A Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt has nullified the appointment of Justice Peter Agumagu as the Acting Chief Judge of Rivers State.
The court also directed the state governor to comply with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution on the appointment of an acting CJ for the state.
The Kengena Unity Forum, led by Boma Goodhead and Ajenyanate Samuel, had gone to court to challenge Agumagu’s appointment by Governor Rotimi Amaechi as an acting CJ.
The plaintiffs said the state governor erred by appointing an acting CJ for the state from the Customary Court as against the provisions of the Constitution that the most senior judge from the State High Court should be selected for such duty.
Amaechi on August 20, 2013, swore in Agumagu, who was then the President of the Customary Appeal Court in the state, as Rivers acting CJ.
Agumagu’s appointment followed the retirement of former CJ, Justice Iche Ndu.
But ruling on the matter on Wednesday, Justice Lambo Akanbi said the 1999 Constitution was explicit on the appointment of a state acting chief judge.
Akanbi said, “The question as to who qualifies to be appointed as acting chief judge of the state has generated a lot of needless controversy. The provision of section 271, sub-section 4 of the constitution is very clear, explicit and without ambiguity. It says the governor shall appoint the most senior judge of the High Court.
“The question is who is my noble Lord Honourable Justice P.N.C Agumagu and where does he belong? Is he a judge of the High Court of Rivers State, appointed pursuant to the provision of Section 270, sub-section 1 of the Constitution or a judge of the Customary Court of Appeal under Section 280, sub-section 1 of the same Constitution?
“I have evidence before me unchallenged that his Lordship, my Lord, the Honourable Justice P.N.C Agumagu is a judge and indeed, the President of the Customary Court of Appeal of Rivers State.
“The inevitable conclusion I have reached is that His Lordship, the Honourable Justice P.N.C. Agumagu, is not qualified as a State High Court Judge hence he is not suitable and unqualified to be appointed as Acting Chief Judge of the High Court of Rivers State.
“The only consequential order I should make in the circumstance is to direct the governor to comply with the constitutional provision on the appointment of an acting chief judge of the State High Court as provided under Section 271, sub-section 4 of the 1999 Constitution. That shall be the judgement of the court.”
Counsel to the plaintiff and Legal Adviser to Kengena Unity Forum, Mr. Tubotamuno Dick, told newsmen shortly after the ruling that the judgment delighted his clients.
Dick expressed the need for the state governor to swear in Justice Okocha as the acting CJ and that the Nigerian Bar Association and other relevant bodies would protest if Amaechi failed to comply with the directive of the Federal High Court.
But, counsel to the state government (defendant), Mr. Tuduru Ede, said he was not satisfied with the ruling on the matter, and the government would appeal the judgement.
Meanwhile, the NBA has asked Amaechi to obey the court judgment and swear-in the most senior judge in the state as the acting CJ.
The NBA President, Okey Wali, SAN, made the call while reacting to the Federal High Court judgment.
Wali said, “The NBA appeals to the Governor of Rivers State, His Excellency, Rotimi Amaechi to, in the interest of the litigating public, the Bar and the Bench, swear in the most senior judge in the Rivers State judiciary as the Acting Chief Judge of Rivers State without prejudice to whatever his reaction might be to the judgment, while putting in motion the machinery to appoint a substantive Chief Judge for Rivers State.
“The Nigerian Bar Association observes with great concern that since August, 2013, there has not been a Chief Judge for Rivers State, which situation has resulted in the pilling up of cases, and consequently caused unmitigated hardship to the Bench, the Bar, and the litigating public in Rivers State.”