By EGUFE YAFUGBORHI, Port Harcourt
As the infighting in the Rivers State ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, lingers by the day, every action and inaction of one faction somewhat aggravate the situation. Penultimate week, it was the appointment of an Acting Chief Judge of the State that provoked a new war of words between both sides.
Indication that Governor Rotimi Amaechi’s appointment of an Acting CJ two weeks ago was going to create a fresh controversy emerged the day before when the Governor and his allies were conspicuously absent at the valedictory session in honour of immediate past CJ, Justice Iche Ndu as he retired from the office.
While Amaechi and key functionaries of his administration stayed away from Ndu’s retirement ceremony, Myefon Wike made a robust showing at the event with the State PDP Chairman, Felix Obuah in a guests list that also included current President of the Nigerian Bar Association NBA, Okey Wali SAN.
The next day however, the Governor waspresent at the swearing in ofthe Acting CJ following the vacancy created. In a brief event early in the day, Amaechi swore in Justice P.C.N Agumagu who was the President of the Rivers State Customary Court of Appeal before the latest appointment.
In spontaneous reaction, the Grassroots Development Initiative, GDI, a group championing Wike’ s political course picked holes in Amaechi’ s choice of Agumagu. In a press briefing in Port Harcourt, President General of GDI, Bright Amaewule noted that where a vacancy occurs in the office of the Chief Judge, Section 271(4) of the 1999 Constitution provides that until a substantive appointment is made, the most Senior Judge of the High Court assumes the position.
He said, ” Now, Amaechi and Worgu Boms (Rivers Attorney General) in clear violation of the provisions refused to swear in Justice Daisy Okocha who is the most Senior Judge of the High Court of Rivers in an acting capacity until the niceties of appointing a substantive Chief Judge are fulfilled.
Hon. Justice Daisy Okocha happens to be the same Judge that both the Rivers State Judicial Service Commission and the National Judicial Commission recognized and recommended to Governor Amaechi for appointment as the new substantive Chief Judge.”
Stressing that Justice Agumagu is not qualified as appointed by the Governor pursuant to Section 271(4). Amaeawulethus advised Governor Amaechi to resign from office.To the new Acting Chief Judge, the GDI said, ” His Lordship knows that he is not a Judge of the High Court of Rivers State and anything he does or purports to do in the period of his usurpation are null and void. Please, do not further lend your name to this travesty”.
Harping on same section of the constitution, the leadership of Rivers PDP in a statement by Jerry Needam, Media Assistant to the State PDP Chairman, called on the national leadership of the party to expel Governor Amaechi.
Towing same line of resentment, the League of Rivers State Lawyers in Abuja also warned that, ” While we are still battling to restore the outsourced State House of Assembly, it is wrong for the Governor to open another battle with the judiciary. Judges have their rules about succession and the NJC is loudest voice. This is not new and many states of the federation have had to use the same uniform rules in choosing a succeeding Chief Judge”.
However,while those opposed to the appointment fumed, Rivers State branches of the NBA and the state’ s Body of Senior Advocate of Nigeria paid solidarity visits to the Acting CJ at the Judiciary Complex, assuring him of full backing.
Chairman of the Port Harcourt NBA Lawrence Oko-Jaja, who spoke on behalf of the visiting Rivers branches said, “Once the head of the judiciary is appointed, the Bar must pay courtesy call on the person.The judges were here yesterday to congratulate him. Who are the NBA to do otherwise. I think he deserve the appointment”.
Head of the Port Harcourt NBA Human Rights Committee Austine Ojekudo , branded those criticising Agumagu as not knowing the law. saying “ The law recognises that the President of the Customary Court of Appeal at anytime shall rank next to the CJ. In order of precedence he shall rank the highest to the other judges both in the Customary Court of Appeal and in the High Court, so the appointment of my Lord is in order”. Granville Isetima Abibo (SAN) who led the senior advocates said they were very happy to associate themselves withthe Acting Chief Judge, stressing that Agumagu s contribution in establishing the Customary Court made him the most interesting person to work with.
In his response, Agumagu said, “I can perform with confidence because your visit has shown me the Bar is solidly behind me. With the confidence, I can face all odds that may come my way. The little I can afford to do within my short time, I will do”.
Following reports of lawyers visits to the Acting CJ, former National President of the NBA, O.C.J. Okocha SAN , denounced the statements credited to Granville Abibo claiming support of the Port Harcourt Body of Senior Advocate of Nigeria for the appointment of Agumagu.
Appointment of Agumagu
Okocha said, “ While the said appointment of Agumagu is under the purview of the NJC, it is important for me as Chairman of the Port Harcourt Body of SANs to state that we did not pay any courtesy call, and neither did we issue any statement that it supports the appointment.
The Port Harcourt Body of Senior Advocates has a membership of nearly 20 and none of them except Granville Abibo was present at the said courtesy call. Abibo is the most junior of the SANs in Port Harcourt. He does not have and has never had any authority to speak for the body and ought to be aware of that incontrovertible fact”.
The State Attorney-General, Worgu Boms, in defence of Amaechi’ s choice of Acting CJ said “ Agumagu is the oldest Judge (in terms of service) now in Rivers State. There is no judge older on appointment. Agumagu was appointed a High Court Judge, was never appointed a Customary Court Judge. I sit as member of the state Judicial Service Commission. Papers there reveal that he was seconded to go and establish the Customary Court of Appeal. I have heard all sorts of comments on this appointment and they are mostly misleading, with no foundation in law. Nobody should drag the judiciary into politics.”
Human Rights lawyer, Ken Atsuwete in a different perspective said other states before now have also appointed Senior Judges outside the High Court as Chief Judge, citing a case of Governor Rauf Aregbesola’s appointment of a Chief Judge in Osun last year.
Taking exception to Atsuwete s argument, Livingstone Wechie, Spokesman for the Civil Liberties organisation (CLO) in Rivers state said ” There was obvious error in the Osun instance, because it was unquestioned, can never substantiate the conflict of Agumagu s appointment with the law”.
With the prevailing scenario, the Judiciary seems to have been plunged into crisis. The inherent danger is that the people s quest for justice and reliance on the institution as last hope of the common man is being threatened.
Wechie added that “the right thing to do is for Governor Amaechi to shun sentiments and do what is proper as the Justice Agumagu will remain unpopular just as his appointment is unpopular”.