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Sam Omatseye: NJC: Above the law


Sam Omatseye: NJC: Above the law

by Sam Omatseye

When T.S. Eliot wrote his play, Murder in the Cathedral, quite a few literary neophytes did not grasp his idea. They thought he was writing about murder in the house of God. He was.

But the sort of murder he targeted was not the superficial blood fest of a human killing another in the holy of holies. I have encountered instances of such shallow zeal in Nigerian newspapers. Eliot, like all great artists, was more enthralled with metaphor.

If Eliot were to locate his play in today’s Nigeria, he would have crafted murders in many temples. One of them is the National Judicial Council.

He would have recast how that august body murdered justice in its hallowed place: judiciary. It is a cathedral of justice without safety nets. If it is a safe place, why should justice die in its sanctum? Why should the righteous run into its tower and not be safe?

That happened in the story of retired Justice Ayo Salami, where the chicanery between that body and the presidency tossed a man of such heft and legal carriage into a cesspool of judicial miscarriage.

It is one of the sour regions of Nigeria’s contemporary legal history. We inflict a wound in the image of justice and allow the comely visage to contort into a cadaverous face. It is ugly like Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, a satiric swipe at elite lack of grace.

Now in Rivers State, where a measure of calm has returned after the inanity of a presidential busybody and blabbermouth, the NJC has insisted on wielding the power of a king in a democracy.

The matter began last year in an apparently routine way, like one of those irritations one expects to peter out with time. But when Peter Agumagu’s nomination met roadblocks, it became the case of the NJC denying justice in the same way Peter the apostle denied Christ.

The issue is simple. A quartet of the governor, state judicial service commission, the NJC and the house of assembly decide who becomes the chief judge of a state. All three decided in favour of Agumagu except the NJC. The law calls for the most senior member of the bench for the post. By all accounts, Agumagu, who had served as chief judge before becoming president of the state customary court, is the methuselah of the court.

The NJC said no. The governor took the matter to court and the court ruled that the wisdom of Solomon picked methuselah in the person of Justice Agumagu.

But it seems the NJC does not understand the path of justice in this matter. It is not interested in age. It is only interested in “under-age”. Hence it chose D.W. Okocha, a junior, to topple Agumagu. It does not subscribe to coups except when the oga at the top is not their man. It believes in the court system but it must be the court it chooses. It will accept any verdict except that of the federal high court.

It has no objection to due process unless it suspends Justice Agumagu before issuing a query. ‘Obey before complain’ is as true with soldiers as with the NJC.

It does not matter when there is a conflict of interest, as some persons have wondered whether a member of the council is a relative of its nominee. The NJC believes in exception as rule, rather than the rule with exception. Is that why it has particularised the case of Rivers State when similar cases have been glossed over in other states? The cathedral body defies persons who have started to perceive the NJC as a presidential poodle. Who does not ape the virtue of loyalty? So, like Ruth in the Bible, we can hear them bellow, “Wherever the presidency goes, there you will find us.”

Is the NJC not an advocate of federalism, and is that not why it has allowed some other states to have their judges? It only treats Rivers State differently because it has to follow the canon. The canon allows for exception to the rule. Goodwill is important to the NJC, but not like strong will. After all, did Shakespeare not say “lawless are they that make wills their law?”

It believes in institutional integrity, hence the law must serve it rather than the people. They are cannibals of law, and what is wrong with that? We must build strong institutions. Did the president not say so?

In spite of uproar about the partiality of the grand body, the NJC kept a venerable silence. I wonder what happened to the venerable silence of old? It is not fighting shy in a public spat with a governor.

The august body decides that it will not follow its own precedent. In the case of Ayo Salami, it recommended suspension to the president, who signed off with a cynical glad hand. Again, if the NJC recommended suspension to a president in the case of a federal judge, why did the NJC not do the same to a governor with regards to a state judge? It could have written its own recommendation to the hard-charging Governor Rotimi Amaechi.

It could be so grandly worded. A sampler: “The National Judicial Council hereby recommends that Your Excellency should suspend Justice Peter Agumagu for allowing himself to be sworn in and even allowing you to recommend him as the chief judge of Rivers State. We also reiterate that the right person for the post is the one you rejected, the honourable D. W. Okocha. Signed.”

The NJC could still pen the letter, and I am sure, Governor Amaechi would lustily enjoy such a love letter and reply with the clinical effusion of a tiger. He might reply, with laconic words such as, “I cannot be expected to go back to my vomit. It is against my fate as a Catholic.” The public may even hear from Governor Amaechi before the NJC thinks of any response.

The NJC lords may not know it. In their lofty gowns and solemn halls and exalted chairs, they already think of themselves as monarchs of the law. Like the law of the Medes and Persia, what they say cannot be changed. “So let it be written, so let it be done,” was their refrain in the ungainly glory of that era.

We often hear of the court of kings. Here we have kings of the court, a misnomer that suits the ego of some judiciary bigwigs enmeshed in the travesty of law and society. Of course, the NJC knows it is above the law; hence it would not respect the decision of a federal court.

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sam Omatseye/Nation

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