On Monday, June 1, 2015 lawyers in Rivers State gathered at the ceremonial hall of the State High Court for a brief ceremony to mark the re-opening of the courts and commencement of duty. The ceremony which lasted about an hour followed the swearing-in of an acting chief judge in the person of Justice Daisy Wotube Okocha at the Government House, Port Harcourt by the state governor, Barr Nyesom Wike.
Ordinarily, this kind of ceremony would hold during the start of a new legal year, but this time around it was a time to take stock, a time of reminiscence of the pains lawyers went through in the state for almost one year when the political crisis in the state polarised the judiciary and made the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN, to embark on indefinite strike.
The gathering drew both members of the bar and bench. They could not hide their feelings as they embraced one another with their faces full of smiles. The joy of the lawyers that day could only be compared to one who had been in prison and then suddenly was released through prerogative of mercy.
While the popular hymn by Edwin Othello Excell (1851-1921), admonishes us to count our blessings and name them one by one, lawyers rather counted their losses and concluded that never again will they allow the legal profession to be held hostage by the greedy hands of politics and politicians.
In his goodwill message, Barr Dennis Okwakpam, Chairman, Port Harcourt branch of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, revealed that lawyers were most hit in the crisis as judges, magistrates and JUSUN themselves all received salaries while the strike lasted.
Okwakpam, who vowed the loyalty and support of the NBA to Justice Okocha, said the only way to ameliorate the pains of lawyers was for the administration of the court to, for the time being, suspend all fees paid to obtain case files and judgments. According to him, at a point lawyers were involved in all kinds of menial jobs just to survive.
“The message from the bar will basically be that you show magnanimity and open mindedness as you pilot the affairs of the judiciary from this month on. On behalf of the Bar we will implore my lord not to dwell in the past. Even when we were at the government house I was thinking whether the fact that the courts were going to be open was indeed a reality.
“The bar has probably suffered a bit more than any other person in the sense that throughout this crisis, all others were paid. The judges were paid, the magistrates were paid, the judiciary staff were paid, only lawyers. I don’t want to sit here and begin to recount what we went through.
“As at the last time we checked, lawyers had started working in bakeries just to survive, we started driving taxis, we did all kinds of things just to get life. What that will mean as we go back to work is that we will also expect that you people will be conscious of this fact and help us succeed in all that we want to do. That is to say the judiciary staff should not expect us to pay money to obtain judgement and all that”, he stated.
Also, Onueze C. Okocha, SAN, who spoke on behalf of the body of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Rivers State emphasised that the judiciary can no longer allow itself to be dragged in the mud.
Okocha, SAN, who congratulated the acting CJ, said junior lawyers were worst hit and called for true reconciliation so as not to allow themselves to be used any longer. The legal luminary emphasised that the judiciary must at all times uphold the rule of law no matter whose ox is gored in order to protect the dignity of the profession.
He said: “All of us know that we have been through trials and tribulations; most difficult of times. The chairman of NBA was lamenting that we of the legal profession, the Bar, have borne the heaviest brunt of the bad times that the judiciary went through. Stories were told of some of us driving cabu cabu for those of us that have vehicles. For those who do not have vehicles, you can imagine what it was like.
“We have gone through trying times and truly the bar has borne the greatest brunt because everybody else was being paid but we had to scratch here, scratch there. The worst of it was for young lawyers. But I have said this to give you the background for everyone of us to take very seriously the admonition given to us by the governor of Rivers State and say never again should we allow this to happen to our learned and honourable profession; not for the bench, not for the bar. Never again should we allow politics to divide us.
“I personally was vilified. Yes, I am an interested party but I always said I will stand for what the rule of Law says. It doesn’t matter to me that I have relationship with the acting chief judge, we must as lawyers stand for the rule of law. That is why we are grateful to God and I thank my lord for organising the prayer session so that we can rededicate ourselves again to those veritable principles of our learned and honourable profession.
“We must forgive ourselves. This is not time for moral intimidations of any kind. We must look forward; how do we rebuild the structure, how do we rebuild the broken down fences. It is an onerous task.”
He, therefore, encouraged the acting CJ to do her utmost best in carrying everybody along.
On his part, Mr. Rufus Nkere-Owaji Godwins, Rivers State Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice lashed out on lawyers, who according to him, sold themselves for pieces of morsels and became tools in the hands of the government during the crisis.
Godwins, who compared the crisis in the judiciary to the holocaust on the Jews by Adolf Hitler, lamented that for the past eight years, lawyers in the ministry of justice were not paid allowances. He said contrary to the thinking that lawyers in the ministry were enjoying government largesse, at a point he personally begged them to fuel their own cars to courts.
“For judges, we have seen for ourselves the broken ceilings and other accessories. By the time my lord embarks on inventory for this beautiful edifice that once was the pride of this nation’s judiciary only then can we see the enormity of the harm that the judiciary has suffered and the pain of it is that we went through what we did through the conspiracy of silence of the very members of the profession.
“If I do not talk about the ministry of justice nobody else will. You will presume rightly that as part of that government for eight years we had bumper harvest time. For the first time in the history of Rivers State, and I challenge anyone here to correct me, not one single lawyer in the ministry of justice has been paid his statutory allowance for the eight years. I’m happy that we have three past attorneys-general here and each of them ensured that lawyers were paid their robbing allowances, their research allowances, and other statutory benefits that are in the law.
“What happened to us here, history students, was akin to what Hitler did under the Nazis regime. A lot of people collaborated with Hitler to exterminate the Jews but as the pages of history continue to chronicle, every day we see new faces who acted behind the scene to ensure the holocaust. I am so outraged that I see some of the faces of lawyers I see here. Because I knew what some of them did in the dark against this very profession. Some of them are here”, he said.
The solicitor-general, however, called for true forgiveness on all those who played several roles in betraying the judiciary, saying, “We started with prayer that we should forgive one another, we have forgiven those lawyers who threw their dignity into the wind and played those iniquitous roles that put us down and which made the governor lament this morning the great betrayal by the lawyers.
“Lawyers were now queuing up for N10,000, lawyers were queuing up to write their names for IPAD. They were sharing laptops under my nose. But I thank God for today that never again we will be taking down this road, the road to opprobrium, the road to shame.
“For those who will be quick to remind us that the judiciary has always been in the storm and they will point to England, let’s correct ourselves. May we all remember today that we have a new day and all things have become new, old things have passed away. Let those who sinned, those who betrayed us for filthy lucre, let them sin no more.”
As expected, lawyers are back to their ‘farm’ and litigants will soon start thronging to the courts again. The burden on the acting CJ is not just to assign case files, but to also put up repairs on the court buildings that have been affected by the rains.
The CJ must also keep to her promise by carrying out the reformation in the judicial system in the state.
A lawyer was overheard saying that if he was told that there would be a time that the judiciary will be shut down for a year in any part of the country, he would not believe. But like they all said, never again should the judiciary allow itself to be dragged into the dirty waters of politics, not just in Rivers State, but even the National Judicial Council itself.

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