The Cross River State Government is enmeshed in controversy over the appointment of a substantive chief judge of the state.
The most senior judge in the state, Akon Ikpeme, who ought to be appointed the chief judge in accordance with the Nigerian Constitution and legal tradition, has been disqualified by the state assembly allegedly because of her family ties with neighbouring Akwa Ibom.
Cross River governor, Ben Ayade, has instead nominated the second most senior judge, Maurice Eneji, to replace Ms Ikpeme as acting chief judge, an action which lawyers in the country said is unacceptable.
Mrs Ikpeme is of Akwa Ibom parentage. She was born in Calabar, Cross River, when Akwa Ibom was a part of Cross River. She is married to a man from Cross River, and has been working for decades as a judicial officer, including being a director of public prosecution, and a judge in Cross River.
Akwa Ibom was created out of Cross River on September 23, 1987, by the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida.
Cross River State House of Assembly, Tuesday, declined to confirm Mrs Ikpeme as the chief judge on the grounds that she could become a ‘security risk’ to the state because of her ties with Akwa Ibom.
The confirmation hearing, reportedly manipulated by the state governor, Mr Ayade, was characterised by a scandalous drama.
“When deliberation came, two opposing reports were presented for consideration indicating that the committee on judiciary that handled the matter may have been divided over sentiments and financial inducement as a faction of the committee led by its Chairman, Efa Esua cleared Ikpeme for confirmation, while another led by Godwin Akwaji (Obudu State constituency) and five others recommended that Ikpeme be rejected because she was not from Cross River State,” it was reported.
“Following the confusion, the House after heated debate rejected both reports and a committee of the whole house ultimately rejected her confirmation through a voice vote, a situation for which some members condemned the presentation of two reports,” as reported
Mba Ukweni, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, from Cross River, on Wednesday, noted that Cross River assembly would have voted overwhelmingly for Mrs Ikpeme’s appointment if the lawmakers were allowed to actually vote on it.
“She is passing through what she is passing through because the governor wants to make his brother a chief judge,” an angry Mr Ukweni said
The new acting chief judge, Mr Eneji, said to be related to Mr Ayade, is from the same senatorial district as the governor.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has thrown its weight behind Mrs Ikpeme and has called on the National Judiciary Commission (NJC) not to recognise Mr Eneji.
“This absurdity and naked injustice and prejudice must not be allowed to stand,” the NBA President, Paul Usoro, said in a statement Tuesday.
Mr Usoro, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, described as “unsavory political intrigues” the ‘collusion’ between Governor Ayade and the state assembly against Justice Ikpeme.
“Justice Akon Ikpeme is the most senior judge of the CRS Judiciary and next to His Lordship is Justice Maurice Eneji.
“The names of their Lordships were both recommended to the National Judicial Council, NJC, for appointment as the Chief Judge of the state, with Ikpeme J as the preferred candidate and Eneji J as the reserve candidate based, amongst others, on seniority.
“The NJC, in December 2019, interviewed both candidates, found them respectively suitable for the position but recommended Ikpeme J for appointment as the Chief Judge, being the most senior judge and not having any negative report howsoever.
“It was after the NJC’s recommendation that the political undercurrents and intrigues became full-blown and culminated in today’s purported swearing-in of Eneji J as the state’s acting Chief Judge,” the NBA statement said.
Meanwhile, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria has called on Governor Ayade and the Cross River Assembly to retrace their steps and allow Mrs Ikpeme be sworn in as the state chief judge.
What has happened to the judge is a “grave infringement” on her human rights, FIDA said in a statement on Wednesday.
The statement was signed by Rhoda Tyoden and Eliana Martins, the country vice president/national president and the spokesperson, respectively.
“It is heart-breaking to note that at this point of our struggle to stop all forms of discrimination in our society, we will be awakened to such discrimination on grounds of ethnicity and political zoning,” the group said.
The ‘indigenship’ and ‘security risk’ question
The travails of Mrs Ikpeme has brought to the fore, once again, the perennial conflict between citizenship and ‘indigenship’ in Nigeria.
Nigerians are discriminated against economically and politically within their own country on the grounds that they are not indigenes of a particular state even in situations where they have been residents for decades, paying local taxes and contributing to the community’s development.
The Nigerian Constitution forbids discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity against any Nigerian citizen.
“But even assuming that she is, or the records were to show her to be of Akwa Ibom State origin (which is not the position), did the CRS Governor and his Assembly men not swear to uphold the Nigerian Constitution, the provisions of which inter alia forbid discrimination on grounds of ethnic background?” the NBA said in its statement.
“Are they, the Governor and the House of Assembly men, upholding the sacred provisions of that Constitution by so brazenly discriminating against Ikpeme J in the appointment of the CRS Chief Judge?”
The NBA countered the argument by the Cross River assembly that Mrs Ikpeme could be a security risk.
“To the best of our knowledge, Ikpeme J had security clearance from the Department of State Security, DSS, the body saddled with handling security issues and appropriately screening candidates for judicial appointments – before her name was sent to the NJC by the CRS Government as the preferred candidate for the position of CRS Chief Judge in December 2019.
“Now that the CRS HoA is revising the DSS security clearance that was given to Ikpeme J prior to the NJC recommendation, neither the CRS Governor nor the HoA has supported their security risk assertion with any revised report from the DSS,” the NBA said.
“In any case, what security challenges could there possibly be between two neighbouring states whose indigenes historically come from the same pod? We know of no such fantasised security challenges and even if there were, that would not justify denying a fit and proper Ikpeme J the position of the State’s Chief Judge and committing an unconstitutional act.
“To be clear, Ikpeme J, upon her appointment as a judicial officer, swore to an oath to dispense justice to all manner of persons without fear or favor and without affection or ill-will. Nothing has been proffered by the CRS Governor and HoA to suggest that Ikpeme J has reneged howsoever from the obligations of that oath to warrant any concerns about the discharge of her functions as the State Chief Judge if she is so appointed.
“The CRS Judiciary is in any case not in a position to determine disputes, if any, between CRS and AKS the exclusive jurisdiction thereon belonging as it does, constitutionally, to the Supreme Court.
“Even where disputes between federating States deflect from that apex Court, they end up inexorably before the Federal High Court and not the State High Courts. The question does not therefore, even arise as to where Ikpeme J’s allegiance would be in the event of any conceivable dispute before His Lordship’s court between CRS and AKS.
“The administrative functions of the State Chief Judge do not also involve issues of security between Nigeria’s federating States, howsoever. In effect, whether from a judicial or administrative prism, Ikpeme J as the CRS Chief Judge would have nothing to do with purported security challenges, if any between CRS and AKS,” the NBA said.
The Commissioner for Information in the state, Asu Okang, was quoted as saying that “people were unnecessarily attacking the state government and Governor Ayade over Justice Ikpeme’s matter”.
Mr Okang said the state assembly has the constitutional right to reject Justice Ikpeme.
“A potential chief judge of the state shut down all the court, shut down the entire judiciary, mobilised thugs to the assembly, members of the assembly scampered for their safety, just to ensure that she was cleared (by the assembly).
“Are you aware that Justice Akon (Ikpeme) was asked as part of the screening exercise, ‘In case there was an issue between Cross River and Akwa Ibom State Your Lordship, who would you stand for?’ You know her response? She said, ‘I would stand down on the case and reassign it to someone else.’ A chief judge of the state?”
The commissioner said Cross River has “the highest number of political appointees who are not indigenes of the state in Nigeria”.
“There are over 200 of them who are non-Cross Riverians, very recently the appointment of special advisers Muslim affairs, first in the entire South-south.
“Cross River has two commissioners in the state executive council who have no ‘fatherly’ lineage to Cross River origin, members of Cross River State Executive Council, the apex body of decision-making and policy-making in Cross River State Government.
“The governor was the same governor who swore in Justice Akon (Ikpeme) as acting chief judge three months ago…. In this case, the NJC recommended, the governor forwarded to the assembly, and the assembly declined consent with a simple majority of 15 to eight.
“We are in a democracy. Fifteen members voted no to the confirmation, eight members voted yes to the confirmation. A clear democratic process! Are we saying that the House of Assembly has no such legislative powers?” the commissioner said.