Davidson Iriekpen writes that Nigerians are anxiously waiting to see the outcome of the confrontation between Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State and the National Judicial Council over the appointment of the state Chief Judge
About six years after the face-off between the National Judicial Council (NJC) and then Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State over the appointment of the Chief Judge of the state, a similar crisis may be brewing in Cross River State where Governor Ben Ayade has turned down Justice Akon Ikpeme who was recommended by the council as the substantive Chief Judge of the state.
Following the retirement of the former Chief Judge of the state, Justice Michael Edem, last December, the state Judicial Service Commission (JSC) based on the hierarchical seniority of the NJC, presented Justice Ikpeme as the Acting Chief Judge of the state pending compliance with Section 271 (1) of the Constitution, which states that “the Governor of the State shall make the appointment of a person to the office of Chief Judge of a State on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of the appointment by the House of Assembly of the state.”
After acting for three months, the state House of Assembly on Monday last week refused to confirm Justice Ikpeme in substantive capacity. Instead, it approved the appointment of Justice Maurice Eneji as Acting CJ of the state.
Until most members of the assembly stayed away from sitting on February 28, the day slated to deliberate on her confirmation, many did not know that something was wrong with Justice Ikpeme’s nomination.
Eventually when deliberation started on March 3, two opposing reports were presented for consideration indicating that the Committee on Judiciary that handled the matter was divided 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 Justice Ikpeme be rejected because she is not from Cross River State.
Following the confusion, the assembly after a heated debate, rejected both reports and a committee of the whole ultimately rejected her confirmation through a voice vote.
But a member of the assembly representing Bakassi constituency, Ekpo Ekpo Bassey, cautioned his colleagues against setting a bad precedence, saying, “This is my fifth year in the House and I have never seen two reports being presented to the House from a committee. The House has to be on the side of justice at all times and avoid setting a bad precedence. We need to strengthen institutions and avoid sowing seeds of ethnicity and disunity in the House.”
Justice Ikpeme was born in the old Cross River State. She had all her education in the state. In fact, her father was a Permanent Secretary in the old Cross River State and retired there. In 1987, the state was split into two – Cross River State and Akwa Ibom State – and by virtue of her father being Akwa Ibom State, her state of origin changed. She is married to an indigene of Cross River State and blessed with children. She started her career with the Cross River State Ministry of Justice and rose to the position of Director of Public Prosecution and further appointed a judge in the state. She has served meritoriously and despite several challenges along the way has accomplished and received a commendation from the former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa for her immense contribution towards achieving a sustainable and independent democracy in Nigeria.
To the knowledge of the state apparatchik, Justice Ikpeme had, consistently entered her State of Origin as Cross River State and not Akwa Ibom State, in all relevant records, by virtue of her marriage to a bona fide Cross Riverian.
With the retirement of the former CJ, Justice Edem, the state government recommended Justice Ikpeme and Justice Eneji to the NJC for appointment as the Chief Judge of the state. The council, in December 2019, interviewed both candidates and found them respectively suitable for the position but recommended Justice Ikpeme for appointment as the chief judge, being the most senior judge and not having any negative report.
However, following political undercurrents and intrigues, the state assembly rejected her confirmation as substantive chief judge of the state on the excuse that she was not from the state by birth although married to a Cross River man and the fact that she would constitute a security risk to the state.
Many are wondering that if the state government knew that it would in future deny her anything on account that she is from Akwa Ibom State, why was she not told before she entered the civil service or advised to transfer her service to Akwa Ibom long ago.