A Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt Wednesday invalidated the appointment of Justice Peter Agumagu as the acting Chief Judge of Rivers State by Governor Chibuike Amaechi.
The court also directed Amaechi to conform to the provisions of the constitution on the appointment of an acting chief judge.
The presiding judge, Justice Lambo Akanbi, gave the directive while delivering judgment in a matter brought before the court by a group, Kengena Unity Forum, challenging Amaechiâ€™s appointment of Agumagu as acting chief judge of the state.
Agumagu, until his appointment as acting chief judge was President of the Customary Court of Appeal in the state.
Delivering judgment on the matter yesterday, Akanbi said the 1999 Constitution was clear on who should be appointed acting chief judge of the state.
He said the constitution was explicit that the most senior judge in the state High Court should be selected to occupy the position whenever it was vacant.
Akanbi however refused to give an order that Justice Daisy Okocha should take over as acting chief judge as requested by the plaintiff.
He said issuing such order would amount to usurping the powers of the governor and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to pick a judge for the said position.
He said: â€œThe 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 1999 Constitution is very clear, explicit and without ambiguity.
â€œIt 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?
â€œThe 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.
â€œThe 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 judgment of the court.â€
Addressing journalists after the judgment, counsel to the plaintiff, Mr. Tubotamuno Dick, expressed happiness with the ruling and called on Amaechi to swear in Justice Okocha as the acting chief judge of the state.
â€œOur expectation is that the governor should swear in Justice Okocha as the acting chief judge of the state. Failure to do so, we will call on the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) and other relevant bodies to protest,â€ he said.
Counsel to the state government, Mr. Tuduru Ede, however said his client was not satisfied with the judgment and would appeal against the judgment.
In its reaction, the state government praised the judgeâ€™s decision not to order the swearing in of Okocha as acting chief judge.
A statement issued by the state Commissioner for Information and Communications, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, said: â€œThe Rivers State Government notes this judgment and commends the learned judge for acknowledging his limits under the constitution. By his pronouncement, the Justice Akanbi has strengthened the position of the Rivers State Government that the governor of a state cannot be stampeded to appoint a particular candidate as chief judge.
â€œThe Rivers Government intends to seek further clarification on the rather contradictory position of the judge that the appointment of the Justice P.N.C Agumagu as acting Chief Judge was illegal, from the higher courts.â€