BY JIMITOTA ONOYUME
PORT HARCOURT: It is one month now the Rivers State Judiciary complex has been under lock and key due to the strike embarked upon by the state chapter of Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN.
State Chairman of JUSUN, Comrade George Sokari who announced the decision of the union to proceed on an indefinite strike on June 10 last month hinged their action on threat to lives around and within courts premises in the state.
He cited the blast at the state High court in Ahoada on June 9, four months after a similar incident on the same court and the one at Etche where valuables belonging to the courts were damaged as evidence for their action. Unknown assailants had hurled explosives into the court premises in the early hours of the day. Though no life was reportedly lost but the incidents sent warning signals to Judiciary staff in the state that all was not well.
“Ït is the security challenge that prompted the strike action. We cannot tell where the next bomb attack will be as nobody can guarantee security in our working environment”, he had said while declaring the strike.
“We must be alive to protect our various interests. Ahoada court has been bombed two times. That of Okehi in Etche L.G.A. has also been attacked. We must curtail these excesses of hoodlums in our courts. Our working environment, which is the court premises, is boiling”, he continued.
Meantime, JUSUN declared its indefinte strike barely 48 hours after the National Judicial Council, NJC appointed Justice Daisy Okocha an Administrative Chief Judge of the state. The timing of the strike action has led many to link it with the crisis of succession rocking the state Judiciary.
The NJC had ordered the most senoir Judge in the state High court, apparently refering to Justice Okocha to assume responsibility of assigning cases to Judges and discharging other related functions. The most senoir Judge in the Customary court was also asked by the NJC to perform similar functions in the Customary court.
The Rivers State Judicial Service Commission reacted to the directive by the NJC in a circular signed by its Secretary, K.B. Gaage directing Judicial staff in the employment of the state to ignore official instructions from the Administrative Chief Judge appointed by the NJC. Chairman of JUSUN, Mr Sokari who revealed the content of the circular to newsmen a day before he announced the decision of his union to proceed on an indefinte strike said they were in a delima because of the conflicting developments in the Judiciary.
The crisis in the Judiciary deepened again when pro governor Chibuike Amaechi lawmakers in the state House of Assembly had an emergency public hearing on June 12 to amend Section 40 of the Principal law of 2001 enacted by the 5th Assembly. The House passed the amendment barely two hours after the Public hearing and it was signed into law same day by Governor Amaechi.
According to the state High court amendment law 2014, the Chief Registrar is to perform the functions of the Chief Judge of the state in the absence of a substantive Chief Judge or acting Chief Judge in the state. The amendement reads : “Where the office of the Chief Judge is vacant and it is impracticable to appoint an acting Chief Judge, or a Chief Judge, the Chief Registrar shall assign cases to any judge and perform other administrative duties until an acting Chief Judge or a Chief Judge is appointed”.
There were also street protests in support and against the appointmemt of Justice Okocha as Administrative Chief Judge of the state. Senator Magnus Abe, Hon Dakoku Peterside of the Federal House of Representatives were among key loyalists of governor Amaechi who stormed the streets in Port Harcourt on June 12 to denounce the appointmemt of Justice Okocha as Administrative Chief Judge.
On its part, leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party also took to the streets the following day being July 13 to reject amendement to the 2001 Rivers State High court law which empowers the Chief Registrar to take over the functions of a Chief Judge in the absence of one.
The Rivers State chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association seemed divided over the crisis. Though Chairman of the Port Harcourt branch of the body, Mr Dennis Okwakpan said they would challenge the amendement of the state High court law by the state House of Assembly in court when the strike is called off but some members of the body said they were not bothered by the action of the pro Amaechi lawmakers, which is a show that there exist a crack in the body.
The Port Harcourt Chairman of the body, Bar Okwakpan said the body would explore all means to ensure peace returned to the Judiciary.
Sunday Vanguard gathered that litigants and inmates were the worst affected by the crisis in the Judiciary as their matters had remained pending in the various courts within the jurisdiction of the state.
A source said the already overstretched facilities of the various prisons in the state were at breaking points with the high number of inmates. The annual state pardon granted prisoners by the Chief Judge had not been done in the state for sometime now because of the crisis.