The attention of the Rivers State Government has been drawn to a statement by the spokesperson of the National Judicial Council, NJC, Mr. Soji Oye, announcing the purported suspension of the recently appointed Chief Judge of Rivers State, HONOURABLE Justice P.N.C Agumagu by the NJC.
The State government also notes further, the unprecedented but unlawful threat by the NJC, to dismiss a sitting Chief Judge of a State as contained in the said statement – against the clear provisions of the Nigerian Constitution and the established tenets of federalism.
The Rivers State government wishes to state its utter dismay at the position of the NJC especially as its immediate effects are to undermine the tenets and processes of justice delivery in Nigeria, the hard-earned reputation of a very fine judge, and the integrity of the Nigerian judiciary while eroding the Olympian stature of the NJC.
The NJC in its decision appears not to have taken into consideration the judgment delivered by the Honourable Justice Lambo Akanbi of the Federal High court, Port Harcourt.
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 courts to seek interpretation of Section 271 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as regards the appointment of a chief judge of th 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 ten 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.
Justice Agumagu is the most senior judge in the Rivers State judiciary today. His very sterling record and leadership abilities was 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 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 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 ten years.” Honourable Justice P.N.C Agumagu surpasses that constitutional benchmark by far.
Nigerians are invited to note that Honourable Justice P.N.C Agumagu’s appointment followed substantially the clear provisions of the Nigerian Constitution. 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 National Judicial Council 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, the Justice Sotonye Denton-West and Justice A.C. Woryi were both Justice Ndu’s senior. Justice Denton-West 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.
Such insistence may appear to mark the NJC out as clearly partisan and invariably as a party to the case. Since the NJC has shown such personal interest, in this matter, it raises the fundamental question of how justifiable it is to for NJC to interpose itself in a case in which it clearly has more than a passing interest. Certainly in the light of applicable principles of administrative law it would seem that the body may have to take its hands off adjudicating on the matter of the Rivers State Chief Judge or better still seek redress in the courts.
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.
The attitude of the body has laid credence to the fears of the Rivers State Government that the body has been influenced by one of its members, O.C.J Okocha (SAN) who has filial ties with the NJC’s preferred candidate, Justice Daisy Okocha. The impression is that the NJC in using its “old boys network” could not be bothered about the propriety or constitutionality of usurping the role of the Governor of Rivers state in the appointment of a chief judge for the state.
The Rivers State Government wishes to reiterate its respect and admiration for the judiciary and the NJC but will respectfully request the NJC not to allow itself to become a tool in the hands of those who want to push merit to the back burner while exalting nepotism and sectional interest. The Rivers state government will urge the NJC to protect the sanctity of the Courts by prosecuting the appeal which is already before the Court of Appeal and indeed respect the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which it has a responsibility to uphold in the interest of justice, fair play and fair mindedness.
Ibim Semenitari is the Commissioner of Information and Communications, Rivers State.