By Ini Ekott
President Goodluck Jonathan brushed aside recommendations from the National Judicial Council and the Chief Justice of Nigeria to sack former Appeal Court president, Ayo Salami, ignoring firm arguments by the two authorities that Mr. Salami was innocent of allegations against him.
The two authorities are mandated by law to advise the president on such judiciary matters.
The government accused Mr. Salami of professional misconduct, but he is widely believed to have been punished for political reasons.
A letter to the president by former Chief Justice of the Federation, CJN, Dahiru Musdapher, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, shows how the top echelon of the nation’s judiciary laboured to have President Jonathan realize Mr. Salami’s innocence in his dispute with Mr. Musdapher’s predecessor, Aloysius Katsina-Alu; and how they advised that punishing Mr. Salami would terribly dent an already integrity-deficient judiciary.
In the four-page letter, dated January 27, 2012, Mr. Musdapher informed the president how a committee he named to review Mr. Salami’s suspension in 2011 absolved him, and made it extensively clear why ensuring justice on the case- by reinstating Mr. Salami- was crucial for a judiciary bereft of public confidence.
“Your Excellency, this report is not only before the National Judicial Council, it is also at the court of public opinion,” Mr. Musdapher said of the findings of the review committee. “And Mr. President will agree with me that this recommendation no doubt should challenge our commitment to the redemption of the image and credibility of the judiciary.”
Mr. Musdapher told the president that the committee, led by another former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mohammed Uwais, found Mr. Salami not guilty of any of the misconduct he was accused of, and recommended his immediate reinstatement.
“There was no evidence before any of the National Judicial Council panels or in any of the petitions to justify any findings that Salami PCA contravened the code of conduct for judicial officers by talking to the mass media,” he said in his etter to the president. “…On the whole, there was no evidence to show any form of misconduct on the part of Salami PCA to justify any sanction or punishment.”
The committee, Mr. Musdapher informed Mr. Jonathan, also recommended that “…in order to maintain the integrity of the judiciary and to assuage public feeling and restore confidence in both the bar and bench, this committee strongly advises the Chief Justice of Nigeria and National Judicial Council to reconsider its earlier decision on the suspension of Justice Salami PCA and reinstate him back to his position as soon as possible and in that way assure the public that the suspension of Justice Salami as the President of the Court of Appeal is not ill motivated.”
The former Chief Justice’s letter to the president came ahead of an official recommendation by the National Judicial Council, that Mr. Salami be recalled.
Both calls were rejected by the president.
Mr. Jonathan’s firm refusal to reinstate the judge, who finally retired October 2013, spurred widespread allegations that the president’s decision was politically-motivated beyond the professional breach the government claimed as its reason for suspending him. Mr. Musdapher’s letter appears to back that claim.
Justice Salami’s suspension in 2011 was linked partially to his refusal to be elevated to the Supreme Court. More specifically, he was punished for speaking to the media and accusing Mr. Katsina-Alu, who was CJN at the time, of attempting to interfere in the Sokoto state’s governorship election case that was before the Appeal court.
He was suspended by the NJC for refusing to apologize to Mr. Katsina-Alu.
Mr. Salami’s case became a sore point for political outfoxing between the governing Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and the defunct opposition Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN (now All Peoples Congress, APC).
The PDP accused the former judge of working for the ACN, hobnobbing with its leaders and dispensing judgments deliberately skewed in favour of the party. Mr. Salami had presided over the Court of Appeal’s upturning of governorship elections in Osun, Ekiti and Edo States, decisions he based on evidences showing that the sacked PDP governors in those states were beneficiaries of rigged elections.
The PDP said there was evidence of telephone calls between leaders of the ACN, and the judge.
While the ACN, now APC, spoke in defence of Mr. Salami, the ruling PDP, President Jonathan’s party, backed Mr. Katsina-Alu with a spokesperson for the party, Olisa Metuh, recently accusing Mr. Salami of lying against the former CJN.
Reflective of the political tinge of the controversy, Mr. Salami was suspended August 18, 2011, just as the Court of Appeal was hearing a suit brought by the presidential candidate of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, Muhammadu Buhari, against President Jonathan’s election.
Mr. Salami’s suspension was approved by the president even while the matter had gone before a court.
After Mr. Katsina-Alu left office, his successor, Mr. Musdapher ordered a review of the case. The Uwais panel found Mr. Salami not guilty, and rather, it criticized Mr. Katsina-Alu in his capacity as CJN then.
Mr. Musdapher’s letter provides an insight into how President Jonathan turned down recommendations for Mr. Salami’s recall, rebuffing detailed presentation from the Chief Justice, and the NJC. The NJC is mandated by the constitution to advise the president on such matters.
In his letter, Mr. Musdapher warned that the judiciary was already suffering a damning public opinion deficit nurtured by perceived impunity and corruption, and that the Salami case, if not well addressed, could only exacerbate that perception.
“And Your Excellency would agree that it is judicial schisms of this nature, and not necessarily the paucity of administrative or judicial infrastructure, that overstretch the ethical and moral fiber of our judiciary, robbing it inevitably of the confidence of the public.”
On May 10, 2012, five months after the letter was delivered to the president, the NJC officially voted 10 to 8, in favour of recalling Mr. Salami eight months after he was suspended.
At the time, judiciary officials who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said the plan was for the former Appeal Court president to be reinstated and made to serve three months before retirement as his case had severely polarised the ranks of the judiciary.
Weeks later, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, said Mr. Jonathan would not act since the matter was already in court, again raising eyebrow since the same government approved Mr. Salami’s suspension even while a court was considering the case. Mr. Musdapher noted that point in his letter.
“Firstly, the National Judicial Council, NJC, took action on the matter when it was subjudice,” he said. “Normally we do not take decisions on matters before us which are pending before the court.”
Throughout the episode, opposition leaders accused the president of being pressured by PDP officials not to heed the recommendation of the NJC.
That concern grew after an Abuja-based lawyer, Amobi Nzelu representing one Wilfred Okoli, rushed to the Federal High Court in Abuja, shortly after the NJC’s recommendation, asking the court to restrain the president from accepting them, because the “recommendations were not binding”.
Mr. Nzelu, who became known after handling the infamous Apo six killings of 2006, said while the NJC had powers to recommend the removal of the President of the Court of Appeal, it lacked power to recommend his reinstatement.
Curiously, officials of the federal government circulated his court papers to the media.