Judicial analysts are beginning to express serious worries about the tenure of Justice Umaru Abdullahi as the president of the Nigerian Court of Appeal. Justice Abdullahi was preceded in office by Justices Mamman Nasir and Mustapha Akanbi both of whom retired early in order to ensure that their successor could spend a longer time in office.
The presidency of the Court of Appeal in Nigeria is rotated on the basis of seniority; next in line to Justice Abdullahi is Justice Isa Ayo Salami of the Lagos Division.
Since becoming president of the appellate court in 1999, Justice Abdullahi has on several occasions promised to retire only to renege on those promises. Several judicial sources have told Saharareporters that his reluctance to leave the court owes to his greed and reputation for accepting large gratifications, especially from politicians.
After the 2003 elections, he was one of the nine judges of the appellate court named in a petition by Senators Ugochukwu Uba and Ikechukwu Abana of Anambra State, alleging corrupt handling of the electoral appeal cases filed at the Appeal Court in Enugu.
The petitions were challenging the verdict of the Anambra State election petitions tribunal. Those petitions to the National Judicial Council led to the dismissal of two justices, Okechukwu Opene and David Adeniji, while the investigative committee (headed by the chief judge of Jigawa State, Justice Tijani Abubakar) spared Justice Abdullahi.
To avoid a repeat of such embarrassing allegations, Justice Abdullahi, who hails from Katsina State, has already declared that all petitions alleging fraud against judges involved in elections petitions have no merit even though the chairman of the NJC, and Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi already declared that the NJC was investigating a petition against a former Chief Justice of Nigeria involving bribery of election petition judges in Port Harcourt .
Even so, a knowledgeable source within the judiciary told our correspondent that ‘Justice Abdullahi was only playing 'mind games.” The source added that the justice’s “games have paid off in huge rewards, the size of which is nobody is yet able to fully calculate.”
But several sources told Saharareporters that the justice is the most sought after person as the April 2007 election petitions meander through courtrooms across Nigeria. The power wielded by Justice Abdullahi is such that only he has power to constitute both first appeal (Election Petition Tribunals) and final appeals (Appellate Election Petitions) in all electoral cases. “Using this prerogative, he has been able to help his ‘clients’ both ways,” one senior lawyer told us. “He has turned his power over all electoral trials and appeals into a massive money accumulating business.”
Several lawyers we interviewed for this investigation agreed that Justice Abdullahi's influence derives less from his legal expertise than from the perception that he is adept at supervising the fixing and manipulations of rulings, decisions and judgments in favor of the highest bidders. As the electoral petitions’ seasons near conclusion, the president of the appellate court has taken center stage as fixer-in-chief.
A source close to Justice Abdullahi told Saharareporters that "electoral matters run in his family,” pointing out that his wife was the Edo State Resident Electoral Commissioner at the onset of the Obasanjo regime.
Several inside sources told us that Justice Abdullahi played a central role in manipulating the the controversial court of appeal verdict that upheld the “election” of Umar Yar'adua, former governor of Abdullahi's home state of Katsina. In February, Saharareporters had reported a blow-by-blow account of the role played by Justice Abdullahi in that decision that one senior advocate of Nigeria described as “a disaster in the judicial history of Nigeria.” The verdict has drawn condemnation from citizens and legal scholars alike.
Informed sources told saharareporters that Justice Abdullahi was a schoolmate of retired General Muhammadu Buhari, the ANPP presidential candidate and one of the major challengers of Yar'adua's election. The sources said Justice Abdullahi has always nursed a grudge against Buhari' and swore that the retired general would never receive a positive verdict under his watch.
One of our sources said Justice Mohammed Uwais, a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court, harbored similar negative sentiments towards Buhari. Uwais gave what many lawyers have described as the worst electoral decision in the final electoral petition that handed Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo victory in the 2003 election.
Justice Uwais currently pilots the "electoral reform committee" constituted by Yar'adua to buy time for his illegitimate regime. A source we were not able to corroborate said Yar’adua has retained Uwais to help influence the justices of the Supreme Court as they consider the final electoral petition challenging Yar'adua's election. The nation’s highest court is expected to determine the case before the end of 2008.
Justice Abdullahi's meddling with cases may have reached a scandalous level in two high profile electoral appeal cases in Kebbi and Sokoto states. He manipulated the same panel to give two contradictory rulings in cases that lawyers who spoke to us described as having the same set of facts and circumstances.
The lead justice in both cases, Justice Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa of the Court of Appeal (Jos Division), reportedly broke down in tears as she watched her judicial career go up in flame in an apparent fraudulent ruling that upturned a lower election petition tribunal that earlier sent Governor Saidu Dakingari packing from Kebbi State Government House.
A source told us that the justice had no option than to comply with Justice Abdullahi’s wishes. She was reportedly confronted with a rampaging president of the court of appeal who stood in the anteroom after he handed a prepared judgment to the lead judge. According to our sources, Justice Abdullahi worked on her with a script provided by Turai Yar'adua, Yar’adua’s wife and mother-in-law to the Kebbi State governor.
Abdullahi's tactic in influencing electoral decisions at the appellate level is to create an illusion of victory for the opposition parties by ordering election re-runs where he is confident that the ruling PDP can easily re-rig their candidate back into office. Where victory might be dicey for PDP candidates in a re-run, he engineers the over-turn of decisions favorable to the opposition.
Justice Abdullahi has about two years left in his tenure, but a source said he is likely to go into retirement “with an ignominious record as perhaps the president of the court of appeal who made it impossible for victims of electoral, civil and criminal injustice to gain meaningful reprieve from the appellate courts.”
In Delta state, Justice Abdullahi has refused to constitute an electoral petitions appeals panel to look into the case of Emmanuel Uduaghan, James Ibori's cousin and current governor of Delta State. Our source said this is because Uduaghan is likely to lose since “it is a straight forward case of exclusion, which will be hard to overlook by any decent team of appeals court justices.”
Judge Ayobode Lokulo-Sodipe, who was instructed by Justice Abdullahi to thrash the electoral petition of Peter Okocha, the AC’s gubernatorial candidate, was elevated to the court of appeal soon after he delivered on the job. Justice Abdullahi has so far refused to constitute the Appellate panel to adjudicate on the Delta State appeals.
The refusal to constitute a panel in Delta State also affects the appeals instituted against Adams Oshiomole, the AC candidate who won his case in the state petitions tribunal in Edo state and may likely affect appeals from neighboring Ondo State should information reaching Saharareporters about the impending cancellation of Governor Olusegun Agagu’s election become true. Oshiomole was sighted at Aso Rock a few weeks ago in company of former governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The former governor is a close ally of Yar'adua. Sources told Saharareporters that Oshiomole went to beg Yar'adua to influence the court of appeals president not to reverse the judgment of the lower petitions tribunal that awarded him victory several months ago.
Another area where Justice Abdullahi's incompetence rang loudly was the choice of his nominees of candidates to the court. A source told Saharareporters that most of his nominees were barely qualified, citing the case of a female judge, Chioma Egondu Iheme-Nwosu. The woman, who worked in Ebonyi State's election petitions, is said to have earned her elevation due to her unusual boisterous relationship with Abdullahi. Justice Iheme was appointed to the court of appeal in January on a third try after the National Judicial Commission rejected her elevation on two previous occasions. However, she earned her promotion after delivering a controversial election petition ruling affirming the election of the current Ebonyi State governor, Martins Elechi while dismissing the petitions brought by ANPP gubernatorial candidate, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu on November 29 2007. Two members of the tribunal reportedly refused to sign the decision that dismissed Onu's petition.
Justice Abdullahi meddlesomeness led to the removal of two judges in the Election Petitions Tribunal in Ekiti State, unconfirmed reports said Chief Afe Babalola was instrumental to the decisions. Justice Abdullahi’s son, Abdulkadir is one of the lawyers at Babalola’s elite law firm.
One senior government official in Ebonyi disclosed to Saharareporters that Justice Nwosu-Iheme's ruling led to “a grand looting of the state treasury.” The source said the governor had paid a huge sum for the judgment. “The looting was so bad that one month after the ruling was delivered, the state could not pay its employees.” Yet, Justice Iheme-Nwosu was elevated to the Court of Appeal. Dr. Onu is appealing the ruling, but if Abdullahi and Iheme-Nwosu’s closeness would count in anyway, Dr. Onu may well forget any reprieve.
Abdullahi’s controversial decisions also provided the grounds for the confusion that enabled Obasanjo and Maurice Iwu to manipulate the 2007 elections. In one decision, Justice Abdullahi ruled that INEC had powers to disqualify candidates, giving Iwu the blanket power to derail Atiku Abubakar's candidacy. Abdullahi wrote the appellate court decision, but curiously left for Saudi Arabia for the Umra (lesser Hajj), making himself unavailable to deliver the ruling. Justice James Ogebe adopted the same tactic in the ruling that affirmed Yar'adua's election. The Supreme Court reversed Abdullahi’s ruling.
Currently, the Court of Appeal is on vacation till October 2008. That means that all pending cases will not be considered until the court’s resumption. The delays are contrary to the controversial "practice directions" issued by Abdullahi ostensibly to accelerate the hearing of all cases.