The Federal High Court in Abuja has turned down an application by the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, to reassign a case involving Nigeria’s maritime security contract to a vacation judge.
The case about International Cargo Tracking Note (ICTN) was filed by a civil society organization, the Citizens Advocacy for Social & Economic Rights (CASER).
The ICTN is an electronic cargo verification system that monitors the shipments of seaborne cargoes and enables a real-time generation of vital data on ships and cargo traffic in and out of Nigeria.
President Muhammadu Buhari approved the national security-sensitive maritime contract to a medical company nominated by Mr Amaechi in a process the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) said was “embarrassing and illegal.”
CASER had on December 13,2021 filed a suit against Mr Amaechi, Attorney-General of the Federation, and the BPP over irregularities in the award of the sensitive contract.
Two firms – Medtech Scientific Limited and Rozi International Nigeria Limited – that got the contract are joined in the suit as defendants.
On December 17, 2021, following an ex parte application by CASER, the court restrained all the defendants from taking any further steps concerning the appointment of operators of ICTN.
The court on March 23 okayed the filing of a contempt suit against the minister after it was alleged by CASER’s lawyer, Abdulhakeem Mustapha, that Mr Amaechi violated the court order.
The judge, after listening to the lawyers, directed the suspension of the main suit to give way to the hearing of the contempt suit which was slated for May 9, a date agreed by all the parties.
However, in an application filed by his lawyer, Lateef Fagbemi, Mr Amaechi, through a letter on March 31, asked the judge to reassign the case to a vacation judge so the hearing can commence on April 8.
He cited the importance of the scheme and the loss of revenue as the reason why the hearing should be made urgent.
“Our client reminded us that the most important and urgent reason why Mr. President gave approval for the immediate reimplementation of the ICTN scheme was not only to put an end to the huge loss of revenue the Government of Nigeria has been suffering over time but als to address the security challenges confronting the country as a result of the abrogation of the scheme,” the minister’ lawyer said.
“It is a matter of common knowledge that the economy of the country has been facing serious financial and security challenges. It is, therefore, very important that a suit like this that is designed to put a brake to the wheel of the efforts of the Federal Government to regenerate the economy and revamp the security architecture of the country deserves to be given urgent hearing.
“We are aware that Your Lordship had fixed Easter vacation for the period 8th April, 2022 to 25th April, 2022. In Your Lordship’s circular dated 22nd March, 2022, Your Lordship approved that Abuja Judicial Division, inter alia, shall remain open during the period for cases of extreme urgency.”
He said it was extremely urgent that the “weighty” preliminary issues raised concerning the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the case be heard immediately.
“This letter is therefore to humbly pray My Lord, the Chief Judge, to reassign this case to the vacation Judge to immediately hear and deliver ruling on the preliminary objection which it is obvious should put any end to the entire sult. We humbly pray for such hearing on 8th April, 2022,” the lawyer said.
In response, the judge in an April 7 letter, through his Special Assistant, Ambrose Unaeze, declined the application because the May 9 hearing was agreed to by all parties.
“I am to inform you that there have been counter posturing regarding the re-assignment or otherwise of this matter. It is discerned that arguments were heard by Hon. Justice D.U Okorowo on 23rdMarch, 2022 respecting alleged contempt and ruling scheduled for 9th May, 2022. It will hence be disruptive to contemplate a re-assignment of this Case.
“Besides, the Easter Vacation 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 of the suit. In the circumstance, the Hon. Chief Judge declined the application,” it read.