22nd May, 2012
The tragedy seems so unreal as to conjure visions of a long way off the mark in the quest for rectitude in governance. Just as a fist disappears as soon as the hand is open, theoretically so has a period of persecution of a jurist of fine mettle swiftly dissolved into a past typified by excessive cruelty and hostility, and relentlessly unravels in a future solidified by a deep sense of gloom.
Though the National Judicial Council, NJC, has just made a u-turn and recommended that President Goodluck Jonathan reinstate Justice Ayo Salami as President of Court of Appeal after nine months of undeserved suspension, the decision will do little to soften widespread despair induced by this wanton oppression. This is because the demon of perfidy is on the loose; no one can bet that the Peoples Democratic Party, in its ever evolving capacity for evil, will not again travel this despicable path in not too distant future.
Nothing pains so much like having a nation of leaders who purposely fail to take advantage of glaring opportunities to launch effective turnaround of a decimated polity. The dispute between Salami and former Chief Justice of Nigeria Ignatius Katsina-Alu presented a golden chance for President Jonathan to begin wholesale cleansing of a judiciary reeling under the crushing weight of bribery and corruption. If ever there was any window to give a realistic expression to the mantra of what is already widely seen as an amorphous transformation agenda, that surreal eruption in the judiciary was it. But unable as usual to dredge up the political will to confront an issue of pressing national importance, the president fluffed the chance on the altar of political convenience.
That the Jonathan administration shamelessly swept under the carpet the serious allegations of unethical practice Salami levelled against the immediate past CJN, a supposed foremost symbol of an institution critical to the success of democracy, is no longer news. Nor would it be news to point out that corruption in the judiciary has since assumed a life of its own with the active support of a ruling class who repeatedly proclaim faith in the rule of law. What is news, however, is that the latitude for impunity keeps widening on a daily basis, so much so that it renders inconsequential the question as to whether there is any real governance in place.
There is no doubt that as things stand today PDP has commandeered the judiciary for its own good. The party has infiltrated that esteemed institution and contaminated it to the point that many Nigerians no longer see the judiciary as ‘the last hope of the common man’. That institution, a vast majority of the people believe, is now more inclined to catering to the whims of the highest bidder – the one with a pocket deep enough to ‘purchase justice’ – than acquitting itself of its sacred function of dispensing justice, as it is said, without or favour, or even if heaven will fall.
A slew of reported incidents of alleged corruption on the part of tribunal judges who handled petitions emanating from the 2011 elections awakened the discerning public to an insidious evil tormenting Nigeria’s wobbly democracy. What hope is there again for sustaining democracy once judges begin to collect bribe and pervert the course of justice? It’s no secret that the ruling party deployed its full muscle to recruit complaisant tribunal judges who affirmed dubious legitimacies of its candidates.
One judge who stood up against the judicial misconduct packaged by the PDP was the president of the court of appeal. Indeed Salami opened a can of worms when he alleged that the CJN had sought his (Salami’s) assistance to stop the appeal court judgment( an action the CJN has no powers to take) of the Sokoto state governorship election which was apparently in favour of a rival political party. This, plus the fact that PDP was quite certain that the petition by Congress for Progressive Change challenging president Jonathan’s victory in the presidential election would succeed under an honest judge like Salami, informed Salami’s removal to clear the coast for affirming Jonathan’s victory at appeal court level. PDP knew that once that angle was settled, the Supreme Court end would not be problem as the judges would co-operate as friends of the party.
When the NJC recommended Salami’s suspension the speed with which the president approved it had never been seen in the history of presidential approvals since the beginning of the 4th republic. It was the kind of alacrity usually associated with military dictatorships. Just as dirty politics led to this needless suspension, so is Salami’s recommendation for recall to his post mired in a fresh round of political storm stirred by some PDP politicians angling for the judge’s compulsory retirement from the service. Two southwest governors whose bogus mandates were dismantled when Salami presided over the appeal court are the ones leading the siege against his recall.
And President Jonathan, most regrettably, is already caught in this web of sickening politics of hate. Rather than rise above partisanship and live up to his oath of office to do the right thing at all times regardless of what or who is involved, the president is conducting himself as if he is president of PDP and not of Nigeria. Suddenly there are all sorts of funny tales flying around that the memo from the NJC to the presidency requesting approval for Salami’s recall “is missing in transit.” Who will now argue that this is not all about politics when the president has failed to endorse Salami’s recall with the same promptness with which he approved his suspension? The excuse is that the president is yet to see the letter.
If this calls for serious concern, what about the allegation against the CJN? To the detriment of an enduring democracy envisaged for this country, it is certain that that very grave allegation against Katsina-Alu has died naturally. The leader of Nigeria’s judiciary is accused publicly of official misconduct by a subordinate, and nothing happens. No investigation. Nothing. It can only happen here. And the result is not amusing: no justice to the accused, no justice to the complainant and no justice to the society. But above all, it puts to question all the sincerity of all kinds of reforms proposed for the judiciary in this dispensation. It’s a pity.
•Onyeacholem is a journalist based in Abuja.