The Looming Constitutional Crisis In Rivers State - by Uche Igwe

The last may not have been heard about the political crisis in Rivers State. The election in that state was adjudged one of the most controversial by both local and international observer groups. After all the violence and acrimony, calm may not be in sight yet. Not soon.

There are those who felt that all the commotion came to an end with the controversial emergence of Chief Nyesom Wike of the Peoples Democratic Party. Although the rival All Progressives Congress has challenged the result of the polls in the state election petitions tribunal, there is yet another dimension to the brouhaha.

The planned swearing-in of the governor-elect come May 29 may not happen as smoothly as expected. Unless things take a different turn, the statutory judicial officers empowered by the constitution to administer the oath of office may not be available to do so. This is because the appointment of the current Chief Judge of the state, Justice P.C. Agumagu, is a subject of litigation and until the pending cases are resolved, he or any other person cannot perform such a function.

Now, let us take a glimpse at the complexity of the issues at stake. The appointment of the Chief Judge of a state is a constitutional issue and under the 1999 Constitution, four institutions are involved, namely: The Judicial Service Commission, the National Judicial Council, the Governor and the state House of Assembly. When the immediate past Chief Judge of Rivers State retired on August 20, 2013, Agumagu was appointed in an acting capacity and later duly sworn in as the substantive Chief Judge. However, the National Judicial Council kicked against his appointment citing reasons of seniority and later suspended him as a judicial officer on March 26, 2014. That suspension is also a subject of another litigation.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the issues raised by the National Judicial Council are valid. It is possible that the Governor of Rivers State in performing his duties innocently but inadvertently did not follow due process. Even if Agumagu is not the most senior judge in the state as claimed by the NJC, no one can say so until it is determined by a court of competent jurisdiction. Even if the NJC decides to reverse the suspension of Agumagu, as a judicial officer, he or anyone will not be able to perform any duty under the law until all the outstanding court cases are resolved. It therefore means in my view that Agumagu remains the Chief Judge of Rivers State even though he is under suspension currently. The central issue here is that no other individual can be appointed to take his position until these matters in court are sorted out.

With the handover date just by the corner, there is a clear stalemate starring Rivers people in the face. The outgoing Governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Amaechi, has publicly expressed his disposition to a smooth transition and handover. However, the situation is not as simple as it looks. He may not be able to do this successfully in the midst of these legal landmines. Who will swear in the incoming governor into office? Some opinion leaders suggest that a Chief Judge from another state can be specially invited to perform the oath administration on the incoming governor. Others insist that the office of a Chief Judge is a clear jurisdictional issue. That is to say that such a role is limited to a particular jurisdiction. For instance, when someone is appointed as a Chief Judge of Anambra State, as soon as he crosses over from Uli in Anambra State to Mgbidi in Imo State, he cannot perform such a role. At best, such persons can function as a village chief not as a judicial officer.

With these realities on the table, it is important that supporters of the incoming government and those of the outgoing government must come to some form of agreement to explore a way out of this logjam. I have heard that the PDP led incoming government is contemplating invoking a sort of doctrine of necessity. But who will do so? Is it the state House of Assembly that is currently dominated by members of the ruling APC? Will the National Assembly intervene as it did during the failed impeachment effort? Will the incoming PDP leaders in the state simply break into the Government House? What will be the response of the incoming administration?

It seems that Rivers State will be in the spotlight again in the coming weeks as what looks like a constitutional crisis looms. No one knows how things will turn out but what is certain is that this may be the first test on the President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari. Will he have the courage to protect the constitution against any form of abuse? In case an action is taken in Rivers State that runs contrary to the stipulations of the constitution, will the President-elect declare a state of emergency in Rivers? Will the Independent National Electoral Commission conduct a fresh election? What are the implications of all of these on the ordinary people in Rivers State and the already fragile security situation in the state? Was this path of convoluted legal fireworks avoidable? Is this a case of a poisoned chalice of Wike starring him on the face? Many observers are curious how the events will turn out. We can only watch from the sidelines.