(This is going to be a bit longer than the usual fare)
A Colourful Character
Governor Rotimi Amaechi is certainly one of the more colourful characters that patronised the political dramas of the outgoing federal regime. This is not just by virtue of his political roles as head of the Governor’s Forum or chief executive officer of Rivers State, but also for his fracases with two key players at the national level: Patience Jonathan and her husband, Goodluck. It seemed Amaechi’s administration was one long brawl with those two, brawls that made Rotimi Amaechi, for a period, the daily subject of newspaper headlines.
His personality accentuated national interest in these quarrels. In speeches across the country, he would eagerly challenge Nigerians to seize their sovereignty. And he was able to persuade many Nigerians to his perspective of things. With flamboyant gesticulations and a morosely narrowed face, he cut the vivid picture of the wearied underdog kicking against the conspiracies of the political machinery, picking his way across a minefield of local government chairmen, judges, policemen, party chieftains, ministers and, of course, the President’s wife.
Yet, Amaechi’s battles are curious. For one thing, he wasn’t an underdog in a realistic sense of the word: he was the governor of an “oil state” that was not only comfortable ensconced in the loving arms of the ruling party, but also had the dubious honour of producing the incumbent First Lady and, to an extent, her husband. Also, by Nigerian standards, Rivers State is not economically deprived: its governor has access to more financial resources than most contemporaries.
In short, Amaechi certainly had a good stake in the political machinery.
Nevertheless, he stuck out of the South-South enclave like a sore thumb, and the more he flung negative emotions at almost everything and everyone that contradicted him, the more newsworthy he became. But, for me, the turning point came about when he allowed his emotions gravitate towards the desolation of the Rivers State Judiciary, and it began to seem that the quarrels of this governor had become more psychological than political.
The Crucifixion of the Rivers State Judiciary
In mid-2013, the then Chief Judge of Rivers State took his terminal leave. But, like a lot of processes in Rivers State in the last few years, things didn’t go quite as planned. What started normally enough was quickly tipped over by the continuous political undulations in that state.
In this case, “normal” was the fact that the state judiciary commission had earlier forwarded a list of potential candidates for the office of Chief Judge to the National Judicial Council. It was also “normal” that the NJC had, after its review, selected a name from the list and sent it to the governor as their recommendation. What was not normal was that Amaechi had dillydallied over the NJC’s recommendation and avoided sending it to the National Assembly (the state legislature had hitherto been suspended due to aforesaid political undulations) for approval.
In the governor’s defence, the National Assembly was in recess during the critical time, and when they resumed they did not pay much attention to their duties as legislators for Rivers State. In any case, Amaechi seemed to have his own reasons (reasons which some have defended as politically expedient considering his full-blown antagonism with the Presidency) for refusing to forward the particular recommendation by the NJC.
And so matters had delayed until the erstwhile Chief Judge went on his way and a gap was left behind. As there was no substantive successor, both practice and law required the oldest serving judge of the High Court to takeover in an acting capacity. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your perspective—the person most qualified to fill this acting role was the same judge whose recommendation the governor had ignored. And so, to save face, Governor Amaechi had to get a bit creative.
What he did was to reach to the next ranking court in the state—the Customary Court of Appeal—and bring over its President to take up the acting capacity of chief judge. This was done on the premise that the CCA judge—who had originally been in the High Court at some point in his career—was merely on “secondment” to his current court. Now, any third year law student will tell you this was hogwash. Our Constitution doesn’t shift judges across different court systems as though they were law school interns. You’re either a judge of one court, or a judge of the other court.
But Amaechi wasn’t impressed by that argument. And so, with the connivance of the Atorrney-General, he swore the President of the Customary Court of Appeal as acting Chief Judge of the High Court at some secret morning ceremony. This effectively made the CCA judge the head of two different court systems, and Amaechi was suitably pleased by this unconstitutional creativity.
But the NJC was understandably upset, and so the adventurous judge had been sanctioned while the most senior judge of the High Court was given instruction to proceed with administrative functions pending the governor’s return to some common sense. And then things escalated: in some misguided retaliation at the NJC, the state judicial commission (who I will assume was merely the mouthpiece for the governor) threatened to sack any judicial worker who showed up for work under the NJC authorised judge. Everybody went to court to sort everything without any success: and in the ensuing stalemate, the state’s judiciary workers decided to go on strike.
All this started out in late 2013, and almost two years down the line, Rivers State is yet to have a Chief Judge or a fully functioning judiciary. In probably unrelated, but relevant, events, a courtroom was bombed and a fire engulfed the home of the judge recommended by the NJC. Today, things still remain very testy. Meanwhile, a transition period looms. But with the President of the Customary Court of Appeal in abeyance and the CJ non-existent, there seems to be no indication of who will swear-in the incoming governor of the state.
These events, to me, sums up the tragedy of Amaechi’s legacy in Rivers State.
A Forgotten Origin
A singular mishap is probably not enough to summarise a man’s life, but considering the origin of Amaechi’s mandate as a governor, the crucifixion of the judiciary under his watch is profound. Amaechi came to power through the independence of the judiciary, and it would have been proper that he would safeguard the elements of that institution—even at his personal cost. But Amaechi insisted—in public and in court—that it was the right of the governor to handpick a chief judge. His refusal to settle for less—an attempt to redefine the law, an attempt to violate the separation of powers—is what escalated a simple issue into a crisis.
But Amaechi is a passionate crusader for democracy and good governance–I don’t think this is hypocritical—I think the man does really believe in the justice of his causes.
I once had the opportunity to confront him directly about the desolation of the Rivers judiciary—and he harangued in the sincere tone of a man who lacks the words to convey the feelings that burrowed deep in him. He felt he was in the right but he couldn’t quite explain how. And as he struggled to explain the inexplicable, I got the impression that he wanted to yell: “Well, so freaking what?” But all he did was to expressly question my qualification as a lawyer, and impliedly, my audacity to challenge his gubernatorial judgement.
Hence, the psychological angle to this.
In A Criminal History of Mankind, Colin Wilson, explaining A.E. van Vogt’s theory on the same theme, describes a “Right Man” as “…a man driven by a manic need for self-esteem – to feel he is a ‘somebody’. He is obsessed by the question of losing face, so will never, under any circumstances, admit that he might be in the wrong.” This type of man, Wilson continues, is capable of carrying his threats out purely for the sake of appearances if he suspects they are not being taken seriously.
That’s the adjudication of Rotimi Amaechi.
A Tragic Legacy
And so, whenever I think of Amaechi, this near-comatose state of the Rivers State Judiciary is what comes to mind. Another governor would have found a way to reach a compromise for the sake of the greater good; politics, after all, involves negotiation and bargaining.
Bola Tinubu’s time as governor of Lagos provides a fair example. Although he faced constant bullying from the Obasanjo administration, he managed to stay in power effectively without tearing down the legislative, judicial or administrative structures of his state through a combination of patronage, tact and charisma. Amaechi, on the other hand, was content to have a dead judiciary rather than see his posturing negated.
Amaechi may have helped the APC to power, but he failed his own mandate as a governor. I certainly wish the best for him—and I hope he finds his peace with the world.
Meanwhile, with the transition in Abuja and other parts of Nigeria, there’s the question if we have seen the last of this type of egoistic view that fuels a man with the propensity to deal suicidal damage to structures that don’t fit into his personal worldview. We have, probably, learnt nothing from Rivers State. Nigerians, that is the media, civil society and the representatives of the legal system, allowed Amaechi’s self-aggrandizement to pass unchallenged, but next time, the casualties might be more serious than the independence of a state judiciary.