Peterclaver Egbochue writes on the resumption of judicial proceedings in Rivers State following the appointment of Justice Daisy Okocha, as the Chief Justice of the state.
The wheel of judicial proceedings in Rivers State appears to have been oiled to start functioning once again. Lawyers in the state can now dust their files in readiness for their clients whose cases had been suspended for over seven months now. No thanks to the face-off between the immediate past governor of the state, Chibuike Amaechi, and the National Judicial Council (NJC) resulting in an imbroglio. In keeping with his electoral promise to resolve the stalemate, the newly inaugurated Governor of the state, Mr. Nyesom Wike, has appointed Justice Daisy Okocha, as the Chief Judge of the state.
Wike, who is also a lawyer, in a brief swearing -in ceremony of the new Chief Judge blamed the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), of not doing enough to kick against the illegalities of the immediate past administration for the prolonged vacuum in the state judiciary. He also promised to grant financial autonomy to the state judiciary and allow it to perform its role to dispense justice fairly without interference. The Governor particularly berated the Port Harcourt branch of NBA for announcing just a few days to the end of Amaechi’s administration, the suspension of Mr. Wogu Boms, the immediate past Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice whose actions the body alleged fuelled the prolonged crisis in the judiciary.
He said the suspension slammed on Boms, who was once the Chairman of the Port Harcourt branch of NBA was too patronising and little too late. Wike, while speaking on Monday during the wearing-in ceremony further noted that the independence of the Judiciary was necessary for the smooth running of government in the state. He, however, expressed his disappointment with the attitude of the Bench during the crisis in the state, saying that they were divided when they were supposed to be united to fight the destruction of the judiciary. “As a lawyer, I am highly disappointed by the action of the NBA.
Something that you know is wrong, but everyone kept quiet. The actions that the NBA is taking now are belated. Suspending the former Attorney General is coming late in the day. They failed to speak up when everything was going wrong. We got to that level of decadence because NBA failed to act,” he enthused. The governor declared that he would always follow due process in appointing judicial officers, stating that he would never make appointments on the premise of self-preservation. “If I believe in self preservation, I would have appointed my wife as acting Chief Judge and the second in line as the Acting President- Customary Court of Appeal. But I am a person who believes in due process.
All through my leadership, we will follow due process in all appointments and actions,” he said. Responding, Justice Okocha stated that there would be zero tolerance to corruption under her leadership. She commended the governor for working towards the financial autonomy of the judiciary, noting that she would ensure the revival of Rivers State. The National Judicial Commission (NJC), had recommended Justice Okocha for appointment as the Chief Judge of the state,as the most senior High Court Judge, but former Governor Amaechi preferred Justice Peter C N Agumagu, the President of the State Customary Court of Appeal who until his deployment to the Customary Court of Appeal was the most Senior judge.
It would be recalled that Governor Wike was sworn-in by the Bayelsa State Chief Judge, Justice Kate Abiri, as directed by the Attorney General of the Federal and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, to fill the gap created by the stalemate in Rivers State. Upon the retirement of Justice Iche Ndu, Governor, Amaechi and the National Judicial Council, (NJC), had 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 NJC immediately suspended Mr. Agumagu from parading himself or acting in the capacity of Chief judge of Rivers State.
While some other stakeholders on the other divide of the divide seemed to hail the pronouncement of NJC, the Rivers State government through its Commissioner for Information and Communications, Ibim Semenitari, warned of the impending scenario when Justice Agumagu was first suspended. Semenitari, had said through a press statement that the “The attention of the Rivers State Government has been drawn to a statement by the spokesperson of the National Judicial Council purporting to suspend the Rivers State Chief Judge, Justice P.N.C Agumagu, by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
“If this is true, then clearly, the NJC appears not to have taken into consideration the judgment delivered by Justice Lambo Akanbi, of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt in which it is a party. The state government finds this position of the NJC rather curious especially as Justice Agumagu is the most senior judge in the Rivers State judiciary and a very respected judicial officer.” With this development, it is believed that such stalemate would not occur again in the state and in deed in any other state in the country.