Peterclaver Egbochue examines the stalemate in Rivers State Judiciary and the filling-the-gap measure undertaken by the Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke
There is no doubt that the judicial arm of government in Rivers State has become a victim of intense power play between the state governor, Chibuike Amaechi and the National Judicial Council over who should be appointed the state’s Chief judge. This has denied the state of the office of a substantive Chief Judge and the President of the Customary Court of Appeal in the state. Today, there is no CJ in Rivers State to swearin the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governor- elect, Barr. Nyesom Wike, on May 29.
It is perhaps, against this backdrop that the Attorney General for the Federal and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, directed the Bayelsa State Chief Judge, Justice Kate Abiri, to perform the solemn function. Adoke, in a statement on Tuesday lamented the situation in the state, which have made strict compliance with the provisions of Section 185(1-2) of the 1999 Constitution, impossible.
“It will be recalled that Chief Barr. Nyesom Wike, CON was declared the Governor-Elect of Rivers State following the gubernatorial and houses of assembly elections conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on 11th April 2015. “It is therefore expected that he will be sworn into Office on 29th May 2015 in accordance with the provisions of section 185(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999,” he noted.
In order to avert a likely constitutional crisis in the state, Mr. Adoke further stated, “I have requested the Chief Judge of Bayelsa State to administer the oath of allegiance and oath of office on the governor-elect of Rivers State in accordance with section 185(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.”
The constitution provides that the “oath of allegiance and the oath of office shall be administered by the Chief Judge of the state or Grand Khadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the state, if any, or President of the Customary Court of Appeal of the state, if any, or the person for the time being respectively appointed to exercise the functions of any of those offices in any state.” He also noted that the invitation of the Bayelsa State chief judge to administer the oath of allegiance and oath of office on Mr.
Wike on May 29 is in accordance with the 1999 Constitution and should be respected by all. Reacting to Adoke’s statement, Lagos lawyer, Festus Keyamo, said the Attorney General of the Federation, was right in directing Abiri, to administer the oath of office to Wike. Making reference to Section 185(2) of the 1999 Constitution, Mr. Keyamo said Mr. Adoke was right on the side of law in giving the directive. Mr. Keyamo said, “A close look at Section 185(2) as analysed above will clearly show that whilst the drafters of the Constitution were very particular in using the phrase “the State” in reference to those officers who should administer the oaths, the last part of the section which allows other persons to perform the function (apart from those stated officers) uses the phrase “in any State”.
“In other words, in the absence of those stated officers to administer the oaths in “the State” in question, the corresponding officers “in any State” of the federation performing the same functions can also administer the oaths”. Mr. Keyamo, who is a member of the All Progressives Congress, the party defeated in the gubernatorial election in Rivers State, said he supports the stand of the AGF without political prejudice, adding that the absence of a Chief Judge at a merely ceremonial event should not stop the declared winner of an election from assuming office.
“In any event, putting politics and sentiments aside, it is inconceivable to think that the assumption of office of a public officer who has been declared winner of an election can be scuttled merely because of the absence of someone who should perform a purely ceremonial duty, when the absence of such a person is no fault of the public officer,” he submitted. He added that a dangerous precedence might be created that might lead to the kidnap of Chief Judges, Grand Kadis and other people designated to administer the oath of office if Mr. Wike is not sworn in as a result of the vacuum in River State. It would be recalled that the Rivers State judiciary has been engulfed in protracted crisis of interest, which stalled the appointment of a new chief judge for the state after Justice Iche Ndu, retired in August 2013.
Following Mr. Ndu retirement, Governor, Amaechi and the National Judicial Council, (NJC), have been locked in a disagreement over who should step into his shoes. Making recourse to Section 271 (4) of the 1999 Constitution, Amaechi had forwarded the name of the former President of the Customary Court of Appeal, Justice Peter Agumagu, to the NJC for recommendation but the council refused to confirm his appointment and instead preferred Justice Daisy Okocha for the job. The governor, however, insisted on his choice on the ground that Mr. Agumagu is the most Senior High Court judge in the state.
While the controversy was raging, the National Judicial Council sent Mrs. Okocha’s name for confirmation to the National Assembly, which had at the time taken over the functions of the Rivers State House of Assembly. Not confortable with the development, Amaechi dragged the council to the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt for the interpretation of Section 271 (3-5) of the constitution as regards the appointment of chief judge of the state. On March 18, 2014, Justice Lambo Akanbi, delivered judgment, which showed that the NJC erred by recommending Mrs. Okocha for appointment to replace Justice Ndu. Mr. Akanbi ruled that the NJC’s argument that Mrs. Okocha is the oldest judge of the Rivers State High Court and more qualified to be Chief judge of the state because Mr. Agumagu belonged to a different arm of the judiciary, was wrong. Based on the ruling of the court, the state house of assembly sat at Old Executive Council Chambers of Government House for the screening and confirmation of Mr. Agumagu as the substantive Chief judge of the state. The state governor in a move that angered the former Chief Justice of Nigeria and then NJC Chair, Justice Mariam Aloma Muktar immediately swore in Mr. Agumagu.
The CJN immediately suspended Mr. Agumagu from parading himself or acting in the capacity of Chief judge of Rivers State. Meanwhile, the Speaker of Ekiti State House of Assembly, Hon. Dele Olugbemi, has condemned the absence of the CJ in Rivers state occasioned by the face off between Amaechi and the NJC. In a statement personally signed by himself and made available to newsmen, the Speaker regretted that the Lagos press has failed to rise to the occasion to condemn the development.
The statement read in part, “For almost a year now, the judiciary arm of government in Rivers State has been paralysed because of the political rascality and lawlessness of the APC-led administration in that state. “The situation is particularly worrisome because dispensation of justice has been subverted and the masses have no access to the court, which has been under lock and key in a democratic government! In Rivers State, criminality is the order of the day because there is no court to administer justice. “The most disturbing phenomenon is that the Lagos-Ibadan axis press have kept mum simply because APC state is involved.
It is common knowledge that the press in that axis find it convenient to compromise and connive at the illegality in APC states while they shout to a crescendo if PDP state is involved. What a balance reporting! “The Lagos-Ibadan press has been vociferous and critical about the political situation in Ekiti State. The newspapers have been awashed with screaming headlines and editorial opinions portraying the state in bad light. Ekiti State being a PDP state has attracted damaging criticism from that section of the press to satisfy their paymaster. “The minor issue in the state legislature is over dramatized. The ill-fated motivated impeachment plot of the APC lawmakers against Governor Fayose has enjoyed the tacit support and approval of that section of the press through their manner of reportage.
“My clarion calls on APC and their cohorts masquerading in whatever guise is to be more concerned with the situation in Rivers State. The party should beam its searchlight on the horrendous spectacle in the State Judiciary and its crippling effects on the common masses rather than firing arsenal on Ekiti State. “Ekiti is enjoying peace and stability under the purposeful leadership of Governor Ayo Fayose. The state legislature is on course having robust engagement with the executive. Governor Amaechi’s tyranny on the Judiciary in Rivers State should be more worrisome to all lovers of democracy. His party; the APC, should call him to order.
“The APC should be more concerned with the log in its eyes that the specs in another man’s eyes. The party should leave Ekiti State alone and reserve its energy for 2018 election. Those who seek power by riding the back of the tiger, end up shamefully inside. A word is enough for the wise.” From the look of things, the end of the current stalemate in Rivers state is not in sight and the justice is denied the people of the state. Who will rescue the people seems to be the question in the lips of many.