The Tuesday’s inauguration of Justice Peter Agumagu as the Acting Chief Judge of Rivers State by Governor Rotimi Amaechi has sharply divided lawyers, with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Rivers chapter, calling for the governor’s expulsion from the ruling party.
A Port Harcourt-based lawyer, Ken Atsuwete, who is also a renowned human rights activist, insisted yesterday in the Rivers state capital that Amaechi, the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), was faultless in the CJ’s acting appointment, which he said must not be politicised.
The League of Rivers State Lawyers in Abuja, in an online statement yesterday, however, described Agumagu’s appointment as the acting CJ as a slap on the National Judicial Council (NJC), headed by the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), Justice Aloma Mukhtar.
Rivers PDP Chairman, Chief Felix Obuah, through his Special Adviser on Media, Jerry Needam, asked the national leadership of the ruling party to recognise Amaechi as the monumental danger to democracy and throw him out of the PDP, over Agumagu’s appointment.
The Rivers Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Worgu Boms, declared that the Rivers governor did not commit any legal blunder in appointing Agumagu as the acting CJ.
The Rivers PDP also alleged that the Rivers governor cared less about rules and regulations, due process and the rule of law, but more about his personal and political ego.
Obuah-led PDP said: “Governor Amaechi’s continued association in any manner howsoever with the PDP is an electoral liability to us in Rivers State in particular and the party at large, as his lawlessness continuously taints our great party.
“The NJC must have had genuine and cogent reasons for rejecting Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu’s bid to be Chief Judge of Rivers State.
“Section 271 (4) of the 1999 Constitution limits the position of the acting Chief Judge of Rivers State to the most senior Judge of the High Court of Rivers State, which Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu is not.
“We wish to inform the good people of Rivers State that the PDP has no hand in the perfidious appointment of Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu as the acting Chief Judge of Rivers State, in clear negation of the recommendation of the NJC and the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.
“We appeal to our national leadership that Governor Amaechi, whom we have since identified as a danger to democracy and the sustenance of the rule of law, must be expelled from the PDP forthwith. He is a net electoral liability.”
The Rivers State Government, through the Chief of Staff, Government House, Port Harcourt, Chief Tony Okocha, maintained that persons criticising Agumagu’s appointment were ignorant of the law.
Agumagu, until his inauguration, following Monday’s retirement of Justice Iche Ndu, after 35 years of meritorious service, was the President of Rivers State Customary Court of Appeal.
Atsuwete, who is also the Executive Director of the Human Rights Alliance, stated that the appointment of Agumagu as the acting CJ by Amaechi should not generate controversy.
The eminent lawyer (Atsuwete) said: “Appointments in the bar and the bench is procedural and the first point of procedure is seniority in the bar and the bench. Hence the popular use of the word ‘Senior’ in the legal profession. The implication is that a junior lawyer/judge cannot be appointed to lead or preside over a senior.
“It is a fact that Hon. Justice Peter Agumagu was called to the bar in 1975, while Hon. Justice Daisy Okocha (elder sister of a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, O.C.J. Okocha) was called to the bar in 1979. Clearly, Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu is senior to Hon. Justice D. Okocha with three years plus.
“It is also factual and we beg to be contradicted that Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu was duly appointed as a judge of the High Court of Rivers State in 1991 and he had successfully discharged the duties of a High Court Judge for well over twelve months, before Hon. Justice D. Okocha was appointed a judge of the same high court.
“Again, My Lord, the Honourable Acting Chief Judge, Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu, is the senior by one year as a judge of the same court. It is traditional and ethical that as the senior over Hon. Justice D. Okocha, Hon. Justice Agumagu holds the unquestionable status of senior over Justice D. Okocha in any appointment and indeed that of appointment as the Acting Chief Judge.
“It is on this basis of seniority that Hon. Justice Agumagu was merely seconded to the Customary Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt as President, with a mandate to set up and establish that court that never existed in Rivers state before 2010/2011.
“My Lord, the Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu has been the second in seniority to the former Chief Judge (Justice Iche Ndu), before and after he was appointed as President of the Customary Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt; this much was obvious in all public functions of the Rivers State Judiciary and indeed at the valedictory service and session conducted to honour the now retired Hon. Justice Iche Ndu on his retirement.
“At the august occasion (valedictory service), it was Hon. Justice Agumagu who took the address, as the most senior judge of the high court of Rivers State, as against all the other judges, including Hon. Justice D. Okocha, who is clearly junior to him as a judge of the same court.
“The appointment of Hon. Justice Agumagu as the President of the Customary Court of Appeal; a court of coordinate jurisdiction with the high court, did not nullify his status as a judge of the high court of Rivers State and this is why he still receives all his entitlements such as furniture allowance that is paid to all judges of the high court every four years till date.
“We are aware that the letter of appointment issued to My Lord, the Acting Chief Judge of Rivers State, Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu, has not been withdrawn and this has formed one of the basis upon which he was appointed as the acting chief judge and we cannot fault the governor on that.
“You cannot rule out the staff of the Rivers State High Court, that is the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (Rivers State). The popular position of the staff is that Hon. Justice P. N. C. Agumagu is the preferred Judge of the High Court of Rivers State to be appointed as the Acting Chief Judge of Rivers State.
“This preference also rubs off on the vast majority of practitioners, who know the position of seniority and would not want their noble ethical tradition to be violated and raped like it occurred in 2001, when Hon. Justice Ndu, who was junior to the likes of Hon. Justice Denton-West, was used to manipulate the tradition of seniority, when ex-Governor Peter Odili wrongly appointed Iche Ndu over his senior, Hon. Justice Denton-West.
“The wrongdoing eventually led to the elevation of Hon Justice Denton-West to the Court of Appeal, where she became a Justice of the Court of Appeal.”
The human rights lawyer also stated that Amaechi, acting on the apt advice of the Rivers attorney-general and commissioner for justice, did very well in helping to sustain the noble profession’s ethical tradition of seniority.
Atsuwete added that the Rivers governor “effectively” complied with Section 271 (4) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended.
Speaking in the same vein, the Rivers attorney-general, yesterday in Port Harcourt, maintained that Agumagu’s appointment as the acting CJ was in order.
He noted that Amaechi appointed Agumagu as the acting CJ, since he is the most senior judge in the River judiciary.
Boms said: “Governor Amaechi followed legal procedure in appointing Hon. Justice Agumagu as the Acting Chief Judge, to fill the vacuum that existed when the immediate past Chief Judge of the state, Hon. Justice Iche Ndu, retired.
“Justice PNC Agumagu, the Acting Chief Judge, is the oldest Judge (in terms of service) now in Rivers State. There is no judge older on appointment than he is and Justice Agumagu was appointed a High Court Judge, he was never appointed a Customary Court Judge. He was appointed a High Court Judge in 1991.
“I sit as a member of the state Judicial Service Commission, the papers there reveal that he was seconded to go and establish the Customary Court of Appeal and the law establishing the Customary Court of Appeal states clearly that the President of that court comes after the Chief Judge of the state.
“So, whichever way you are going to look at it, he (Justice Agumagu) is the oldest Judge now in our Judiciary. Hon. Justice Agumagu would remain as the state Acting Chief Judge, until the National Assembly, which has taken over the legislative functions of the Rivers State House of Assembly, concludes deliberations on the recommendation by the NJC, on who should be appointed as the state Chief Judge.
“He (Hon. Justice Agumagu) is not the Chief Judge of the state. He is the Acting Chief Judge of the State. We in government, having found that he is the oldest Judge in the state, appointed him as Acting Chief Judge and there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about it.
“You are aware that there was a recommendation by the NJC, as to who would be Chief Judge, the state government is processing that and we sent it to parliament, which is the next step. So, before that is done, we appointed the most senior judge as Acting Chief Judge.”
The attorney-general also admonished persons commenting on the issue, regardless of their political persuasions, to treat the judiciary with some respect, while urging politicians in Rivers state to keep the judiciary away from their politics and never to drag the judiciary into the political fight for power.
Boms added: “I have heard all sorts of comments on this appointment and they are mostly misleading, with no foundation in law. Some people just open their mouths to cast aspersions on the government, just for the sake of playing politics. Nobody should drag the judiciary into politics.”
The League of Rivers State Lawyers in Abuja, through its Chairman, Mr. Timi Briggs, however, disagreed with the Rivers attorney-general, while alleging that Amaechi’s inordinate ambition would destroy the judiciary, unless he was put under check.
The Abuja lawyers said: “We see politics and executive interference in this hurry by Governor Amaechi to overreach and ridicule the NJC.
“By hurriedly swearing-in a man, who the NJC had rejected as unfit for the job of a CJ, Amaechi has told the NJC to ‘go to hell.’
“We have nothing against Justice Agumagu, but as lawyers, there is the urgent need to insulate the judiciary from Governor Amaechi’s political manipulations and influences. If this is not done, the essence of the judicial arm of government in a democracy will be destroyed.
“Rivers State is passing through a trying time and every hand must be on deck to restore normalcy to the state. While we are still battling to restore the outsourced State House of Assembly, it is wrong for the Governor to open another stage of battle with the judiciary.
“Judges have their rules about succession and the NJC is loudest voice. This is not new and many states of the federation have had to use the same uniform rules in choosing a succeeding CJ.
“Even though Governor Amaechi prefers Agumagu to Okocha in appointing a CJ for the state, the decision of the NJC is almost sacrosanct and must be respected. This is the minimum that Governor Amaechi needs to do, to show that he is a democrat and has no ulterior motive.
“It is not proper for Justice Agumagu to hold the dual position of the President of the Customary Court of Appeal and Acting Chief Judge. This is wrong in law and practice.”
The league of Rivers state lawyers in Abuja also alleged Amaechi had never hidden his dislike for Justice Okocha, who, according to them, lawyers always describe as tough and straight, without bending the rules.
The Abuja lawyers added that although mistakes had been made, it would never be wrong for amends to be effected, while urging the NJC to save the judiciary from humiliation and executive recklessness.