By NBF News

The National Judicial Council (NJC) on Wednesday raised a five-man panel headed by former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, to probe the allegations of gross misconduct leveled against the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu and President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Isa Salami.

The panel which has three months to complete its assignment, is to investigate the allegations contained in muliple petitions before the council against the two senior judicial officers and submits its report to the NJC.

Other members of the panel are former Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, Justice Pius Aderemi, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, former Chief Judge of Edo State, Justice Akepiroroh, and a woman whose name could not be ascertained at Press time.

According to sources,' the Deputy Chairman of the NJC, Justice Dahim Musdapher allegedly came with a pre-determined list of members, but former President of the Nigerian, Bar Association Rotimi Akeredolu, (SAN), kicked against it and other members of the council agreed with his objections which resulted in the setting up of the Justice Abdullahi-led panel.

The decision was reached at the end of the fifth emergence meeting of the NJC presided over by its acting Chairman, Justice Musdapher. According to sources at the meeting which lasted for hours, council members in attendance deliberated on various petitions and allegations leveled against the CJN and Justice Salami.

Prior to the meeting, the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr. Sunday Olorundahunsi, said both Justices Katsina-Alu and Salami were summoned to attend the meeting. Specifically, Justice Musdapher, in an invitation letter to the CJN was quoted as saying that the fifth emergency meeting of the council, billed for Wednesday, March 9, would deliberate on 'various petitions and allegations leveled against Your Lordship and the Hon. President, Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Isa Salami.'

The invitation letter is titled: 'Re-Allegations of gross misconduct leveled against the duo of the CJN and PCA: The need for sound ethical and administrative investigations and appropriate sanctions against them' if culpable'.

It reads: 'As Your Lordship is aware, the 5th emergency meeting of the National Judicial Council has been slated for March 9, 2011, particularly to deliberate on the various petitions leveled against your Lordship and the Hon. President, Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Isa Salami.

'I therefore forward herewith a copy of the petition I have received dated February 24, 2011 by one International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, against you and the Hon. President of the Court of Appeal.

'It is self-explanatory; Your Lordship would kindly oblige the council your response to the petition before March 9, please.'

The allegations and face -off between the two top judicial officers generated controversy resulting in mixed reactions from the public and judicial officers, Only on Tuesday, a consortium of civil society groups has called on the two senior judicial officers to resign their appointments immediately.

The groups under the umbrella of '2011 Nigeria Election Situation Room,' said by virtue of the grievous and weighty nature of the allegations against them, their continued stay in office would erode the confidence reposed on them by the public as they have both lost their credibility.

Executive Director, Center for Democracy and Development (CDD), Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, who was with Clement Nwankwo, called on them to immediately resign from their positions 'as it would appear that the jostle between both high judicial officers is dictated by a struggle for the control of the process of appointment of members of election tribunals to adjudicate likely election petitions.'

Dr. Ibrahim who spoke for the group said: 'The Situation Room also raised concern about goings-on in the Judiciary, particularly the open quarrel and acrimony between the Chief justice of Nigeria and the President of the Court of Appeal, as well as increasing allegations of judicial corruption that is fast eroding the legitimacy and credibility of the judiciary as an institution that should guarantee electoral justice.'

The groups are disturbed that with only about 26 days to the April polls, election petition tribunals, which should be in place, at least 14 days before the first election on April 2, are yet to be constituted owing to the face-off between the CJN and Justice Salami.

'We are wondering when the tribunals would be constituted as to enable its members undergo proper training and orientation in order to effectively and expeditiously handle the petitions that are likely to result from the elections.'

The Situation Room is a forum comprising more than 40 civil society organisations working on the 2011 general elections, including Action Aid Nigeria (AAN), Transition Monitoring Group[ TMG], center for Democracy and Development [CDD], Justice development and Peace Commission [JDPC] amongst others.

The groups further raised alarm over the preparations of the INEC for the 2011 elections particularly in the areas of logistics, voter register and delay in the production of ballot papers.

Specifically, 15 Civil Society Organisation [CSOs] had last week petitioned the NJC demanding an urgent, full-scale, impartial investigation into allegations that Justice Kastina-Alu had asked Justice Salami to interfere with the proceedings pending before an election appeals tribunal stting in Sokoto State.

In a statement signed by Joseph Otteh, the groups stated that 'we write to request that the National Judicial Council investigate the allegations contained in filings of the Hon. President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami in a suit, (now withdrawn), alleging that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Justice A. Katsina-Alu (GCON), had, some time ago, at a meeting called at his instance, requested him to either disband the Sokoto State Gubernatorial Election Petition Appeal Tribunal (Appeal Tribunal) or alternatively direct the Appeal Tribunal to enter judgment for one of the parties.

The groups said that 'allegations have spurred an unprecedented, unrelenting fusillade of outrage against the leadership of the Nigerian judiciary, and have sparked discontent and uneasiness even amongst professional peers and jurists. (We have attached some of the reactions to this petition).

If these allegations are not thoroughly, impartially and credibly investigated, they would cast a long, dark and irradicable shadow of doubt over the integrity of the Nigerian Judiciary and the administration of justice.

A failure to investigate the allegations will also significantly reduce the judiciary in the eyes of not just the Nigerian public, but the international community, and give the impression that the Nigerian judiciary as a whole is corrupt, manipulable, politicized, lacks independence and is institutionally beholden to special interest groups; that Nigerian judges are constantly under intense pressure, even from the Judiciary, to arrive at pre-determined judgments and that justice cannot be trusted to be reached impartially in Ngeria.

Already, there are serious fears about how rash and conflicting judicial decisions and orders are threatening the stability of the electoral system.

'We hear that this matter came before the NJC during one of its meetings but that the Council only expressed its agreement with the Appeal Court President's position that he should not interfere with the Election Appeals Tribunal. We are concerned that the NJC's reaction is too weak, perhaps even indulgent. These allegations deserve to have formed the subject of a penetrating and disciplinary inquiry for they touch the very foundations of the Judiciary as an institution and what the Judiciary, and the administration of justice represent.

The petition is brought by the following rule of law and human rights groups:

They include: Access to Justice (AJ), Lagos, Nigeria; African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development, Abuja

BAOBAB, for Women's Human Rights; CLEEN Foundation, Lagos, Abuja; Centre for Social Justice (CENSOJ), Abuja, Nigeria; Centre for Public Opinion and Media Research,(CePoMer) Lagos.