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Saturday, 9 November 2013

"Salami: the face of Nigeria’s judiciary" - By Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

“And virtue, though in rags, will keep me warm.” J. Dryden

Former Chief Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwaris is not a man given to outbursts or postures that should attract more than the most minimal of attention to himself. He has been very selective in his public appearances and comments and although he has been active in support of many laudable causes, he has steered clear of controversial issues. This could not have been easy. His seminal contribution to democratic governance in the headship of an electoral reform initiative under the late President Umaru Yar’Adua has been substantially ignored. The electoral process today is arguably no better than it was in 2006-2007, and 2015 will test its integrity even more vigorously. He has access to the multiple points of collapse in governance standards in the manner he helps state governments see themselves, and hopefully, improve.

Compared to retired Justice Isa Ayo Salami, Uwais is a very lucky man indeed. He reached the apex of his career and retired with accolades. Justice Salami retired while under “the longest suspension in the history of the Nigerian Judiciary... over alleged misconduct.” While Justice Uwais career will provide a case study for the place of integrity and intellect in the judiciary, Justice Salami’s exit will continue to generate bitter disputes over whether he is a hero or a villain. Justice Uwais retired an accomplished and fulfilled man. Justice Salami is bitter, and his last statement was to leave the people who treated him unfairly to God. Justice Uwais left the perilous partisan political terrain relatively unscathed. Justice Salami left as a partisan hero on the one hand, and on the other, the subject of accusation by other partisan interests that he was pandering to partisan and ethnic interests as President of the Court of Appeal.

When the two distinguished jurists met last week at the launching of a book on the life of Justice Salami, the latter found some comfort in the verdict of former CJN Uwais. The National Judicial Council (NJC) according to Uwais, treated Salami unfairly. He said President Jonathan and the NJC acted wrongly in the manner Salami was suspended and removed from office.

The book launch and the comments of former CJN Uwais remind the nation of a deeply disturbing trend which has progressively subverted the Nigerian judiciary under the damaging influence of partisan politics. The gripping drama which initially involved two long-standing colleagues, one a Chief Justice and the other President of Court of Appeal then widened to involve the National Judicial Council. It then brought in President Jonathan, whose party was at the heart of the legal dispute, and then just about every credible organ of the justice system. It split the legal and judicial community right down the middle, and literally by the day, made the issues and their modes of resolution more political than legal.

The judicial system was turned inside out by the adoption of every conceivable manoeuvre. Mediations failed. The same judiciary answerable to the NJC was being asked to determine Justice Salami’s case. Pride and egos took center stage. Salami’s age and years of service ticked on. Time was the final arbiter. He retired without what he hoped for.

Chief Justice Uwais said it was disturbing, “to say the least, that the NJC whose membership consist of eminent and experienced judges and lawyers, should act in the manner they treated Hon Justice Salami.” Weighty, damning conclusions from a man given to measured words. Perhaps a day will come when some of the reasons why the integrity implicit in the NJC, at least according to Uwais, could be questioned with such certainty. Could the career-long, difficult personal relations between former Chief Justice Katsina-Alu and Justice Salami have survived all the checks and balances in the judicial system to have the final say in the fate of Salami? Could Katsina-Alu have had powers to manipulate the entire disciplinary processes available, and defy every form of intervention and mediation, to keep Salami out? Did Katsina-Alu commit the type of infraction that will offend Salami’s professional integrity, but give him the type of muscle to “deal” with Salami? Did Salami commit an offence or infraction or breached discipline on a scale deserving his suspension and failure to prevent his removal from office?

Nigerians live with impunity all around, but they know what it means when someone says he leaves them to God. Nonetheless, Nigerians should worry over, and probe this sad chapter in our history until some sense is made out of all the anger and bitterness it is generating. This will not be easy. The guests and the crowd at the book launch alone represent evidence that partisan politics has muddied up the waters, so much so that it may be difficult to tell fish from the fisherman. As far as the chieftains of the former Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) are concerned, Salami is hero, sacrificed to the greed and corruption which is embodied in the PDP. He is integrity personified, an activist jurist who was unwilling to sell electoral victories to the ruling party.

Salami’s accusers were not at his book launch, but they have had their say. They say he was a stubborn tribal champion, dishing out judgements to a political party. They say they have evidence that he had been compromised. They say only his huge ego and pride prevented a resolution of his disciplinary case. He was a bad example to young jurists, a recalcitrant old man who had been more at home with politicians of the ACN colour than with colleagues in the Bench.

The real matter of concern, however, should be that the weaknesses of the judicial system have been badly exposed and manipulated, and they could be made even more vulnerable as we move towards 2015. If all the panels set up were unable to reinstate Salami, and all the court cases were about a disciplinary process, and not about the substantive issue of corruption at the highest achelons of the judiciary then we have reasons to worry about the possibility that electoral disputes will compromise the judiciary further.

The judiciary has been dragged into the center stage of the electoral process, because of its relative weaknesses which are being made worse by corruption and power. There is the idea among politicians that courts give more political mandates than ballot boxes. The judiciary will be tried and exposed every step of the way beyond 2015. Starting from the on-going litigations around the PDP leadership, courts will be asked to rule on party leaders, candidates, rules, winners and losers. Politicians who know the game well will put aside a substantial chunk of their campaign funds for litigation. Very senior lawyers will prepare to milk the system as they have done since 1999. Can the leadership of the judiciary stem the tide, or has it lost the battle long before Salami became a key player?

The assaults on the integrity of the Nigerian judiciary compound the problems of building a fairly credible electoral process for the nation. With so much of the quality and legitimacy of our democratic system riding on the manner INEC and the courts discharge their responsibilities, the failure of the justice system to say whether Salami is a hero or a villain in the battle to protect the judiciary from the effects of partisan influences will continue to worry Nigerians. Salami’s cheerleaders are not doing him huge favours in clothing him and his otherwise glowing career in partisan and ethnic robes. His story would have been better told without them. As it is, we will now have to worry constantly whether our highest judicial officers are in pockets of politicians, or are partisan activists in judicial garbs. Either way, this is tragic for a nation desperate for some glimmer of integrity in its institutions.

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