A Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, on Tuesday, again restrained the Nigeria Agip Oil Company from taking any action on the gas plant maintenance dispute with Arco Group.
Arco Group, formerly Arco Petrochemical Engineering Limited, is an indigenous oil and gas company with over three decades of operations in the country.
It employs of over 400 Nigerian engineers and technicians.
The company had dragged Agip, the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Conoco Philips Petroleum Nigeria Limited, and the National Petroleum Investment Management Services to court early in the year, stating that under the Nigeria Content Act, Agip was under obligation to award maintenance contract of OB/OB, Ebocha and Kwale gas plants to it.
Having successfully maintained the OB/OB, Ebocha and Kwale gas facilities for many years, Arco had argued that it had the prescribed equipment, machines and skilled manpower to execute the contract and further prayed the court to grant it several other declarative and injunctive reliefs.
But the court, presided over by Justice Lambo Akambi, directed parties to the case to maintain the status quo in the maintenance contract dispute for which he had previously ordered Agip to stay action until motion on notice was determined.
Justice Akanbi issued the order shortly before adjourning the case to October 26, for determination of jurisdiction.
The judge had given the order following an oral application by the lead counsel to Arco Group and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Wole Olanipekun.
Mr. Olanipeku had appealed to the court to restrain Agip from taking any action on the disputed contract to avoid jeopardising the job of over 300 Nigerians.
He particularly prayed the court to issue a documented order for both parties to maintain the status quo pending the determination of the case.
“My application is very harmless. It is our duty that when a matter is in court we make sure that none of us does anything that will affect the rest,” Mr. Olanipekun argued.
“The humble prayer we are making is that my Lord should advise parties to maintain the status quo. We are talking of about over 300 Nigerians earning their living. We are not saying that counsels should advise their clients, let the advice from the court of law be put in writing”
However, lead counsel to Agip, Charles Ajuya, who had earlier sought for an adjournment of the case, kicked against the oral application, saying counsels should rather be told to go and advise their clients to maintain statuesque.
After listening to the arguments of the two counsels, Justice Akonbi instructed that parties should maintain status quo.
“Since nobody is doing anything to frustrate the matter parties are advised to maintain status quo while the case is adjourned to 26 October 2015”, he said.
The judge had on June 2, ruled against Agip’s objection to the suit, saying the Italian oil firm failed to comply with the process of raising objection to jurisdiction.
Justice Akanbi had agreed with counsel to Arco Group that Agip needed to file a notice of appearance before filing a motion of objection.
The judge had, however, ruled then that despite his dismissal of the objection, he was bound to listen to the issue of objection to jurisdiction, and had called both counsels to address him, saying that it was important to establish jurisdiction to avoid waste of energy.
While adjourning the case, Mr. Akanbi appealed to both parties to continue to maintain the status quo until the October 26 date.
Agip legal team was led by by O.J Irerhime, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, while counsels to Arco Group is led by Wole Olanipekun.
Mr. Olanipekun took over from another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Beluolisa Nwafor.
Reacting to new order of the court, Mr. Olanipekun said that the judge had reaffirmed the key aspect of law, being that when a sensitive issue is before a judge and an order of restraint had been granted, no party should do anything that would affect the ‘res’ (substance) of the case.
By issuing the new order, Mr. Olanipekun said the presiding judge has strengthened the key principle which ensures that the substance of a case in dispute remains intact until the case is disposed of to avoid destroying the major aspect of a matter after ruling had been obtained.
He said the Nigeria Content Act was a very important piece of legislation meant to project Nigerians and create jobs for the citizens.
Oil industry leaders on both sides (oil companies and Nigerian contractors) have continued to show key interest in the outcome of the Arco versus Agip legal tussle because of its long-standing implications to the operations of multinationals and Nigerian companies.
The case is also being seen as a test of the intent and spirit of the Nigerian Local Content Act.
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