Rivers state Governor, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, and the National Judicial Council (NJC) are at daggers drawn over the former’s appointment of a substantive chief judge. Mr. P. N.C. Agumagu, a former president of the state’s customary court of appeal, was cleared by a divided House of Assembly and he took the oath of office on March 18, this year. However, the NJC challenged Ameachi’s decision nine days later, saying Agumagu’s appointment was in breach of Nigeria’s 1999 federal Constitution which recognizes it as the right legal body to recommend who to be appointed as a state’s chief judge. This power is located in Section 271 (3-5) of the Constitution which says the appointment of a state chief judge should be on “the recommendation of the National Judicial Council”. That did not happen in the case of Agumagu’s appointment, it said.
A statement by NJC’s acting Director of Information. Mr. Soji Oye, said, “The National Judicial Council did not at any time make any recommendation to the Governor of Rivers state that Justice P. N. C. Agumagu, President, Customary Court of Appeal, be appointed the substantive Chief Judge of Rivers State”, and, therefore, it would not recognize him as such.
“The general public and all concerned in the matter, particularly the governor of Rivers, the state Assembly and the judiciary, be notified and informed that the NJC will not deal with Agumagu as the chief judge of Rivers”, the statement added. The NJC went further by suspending Agumagu from office as a judicial officer. “In the meantime, Council in exercise of its powers under paragraph 21 (d) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution,has suspended Justice P. N. C. Agumagu from office as a judicial officer with immediate effect”, it added.
On its part, the Rivers government claims Agumagu’s appointment followed due process and that the NJC lacks the powers it claims in paragraph 21 (d) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution. A statement by the Commissioner for Information and Communication,Ibim Semenitari, accused the NJC of being “partisan, self-interested and self-serving”, a reference to the council’s refusal to put Agumagu on the list of judicial officers it recommended for appointment by the Rivers government as chief judge. The government challenged the omission in a federal high court in Port Harcourt which gave a decision in its favour. Apparently, the NJC does not recognize the customary court system as part and parcel of the judiciary as we have come to know, hence its failure to recommend the president of Rivers’ Customary Court of Appeal as one qualified to head the state’s judiciary as chief judge.
We, on our part, however, condemn this politicization of what is a straightforward case. Straightforward in the sense that if the Rivers government did not like the candidate recommended by the NJC, which indeed it didn’t, all it needed to do was appoint a chief judge in an acting capacity for three months, in the first instance, and renewable afterwards. That would have averted this senseless battle of wits. Governor Murtala Nyako of Adamawa state recently found himself in a similar position but he avoided a major confrontation with the NJC by appointing an acting chief judge whose appointment he kept renewing. In Amaechi’s case, we fear that he has crossed the border of decency in his political confrontation with the central government.