Monday 22 August 2011

Editorial: Justice, justices and justifiable injustice in Nigeria

Justices in unjustifiable rancour

There is one event in flux in Nigeria today that would determine if the professional classes will apply their knowledge and expertise to a thorny issue or emote on the media having their inconsequential sentimental gestures reported as some sort of objective assessment of the situation.

Over the last few weeks, the judiciary has been involved in an internecine war that has pitted the erstwhile President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Ayo Salami against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Chief Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu.

This matter from observation looks complicated and it appears to require a more clear set of interpretations from the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in terms of the function of the National Judicial Council (NJC), the power of the courts to trammel the constitutionally mandated duties of the National Judicial Council, the way the executive responds to advice in matters that are delineated in properly vested organs of government and the perceptions of clear separation of powers in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The mien of the National Judicial Council

My brush with the judiciary where the driver of the then Chief Justice Mohammed Bello with him well-seated in the vehicle in a reckless manoeuvre almost ran me over as he made to enter the compound of the Supreme Court in 1990 in no way compares with the situation in which we find ourselves today.

The accusations made against the Chief Justice were grave that the NJC constituted a panel out of the 25 sitting members to review the evidence and they arrived at a conclusion that exonerated the Chief Justice and impugned the President of the Court of Appeal to which they attached a disciplinary sanction that included a warning and the order to make an apology to the Chief Justice.

The President of the Court of Appeal might well have had a case and there are probably a whole lot of political machinations that are at play that make for very unsavoury reading but his situation had already become untenable.

The subtle hint in the sanction was for him to respectfully commit hara-kiri.

Between the offices and the officers

For all the conjecture that the judiciary has been infiltrated by the corrupt interference of the executive, it does beg the question that all the esteemed members of the NJC would have been in cahoots to subvert the course of justice and suborn judicial process to create a constitutional crisis.

There is a need to separate the offices from the officials; the office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria was at risk of denigration and being besmirched by reason of alleged acts of the person in office and it is possible that the NJC had to weigh the consequences of finding against the person and the damage this might do to the office.

The judiciary in the highest echelons is a gentleman’s club at best, they would be expected to close ranks especially when one of their number decides to make an embarrassing public show of the arcane workings of the establishment.

It would have only been right to find against the person of the President of the Court of Appeal whilst sparing the office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court but this would have only been to protect the integrity of the judiciary and pave the way in due course to justifiably ease the Chief Justice out eventually for having allowed the matter to escalate into what has become a constitutional crisis.

Lawyer up for argument

The best thing the Nigerian Bar Association can do is to get prepared for court to argue the minutiae and substantive issues of constitutional mandates, the authority of the NJC, the presumably violated rights of the PCA, the matters of the rule of law and the separation of powers with regards to what actions the executive can undertake on advice of other arms of government.

Whilst it is clear that the President can veto legislation, the President however can only make choices based on advice received from the Judiciary.

It is still a judicial matter

The said conflict is most definitely unforeseen and it is unlikely that the populist clamour for justice to be seen to be done will prevail, this will boil down to the matter of points of law and at best following the letter of the law is the most that can be expected; the spirit of the law having been sacrificed on the altar of protecting whatever is left of what can be trusted of our judiciary.

Meanwhile, an acting President of the Court of Appeal has been sworn in, the President having taken the advice of the NJC to bring into non effect the official functions and authority of Justice Ayo Salami.

The whole situation is desperately unfortunate but there was no other easy way to diffuse the situation and one would expect that for the interests of all that is wholesome and honourable, the Chief Justice will soon as a gentleman resign for any set of reasons for the sake of restoring to the judiciary a sense of probity.

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