The reports of destructive incidents, widely viewed as premeditated, at two different High Courts in Rivers State have cast a cloud of uncertainty over the safety of the judiciary and key stakeholders.
On Monday 6th of January, The High Court in Ahoada was to hear the application by factional Speaker of Rivers State House of Assembly, Evans Bipi, seeking to vacate an interim order granted by the court presided over by Justice Charles Wali, restraining him ( Bipi) from parading himself as Speaker.
Parties to the case and their counsels including a number of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, had headed to the Ahoada East Local Government Headquarter, hoping to argue their positions and make progress on the matter. They were however surprised and disappointed when they arrived the court premises.
An explosion the night before, had rocked the court premises. No casualty was recorded, but the Secretariat of the Ahoada Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, precisely its canteen, was partially damaged. The panic which the unbelievable scene created was enough reason to shut down the courts and other businesses in the premises as police were drafted to investigate the incident.
At about the same time, a strange fire out break damaged another River State High Court at Okehi, Etche locality. The fire destroyed the judge’s office as documents and furniture were razed. Before both incidents, the official car park of Justice Wali had been vandalised a day after he issued the restraining order against Bipi.
Confirming the incidents, the State Police Public Relations Officer, Mr. Ahmad Muhammad, said of the Ahoada situation, “. Investigation has commenced with a view to apprehending the perpetrators. It was established that two Improvised Explosive Substances, IEDs, were thrown into the premises (Ahoada courts) from outside. The two were initiated, but one went off while the other failed to go off due to technical error”
The Police which is also already investigating the Okehi High Court fire are yet to establish any motive, but the public consensus is that it was a premeditated attack to intimidate the judiciary in the state.
As usual, warring factions in the lingering Rivers State political crisis have reduced the court attacks to trading of accusations and counter accusations. However for stakeholders of the judiciary and the worried public, the resort into attacks on courts is a dangerous trend for the state.
Rivers Stakeholders Worried:
Rivers Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Worgu Boms, in his reaction lamented that the actions were designed to instil fear in the judiciary. “This is worrisome. We need to remind the police that it is their duty to watch over Rivers State; the people and Government property ” he said.
Human rights lawyer, Higher King, said, “It is very sad and very unfortunate that the political brouhaha in the country has affected the judiciary to the extent that it is now gasping for breath.
“ Now I will be very careful to go to court to pursue clients’ cases or perform any other business as a lawyer. You can never tell what court a bomb would be planted. If stakeholders are afraid to go to court, there is loss of confidence in the functionality of judiciary. This trend of targeting courts is highly condemnable.”
Spokesperson for Rivers State chapter of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, Livingstone Wechie, said “The implication is that the lives of judicial officials are at risk. Anyone who can bomb a court can as well kill. If those who masterminded the destruction at the courts go scot-free, in the coming days, we are going to witness attacks on judges, counsels, and litigants.”
Harping on the destruction at Okehi, Wechie added that “you also realize that the various persons with cases in that court have had their documents destroyed in the fire. That is a big setback for the court processes on those cases knowing how tardy our court processes can be”.
NBA most disturbed:
Apparently not satisfied with government and police efforts in deterring the masterminds from continuing with the criminality, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, has tasked Federal Government to, within 30 days, thoroughly investigate the bombing and fire incidents at both Rivers court.
The NBA in a statement by its President, Mr Okey Wali,SAN urged the National Security Adviser and the Inspector general of Police, to fish out perpetrators of the dastardly act. According to the statement, “NBA Condemns these acts of brigandage and view them not only as sacrilegious, but also as a desecration of the temple of justice. On no account, will we ever, idly stand by and watch these acts of violence and impunity to our courts, which are tantamount to affront to the rule of law and threat to our democracy”.
The NBA stance was roundly supported by eminent lawyers including former NBA President, Olisa Agbakoba, law scholar, Itse Sagay as well as human rights lawyer, Mike Ozekhome, all senior advocates who unanimously condemned the situation in Rivers.
The NBA ,further stated that the situation“underscores the need for government to take the security of lives and property more seriously. The lackadaisical attitude accorded to the security of our courts nationwide, is now brought to the fore. The need to secure the premises of the hallowed courts of justice across the nation should be taken more seriously.”
The body called on the National Security Adviser and the Inspector General of Police to employ all security apparatus at their disposal, to unearth the culprits and bring them to Justice, adding “we will not and cannot, be satisfied with the usual mantra of, ‘the Police investigation is continuing.’ We demand an immediate and thorough investigation and expect a report, even if, interim, within 30 days of the date of the incidents. Attacks on our courts will not be swept under the carpet.”
Beyond the NBA demand, Wechie of the State CLO added, “We are calling on the security authorities to, beyond fishing out the perpetrators, beef up security around judicial institution as well as judges and other relevant stakeholders. The judiciary is at risk and to a large extent, the current situation in Rivers is fueled by refusal of the Rivers State Government to appoint the deserving persons as the next Chief Judge of the State.
Government posture and the position of the National Judicial Council NJC have left the state without CJ since November 20th 2013.The implication is that several High Courts in Port Harcourt cannot be assigned cases and the Attorney General and the Governor feel comfortable running to courts outside Port Harcourt to get contentious injunctions and orders. This is a big instigator of the current situation.