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Aloysius Katsina-Alu: A Chief Justice and his legacy

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
18 July 2022   |   2:21 am
Aloysius Iyorgher Katsina-Alu didn’t set out to be a lawyer or a judge. His first love was soldiering. From April to October, 1962, he was enrolled at the Nigerian Military Training School (NMTC).

Aloysius Iyorgher Katsina-Alu

Aloysius Iyorgher Katsina-Alu didn’t set out to be a lawyer or a judge. His first love was soldiering. From April to October, 1962, he was enrolled at the Nigerian Military Training School (NMTC). The month after graduating from the NMTC, in November 1962, he left for the officer training programme at the Mons Military Training College in Aldershot, England. In January 1963, he returned to Nigeria from military training to enroll for a law degree at the Ahmadu Bello University. He returned to the United Kingdom the following year where he graduated from the University of London in 1967 before enrolling as a lawyer in Nigeria in 1968.

43 years later, when Katsina-Alu retired as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) on 29 August, 2011, one newspaper described his legacy as “leaving the judiciary in turmoil.” Eleven (11) days earlier, the National Judicial Council (NJC), which he chaired in his capacity as the CJN, suspended Isa Salami from office as the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA). Few would have predicted, however, that the NJC would choose to achieve this result by refusing service of court processes in proceedings questioning the exercise of its powers. Not even the soldiers did that in the worst days of military rule. Katsina-Alu may have left soldiering for law but the military vocation never left him.

Much of Katsina-Alu’s tenure as CJN was dominated by allegations and counter-allegations surrounding the disintegration of fraternal relations between him and Salami. The wilful bungling of this case by Nigeria’s senior-most judges and the toxic aftermath continues to afflict the judiciary over one decade later. Unless otherwise disclosed, all the quotes below are from the 23,952 word report of the Fact-Finding Committee headed by former PCA, Umaru Abdullahi, established by the NJC into these allegations.

This story turned on what happened at the encounter between the CJN and the PCA on February 8, 2010 in the CJN’s Chambers at the Supreme Court. Dahiru Musdapher, then the second senior-most Justice of the Supreme Court and likely successor to the retiring CJN, also attended the meeting. The subject matter was the pending judgment in the petition before the Court of Appeal concerning the Sokoto State Governorship election in 2007. The details of what was in fact discussed became the subject of bitter dis-agreement between Nigeria’s three senior-most judicial figures. At least one or more of them lied.

To find out what transpired, the NJC, a high constitutional and statutory council of supposedly the most solemn judicial figures in Nigeria, established three successive panels at the end of which the consequences did not bear any resemblance to the facts.

The PCA claimed that at the meeting, the CJN asked him to “instruct the Justices to dismiss the appeal”, saying that he – predictably – rejected this out of hand.

The CJN had a somewhat different recollection, claiming that he had called in the PCA to advise him that the judgment in the Sokoto governorship election appeal having leaked, “the only way to maintain the integrity of the Court was to reconstitute the panel.” The CJN says the PCA left him with the impression that “he would disband the panel having admitted that the judgment had leaked.” However, after waiting impatiently for over 10 days to hear from the PCA on the next steps, on 19 February 2010, the CJN “wrote letter No. NJCICAfDMlIV/48 that the judgment that was to be delivered in the Sokoto Gubernatorial Election Petition Appeal ‘be put on hold’ pending the investigation of the petitions I had received.”

The PCA retorted that at no time during this encounter was the issue of “leaked” judgment raised. The recollection of the only other person present at this meeting, Dahiru Musdapher, tallied only somewhat with that of the CJN. However, he disclosed in his unsworn testimony to the Umaru Abdullahi panel that during this meeting, “the CJN (had) said there was going to be a security breach” (if the judgment was delivered by the Court of Appeal). It is not clear when or how it became the business of judges to worry that a judgment would cause a “security breach”? That Nigeria’s three senior-most judges could render such conflicting accounts of a brief meeting must inspire considerable sympathy for the average litigant or court user.

When this matter first came to the attention of the NJC in February 2010, they constituted an “elders Committee from members of the NJC to look into the matter”, led by Bolarinwa Babalakin, then long retired from the Supreme Court and comprising three other retired Supreme Court Justices and a retired PCA.

As it turned out, no one was quite sure what the mission of the Elders Committee actually was. To four members of the Committee at least, theirs was a fact-finding and reconciliation mission. To the Umaru Abdullahi Committee, the Elders Committee had a narrow mandate to “reconcile” the CJN and the PCA. One person, a former Supreme Court Justice, sat on both the Elders Committee and the Umaru Abdullahi Committee. The Elders Committee reported on March 8, 2010, concluding among other things that they “found no misconduct made against the PCA” and “the Hon. CJN as Chairman of NJC has no power to interfere with any proceeding in any Court as was done in this case.”
To be continued tomorrow
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at chidi.odinkalu@tufts.edu