Justice for Sale - By Bashir Yusuf Ibrahim
Nigeria has recently recorded another inglorious low when the now suspended President of the nation's Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, accused the now retired Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina Alu, of trying to subvert the course of justice while attempting to influence the outcome of the Sokoto State governorship election petition pending before the Court of Appeal. Justice Salami's accusation followed an attempt by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria to remove him from his position as President of the Court of Appeal and promote him to join the elite club of the Justices of the Supreme Court, an act which the former interpreted to be a clever attempt by the latter to achieve the same objective by other means. The learned jurist wrote a petition to the National Judicial Council to stop his unwelcome promotion. What transpired thereafter is now the subject of discussion in virtually every Nigerian household.
As if Salami's accusation was not shocking enough, the now famous (or infamous, depending on where you stand on the political spectrum) Internet whistle-blowing site, WikiLeaks, released a US diplomatic cable which quoted a source in the Nigerian political establishment telling American embassy officials in Abuja that the judgement delivered by the justices of the supreme court which upheld the victory of Late President Umaru Musa 'Yar'adua in the 2007 presidential election was actually written, not by the supreme court justices themselves, but by Michael Aondokaa, former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice in late President Umaru 'Yar'adua'a cabinet. Aondoka was considered by many as one of the late President's closest confidants. In the same diplomatic cable, it was also alleged that the supreme court justices who delivered the judgement collected the sum of USD 57 Million from the late President through the NNPC and that the correspondent of a foreign news agency resident in Abuja has told US diplomatic officials that a source inside the Presidential Villa had read the judgement to him verbatim the day before it was delivered.
Then, a few weeks ago, in the sacred chambers of the Supreme Court to celebrate the commencement of the new legal year, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Joseph Daudu, dropped a bombshell. He effectively accused Nigerian judges of selling justice to the highest bidder and insisted that there was empirical evidence to support this accusation. Although he used the word 'perception' in place of accusation Daudu, clearly, did not set out to amuse the justices present at the occasion - he meant to challenge them. His use of language may have satisfied legalese and professional protocol but it did not diminish the weight or import of his accusation. I am one of those who commend the NBA president for daring to vocalize what most other legal practitioners would rather murmur about, without necessarily absolving him and his colleagues of culpability. There is a popular adage which says, it takes two to tango. Daudu knows that it is impossible to clap with only one hand. His lawyer colleagues have been widely accused of facilitating the corruption and the rot eating into the nation's judicial system.
It is important to note that the NBA president carefully chose the time and place to make his heavily loaded statement and that before this open and frontal accusation, the issue of judicial corruption has remained a high-pitch murmur within the legal profession.
A few maverick judges and lawyers had remained the commendable, though solitary exception. As a lawyer and a senior advocate, Daudu knew the implication of his statement especially while he made it in the presence of (then) Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria , Justice Dahiru Musdapher, and (virtually) the entire leadership of the Nigerian judiciary. Also present at the occasion was the cream of the Nigerian bar. Coming from an undisputed insider like the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, this was by far the most pointed and damaging allegation leveled against the Nigerian judiciary in recent memory.
But that is not all. A week after Daudu's statement, retired President of the Court of Appeal and pioneer chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, Justice Mustapha Akanbi, called for the reconstitution of the National Judicial Council and observed that the judiciary was rotten at the top, using the metaphor of the fish. Justice Akanbi was not given to playing to the gallery and, unlike the President of the NBA, could not be accused of playing politics with the justice system. As former President of the Court of Appeal and Chairman of the ICPC, he certainly knew what he was talking about and could not afford to be frivolous while making his views known on a subject as important as this. Justice Salami's accusation, the WikiLeaks US diplomatic cables, Mr. Joseph Daudu's very pointed and public opprobrium and Justice Akanbi's observation, all coming within the space of a few weeks, cannot be taken lightly in a sane, serious and civilized society.
Before Justice Ayo Salami's shocking accusation, a great number of Nigerians who believed that the rot in the nation's judiciary was mostly limited to the lower courts, had a great deal of respect for Nigerian judges at the level of the upper and apex courts. Most Nigerians believed that, at that level, judges were largely, if not completely, beyond reproach and that when a citizen was squeezed out by undesirable elements in the justice system, he or she had somewhere to go for redress. Justice Salami's accusation had clearly damaged the reputation of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria largely because the public, in general, seemed to have believed his version of events: not a few observers were intrigued by the inexplicable twists and turns to which the Sokoto governorship appeal process was subjected by the former CJN. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that in spite of the perceived meddlesomeness of the retired CJN in the Sokoto State governorship election appeal, which prompted Justice Salami to go public with his concerns, this action alone did not appear to damage the institution of the judiciary as a whole. It was what followed and the clumsy and questionable manner with which it was done that did.
It is one of the well-known principles of the law that a citizen is innocent until found guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction and that a subject matter becomes subjudice once it becomes the subject of litigation. When Justice Ayo Salami went to court to challenge the findings of the NJC that he perjured himself and was to apologize to the former CJN, he effectively took the dispute between himself and Justice Katsina-Alu out of the realm of politics and possible bureaucratic manipulation and placed it where it belonged, in the realm of the law. Ordinarily, taking the matter to court, as Justice Salami has done, ought to have saved the parties involved from further embarrassment, deescalated the tension generated by the controversy and given the parties, including the NJC, an opportunity to take a deep breath and allow the matter to be decided by a neutral arbiter, the courts. It therefore came as a rude shock to many Nigerians when the NJC ignored the principle of the law and went ahead to suspend Justice Salami and recommended his retirement. Clearly, that was impunity, not law and this line of action pursued by the highest judicial institution in the land was highly regrettable, to say the
least. That, and the unusual efficiency and speed with which the President approved the NJC recommendation and replaced Salami as the President of Court of Appeal created the impression that someone has something to gain (or hide) by the suspension.
A matter as sensitive as the suspension of the President of the Court of Appeal, ought to have been pursued with greater caution and discretion, not with that degree of glee and dispatch.
The Justice Salami/Katsina-Alu controversy assumed a new twist with the release by WikiLeaks of a US diplomatic cable alleging miscarriage of justice in the disposal of the 2007 presidential election petition. I should state here, in the interest of fairness, that these cables and the information they carry do not, by themselves, prove anything. They are, at best, sources of raw information that may or may not carry any substance. But when considered together with the totally inexplicable travails of Justice Ayo Salami in the heat of another legal battle to determine the outcome of another presidential election petition, and statements from insiders questioning the integrity of our judiciary at the highest level, the WikiLeaks cable deserves more than passing attention. Given the reputation of Nigerian institutions for sleaze and given the controversy that has trailed our elections in the past, it is totally justified for citizens to raise the question of wether or not the highest echelon of our judiciary has been infiltrated and compromised. We should be asking, like the British did, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World, for a public inquiry into the conduct of our judicial officers in recent times. We should show some degree of outrage that the most sacred of our institutions is evaporating before our very eyes. A public inquiry into the controversies that have engulfed the judiciary will be an opportunity for those whose names had been dragged in the mud to state their side of the story and clear their names, especially since by the code of conduct of judicial officers, judges would not otherwise be expected to join issues with their detractors in public. A public inquiry will be good for the individuals involved, it will be good for the institution of the judiciary and it will be good for the country at large. The National Assembly, an institution which takes pride in the robustness of its oversight should step forward and show Nigerians that oversight is not all about arm-twisting the executive branch but about making our institutions accountable to us and positioning them to serve the best interest of the nation at large. If any matter deserves public scrutiny by our legislators it is the scandals that are rocking our judiciary and its apparent infiltration by special interests. And if the judiciary is rotten at the top, there is no better way of ridding the institution of this rot than opening the rot up in public and cleansing it in order to restore public confidence. Sunshine, they say, is the best disinfectant. This conspiracy of silence is unhelpful in the present situation.
But no one is calling for a public inquiry. Instead, Nigerians, long accustomed to the theatre of the absurd, are taking all these earth-shaking developments in their stride. We have lost our sense of decency and outrage and are prepared to look on as our judiciary makes a mockery of itself perhaps to satisfy the whims of interested and unconscionable political cabal. To make matters worse, some unscrupulous politicians are using tribal and sectional groups to trivialize the matter and to reduce it to a perceived struggle of supremacy in the judiciary between perceived champions of regional and ethnic groups. Those who are never able to rise above primordial sentiments and who mischievously argue that Justice Salami's travails are a product of conspiracy by Northerners or so-called Hausa-Fulani cabal in the judiciary are doing great disservice to the man. They are, in effect, diminishing the propriety of his cause and shrinking his stature from a jurist who has served his country very well to the rallying point of irredentist groups. They should tell the nation if Justice Katsina-Alu is Hausa-Fulani or if President Jonathan who eventually removed Justice Salami and replaced him with someone else is now part of this so-called Northern Hasua-Fulani cabal.
If the Nigerian judiciary is to redeem its image, the National Judicial Council must reverse itself, revert to status quo ante and recommend to the President to restore Justice Salami to his position as the President of the Court of Appeal until such a time his case is determined by the courts. By suspending Salami while he is in court and replacing him as PCA, the NJC has unwittingly given credence to the perception that it is playing politics with his case and succumbing to the whims of those who see him as unsafe at this point in time. Considering the nature and color of the reversals that took place in the Court of Appeal since Salami's removal, perception is assuming the character of reality and this is regrettable for a nation that wishes to transform. If Salami's case is symptomatic of the rot which Justice Akanbi and Joseph Daudu have spoken about, then the threat that the Nigerian judiciary may pose to the nation is greater, both in potential and in real terms, than the threat posed by armed robbers, kidnappers, Niger Delta Militants and Boko Haram combined. Where justice becomes capable of being purchased, even at the very top, then why should anyone looking for justice bother to go to court?
Late last week Nigeria's new CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, constituted a committee
of eminent jurists and lawyers as part of the process for, and in fulfillment of his pledge to undertake a comprehensive reform of the judiciary. This is a welcome development but it is not enough. As one of the three branches of our democracy, the judiciary cannot insulate itself from democratic accountability by being accountable only to itself.
The extent of the damage done to the institution over time, but more especially in recent time, cannot be remedied by the type of committee set up by the new CJN. As eminent as the members of the committee are, they are still insiders in the system and are unlikely to see the rot in the judiciary from a fresh perspective. More importantly, it is doubtful if, as insiders, their recommendation will restore public confidence in the institution. With due respect to members of the committee, much of the erosion of confidence in the judiciary took place under their watch. The only way to restore confidence in the institution is to expose the rot to public scrutiny, cleanse it to the satisfaction of the generality of the public and, for once, make it accountable to the people it is supposed to serve. Bashir Yusuf Ibrahim can be reached at