Justice Ayo Salami, a former President of the Court of Appeal, has lamented the tragedy of the Nigerian society where dishonorable people who are not fit to be judges not only enter the system but get to the highest levels of the judiciary.
Towards rectifying the rot in the system, he recommended among others on Wednesday, discontinuing the current system where the Chief Justice of Nigeria is also the Chairman of the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC).
He also called upon the elite for a rethink in order to avoid the collapse of Nigeria.
Justice Salami, it would be recalled, was suspended from office in 2011 following a public spat with former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Adolphus Kastina-Alu, who was at the time the chairman of the NJC, the body which has responsibility for the appointment and discipline of judges.
He made his remarks during the 10th Gani Fawehinmi Annual lecture in Lagos, during which he drew attention to the prevalence in Nigerian society of the practice of subverting the course of justice for pecuniary or other worldly gains.
“We are all asking for a just and equitable society but until people in position of authority think more of holding to their position at the expense of truth, and people who offer advice do it with the fear of God in their heart, this desire will always elude us,” he advised.
He stressed that the rot in the judicial system is compounded by the fact that Nigerians generally do not want the truth to be told and whoever told the truth is marked out for destruction.
“The members of the bar [tell] sordid tales about high ranking serving or retired heavyweights who act as arranges or couriers of rights who reach out to judges to influence or change the course of justice in certain sensitive cases,” Justice Salami said, adding that members of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), who are represented on the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC) hardly stand up for the truth.
In very frank comments using his own experience as an example, he illustrated how endangered justice is in Nigeria.
“In the course of my travail, the NJC set up a Justice I.N. Auta Committee (he was a junior judge or judicial officer to me) to make recommendations on the NJC investigative panel of justice Umoru Abdullahi panel. The recommendations were laughable as they introduced a completely new dimension into the case without any hearing from me (the issue of my judicial misconduct by talking to the press was never raised at the NJC investigative panel). The Auta committee flew above its mandate and said it took judicial notice of the fact that I spoke to the press and thus was making recommendation on this premise. I was never called to appear before the Auta committee. The conclusions of the Justice Auta committee were already predetermined.
“This is the Judge (Justice Auta) who lied on the bench and is now a Chief Judge of the Federal High Court in Nigeria,” he observed.
He further noted that the irony of the situation in the Nigerian judiciary is that the same man and some others like him sit as members of the NJC, and wondered where the prospects of the common man for justice lie, with such men at the head of its affairs.
“This is why despite the disposition of the present Chief Justice to rid the judiciary of these corrupt elements (the efforts) are being frustrated.”
With specific reference to the place of the late Fawehinmi in Nigerian history, Justice Salami recalled that a young judicial officer once said if he had been alive and witnessed the Salami travails, he would have gone to court.
Asked Justice Salami, “To which court would he have gone? An intimidated and frightened court? All that is required is a call to the head of the court and it is done. How does one explain the Supreme Court decision in Dankiwaji vs Wammako? In this case the Supreme court invoked the provision of its rule to override an express provision of the constitution which forbids the Supreme Court from hearing an appeal in election matters to dismiss an appeal that was not pending before it.
“I am aware that the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Dankiwaji vs Wammako has been a subject of controversy for some time and I will not like to comment upon it but I will state that history and posterity will bring out the truth and eventually unravel what went wrong in the fullness of time,” he said.
He stressed that whatever happens or goes wrong in the judicial system, lawyers, particularly some senior lawyers, are involved. “There are some who have the capacity to influence and intimidate the courts and they do it with relish.”
He expressed the wish that the NBA would have the will and capacity to implement the recommendation of the Okpoko Committee that carried out an independent NBA investigation into the Sokoto case that marked the beginning of his own travail.
“Unfortunately, NBA which had a good report in their hands could not impose sanctions on members of the bar that were indicted therein probably because there are prominent senior lawyers involved. If Gani were alive, he would not have allowed the matter to be swept under the carpet. Sometimes when it matters, some members of the bar who are representing NBA on the NJC hardly stand up for the truth, not to talk of speaking the truth. These are matters the NBA must tackle; they should not be regarded as “their” problem.
“It is our joint problem because the profession they are damaging to assuage their selfish interest jointly and severally belongs to us all,” he said.
In order to reposition Nigeria’s legal and judicial system, Justice Salami called for restructuring, including eliminating the practice where the Chief Justice of Nigeria is the Chairman of the NJC.
Other suggestions offered by Justice Salami include:
- Each of the State of the federation should be allowed to have its own court of appeal & Supreme Court to better adjudge on respective disputes and appeal on matters fallen within their legislative competence;
- Constitutional issues and issues be left to the Federal court of Appeal and the Federal Supreme Court;
- Federal High court, the state high court and the National Industrial Court should be vested with the same jurisdiction to avoid the cost of litigation and delays arising from contentious issues of jurisdiction;
- Members of the NJC should not accept executive appointments including briefs from the executives during their tenure; and
He further recommended that n no circumstances should Justices be appointed to the court of appeal and the Supreme Court on grounds of Sharia or customary law.
“Because these people have no knowledge of common law and they have no experience of constitutional law, and in fact, the constitution establishing them said that they should not determine constitutional matters,” he said. “Then when they come to the Court of Appeal overnight they become constitutional experts, and that's how they have the situation where they say Supreme Court rule overrides constitutional provision.”
He praised Fawehinmi for having done his part in fighting for truth and justice.
“He has left a legacy that his entire family and in fact lovers of truth the world over are proud of. It is because the truth never dies and Gani Fawehinmi and others like him would be honored forever. The elite must have a rethink if Nigeria is not going to collapse.”