WHen he was appointed in late September as chairman of the 15-member committee to monitor financial crime and corruption cases, Justice Ayo Salami, who was controversially ousted as President of the Appeal Court by the Goodluck Jonathan presidency, was expected to accept the job. This column hoped he would decline the appointment for a number of reasons. And thank God, he has. First, the appointment was neither the exculpation he demanded and deserved nor did it atone for the lack of courage demonstrated by his colleagues who virtually abandoned him when the dispute waxed hot. Second, and more importantly, since the corruption cases were to be tried in special courts, Justice Salami and his committee, not to say the judges expected to preside over the special courts, would be tilting at windmills as long as the problems that confront the judiciary were not fundamentally addressed.
For the past few years, the judiciary has been poorly funded, with their allocations declining from N95bn in 2010 to N85bn in 2011, N75bn in 2012, N67bn in 2013, up a little to N73bn in 2014, dropping again to N70bn in 2016 against a budget proposal of about N143bn that year, and rising once more to N100bn in 2017. On top of this poor allocation, judges are themselves poorly paid and court buildings and equipment across most states are in disrepair. The judiciary has attempted to reform itself structurally and operationally; but it has been unable to pay its functionaries well and modernise its equipment. Consequently, the reforms have met with qualified success. Instead of the new APC government in Abuja holistically examining the factors militating against speedy dispensation of justice, it has preferred to assail judges and even intimidate them, regardless of the fact that overworked judges (one judge to 800 cases on average) are only a part of the criminal justice system chain that is yet to be reformed.
Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen probably meant well by setting up special courts and constituting a special committee to monitor their activities. But in the face of poor allocation, low pay and crumbling infrastructure, the special courts will meet with insurmountable obstacles. Any monitoring is, therefore, bound to peter out into fatuity. Like Nigerian doctors in public hospitals, judges are overworked and underpaid. Until the problem is fundamentally tackled, the result will be incontestably poor.
There are speculations that Justice Salami declined the appointment because he had reservations about some of the committee members with whom he was expected to work. He has not confirmed this. Instead, he has suggested that his worldview does not quite agree with the regnant philosophy of the judiciary to enable him work with a clear conscience. He was probably referring to the witch-hunt and betrayal that culminated in his principled but uncelebrated exit from the appellate court. Whatever the reasons for declining the appointment, Justice Salami has once again proved that he is a man of character with a keenly developed sense of justice in all its subliminal and metaphysical ramifications. The brilliant and fearless leadership he gave the appellate court harks back to the golden era of the judiciary in Nigeria.
It is unlikely he is still embittered. But from now on, having signaled his unpreparedness to tolerate half measures, his colleagues will probably leave him severely alone. He won’t care, for men like him with so much chutzpah and candour have a fanatical sense of their own destinies to worry about the sentiments and rejections of friends or foes. Had there been scores like him in the upper echelons of the judiciary, they might have escaped last year’s public humiliation orchestrated by a disdainful government and its secret service.
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