should not stretch our luck too far that similar thing cannot happen here too,' he said

On his part, constitutional lawyer, Fred Agbaje noted that there has been precedence where the presidents of Court of Appeal were promoted to Supreme Court and they declined.

'The great Lord Denning MR was promoted from the English Court of Appeal to the House of Lords. He accepted but chose to remain as the Court of Appeal judge. His reason: 'I will prefer to remain at the Court of Appeal and allow the House of Lords to test my judgment on appeal to them.' In other words, he was so sure of himself and in actual fact, only few of his judgments were set aside by the House of the Lords and those cases were on split decisions.

'The former chief judge of old Gongola State was promoted to the Supreme Court but he declined. So, there is nothing new about it. However, if I were him I would accept the promotion,' Agbaje stated.

In a statement signed by the president of NBA, Joseph Daudu (SAN), the Bar appealed to the parties concerned to allow 'the status quo of this matter to prevail pending an in-house amicable resolution of the matter.

'Specifically, we urge the Chief Justice of Nigeria to suspend the ongoing process of 'elevation' and for the president of the Court of Appeal to refrain from further comments on the matter until stakeholders from the legal profession intervene and resolve the matter.'

The NBA noted the sharp division of opinions among members of the profession on the matter, saying; 'while to some, it is a simple matter of elevation from one court to the other and to the others, it is an attempt to remove the incumbent from the office of the president of Court of Appeal without any misconduct established against him in accordance with laid down procedures.'