Justice Katsina-Alu, the 11th Chief Justice of Nigeria is no more! He died Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Even as his family and friends mourn his departure, he stands before his maker to give an account of himself. Of this final judgment before his God, Justice Alu had all along been all too keenly aware; as it ordered his life as a foremost jurist. Every judgment he wrote and gave, and even every word he uttered (he was a man of very few words) were on the belief that he would also be judged by the Highest Court of Heaven. I believe he now rests from all strife and is indeed judged as innocent to receive the crown of glory he so labored for.
Lavishly handsome and elegant, jovial, sartorial, compassionate and firm, His Lordship Justice Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu CON, GCON, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, was a man of few words and few passions. He was passionate about his God, his country his profession and his family in this order. He was all too self-effacing and literally ran away from people who sought to honor him in or out of service career not from arrogance, nor hubris, but from a deeply imbued humility. He hated to draw attention to himself unduly for acts that he considered were merely an answer to God’s call of duty for humanity.
The 11th Chief Justice of Nigeria was sworn as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on November 25, 1998 and Chief Justice of Nigeria on December 30, 2009. He retired from this exalted position on August 26, 2011. No other Nigerian jurist has firmly put footprints in the sands of Nigeria’s emerging democracy as Justice Katsina-Alu. When the nation’s democracy was in grave danger and the nation’s Constitution was at risk, it was Justice Katsina-Alu’s inexhaustible wisdom that helped resolve issues. The Nigerian Weekly Law reports part 225 page 332 tell us vividly, how he resolved the constitutional thorny issue of the pre-conditions for the removal of the governor of a state under section188 of the 1999 constitution. His pronouncements ended the reckless impeachments of state governors by an overbearing and imperial presidency.
During the Atiku-Obasanjo feud, Justice Alu contributed to incisively interpret the constitution in the celebrated landmark case of the Attorney-General of the Federation verses Atiku Abubakar. The Supreme Court upheld that the president of the country automatically vacates the office by resignation from the political party on whose platform he/she was elected. This judgment brought a truce in Aso Rock as the feuding leaders came together and their party got re-elected.
The Law reports of the Supreme Court between 1999 and 2011 are full of courageous landmark decisions that upheld justice over political and material might. These decisions range from emphasis on unchallenged evidence, legal principles and distribution of an estate of interstate deceased person to political cases. The historical memory of the nation should always remember that Justice Alu was a courageous jurist of uncommon pedigree. Katsina-Alu was too aware of the duty of the Nigerian judiciary not to impede social justice and social transformation but lead the change process and be the true engine of societal transformation.
He was born on August 28, 1941 in Tivland and acquired the legendary courage of the Tiv and their indomitable spirit of freedom. He was bred and weaned by the very stringent Catholic Doctrine in his early education at St Anne’s Primary School, Tarungwa and St. Patrick’s Primary School, Taraku, before he went to Mount St. Michael’s Secondary School, Aliede; all in Benue state. It was under the Catholic upbringing that Aloysius Iyorgyer developed his strong personal morality and values as well as his personality. He acquired from these institutions, fairness, patience, humility, industry, and an analytical mind. Because of his height, athletic frame and love for discipline he enrolled in the Nigerian Armed forces at the same time as Nigeria’s President Buhari. But his love of freedom, independence, and justice did not allow him to accept his commission as a military officer. His destiny was elsewhere in the campuses of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, the Inns of Court School of Law, and the Gibson Weldon College of Law, University of London. He chose to pursue a legal profession where he hoped to establish a just order in society where all the people share a common humanity and stood before the law as equals as created by God.
As a fallible man Katsina-Alu was in the eye of the storm at the very end of his tenure in what has become known as the Katsina-Alu/Salami saga. This very private man became the subject of very vicious press attacks. He did not reply his attackers. He knew that what he stood for by asserting the supremacy of the Supreme Court as the pillar of the entire justice system would be contested by the larger society that wanted to penetrate the judiciary and rob it of decisional independence. In trying to assert the supremacy of the Supreme Court he stepped on powerful toes. His belief that the duties of the lower courts were to obey the upper courts and the Appeal court was to obey the Supreme Court was trenchantly challenged. He rode the storm, but regrettably had hurt the very institution he was dying to protect from partisanship even though he was vindicated as he retired at the end of his tenure as the 11th Chief Justice of the Federation.
Justice Katsina-Alu will be remembered as a rare gentleman and an uncommon jurist. This immense icon of the Nigerian Judiciary and foremost defender of Nigeria’s democracy will forever be remembered in the annals of our national history as the defender of democracy, the pillar of the rule of law, the sacred defender of the Nigerian Constitution and due process, and an excellent jurist with the best evidence based policy; avidly cultivated by a career of listening and analyzing.
Professor Hagher, a former Ambassador to Mexico, writes from Abuja