The Chairperson of Ikwerre Local Government Area of Rivers State, Samuel Nwanosike, said Governor Siminalayi Fubara lacks the power to constitute caretaker committees for local government councils in the state as a consequence of the Court of Appeal ruling in Port Harcourt, Friday.

The tenure of the elected council officials in the 23 local government areas of Rivers State expires this Monday, 17 June. They were sworn in three years ago during Governor Nyesom Wike’s administration.

However, no election has been held to elect new officials, indicating that Governor Fubara may inaugurate caretaker committees to run the councils.

Mr Nwanosike, an ally of former Governor Wike (now FCT minister), in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES on Saturday, said Governor Fubara cannot replace him and his colleagues at the councils with a caretaker committee. He predicated his argument on the ruling of the Court of Appeal.

The case at the Court of Appeal was filed by 27 pro-Wike lawmakers in Rivers who are challenging the lower court ruling, which empowered a three-member faction of the Rivers House of Assembly to run the assembly at their exclusion.

The three-member faction is loyal to Governor Fubara.

The Ikwerre council chairperson believes that the Court of Appeal pronouncement that parties in the case should maintain “the present status quo” also extends to the tenure of local councils in the state.

“The Court of Appeal said yesterday (Friday) you can’t do caretaker. So he (Governor Fubara) cannot also run the local government with civil servants; our laws do not recognise civil servants to run councils when we have elected officials,” Mr Nwanosike said.

“What made Governor Fubara not to conduct (local) election? Who created this crisis? Is it former Governor Wike in Abuja that stopped Mr Fubara from conducting the election?”

Asked if he and his colleagues were considering going to court to challenge Governor Fubara if he replaces them with a caretaker, Mr Nwanosike said the appellate court had settled the matter.

“With the ruling of the Court of Appeal that happened yesterday (Friday), I don’t think that me and my colleagues have anything to answer anybody. It had stated clearly that status quo be maintained before they ( Victor Oko-Jumbo-led three-person assembly) went and started shopping for their orders,” he added.

Appeal court ruling

The oil-rich Rivers has been enmeshed in a political crisis since last October after Messrs Wike and Fubara fell out because of a power struggle.

The rift between the two former allies manifested greatly in the state legislature, splitting the lawmakers into two factions – 27 members loyal to Mr Wike while the three-member assembly currently led by Victor Oko-Jumbo has the backing of Governor Fubara.

Shortly after emerging as speaker in a controversial circumstance, Mr Oko-Jumbo on 10 May obtained an interlocutory injunction from a State High Court in Port Harcourt restraining pro-Wike lawmakers from parading themselves as lawmakers.

The trial court also issued an order barring Governor Fubara from implementing all resolutions by the pro-Wike lawmakers from last December when their seats were declared vacant following their defection from the Peoples Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress.

Dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court, the pro-Wike lawmakers led by Martin Amaewhule filed an appeal asking the Court of Appeal to, among other requests, stay the execution of the order of the trial court.

The embattled lawmakers also requested the Court of Appeal to vacate the order of the trial court that restrained them from parading themselves as lawmakers.

They requested the court to restrain Fubara-backed lawmakers from parading themselves as lawmakers and also invalidate all resolutions taken by the three-member faction assembly.

However, the three-man panel of the Court of Appeal, led by Hamman Bakar, while ruling in the matter, stated thus: “A critical study of the prayers deals with the substance of the issues on appeal, and dealing or granting the same will be tantamount to determining the issues of appeal at his interlocutory state, which this court will decline to do.”

Justice Bakar, therefore, ordered parties in the suit to “maintain the present status quo” pending the determination of the appeal.

What does ‘to maintain the present status quo’ mean?

Like the 27 embattled lawmakers, the chairperson of local councils in Rivers State is loyal to Mr Wike.

The 27 lawmakers had, after President Bola Tinubu brokered a peace deal between Messrs Fubara and Wike last December, returned to the state assembly and continued legislative business with their rights and privileges restored, a key condition in the controversial peace deal.

It was not long before the peace deal collapsed, and the lawmakers amended the Rivers local government administration law and stripped Governor Fubara of the power to appoint caretakers for local councils in the state when the tenure of the current officials expires.

They had also extended the tenure of the serving council officials by six months if Governor Fubara failed to conduct local elections. The lawmakers overrodeGovernor Fubara’s veto of the bill.

The trial court, in its interlocutory injunction, had set aside all resolutions made by the pro-Wike lawmakers from December last year that their seats were declared vacant.

And the Court of Appeal, in deciding on the appeal filed by pro-Wike lawmakers, ordered parties to maintain the “present status quo” pending the determination of the appeal.

But Mr Nwanosike, the Ikwerre local council chairperson, told PREMIUM TIMES that the appellate court directive that parties should maintain the “present status quo” means that the court has validated the resolutions made by Mr Amaewhule-led assembly, including extending their tenure by six months, the basis he said Governor Fubara lacked the power to replace them with a caretaker.

In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES on Sunday, a legal practitioner, Uwemedimo Nwoko, said the appellate court’s ruling has no correlation with the tenure of local council officials in Rivers.

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Mr Nwoko, a senior advocate of Nigeria and former attorney general of Akwa Ibom State, said there is a clear difference between maintaining the “present status quo” as ordered by the appellate court and “status ante bellum”.

According to him, “ante” means “before”, and “antebellum” means “before the war or before the dispute arose.”

“If the court said maintain status quo simplicity without adding antebellum, it means it means the position as at the time you inform the court.

“If the court says ‘present status quo,’ it is the status at the time the order is made,” Mr Nwoko said, indicating the appellate court reference of the “present status quo” means at the time the ruling was given on Friday and not the position canvassed by Mr Nwanosike.

Mr Nwoko said the local administration in Rivers ends when their tenure expires on Monday, except Governor Fubara does not want to act on it.

Asked if the state government would constitute a caretaker to replace the serving council officials, Rivers State Commissioner for Information Joseph Johnson told PREMIUM TIMES that the state government would take the next step when the tenure expires.

“For now, we cannot discuss when their tenure has not elapsed,” Mr Johnson said.