Rivers State, NJC: Time to End the Feud

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The long drawn out feud between Rivers State Government and the National Judicial Council (NJC) is steadily threatening the foundation of our judiciary. It has escalated to the point where the State’s judiciary has ground to a complete halt as its judicial workers embarked on an indefinite strike last week. The time has come for the NBA and members of the legal profession to rise and confront this problem head on before it degenerates further.  Numerous articles and advertorials have appeared in the newspapers both for and against, all on this controversy. Sadly, one thing I know for a fact is that the helpless lawyers, litigants and judicial officers in Rivers are the ones who will suffer and the knock on effect will be tremendous.

I went online to check out the NJC’s website and right there on the home page on ‘About the Council’ it is stated that ‘The National Judicial Council is one of the Federal Executive Bodies created by virtue of Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In order to insulate the Judiciary from the whims and caprices of the Executive; hence guarantee the independence of this Arm of Government, which is a ‘sine qua non’ for any democratic Government, the National Judicial Council was created and vested with enormous powers and functions.’

Further, the Constitution states that ‘the NJC has the power to recommend to the Governors from among the list of persons submitted to it by the State Judicial Service Commissions persons for appointment to the offices of the Chief Judge of the States and Judges of the High Court of the States, the Grand Kadis and Kadis of the Sharia Courts of Appeal of the States.’ The Chief Justice of Nigeria is the Chairman of the NJC.

In July 2013 the NJC nominated Justice Daisy Okocha being the most senior judge from the River State High Court as Chief Judge but Governor Amaechi had his preferred candidate and rejected the NJC’s recommendation. Instead he appointed Justice Peter Agumagu, himself a senior judge in the State and also the President of the State Customary Court of Appeal, as the acting Chief Judge for a three month stint. This single act in defiance of the NJC has triggered a series of counter actions from both the NJC and State government culminating in the near standstill of the Rivers state judiciary.

The action taken by both parties has led to one court action after another. The State Government and the State Judicial Service Commission sued the NJC before Justice Lambo Akanbi whilst Justice Agumagu sued the NJC in the Federal High Court in Abuja. The NJC and Justice Okocha have now separately filed notices of appeal against the judgment of Justice Akanbi.

The court in arriving at its decision held that the State Governor could not be compelled to accept the NJC’s recommendation. With the court verdict in arm the State Government promptly confirmed Justice Peter Agumagu as the Chief Judge of the State. The NJC in turn suspended Justice Agumagu with immediate effect and with a query for submitting himself to be sworn in as the Chief Judge of Rivers State when he had not been so recommended by the NJC. Justice Okocha meanwhile was appointed the Administrative Judge by the NJC to alleviate the hardship faced by litigants and to ensure the continued administration of justice in the State.

The State Government reacted negatively to this appointment by warning that it would take disciplinary action against any judicial officer in the State who recognised or worked with Justice Okocha as Administrative or Chief Judge of the State. On 5th June 2014 payment of salaries of the judiciary workers was stopped until further notice. To further challenge the directives of the NJC the State Government signed into law the Rivers State High Court (Amendment) Law 2014. The amended section 40 states. “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 or a Chief Judge is appointed.”

Controversies regarding nomination of Chief Judges have occurred before as in 2012 when Governors Rauf Aregbesola (Osun), Abdufatah Ahmed (Kwara) and Murtala Nyako (Adamawa) had issues with the NJC concerning the governors’ own preferred choice of nominee as Chief Judge of their respective states.

It would be noted that the 1999 Constitution does not at any juncture recognise hierarchical succession to the position of Chief Judge. The constitution only mandates the state governor to appoint a person with minimum 10 years post call experience who must be a member of the Nigerian Bar Association or the Bench.

The law as it is on the appointment of a Chief Judge has been set out to create checks and balances but this process has been defeated as it can be interpreted in more ways than one.

Notwithstanding this, it is about time the law on the appointment of a Chief Judge of a State is constitutionally amended as it will most likely rear its head again soon in other states. The law as it stands has been too imprecisely drafted.

The NJC however has its own criteria for its recommendation which is that the most senior judge is put forward while the Governor on the other hand does not have to accept the recommendation of the NJC. Every arm of government plays a crucial role in the appointment of a Chief Judge of a state, particularly the NJC and when nominations are sent to the NJC, they as a body will surely know first-hand a lot more about the judge and his/her capacity as a judge, much more so than the Governor, as the nominee is first and foremost a judge.

On the issue of seniority of a judicial officer, this is important especially with regards to administration as being the longest officer on the bench; experience will be a key guiding factor. Essentially, being the first among equals by seniority must stand for something.

Some have questioned the process of sending two or three names and believe it should be discontinued. It is in the interest of all concerned to send just one name i.e. the most qualified. If it is the most senior judge why send two other names? It defeats the purpose if, as in like in Rivers State, the Governor already knows who he wants. In sending just one name there must be strong justification for the choice. This system of sending multiple names for appointments is the norm not just in the judiciary but in other sectors and in particular the civil service and that is regrettably when nominees go to town lobbying like never before.

Although seniority is indeed respected at the bar as it is in the military however if you appoint a junior officer everyone above him must retire. From the military point of view you are seen as a security risk as you may be disgruntled.

A holistic overview of the means of advancement in public service, whether in the judiciary or the military, is required. Then people would know from day one that it is not about seniority but merit alone and if it is merit only then anyone can proceed to the top position by sheer recognition of the fact that he/she is the best person for the job. The best solution is merit with seniority that is the most senior candidate with a meritorious service record of the very highest order.

We as members of the Bar must not allow the crisis between the NJC and the Rivers State government degenerate to a point where the judiciary is brought to ridicule. This whole saga is not in any way to the advantage of the Judiciary but is rather a case of ‘physicians heal thyself!’ If this impasse cannot be resolved how then can the public have confidence in the judiciary and its ability to resolve their own problems or adjudicate on their cases?

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Email: may.mbu@thisdaylive.com

Source: Thisday Live; May Agbamuche-Mbu: http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/rivers-state-njc-time-to-end-the-feud/181701/

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