Since the victory of Chief Ezebunwo Nyesom Wike, and by extension, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in Rivers State, there have been wide jubilations. The PDP in the state has gone ahead to organise victory rallies and church services in almost all the 23 local government areas of the state to celebrate the victory and a lot is being put in place for the grand finale come May 29, when Wike finally takes oath of office.
May 29, now celebrated as Democracy Day in Nigeria, is the day traditionally set aside for the formal handover of one elective government to another, both for presidency and governorship positions since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, except for few states that elections hold in later dates.
However, the planned grand finale may have to wait a little longer as the crisis rocking the River State judiciary over appointment of a chief judge is likely to take a toll on Wike’s oath taking.
It is no longer news that the Rivers State Judiciary has been shut down since 2013, after Hon Justice Iche Ndu retired, paving way for the struggle for a new chief of the state. Regrettably, the issue of appointment of chief judge of the state coincided with the political crisis that has rocked the state since then. Thus, the crisis crept into the state judiciary as the political gladiators have insisted on appointing a judge they think will suit their political ambition.
For almost two years the state judiciary has been shut down due this battle, even as both Justice Agumagu and Justice Daisy Okocha are in different appellate courts, trying to claim their rights. Many analysts have blamed the retired Justice Ndu for adding embattled Justice Peter Agumagu, then President of the Customary Court of Appeal in the state in the list for the coveted position, who eventually became the choice of the state Governor, Chiubike Rotimi Amaechi.
In January 31, this year, the National Publicity Secretary of Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN, Comrade Kayode Igbarago announced in Port Harcourt that the eight-month old strike of the union in the state has been called off thus paving way for the courts to be open.
But in the early hours of Monday, February 2, two days after the announcement, there were multiple attacks of five of the High Courts in the state, including, Port Harcourt, Degema, Isiokpo, Omoku and Ahoada. That of Degema was completely razed with three dynamite explosions, while the others had minor effects.
It was rumoured then, that the arsons were politically motivated as one of the political parties kicked against the re-opening of the courts so that there may be no room for tribunals after the general elections.
While the 1999 constitution did not expressly state that the chief judge of a state must swear-in an incoming governor, section 10 (1) of the Oaths Act 2003 stipulates “It shall be lawful for the Chief Justice of Nigeria, a Justice of the Supreme Court, the President and Justices of the Court of Appeal and any judge of the Federal High Court, a notary public, and any Commissioner for Oaths, to administer any lawful oath or take any lawful affirmation or affidavit which may be required to be taken or made for the purpose of complying with the requirement of any law for the time being in force throughout Nigeria or elsewhere, except where such procedure is expressly or by necessary implication manifestly excluded by the terms of such law as aforesaid and the presumption shall be against any such exclusion.”
With this provision, it has become the tradition in Rivers State for the chief judge to administer oath of office on in-coming governors since 1999.
According to legal luminary and former president of the Nigeria Bar Association, Mr. Onueze C.J. Okocha, SAN, Okocha, SAN, he said there may be constitutional crisis in the state but does not prevail on the governor to appoint an acting chief judge because it has been the tradition for the chief judge to swear-in incoming governor in the state.
Okocha, who spoke in Port Harcourt, said, “The chief judge of a state, the president of customary court of appeal and a grand Khadi of a Sharia court of appeal all qualify to administer the oath. For us, it is usual that it is the chief judge of Rivers State.
“As it is now we don’t have a chief judge, neither do we have an acting chief judge. We also do not have a president of the customary court of appeal. If these things remain as they are now, there may be constitutional crisis. Right now that office is vacant so is the office of the president of the customary court of appeal in Rivers State and we are facing this looming constitutional crisis.
“Well, I hope and believe that reason will prevail and the governor will see it fit, at least for the sake of his name and posterity, to do what is needful to ensure that he appoints the appropriate person as stipulated in the constitution as acting chief judge so that at least we can have our new governor sworn-in by the acting chief judge so appointed.”
Right now, the president of the court of appeal has constituted Rivers State tribunals for the national assembly and guber polls at Abuja. With the provisions of the Oaths Act, 2003, as seen above, a chief judge of the Federal High Court, a notary public, and any Commissioner for Oaths can administer such oaths.
Again, in February 2009, it was a resolution code-named Doctrine of Necessity passed by the Senate that enabled President Goodluck Jonathan to act while late president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was sick. Will the judiciary in Nigeria come up with a doctrine of necessity and appoint any of the listed persons outside the state to administer the oath of office on Wike? Will the absence of a chief judge of the state invalidate Wike’s take-over come May 29? Is there going to be another political crisis in Rivers State arising from the absence of a chief judge? These are the questions that must be answered before May 29.

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