Last weekend in Ilorin, I asked a senior member of the Nigerian Bench to sum up the professional persona of Justice Isa Ayo Salami for me. He was very brief in that summary; Justice Salami, he said, is a very learned professional and an incorruptible judge. That satisfied my curiousity as much as it deepened my fears about the unnecessary controversy that has arisen in recent days, about a purported move to “promote” Justice Salami from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. The case is now subjudice, as the lawyers say, but there is a far deeper issue of the health of Nigerian society that has been raised which we must not be afraid to interrogate.
As several lawyers have argued, and Justice Salami himself pointed out, the action to knock the President of the Court of Appeal off his perch and “promote” him into irrelevance at the Supreme Court will set a dangerous legal precedent. But we know that the various cases in court around the issue will eventually give us a clearer picture in the weeks and months ahead, about the propriety of the decision by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Katsina-Alu. There are days of interesting legal arguments ahead. And sometimes I wonder aloud if I did the right thing to have rebelled against my family’s tradition of becoming lawyers and judges, to end up studying Mass Communication and Political Science, and living a life in the media. But that is not the issue today.
More fundamental, is the fact that there is a deepening mess being made of the entire fabric of Nigerian society, by different sections of our ruling elite. The conventional wisdom of bourgeois society is that the judiciary is the third arm of government. It is assumed that judges are insulated from the madness of the struggle between competing factions of the political elite, as they search for power. The courts adjudicate without fear or favour and in the process assist in the consolidation of the legitimacy of the ruling class project. The underlining ideological assumption is that the judiciary is the last hope of people in these societies. The moment the judiciary becomes compromised, the essential role of sharply administering justice to help the order of bourgeois society becomes severely injured and it can become permanently compromised.
Unfortunately in Nigeria, there is a mixed bag of feelings about the state of our judiciary. This has been particularly brought into sharp focus in electoral cases since the beginning of the current dispensation in 1999. Our courts have come under focus, especially in presidential appeals in 2003 and 2007, when electoral heists were decided in court in favour of those who serially raped the Nigerian people. It was therefore a breath of freshness and hope, when Justice Isa Ayo Salami became President of the Court of Appeal, and a few of the daylight robbery of the mandate of the Nigerian people were taken away from the robbers and handed out to the rightful owners. That these landmark decisions became the backdrop against which the effort is now being made to “promote” Justice Salami away from the Court of Appeal, speaks volumes about the desperacy of the political cum judicial state of rot in Nigeria.
But the issue is very simple; those who believe they must manipulate the judicial process as they do the political, might earn short time, pyrrhic victories, from throwing around money to corrupt judges, but they will end up doing far more damage to the health of the society they preside over. What is likely to happen, is that there will be an increasing loss of faith in the administration of justice, a resort to anarchic self-help and the complete erosion of the legitimacy of the institutions of state. The evidence is all around us today: the ruling elite does not believe in the efficacy of the state it presides over, so it has instituted an elaborate process of criminal fleecing of the state and as they say, has cut close to the bone; in response there is a counter process of non-state acts of criminality by different groups of non-state actors at different levels of Nigerian society.
A combination of these two is sapping Nigeria of its vitality and rendering very ominous the predictions about its total failure. Those who purport to remove Justice Isa Ayo Salami from the presidency of the Court of Appeal are not thinking through the injury they will inflict upon the class society they preside upon. If they further endanger things, the boat will sink and take them all down. That is the painful truth of the situation we face in our country today. On a final and more mischievous note, I used to think it is only in journalism, that we get promoted upwards or sideways into irrelevance; didn’t know that the learned tribe of Justices can suffer our fate too. Well, didn’t they say the rich also cry?!