Mixed reactions trail NJC’s suspension of Rivers CJ
Reactions continue to trail the 10th emergency meeting of the National Judicial Council (NJC) which held in Abuja last week in its ongoing quest to cleanse the bench of bag eggs and draw a roadmap that would ensure sanity in the nation’s judiciary.
The Chief Judge of Rivers State, Justice Peter N. C. Agumagu, was suspended at the end of the council’s meeting on the ground that his appointment by the state governor was illegal and did not comply with the provisions of Section 271 of the 1999 Constitution, which stipulates that a state governor must appoint a Chief Judge on the recommendation of the NJC.
Some observers say that the latest action of the NJC might be another phase of the battle between President Goodluck Jonathan and the state governor, Rotimi Amaechi.
Others are of the opinion that the sledge hammer on Agumagu by the council was in no way different from the ones visited on his colleagues in recent times and cautioned that the NJC should be left alone to discharge its constitutional duty without being dragged into politics
A Federal High Court in Port Harcourt presided over by Justice Lambo Akanbi held, six hours after the swearing-in of Justice Agumagu, that the governor is indeed empowered to appoint the chief judge of the state and frowned at the attempt to sideline Justice Agumagu in the list of senior judges eligible for the position.
He held in his verdict that NJC recommendation - that Justice Daisy Okocha be appointed Chief Judge of Rivers State - was wrong on the ground that the council gave no reasons why it preferred him to Justice Peter Agumagu.
According to him, “the governor is not a rubber stamp governor. The role of NJC is advisory; the governor has the right to accept or not; he is not a rubber stamp governor.”
Akanbi further held that the Rivers State Judicial Council (RSJC) and NJC had the constitutional powers to advise the governor, but that the NJC was expected to collaborate with the Rivers council.
He held that RSJC was in a better position to advise NJC because it had the best knowledge of the candidates.
Akanbi said the defence’s argument that Agumagu was not in the High Court system had no strength in law.
He cited instances of states, including Oyo, where a Chief Judge was appointed from outside the High Court.
Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Ms. Ibim Semenitari, said the NJC’s decision on Agumagu is unprecedented, unlawful and contravenes the clear provisions of the Nigerian constitution and the established tenets of federalism.
According to her, Justice Agumagu’s appointment as Chief Judge of Rivers State fulfilled all the provisions as prescribed by the constitution.
She said the NJC failed to take into consideration the ruling delivered by Justice Lambo Akanbi of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt and the pending suit at the Court of Appeal seeking an interpretation of Section 271 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as regards the appointment of a chief judge of the state.
She said: “The state government finds this position of the NJC rather curious especially in view of the pendency of the res (subject matter) at the Court of Appeal. The Rivers State government had gone to the court to seek interpretation of Section 271 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as regards the appointment of a chief judge of the state. That section of the constitution clearly states that, “A person shall not be qualified to hold office of a Judge of a High Court of a State unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than 10 years.”
“To enable it act within the confines of the law the Rivers State government sought the court’s interpretation. The learned Justice Akanbi in delivering his judgment declared unconstitutional the deliberate omission of Justice Agumagu’s name by NJC on the ground that Justice Agumagu was a judge of the Rivers State Customary Court of Appeal.
She said Justice Agumagu is the most senior judge in the Rivers State Judiciary today. His sterling record and leadership abilities were the reason why he was seconded to the Rivers State Customary Court of Appeal in 2008 - as its president - to spearhead the establishment of that critical level of justice delivery in Rivers State at a very troubled time in the history of the state and indeed the Niger Delta region - due to violent militancy and criminality. His record in that responsibility speaks for itself and indeed qualifies him for any role in a judicial capacity at the state, national and international level.
“Clearly the appointment of Honourable Justice P.N.C Agumagu as the substantive Chief Judge of Rivers State satisfies every relevant standard of the Nigerian constitution. As the court has already held, it accords with the provisions of Section 271 (3-5) of the constitution to the effect that: “A person shall not be qualified to hold office of a Judge of a High Court of a State unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than 10 years.” Honourable Justice P.N.C Agumagu surpasses that constitutional benchmark by far.
“Contrary to insinuations contained in the purported statement of the NJC, the learned jurist did not violate any written or unwritten creed or code of his judicial calling or the provision of the constitution or any other law of the land. In accordance with the provisions of Part IIC, under Section 197 of the 1999 Constitution - his name was submitted by the Rivers State Judicial Service to the NJC for consideration as Chief Judge of Rivers State. Consequently, the governor duly received the recommendation of the NJC - which strangely omitted the name of Justice Agumagu.
“The Rivers State government is well aware that there is no constitutional provision compelling the governor to appoint a chief judge based on his or her seniority or even based on the arm of the judiciary to which such a person belongs. What the constitution requires is a minimum of 10 years post bar qualification. This is evidenced even by the appointment of the immediate past chief judge of the state, Justice Iche Ndu, who was appointed chief judge over his seniors at the bench. At the time of Justice Ndu’s appointment, Justice Sotonye Denton-West and Justice A.C. Woryi were both Justice Ndu’s seniors. Justice DentonWest was the most senior judge in the Rivers State judiciary then, yet the NJC did not compel the governor at the time to announce her as chief judge.
“The refusal of the NJC to abide by the recommendations of the Rivers State judicial council on the appointment of the state chief judge and its insistence on a particular candidate is a cause of worry for the Rivers State government.
“The Rivers State government finds the decision of the NJC to suspend Justice Agumagu without any fair hearing from Justice Agumagu and despite a decision of the Federal High Court, the pendency at the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt Division, the issue of who should be Chief Judge of Rivers State suggests highhandedness and intolerance that is unacceptable for a body charged with the responsibility of protecting the integrity of the judiciary.”
However, a Lagos based legal practitioner, Akinola Oloyede, is of the opinion that the NJC is doing a good job and should not be dragged into political mud.