BY ANAYO ONUKWUGHA
The recent judgement of the Appeal Court in Rivers State, which upheld setting up of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate sale of valued assets of the state during the tenure of the immediate past administration has sparked fresh upset among major political actors in the state, ANAYO ONUKWUGHA writes.
The legal battle between Rivers State Governor, Chief Ezebunwo Nyesom Wike and his predecessor and minister of Transportation, Rt Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, over the setting up of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate sale of valued assets of the state during the tenure of the latter, came to a head, last Monday.
On that day, justices of the Port Harcourt Division of the Court of Appeal, in a judgement that lasted for three hours and thirty minutes, upheld the legality of the commission that was headed by Justice George Omereji.
The Appellate Court also held that the Rivers State House of Assembly has the power to make the Commission of Inquiry Law (CAP 30) under which Wike established the Judicial Commission of Inquiry.
Amaechi had approached the Court of Appeal after a Rivers State High Court, presided over by Justice Simeon Amadi declared that the Judicial Commission of Inquiry was not established to investigate the personal activities of the former governor, but was set up to investigate previous actions of government as they affect the people of the state.
Delivering judgment on Suit No PHC/187/15, Amadi ruled that Wike by the provisions of the law is empowered to establish the Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate previous actions of government.
He stated that there is no law preventing a state government from finding out how her resources were expended.
Amadi declared that Amaechi cannot disburse and expend funds of the Rivers State Government and turn around to claim that such powers belong to the National Assembly.
On the claim by the former governor that the 30 days set aside for the sitting of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry will deny him fair hearing, the court held that the days set aside have not breached Amaechi’s right to fair hearing.
The court noted that the former governor has not filed a memorandum before the commission and has not appeared before it, hence he cannot complain that he was not given fair hearing.
Amadi, who stated that the 30 days set aside is not sacrosanct, hence it could be extended, held that the suit by Amaechi is speculative as he failed to prove the injuries that he has suffered because of the setting up of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry.
The judge held that contrary to the former governor’s claims, the terms of reference of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry did not accuse the former governor of crime, neither is the former governor on trial.
He declared, “The Judiciary is not only the last hope of the common man, but it is also the last hope of the mighty and movers and shakers of democracy. Those who by the benevolence of the Judiciary got to power should resist the temptation to emasculate the Judiciary”.
The Appellate Court, in a unanimous decision on Amaechi’s appeal in Suit No CA/PH/342/2015, dismissed the appeal filed by Former Governor challenging the Constitution of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry.
The court held that Justice Simeon Amadi of the Rivers State High Court was right when it ruled that the Judicial Commission of Inquiry had the power to sit and make recommendations.
The Court of Appeal, which ruled that anybody who holds public office should be ready to be accountable to the people, even after leaving office, however, resolved that Amaechi has the locus standi to file the suit , since it had to probe his administration.
Recall that Wike inaugurated the Judicial Commission of Inquiry on June 22, 2015, in fulfilment of his promise to probe the last 18 months of the Amaechi’s eight-year rule in the state, especially as it affects the sale of valued assets of the state.
The commission, which had since submitted it’s report and a White-Paper issued to that effect by the state government, had Mrs Florence Fiberesima, and Dr Zaccheaus Adango as secretary and counsel to the commission, respectively, while members were; Dr Edith Chukwu, Chief Monday Ekekenta, Rev Canon Alex Usifo, and Elder Ignatius Piegbara.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, which took place at Government House, Port Harcourt, Wike said the commission shall constitute a quorum and shall hold its first meeting after the date of the inauguration and the chairman should submit their report to the governor not later than one month from the date of their first sitting.
However, contrary to the governor’s directive, the Omereji-led commission could not hold its inaugural sitting as a result of two law suits from the former commissioner for Power, Sir Augustine Nwokocha, and from Amaechi, respectively, challenging its legality.
The commission, however, held its inaugural sitting on August 24, 2015, more than two months after it was inaugurated by Wike, following the removal of the legal bottlenecks by an Abuja High Court and later a Port Harcourt High Court.
The governor stated that setting up a commission to probe the sale of valued assets of the state by the previous administration was a right step in a right direction as it was not meant to smear the image of Amaechi so as to deny him appointment in the cabinet of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Wike also said he decided not to drag the former governor to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) over allegations of corruption, because he believes the Judicial Commission of Inquiry can handle the matter.
For the immediate past governor, Amaechi, who many believed was the main target of the probe; he believed and still believes that the commission was not set up within the ambits of the country’s constitution. He noted that he is not afraid of a fair and decent probe or investigation or inquiry of his administration; and would cooperate and support such probe or investigation or inquiry in as much as it’s done within the ambits of the country’s laws.
The former governor, in a statement by his media aide, David Iyofor, said: “However what Wike has set out to do is anything but a fair probe. The commission will not be fair to Amaechi because it was set up to indict him. Wike had repeatedly held that Amaechi, the person to be investigated, acted illegally in the disbursement of public funds and that Amaechi ran a corrupt government.
“Clearly, Wike has prejudged the matter, and showed his bias that Amaechi is guilty even before investigations. This means Wike, with his prejudiced, made up mind has taken a position of a guilty verdict even before the outcome is known or established.
“The same Wike who had adjudged the yet-to-be-investigated conduct of Amaechi as illegal and Amaechi as corrupt, is the same person that has gone ahead to set up a commission of inquiry and will have the final say on the findings of the commission. What a sham!
“This bias and predetermined agenda to indict Amaechi is obvious even in the terms of reference of the commission. In one of the defective terms of reference, Wike said the commission should investigate the circumstances that led to the sale of the state’s Hotel Olympia.
“With a fair and decent probe, the Inquiry should have been to examine (or investigate) the transaction concerning Hotel Olympia. The difference is so clear: In the former, jaundiced Wike’s term of reference, it has been prejudiced and concluded that the hotel was sold, while in the latter, the inquiry is open and fair, and may lead to a finding of a sale or a lease or even a gift or even a pledge.
“Now, having so concluded that Hotel Olympia was sold, would Wike be decent and humble enough to reverse himself if documents showed it was never sold but concessioned or leased? This is one of the dangers of Wike’s commission that harbours a predetermined outcome in the name of an inquiry and Amaechi will not subject himself to Wike’s deceit and phony shenanigans. Hotel Olympia was never sold. The hotel was only concessioned (or leased) on the approval of the State Executive Council and not sold.
“Even while inaugurating his yeoman commission of inquiry, Wike could not conceal his vendetta agenda. He was clear to the panel members that their job is to indict Amaechi. And to do this his dirty hack job, he got Justice G. O. Omereji (the commission chairman), a man who is well known to harbour a long held, extreme anger, hatred and animosity against former governor Amaechi.”
Apparently in total support of the former governor’s position on the setting up of the commission, the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state, described the probe panel as illegal, saying that it lacks constitutional powers to do the work for which it was set up by Wike.
The APC, in a statement by its state chairman, Dr Davies Ibiamu Ikanya, said, “This is, at best, a kangaroo court which was set up for the sole purpose of rubber-stamping Chief Wike’s conviction, without trial, of his estranged benefactor and the immediate past governor of the state, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi. The Justice Omereji Commission of Inquiry is illegal, ill-conceived, and ill-motivated. It should be disbanded forthwith.”
Ikanya stated that the Commission of Inquiry’s law which has been cited as the backbone of the commission being chaired by Omereji did not in any of its 23 Sections authorise the establishing of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, but merely stated that the governor can set up an inquiry, saying judicial powers are vested in courts of law (Section 6(6) (b) of the Nigerian Constitution).
He said, “As has been made quite clear by legal experts, in setting up the Omereji Commission, Chief Wike was exercising a power unknown to law. To add Judicial to a mere administrative inquiry does not reflect a doing of right according to law as it gives the public the wrong impression that the commission is a High Court by another name called.
“This is a clear case of bias, which is not acceptable to us. It is tantamount to conviction before trial, and this should be unreservedly condemned by all lovers of justice throughout Nigeria and beyond. It is not yet too late for this otherwise respected jurist to throw in the towel and save his good name, which is being tarnished by his acceptance of Wike’s satanic assignment.”