Mixed re­ac­tions trail NJC’s sus­pen­sion of Rivers CJ

Daily Trust - - FEATURE - From Mo­hammed Shosanya, La­gos

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.

Mariam Aloma Mukhtar, CJN

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