Ibanga Isine

The River State Governor-elect, Nyesom Wike, has debunked speculations that the absence of a substantive chief judge in the state would stall his inauguration on May 29.

Mr. Wike, who spoke through his media aide, Simeon Nwakaudu, blamed the All Progressives Congress, APC, for creating an impression that the state would run into a constitutional crisis.Nyesom Wike

“There is no constitutional crisis whatsoever. He is going to be sworn on May 29. These are issues being raised by the APC to confuse people,” Mr. Nwakaudu said told PREMIUM TIMES.

“There is an administrative judge in Rivers State as we speak as appointed by NJC. Even though the outgoing governor pretends not to recognise the administrative judge, the judge is still there. The administrative judge can still perform the function of the state chief judge.

“The Customary Court of Appeal in Rivers State also has an administrative judge that can also perform the functions of the chief judge.

“The constitution also talks about any other judicial officer as appointed by the NJC. The NJC can as well do that on May 29, so there is nothing to worry about.”

Mr. Nwakaudu insisted that the absence of a chief judge does not constitute a hindrance to the swearing in of the new governor.

He argued that the chief judge of any state in the country could be invited to administer oaths on the new governor and his deputy.

For instance, he said since Bayelsa State does not have a swearing in ceremony on May 29, the chief from the state could be invited to swear in Mr. Wike and his deputy.

The Rivers State judiciary has been engulfed in protracted crisis of interest which has stalled the appointment of a new chief judge for the state after Justice Iche Ndu retired in August 2013.

After Mr. Ndu retired, the Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, and the National Judicial Council, NJC, have been locked in a disagreement over who should be appointed the state’s chief judge.

Following the provisions of Section 271 (4) of the 1999 Constitution, Mr. Amaechi had forwarded the name of the former President of the Customary Court of Appeal, Justice Peter Agumagu, to the NJC.

But the council refused to confirm Mr. Agumagu’s appointment and instead preferred Justice Daisy Okocha for the job.

The governor, however, insisted on his choice on the ground that Mr. Agumagu is the most senior High Court judge in the state.

While the controversy was raging, the NJC sent Mrs. Okocha’s name for confirmation to the National Assembly which had at the time taken over the functions of the Rivers State House of Assembly.

Irked by the action, Mr. Amaechi dragged the council to the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt and for the interpretation of Section 271 (3-5) of the constitution as regards the appointment of chief judge of the state.

On March 18, 2014, Justice Lambo Akanbi delivered judgment which showed that the NJC erred by recommending Mrs. Okocha for appointment to replace Justice Ndu.

Mr. Akanbi ruled that the NJC’s argument that Mrs. Okocha is the oldest judge of the Rivers State High Court and more qualified to be chief judge of the state because Mr. Agumagu belonged to a different arm of the judiciary, was wrong.

Based on the ruling of the court, the state house of assembly sat at Old Executive Council Chambers of Government House for the screening and confirmation of Mr. Agumagu as the substantive chief judge of the state.

Mr. Agumagu was immediately sworn in by the state governor in a move that angered the former Chief Justice of Nigeria and then NJC Chair, Justice Mariam Aloma Muktar.

The CJN immediately suspended Mr. Agumagu from parading himself or acting in the capacity of chief judge of Rivers State.

While Mr. Agumagu is still in court to challenge his suspension by the CJN, Rivers State has been robbed of a chief judge and the courts have also been shut as a result of attacks by unknown gunmen.

PREMIUM TIMES has learnt that for close to a year now, the Customary Court of Appeal, the High Courts and the Magistrate Courts in the state have been on a lock down.

It was this situation that perhaps, prompted the former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, O.C.J Okocha, to raise the alarm over impending constitutional crisis in the state.

Mr. Okocha, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, had argued that based on the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, only the state chief judge and the president of the Customary Court of Appeal or a Grand Khadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal can administer oaths on a governor-elect.

But the situation in the state’s judiciary is worrisome as High Courts, Magistrate Courts and the Customary Court of Appeal have been under lock down for months now.

The courts were forced to shut after unknown gunmen bombed court rooms in Port Harcourt, Ahoada, Degema and Okehi.

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