Agumagu’s Suspension, Unconstitutional – RSG

Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, Chief Justice of Nigeria and Justice Peter Agumagu, Rivers State Chief Judge
Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, Chief Justice of Nigeria and Justice Peter Agumagu, Rivers State Chief Judge

The attention of the
Rivers State Government has been drawn to a statement by the spokesperson of the National Judicial Council purporting to suspend the Rivers State Chief Judge, Justice P.N.C Agumagu by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
If this is true, then clearly, the NJC appears not to have taken into consideration the judgment delivered by Justice Lambo Akanbi of the Federal High court, Port Harcourt in which it is a party.
The state government finds this position of the NJC rather curious especially as Justice Agumagu is the most senior judge in the Rivers State judiciary and a very respected judicial officer.
The Rivers state government had gone to the courts to seek interpretation of Section 271  (3-5) of th econstittution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as regards the appointment of a chief judge of the state.  That section of the constitution clearly states that “A person shall not be qualified to hold office of a Judge of a High Court of a State unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than ten years.”
However to enable it act within the confines of the law the Rivers State Government sought the court’s interpretation. The learned Justice Akanbi is delivering his judgment faulted the deliberate omission of Justice Agumagu’s name amongst the list of senior judges qualified to be Chief judge of Rivers State.
Justice P.N.C Agumagu is the most senior judge in the Rivers State judiciary and was seconded to establish the customary court of appeal in 2008.
The Rivers State government is well aware that there is no constitutional provision compelling the Governor to appoint a chief judge based on his or her seniority or even the arm of the judiciary to which such a person belongs. What the constitution requires is a minimum of 10 years post- call qualification. This is evidenced even by the appointment of the immediate past Chief Judge of the State, Justice Iche Ndu, who was appointed chief judge over his senior at the bench. At the time of justice Ndu’s appointment, the Justice Sotonye Denton-West was the most senior judge in the Rivers State judiciary, yet the NJC did not compel the governor at the time to announce her as Chief Judge.
The refusal of the NJC to abide by the recommendations of the Rivers State Judicial Service Commission on the appointment of the State Chief Judge and its insistence on a particular candidate is a cause of worry for the Rivers State Government.
Such insistence may appear to mark the NJC out as clearly partisan, self-interested and self serving, in a case in which it is a party The NJC has shown such over-weaning personal interest in this matter, thereby raising serious and fundamental questions as to how justifiable is it to for NJC to interpose itself in a case in which it clearly has more than  a passing interest. It is a well known principle of administrative law that a party cannot be a judge in its own cause.
When Honorable Justice Akanbi of the Federal high Court struck down the decision of the NJC to preclude Justice Agumagu from consideration  for the position of the Chief Judge, the Rivers State Government fully expected the NJC, as a law abiding institution, to choose the path of civility and appeal if it was dis-satisfied with the decision. Rather than do so, the NJC has chosen the path of unconstitutional bullying, lawlessness and injudicious racketeering. It is a dark day for our country when the most senior Justices and lawyers in our country resort to high-handed self help instead of judicial redress.
The Rivers State Government finds that the  decision of the NJC to suspend Justice Agumagu despite a  decision of the federal high court on the issue of who should be Chief Judge of Rivers State suggests a highhandedness and intolerance that is unacceptable for a body charged with the responsibility of protecting the integrity of the judiciary.
The attitude of the body has laid credence to the fears of the Rivers State Government that the body has been influenced by one of its members, O.C.J Okocha( SAN) who has filial ties with the  NJC’s preferred candidate, Justice Daisy Okocha.  The impression is that the NJC in using its old boys and influence networks and could not be bothered about the propriety or constitutionality of usurping the role of the Governor of Rivers state in the appointment of a chief judge for the state or respecting the niceties of separation of powers. The NJC seeks to unleash an assault on the fundamental value of separation of powers in our constitutional system.
The Rivers State Government wishes to reiterate its respect and admiration for the judiciary but will respectfully remind the NJC that it is a statutory body, not a Court. Accordingly, we would request the NJC not to allow itself to become a tool in the hands of advocates of nepotism and sectional interest. The Rivers state government will urge the NJC to respect the ruling of the Federal High court and indeed the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which it has a responsibility to uphold in the interest of justice, fair play and fair mindedness. By the way, it has acted, the NJC seeks to put itself above the law. We would respectfully remind the the NJC that is not above the law. The path of legality for the NJC is to seek redress in the courts.

Ibim Semenitari
Commissioner of Information and Communictions