AMAECHI, RIVERS STATE AND THE MOCKERY OF THE NIGERIAN CONSTITUTION – Tomilola Awofiye
A little over three months ago, the erstwhile Chief Judge of Rivers State retired from office, and with that simple action, the judiciary of the state was launched into what has become a mockery of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Worse still, this mockery of the CFRN has been compounded by a seeming conspiracy of silence on the part of the National Judicial Council (NJC), the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the entire judiciary of Rivers State.
Central to this issue is the governor of Rivers State, Mr Rotimi Amaechi, who has demonstrated a willingness to tackle any opposition to his government at whatever costs. While this attitude is commendable in some situations (especially when the governor faces injustice from the federal government), its extension into the affairs of the judiciary has resulted into a gross constitutional violation, and disregard for the rule of law, which the Nigerian press and the general public are oblivious to.
Unfortunately, the major voice that has raised concern over this issue have been Mr Amaechi’s opposition; leading to a general disregard of the alarms as the usual political mudslinging. However, the danger posed by the Rivers State government to the CFRN is real, and now is the time for the rest of the country to sit up and take notice.
The Nigerian constitution guarantees three arms of government at the federal and state level: an executive, a legislature and a judiciary, as a system of checks and balances to ensure that one arm does not have a stranglehold on the others. In Rivers State, today, there is, effectively only one arm of government. You may recall that the National Assembly disbanded the House of Assembly of Rivers State earlier in the year. With the retirement of the head of the state judiciary, the judiciary was effectively suspended as well, leaving the state in firm control of the executive.
The Constitution, however, does not permit a vacancy in the office of the Chief Judge. Accordingly, prior to the retirement of the last CJ, the NJC had recommended the next person to head the judiciary to the Governor of the state, subject to confirmation by the state legislature, or in this case, the national legislature.
However, Mr Amaechi, by accident or by design, delayed in submitting the name of the recommended candidate to the national legislature before the retirement of the then outgoing CJ. This delay by the governor resulted in a vacancy that prompted the necessity of invoking s.271 (4) of the constitution. The section states simply that, in the case of a vacancy, the most senior judge of the “high court of the state” should be appointed in an acting capacity for a period of three months after which the appointment will cease to have effect.
From the court records and the courtroom rosters, the most senior judge of the high court at that critical point happened to be the same person recommended by the NJC as the substantive CJ. However, contrary to all legitimate expectations, the governor choose to interpret that provision as the “most senior judge in the state” therefore allowing him to bring in another judge from outside the high court. We are allowed to be generous and give the governor the benefit of the doubt on this point. However, subsequent events indicate that the governor acted in bad faith.
After the swearing-in of the acting CJ, the governor’s office released a statement in which the governor promised to submit the name of the recommended candidate to the national assembly as soon as the legislature was back in session. The governor also acknowledged the temporary nature of the appointment.
This was over three months ago. The national legislature has long returned from recess, but the governor has made no moves to continue with the constitutional process of appointing a CJ for the state. An omission that indicates some ulterior factor on the part of the governor.
According to the CFRN, the appointment of the acting CJ on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 ceased to have effect on Wednesday, November 20, 2013. Constitutionally, the governor should swear in the next most senior judge of the state in an acting capacity, or appoint the substantive person recommended by the CJ. But that is, if the governor of Rivers State considers himself subject to the constitution of Nigeria.
Apparently, this is not the case, and Mr Amaechi is above the fundamental law. As at today, despite the expiration of the tenure, the controversial appointee of the governor is still exercising the powers of acting chief judge of the state. The name of the substantive appointee recommended by the NJC has not been forwarded to the national assembly, and there is no legislature in the state to call the governor to order. In short, Mr Amaechi now runs all three arms of government in Rivers State.
Whatever the politics of the state, or of the governor may be, the rule of law is sacrosanct to a democracy. This has nothing to do with the PDP or the APC. It has nothing to do with Mr Amaechi or Mr Jonathan. It has to do with the rule of law. And a disregard for the rule of law should be challenged, no matter where it comes up, and no matter the politics of the person involved. What is more surprising, however, is that the guardians of the Nigerian legal system: the NBA, especially the Port Harcourt branch, and ultimately, the entire judiciary, represented by the NJC have kept quiet about these events.
Answers are required. Why is there no substantive CJ in Rivers State? Why is the acting CJ of the state in office beyond three months? Why are the NBA and the NJC complicit by their silence on these events? Is the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria still relevant? A fundamental breach of the constitution is no laughing matter. It is as serious as a military coup. Yet, the lawyers and the judiciary are content to allow it pass.
This is no longer an issue about Rivers State and its politics. It is an issue that concerns every right thinking Nigerian. If the President, or another governor, replicates the events in the Rivers State judiciary, then we are well on our way to democratic chaos. Now is the time for the NBA and the NJC to safeguard the constitution. Now is the time for someone to do something.