Justice Dahiru Saleh is the Judge who made the judicial pronouncement annulling the June 12, 1993 presidential election, an action that plunged the country into a major political crisis. In this encounter with The Interview he attempts to explain the circumstances surrounding the infamous ruling he gave from the Bench…
What made you choose law as a profession?
When I was in secondary in the 1960s, I wanted to study engineering. But later on, after I left school, I saw an advertisement for a legal course and I applied for it. It was a time when there were virtually no lawyers in the North. I was in the third batch of northern lawyers to be trained. That was how I came to be interested in and studied the law. When I attended the course in Zaria, it was in August 1961 and it went through 1962. We had to go to London for the second part of the course. I finished my studies there. I then returned to attend the Nigerian Law School, where I eventually qualified to practice in Nigeria. I qualified as a lawyer in England on January 4, 1963 and later on, I attended the Nigerian Law School. I finished in 1965, I think. I am not quite sure of the date. Every year at that time, they used to take about 12 candidates from the northern states to qualify as lawyers. In the year I was selected, I was the only one from Bauchi. There were three candidates from Sokoto. There was someone from Argungu, who later became a justice of the Supreme Court; there was Justice Kalgo from Kalgo and Usman Mohammed from Sokoto. And then there were other candidates from other northern states. There was another one from Borno, and another from Plateau. There were 12 of us in my set; I can’t remember all the names.
Had you always wanted to be a judge right after completing your legal education?
In those days the government was looking out for northerners to qualify as lawyers. Even before we finished, we were given our assignments and we had to choose. We had to pick from two options and if you still didn’t want the options they gave you, you could strike out on your own. I chose to be a legal practitioner; my first assignment was in the Ministry of Justice. Our attorney general in those days was an Englishman before Justice BubaArdo took over.
At what point did you decide you were going to be a judge?
When I was legal adviser to ministry of justice, I was assigned to the NNDC (New Nigeria Development Company) of those days. I acted as Secretary and Legal Adviser, together with a former Minister of Education, Abdullahi Ibrahim. I was transferred to the northeast at a time then went back to the NNDC. It was while I was at NNDC that the-then Northeastern state government appointed me Chief Magistrate and Chief Registrar. That was the time I moved over to the bench.
You have described a period where there were very few northerners practicing law. How different is the situation today?
I was just reading in the papers that today there are more northerners reading law because there are many Law faculties in universities based in the North. In those days, it was only the Ahmadu Bello University that had a Law Faculty but now there are about four or five other universities teaching law. So it is expanding.
You have mentioned how you became a judge. What made you choose Abuja as a place to pursue a career on the Bench, considering that in those early days it was nothing but virgin land?
I was in the Federal High Court, in Sokoto, when Shehu Shagari was elected president of Nigeria. Not long after that, I got a ‘phone call from Lagos. I can’t remember from whom; the person mentioned that my name was mentioned as a possible Chief Judge of Abuja. The High Court for Abuja was a new creation. It was a new High Court carved out of Kwara, Benue and Plateau; the three neighboring states. I was the first Chief Judge of Abuja although in those early days, I found magistrates on the ground; about two or three of them operating. That was all.
It took me roughly about 20 years to develop the judicial structures in Abuja. The High Court started with two judges and myself. It was made up of one person from the North, one from the West and one other person from the East. I was the Chief Judge. That was how I started the High Court in Abuja and developed it to a point until I retired. In establishing the High Court, we also had to establish a Sharia Court of Appeal, appoint a Grand Khadi and Khadis in the system. We equally had to establish a Customary Court of Appeal and appoint judges into the court. I was the one involved in doing that.
We also had to establish a Judicial Service Commission that is still operating uptill now. There were two other small commissions. All of these took roughly 20 years.
When it came to appointing judges, you mentioned you all came from different parts of the country. Was it a deliberate policy by past administrations to overlook the indigenes of Abuja in such appointments?
Nobody ever told me whom to appoint as judges. I only took it upon myself to make sure we maintained geographical and ethnic balancing. Whenever I appointed someone from the North, I also took from the East and the West. I always operated like that up to the time when there were only about 19 states in the country.
What about the indigenes of Abuja?
Indigenes of Abuja are only indigenes in the Territory (Federal Capital Territory, FCT) and the Territory belongs to the whole of Nigeria. All the people who came to live in Abuja outnumbered the people they found there. If you go round now, for every indigene you find, you will find ten others who are not indigenes.
Did you ever get the opportunity to go to the Appeal Court?
Nobody ever offered me that opportunity and I didn’t ask for one either, because I was busy establishing the High Court of Abuja and that was gratifying for me. I believe in Abuja, and I ensured we maintained the balance of representations from the North, West and East. I made sure that Westerners were not more than Northerners and that Northerners were not more than Easterners in the scheme of things. We maintained that set-up when I was Chief Judge. But when I left, things changed.
It has been 14 years since you retired from the bench. Do you think the judiciary is more independent today than it was at the time you served?
Independence of the judiciary depends on the other branches of government. Those outside the judiciary who want to have their way will often go to any length to get what they want.
You were Chief Judge of the FCT, first under a military government and then later under an elected one. Was there any difference in the working atmosphere?
As far as I was concerned, ours was a very small unit and we were only dealing with cases before us. In those days, I was only concerned with establishing the system and putting up the structures. It was a new system, so there were very few cases in the courts.
You made the judicial decision to annul the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. Yet most Nigerians lay the blame solely at the feet of former President Ibrahim Babangida, which suggests the judgement might have been a political decision. Did the former (military) president dictate to you or ask you to annul the election?
The former president did nothing of the sort. There were so many cases and I cannot remember all the cases off-hand. There was the case against MKO Abiola and it was before one of my judges; she was Igbo but I can’t remember her name. She started the case, then fell sick and was flown out of the country for treatment. Then there was another case against him (MKO Abiola) and I had to transfer the case from the other judge’s court to my court. During that time it turned that Abiola didn’t even finish the case before he disappeared. Later, I learnt he had been arrested by authorities.
So there was no influence from the government on the judgment you gave?
None whatsoever. I was the only one to judge.
The former president will forever be remembered for the debacle of the June 12, 1993 election. Why do you think people hold him responsible rather than see the annulment as part of a judicial process?
I believe one of the reasons must be that Babangida was very close to Abiola in those days. They were very close and there were so many assumptions regarding the relationship between the two of them. But the point is, in those days, the Yorubas wanted Abiola to become president; he was seen as a kind and considerate man to every Tom, Dick and Harry. Unfortunately, he wanted to be the president but he couldn’t be. While the political blame must be on President Babangida, he (Babangida) did nothing of the sort to stop him, using my court.
Your personal relationship with Babangida is also at play. How long have you known him?
I think I was in service when I first came to know him. I can’t remember the time. But I only came to know him well after his retirement. I was already Chief Judge when he was President. He came and met me there and he left me there. But while he was in office, we had no personal relationship. He was my boss; I was his subject.
There are people who believe you got too close to Babangida and even (late military Head of State, Sani) Abacha. How close were you? Did the circle of people you were with at that time exert an indirect influence on how you managed your court?
None whatsoever. Whenever I wanted to say “hello” to anyone, I just went there to say “hello” and cameback.
There are those who believe the judgment you delivered regarding June 12 was actually an attempt to stop Abiola from becoming president simply because he was a Yoruba, a person from the southwest. Are they right to think so?
They are not right because the case was dismissed in the High Court. If Abiola wasn’t happy with the case, he could have appealed it to the Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court. The judicial system was still open but he chose not to follow it. Why no one followed up the annulment of the election in the higher courts is best known to members of Abiola’s party at that time. If he, as an individual, was not interested, there must have been other people who would be interested to see the end of the story but they didn’t appeal.
Do you think the political parties that existed then should have taken part of the blame in how events unfolded?
Ask them. You are asking the wrong man.
Looking back, with the crisis that the annulment led to and the ensuing tension between the North and the South, do you think you made a mistake with your judgment?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Anybody not satisfied with what I was doing as Chief Judge could appeal to the Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court, simple. And I have no regrets, none whatever. No regrets. I would repeat the same thing now.
You were Chief Judge in the FCT, and it made you a politically- exposed person. With that in mind, what kind of relationship did you have with Olusegun Obasanjo when he was president?
Well, I don’t know. I first knew him when I was Attorney General in Bauchi State. He was military Head of State at that time. He visited Bauchi. When he came back (to power), he met me as Chief Judge of Abuja. All I could do was to go and greet him. That is all I did. There was no connection between the two of us. Mine was only to go and greet him. That is as far as I can remember. I had no personal relationship with him, none whatsoever.
Former President Obasanjo, when he was president and you were still Chief Judge, dug up a report that was close to 10 years at that point, sent it to the Senate and had you impeached. He did this not long after you set Mohammed Abacha free. Do you think there was a connection?
There could have been a political connection. There could have been because I know in those days there was an investigation regarding judges; some were cleared and others were suspended. In my case, it was a case of money, which I was said to have lost or misplaced. It was money which I paid but unfortunately for me, I couldn’t get hold of the receipt. With that receipt, I could have cleared myself, but I couldn’t. At the end of day, they found that I didn’t account for N5,000. N5,000! At that time, information I had was that Obasanjo didn’t want me to continue as Chief Judge because he was approaching the end of his second term and he wanted to re-contest (for a third term). With me as Chief Judge and if he wanted to come back, he probably felt he would have difficulties getting through the courts. So, the clear option was to have me removed and clear the way for his planned return.
Regarding the possible political intrigues that you just mentioned, did the former president ever approach you in any way or did he give you any sign he wanted to warm up to you?
No, he did not.
Beyond that issue, clearly Obasanjo also didn’t want Mohammed Abacha freed at that point in time. Was there pressure from him on how to manage court proceedings in the case involving Mohammed Abacha and his co-accused?
No. To me, while I was Chief Judge, there was no outreach from him or any such thing on the case. There was nothing of the sort. He gave us a free hand.
It is believed the report that was used against you to remove you from office was not written by Obasanjo. In fact, it was drafted under the government of the late Sani Abacha. Other than the misappropriation of funds, the report made grave accusations against you. It also claimed you were incompetent. What is your response to that?
Well, that is what is out there but anybody who looks at and knew me at that time and the service I have will know it is not true. In all I had to do, Gods knows I always did my best.
Did the Justice Kayode Eso panel, which wrote the report, give you the opportunity to respond to the allegations against you before making their recommendation?
We all did. We all gave our own explanations. But whatever they said was subject to higher approval.
The NJC (National Judicial Council) under the leadership of Justice LawalUwais agreed with then President Obasanjo on the need to have you impeached based on the recommendation of the Justice Kayode Eso panel. Why do you think the NJC gave its consent? Did the council allow you to defend yourself?
It was all about political interests. That is all I would say. Political interest is above everything else, even in the NJC. The influence can go through in so many ways.
So, you think the NJC and maybe even the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is not immune to political interest or influence?
I was telling you my own side of the story and they have their own side of the story. If you ask them the same question, they will give you a different answer. If you ask me the same question, I will give you a different answer. For the same questions, you will get two answers.
The late Gen. Sani Abacha’s government, which preceded Obasanjo’s, had that same report for years but never made it public nor implemented its recommendations. Why do you think that happened?
I wouldn’t know. I was in the judiciary and he was in the executive. I wouldn’t know. Before the report was written, whenever we were asked questions and we gave answers, they always gave us feedback. Even though the report was not made public then, we knew what was in the report.
What impact do you think your removal had on the independence of the judiciary, in Abuja and possibly nationwide?
Well, as far as I was concerned, I was setting up a new court. By that time, I had served 19 years, 8 months. Only 4 months was left for me to complete 20 years in service. To me, it was part of the duty. But others who were looking towards my leadership for their personal and professional inspiration felt disappointed. Quite a number of detractors were happy, of course. But now, over a period of time, things have changed completely.
What kind of impact do you think your removal had on the psyche of judges, especially in resisting pressures from political office holders like governors or the president?
I think this question would have been relevant way back then but as I see things now and on the pages of newspapers, things are quite different now. I think judges are more independent. I would like to think so because they are well paid. They don’t need your penny. Their money is enough for them.
Leading to the recent 2015 general elections, a number of people saw similarities between unfolding events and June 12. In both cases, signs were that political power would move from one region of the country and the sitting government was seen as resisting that possibility. Like June 12, court cases had even been brought against the candidacy of MuhammaduBuhari, seeking to stop him from contesting the election. Did you notice these similarities?
There was nothing like a political matter for me when I was Chief Judge. I was only concerned with cases before the courts. Politically, I would say that the North and the West compete more for political power at the national level but it is not really a rivalry. Abacha who head of state when the report that indicted me was written and when I retired it was Obasanjo who was president. But now, it is Buhari and Osinbajo. All the rivalry has disappeared. That is how I see it.
The context in which I am speaking is how a sitting government did not really want the election and there were people obviously sponsored to take cases to court, trying to stop the elections. Did you notice these similarities between what happened then with the June 12, 1993, elections and in 2015?
There wasn’t a single application before my court asking the court to dismiss the elections. There was nothing of the sort.
Before the 2015 election, the Chief Justice of Nigeria even had to warn judges not to scuttle the general election. This made some judges reluctant to make pronouncements on cases before them. To avoid a similar scenario, do you think it would be a good idea to set up tribunals to handle cases filed before elections are held?
That would be a good idea. I would support that. Even in normal cases, if you make a normal application, it would be entertained. You really don’t need a special court for these purposes. But whether it is a special court or not, a court is a court. That is how I see it. But I see the point; all the cases would come to one court rather than the same manner of cases in different courts.
Because of election tribunals, judges are now more exposed to politicians and there are frequent allegations of financial inducements to determine election cases. How do you think this can be stopped?
There are so many ways relevant authorities in the judiciary itself can lend a hand in checkmating the misbehaviour of judicial officers. And the administration itself can play a role.
The Supreme Court apparently has a backlog of cases that go back as far as 10 years. Do you think the Supreme Court needs to be expanded or have more divisions created?
As far as I am concerned, the Supreme Court is doing fine. The backlog of cases is not necessarily a problem of the judges. Maybe it is the problem of the prosecutors who are prosecuting the case. As far as I am concerned, these judges are doing fine.
What about giving each state its own Supreme Court and in effect limiting the number of cases that end up at the apex court. As it is, each state has a Chief Judge who, in reality, doesn’t have the final say because he is just a High Court judge. What is your opinion?
I see nothing wrong with the present system because when you expand the system and states have their own Supreme Courts, you are expanding for no reason. That is how I see it. Already, for every two or three states, there is a Court of Appeal. From there you go to the Supreme Court.
If constitutional changes were made to implement true federalism, do you think the present judicial structures can still function?
The constitutional changes have not yet happened to make the question to be answered. If each state is going to have its own penal system, police system and all the rest, then it will no longer be necessary to have a common judiciary. Then you’ll probably need to do something about the judiciary.