Bassey Inyang in Calabar
The battle line appears drawn between the Cross River State Governor, Prof. Ben Ayade and some members of the state bar as a result of the growing suspicion of what they perceive as surreptitious moves by the governor to supplant a replacement for the outgoing Chief of the State, Justice Michael Edem who retires today with a surrogate.
THISDAY authoritatively gathered that things got to a head last Wednesday at a meeting presided over by the governor where he allegedly turned on Justice Edem who was a special invitee to tongue lash him in the presence of his aides over his refusal to back his preferred choice of a successor.
The governor’s anger is not unconnected to Justice Edem’s unrepentant resolve not to support the governor’s surrogate and chose instead to voice his indignation at the idea during the opening of the current legal year in Calabar.
Citing constitutional provisions as enunciated in Section 271 (4) of the Constitution, Justice Edem noted that, “by the provision of the constitution, it calls for no debate as to who is the most senior Judge of the Cross River State High Court after me. Indisputably, the most senior Judge, for the avoidance of any illusion, is Justice Akon Bassey Ikpeme, admitting of no sentiment”.
THISDAY gathered that the outburst by the Chief Judge at that auspicious occasion riled the governor who then decided to ambush the Chief Judge by inviting him to grace the inauguration of the reconstituted state Judicial Service Commission. On realising the set-up, the Chief Judge reportedly worked out of the event telling journalists that he would not be party to what is unconstitutional or has no basis in law.
However, at the last Wednesday’s meeting, which held at the executive council chambers of the governor’s office, the governor, who was presiding, reporting extended a special invitation to the chief judge on the pretext that the agenda of the meeting was to discuss the welfare of the newly appointed magistrates and other judiciary staff among other labour union issues.
According to a source who was privy to developments at the council chambers who would not want to be mentioned “Governor Ayade tongue-lashed the outgoing Chief Judge at the meeting, saying he had asked him to support his decision to put forward Justice Maurice Eneji, who was called to Bar in 1983, as against Justice Akon Ikpeme who was called to Bar two years earlier in 1981. Ikpeme is the next in line as the most senior Judge to take over constitutionally from the outgoing Chief Judge.”
According to our source, “Governor Ayade accused the Chief Judge of deciding to take sides with the National Judicial Council, NJC and other members of the Judicial Service Commission as against his interest as the governor.
“He (the governor) assured the Chief Judge that he has his interest protected and reminded the outgoing Chief Judge that when he came in, there were many petitions against his appointment as the Chief Judge but he jettisoned all and nonetheless appointed him as Chief Judge.”
He went further to disclose that, the “governor said, when the Chief Judge ascended the seat as Chief Judge, the monthly imprest of the State Judiciary was N7million but he (the governor) raised it to N25million. Governor Ayade decried the recent Ganisee Order issued by a judge of the State High Court against the state government accounts and noted that of recent, he deliberately failed to release the monthly imprest accruing to the Judiciary as he also has ganisheed the imprest of the Judiciary”.
In his reaction, Senior Special Adviser to Governor Ayade on Media and Publicity, Christian Ita denied knowledge of all that is alleged against his boss but confirmed that the meeting held and the Chief Judge was in attendance.
“It wasn’t only the chief judge. Every union whose members were removed from the payroll was invited. It was meant to find a resolution. Even lawyers from the Ministry of Justice affected were also there. So it wasn’t about the Chief Judge”
Also giving an insight of the meeting, the Special Adviser to the Governor on Payroll matters, John Odey who was also in the meeting spoke of other decisions at the meeting but pleaded that he be left out of the issue concerning the Chief Judge. “That is a different matter, I cannot talk on it. Please leave me out of it”.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in the state, Mba Ukweni did not mince words in his response over Governor Ayade’s confrontation with the state chief Judge.
Ukweni said it was unfortunate the governor opted instead to confront the Chief Judge. According to him, “I am happy the Chief Judge did not respond to him. But let me say this if the governor succeeds as he is boasting, by putting someone as the next Chief Judge against the constitutional provisions, I will never appear before such a Chief Judge and will personally mobilise other lawyers to boycott that court,” Ukweni said.