The power play involving Rivers state’s Governor Rotimi Amaechi and the Presidency is taking a heavy toll on the state’s judiciary. As it is, Rivers does not have a substantive Chief Judge since the retirement of Justice Iche Ndu in August 2013. This is because the governor and the National Judicial Council (NJC), constitutionally empowered to recommend a replacement for a retiring state chief justice, did not agree on a candidate for the position. While the NJC’s choice was Justice Daisy Okocha, Gov. Amaechi preferred the president of the state Customary Court of Appeal, Justice Peter Agumagu.
In response, the NJC promptly queried and subsequently suspended Justice Agumagu for accepting a position that he did not merit as he was considered junior to Justice Okocha in rank. She was the candidate retired CJ Ndu had in mind to succeed him. The state government reacted by instructing all staff of the state judiciary not to deal with Okocha. Both parties then decided to head for the courts where the matter is still undecided.
Meanwhile, on June 11, a splintered state House of Assembly, dominated by Amaechi loyalists, pushed through an amendment to the state’s High Court Principal Law 2001 that made it possible for the state’s Chief Registrar to perform the duties of Chief Judge in the absence of one. Tagged “Rivers State High Court (Amendment) Law 2014”, the piece of legislation amended Section 40 of the Principal Law of 2001, passed by the fifth Legislative Assembly. The amendment (sub-section 2) says, “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 is appointed”.
The amendment was passed by a unanimous vote. According to Golden Chioma, chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, it was to avoid any vacancy in the judiciary by removing “some lacuna” in the Principal Law 2001. However, the truth is that Gov. Amaechi used a pliant legislature to try to walk his way round a constitutional impediment that prevented him from installing his man as chief judge. His calculation must have been that with a loyalist as CJ, opposition lawmakers who, since last year, have been working at impeaching him would not succeed in their plot.
It is unfortunate that the judiciary, which is supposed to be independent of the executive, has been caught up in the political skullduggery in Rivers state. It is all because of one man’s unnecessary muscle-flexing with a much more powerful central government. It all began after Amaechi became the Chairman, Nigerian Governors Forum, a position he wanted to use to break the stranglehold the federal government has on the governors in the area of oil revenue sharing. That power struggle led to the NGF breaking up at a conference in May, 2013 in Abuja, called to endorse Amaechi for a second term.
It is not for the fun of it that the Constitution makes the appointment of a state chief judge a joint responsibility of the NJC and the governor. It is to avoid the kind of power drunkenness we see in Rivers today. The checks and balances contained in that constitutional provision are meant to stop either party from having too much power in making appointments as critical to the rule of law and proper functioning of democratic governance as that of a state CJ.
We appeal to both the governor and NJC to resolve their disagreement over the appointment of Rivers CJ so that the judiciary can start functioning again. As it is, cases are piling up in courts, leading to denial of justice to people who need it.