Maritime Project: Group Reacts As Chief Judge Says No Contempt Proceedings Against Amaechi, Others

The Citizens Advocacy for Social & Economic Rights has frowned on a fresh directive given by the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho, to the effect that the group has no proper contempt proceedings in its maritime project case against the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi.

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CASER sued Amaechi for allegedly bypassing due process in the selection of companies to implement the International Cargo Tracking Note (ICTN) in Nigeria.

THE WHISTLER earlier reported that Justice D. U. Okorowo had on December 21, restrained Amaechi and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) (2nd defendant) from appointing operators of the International Cargo Tracking System in Nigeria (A multi-million contract that tracks imports and exports within the country) pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed by CASER.

But CASER commenced contempt proceedings against the Minister after accusing him of disobeying the court by going ahead to engage the companies despite the restraining order.

In view of the Easter vacation of the court, counsels for Amaechi, the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), and two companies in the matter had urged the CJ to transfer the case to a vacation judge so that he could rule on a preliminary objection challenging the entirety of the case.

The CJ had initially declined stating that “since arguments were heard by Honorable Justice D.U. Okorowo on March 23, 2022 respecting alleged contempt and ruling scheduled for 9th May. It will hence be disruptive to contemplate a reassignment of the case”

However, in a letter dated April 14, signed by the CJ’s Special Assistant, Ambrose Unaeze Esq, Tsoho agreed that there is no contempt proceedings against Amaechi as alleged by the group, but reassigned only the pending notice of preliminary objection by the defendants and the application for joinder by an interested party to a vacation judge (during its Easter vacation).

He noted that the group’s main suit will remain with presiding judge, Justice Okorowo where the case was first heard.

The letter reads: “I am directed by the Hon. Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to refer to your letter of 13th April, 2022 in respect of the above subject matter.

“Having considered the responses as per your letters dated 13th April 2022, 1st April, 2022 respectively, it is noted as follows: that there is presently no indication of any proper or formal application for contempt proceedings.

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“The filing of Form 48 per se does not amount to a contempt application or committal proceedings, in the absence of Form 49 with evidence of the alleged contemnor’s disobedience obtained after service of Form 48.

“Therefore, in view of the extreme urgency emphasised with regard to the matter, there is good basis for referring the pending applications to be heard during the Easter vacation.

“Consequently, our letter dated 7 April, 2022 is cancelled. The pending notice of preliminary objection and the application for joinder in the suit (but not the suit itself) are reassigned to the vacation court for determination. Please accept the assurances of His Lordship, the Hon. Chief Judge.”

Reacting to the development, CASER’s Executive Director, Frank Tietie, stated that he is uncomfortable with the CJ’s directive, adding that the administration of justice should run smoothly without any undue pressure.

The group’s press release partly reads:

“At first, the Chief Judge agreed with the argument of AU Mustapha, SAN and declined the request to transfer the suit to the Vacation Judge, noting that “Besides the Easter is for 2 (Two) weeks and there is no guarantee that the vacation judge can gain any appreciable ground as to convey an advantage over the regular court in terms of hearing the suit”.

“However, in a dramatic swift and rapid turn of events, the same Chief Judge has now reversed his earlier decision and citing urgency based on national security as a good basis, has now ordered that the suit be transferred to the vacation court which is to now hear only the preliminary objections and the application for joinder by a party and not the substantive suit itself. We wonder and ask how can this be?

“A preliminary objection that seeks to terminate the suit cannot be heard without considering it along with the issues raised in the substantive suit itself. Therefore, the Honourable Chief Judge’s earlier reason for refusing to transfer the suit was tenable because a Vacation Judge whose duration of duty is for just 2 weeks will not be doing justice to the case which is already before a substantive judge.

“Thus, the directive that only the preliminary objection be heard by a vacation court leaving the main suit is aimed, in our opinion at terminating the suit without the court adjudicating on the real issues of corruption and incompetence of the companies, as it should be.

“Therefore, we dare to ask further questions as to why a vacation court should hear a preliminary objection that has already been filed before a sitting substantive judge? Does this not amount to forum shopping? What difference does it make if the substantive judge hears the preliminary objection on the 9th of May 2022 except to serve the private interest of the Honourable Minister of Transportation who is in a hurry to conclude the UN deal which we have alleged is ladened with violations of the Public Procurement Act and tending to incompetence, corruption, fraud and cronyism?”

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