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Please, Don’t Promote Justice Salami, Please! By Okey Ndibe

February 7, 2011

Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, must jettison his plan to promote Justice Isa Salami, president of the Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court. A promotion is usually a good, laudable move.

Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, must jettison his plan to promote Justice Isa Salami, president of the Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court. A promotion is usually a good, laudable move.

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Not in this case. Justice Salami has emerged as one of the most courageous, impressive and incorruptible judges in the country. Under his leadership, some of the justices of the Court of Appeal have established a reputation for writing judgments that combine legal sagacity with rich ethical mettle.

Nigerians are getting more than their money’s worth with Justice Salami running the solemn business of the Court of Appeal. Politicians who are used to purchasing judgments as promiscuously as they buy Ramadan rams dread Justice Salami’s moral muscularity. The man’s body language and fearless verdicts proclaim one thing: I can’t be bought!

Those addicted to a life of crime – including the worst of crimes, the stealing of elections – can’t stand a judge who disdains their bags of cash. Justice Salami and some of his colleagues on the Court of Appeal are bad news for politicians who nullify the electorate, hijack electoral offices and ascribe their stolen mandates to divine decree. The Justice Salami-led Court of Appeal takes credit for removing impostor governors in Edo, Ekiti and Osun States. They might have done the same in Sokoto had the Supreme Court not meddled. Obviously, the justice won’t win any popularity contest among the rusticated governors, their sponsors and coterie.

With general elections a few weeks away, Nigerians need Justice Salami’s sharp judicial mind, dependable independence and stellar leadership at the Court of Appeal – the final arbiter in most electoral disputes and the first stop for petitions arising from the presidential polls.

In a country where charlatans reign, there’s a sound reason Justice Salami is held by lawyers and many Nigerians as a tested hero. His judgments – and those of some of his colleagues – have gladdened Nigerian hearts. He has given Nigerians a peep into what is possible in their country once the judiciary realizes the exalted nature of its role in the polity and rises to embrace the challenge. Many Nigerians wish that more judges would emulate the man and his circle of fiercely independent counterparts. Many wish – dream – that more justices of the Supreme Court would seek to approach cases, especially those bearing on electoral malpractice, with Salami’s Olympian contempt for vote robbers.   

Justice Katsina-Alu might argue that Salami’s sagacity is exactly why he should be elevated to the Supreme Court. But many, including Justice Salami himself, would consider this a disingenuous argument. The perception is writ large that the sole reason for the attempt to move the justice from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court is to emasculate him and weaken the Court of Appeal. That anxiety is not easily discounted.

It’s rare for a judge to openly rebuff a promotion. But Justice Salami is nothing if not a rare, welcome breath of fresh air in the stuffy and sometimes staid quarters of the judiciary. In a candid, unflinching letter to Justice Katsina-Alu, Justice Salami barely managed to hold his contempt for the bait of “promotion” in check. Describing his elevation to the Supreme Court as a “disturbing action,” Salami wrote: “I regret to say that I am not taken in. I am contented with being the President of the Court of Appeal…I prefer to remain in the Court of Appeal to continue to give service to the nation to the best of my ability.” He tagged the promotion scheme as “an unholy move.”

There, Katsina-Alu has got his answer. Salami has said, unambiguously: Thanks, but no, thanks. A man who feels so strongly opposed to his own promotion must be left where he is. There won’t be a crisis in the Supreme Court if Justice Salami does not take a seat on that (potentially) august body.

If anything, Salami deserves admiration for waving off the bait of promotion and insisting on rendering service from his present post and address. The decision raises the man’s ethical stock and speaks to a depth dignity and integrity. If only other judges – more judges – would carry themselves with equal moral pride. A less worthy man might have caved in, seizing on any chance to move up. But here’s a man who realizes that the sum of his career will be measured, not in terms of where he sat, but in the quality of his service. The clarity of Justice Salami’s choice, and the cogency with which he expressed it, should be a rebuke and a lesson to others.

In March, 2008 I wrote a column titled “Reject Justice James Ogebe.” My argument then was that Justice Ogebe did not deserve elevation to Nigeria’s Supreme Court. Mr. Ogebe had chaired a panel of the Court of Appeal that validated the do-or-die farce that enabled former President Olusegun Obasanjo to foist Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan on a people who had not elected them.

In the midst of considering a strong petition to overturn the electoral impunity, Justice Ogebe was tipped for a seat on the nation’s highest court. Shortly after, Ogebe and the other justices upheld the result of the 2007 presidential election, an exercise in electoral shock and awe. The justices did little credit to themselves.

That craven verdict – and its eventual adoption by the Supreme Court – was a low moment for the Nigerian judiciary. It left the impression that the judiciary was ever willing to shirk its responsibility to defend Nigerians’ prerogative to choose their leaders. Handed a historic opportunity to bolster democratic values, Mr. Ogebe and his counterparts chose to lend their imprimatur to acts that thwarted the cause of democracy.

Inadvertently, the cowardly judgment sent a tragic message to Nigerian politicians. That message: that the law is on the side of the boldest, most ruthless rigger.  

Justice Ogebe’s subsequent nomination for a spot on the Supreme Court struck me as ill-advised, a peculiarly Nigerian way of enthroning absurdity. A man jealous of his integrity would have rejected the bait. It was not only that the promotion risked appearing as an inducement. The very ethical image and prestige of the Supreme Court were at risk of being jeopardized. 

If ever there was a manual on when not to promote a judge, the circumstances in Ogebe’s case seemed especially compelling. Carping Ogebe’s promotion, I wrote in 2008: “In upholding the legitimacy of [Yar’Adua’s] ‘mandate,’ Ogebe and his colleagues proved that the law could be manipulated to uphold illogicality. Their judgment was nothing short of disastrous and shameful.”

I concluded that piece in these words: “The Nigerian judiciary represents a new source of hope about the survival of the nation’s sometimes frustrating, one-step-forward, four-steps-backward brand of ‘democracy.’ If the country is not to slip into absolute lawlessness or, worse, anarchy, then we need fearless judges who are willing to take tough and admirable decisions. At this juncture in its history, with criminals posing as ‘stakeholders’ and holding the political space to ransom, Nigeria demands intrepid judges. Ogebe does not strike me as that kind of judge.”

Justice Salami is, indisputably, in that impressive mold. Justice Katsina-Alu, please don’t promote Justice Salami, please!

-Okey Ndibe ([email protected])

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