Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State is blaming the Supreme Court for the delay in resolving the legal dispute over the Value Added Tax (VAT) between the state and the Federal Government.
Wike, speaking during the presentation of a book entitled: Contemporary Essays on Law & Practice in honour of retired Justice Anwuri Ichegbu Chikere of the Federal High Court, labeled the action of the apex court lethargic.
Wike also aimed a diatribe at the National Judicial Council (NJC) for allegedly becoming a willing tool to intimidate judges.
“While the entire country is waiting for its speedy resolution in the national interest, the Supreme Court of Nigeria remains lethargic in hearing this very important matter, thereby unjustifiably aiding the Federal Government to continue to enforce its illegal and oppressive VAT policy on the polity,” Wike said.
The governor said judicial independence suffered greatly when judges were subjected to summary trials and preconceived indictments by the NJC on the promptings of persons or parties with vested interest in the outcome of the litigation processes.
His words: “By doing so, the National Judicial Council (NJC) may be joining the league of unholy forces now assailing the independence and reputation of judicial officers across the country.
“My candid opinion is that the National Judicial Council must tread with utmost caution in matters of judicial complaints and discipline lest it wittingly or unwittingly turns itself into another bully to be feared rather than being respected in its roles as both the headmaster and guardian angel of the nation’s judiciary,” he said.
The governor said no nation could be seen and reckoned with to be free, fair and just without a strong, independent and functional judiciary.
He also observed that no democracy could survive, flourish and deliver social and economic progress without a courageous, efficient and effective judiciary.
Wike, himself a lawyer, asked judicial officers to remember the time when the nation’s judiciary was truly independent, manned by men and women of courage, who were publicly trusted to deliver justice fairly and equally to everyone.
He said: “There was also a time when our judges were respected the world over for their independence, courage and credibility.
“Again, time was that decisions from Nigerian courts were widely accepted and celebrated across the world as timeless models of judicial precedents.
“But today, what is your candid assessment of the character and integrity of our country’s judiciary, which is becoming more confusing and painfully contradictory?”
Wike listed factors eroding confidence in the judiciary as case backlogs, poor case management and rampant delays in the administration of justice.
He said: “There are also serious concerns about the apparent lack of courage among several judges and the declining quality of judgments from our courts at all levels.
“Having succumbed to fear, intimidation and blackmail, most of our judges are being compelled to tailor their judgments towards the wishes and desires of powerful political interests.”
Wike, however, commended the few judicial officers who he said have kept hope alive with their extraordinary courage.
He spoke highly of what he called the years of meritorious judicial service of Justice Chikere, saying as a judge, he demonstrated absolute independence of mind.
He also noted that Justice Chikere exhibited excellent judicial temperament of being calm always, courteous and compassionate towards everyone, including her colleagues, lawyers and litigants in or outside the office.
The Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, Rivers State had, in a landmark judgment last year, held that it was unconstitutional for the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) to collect VAT and personal income tax in Rivers State.
Following the judgment, the Rivers and Lagos State Governments introduced separate laws conferring on them the right to collect VAT.
But the Court of Appeal headed by Haruna Tsammani on September 10 last year issued orders that all parties should maintain the status quo.
Dissatisfied by the action, the Rivers State Government approached the Supreme Court to challenge the decision of the Appeal Court.
In his remarks at yesterday’s book presentation, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Terhemba Tsoho, represented by Justice Binta Nyanko, noted that Justice Chikere served the judiciary meritoriously from the bench for 19 years with her health and integrity intact.
Tsoho said keeping pace with a long judicial career in Nigeria was no mean task and Justice Chikere weathered the adversities and challenges successfully.
He said: “As we gather to celebrate this outstanding judicial officer for her years of impressive service to the nation, the occasion evidently climaxes the fame attribute that excellence and selfless service are virtues worthy of emulation.
“Hon. Justice Chikere is notably calm and collected and is much like a mother to many colleagues.
“As a Christian, she is fervently adherent to the tenets of Christ, especially love for humanity. He has been remarkably humble, peaceful, friendly, humane, honest, generous, incorruptible and hardworking.”
In her response, Justice Chikere said her sojourn in the federal judiciary made her a better person.
She expressed gratitude to Dr. Peter Odili, who was accompanied by his wife, Justice Mary Odili of the Supreme Court, for allowing her to be transferred from the State Judicial Civil Service to the Federal Judicial Service.