Justice Ikpeme and The Cry For Justice

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Bassey Inyang writes that Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State and the state legislators are faced with a barrage of severe criticism for discriminating against Justice Akon Ikpeme

The Judiciary in Cross River State, and indeed Nigeria is currently swimming in a pool of succession controversy following the refusal of the Cross River State Government to swear in Justice Akon Ikpeme to the position of substantive Chief Judge of state.

Until Monday, March 3, this year, Justice Ikpeme had functioned as the acting Chief Judge of the state, following the retirement of the former Chief Judge, Justice Michael Edem, and was expected to be confirmed by the lawmakers following the forwarding of her name on January 9, 2020 by Governor Ben Ayade to the State House of Assembly for confirmation.

Rather than confirm Justice Ikpeme as expected, the lawmakers, who apparently were working on a script denied her the much-expected elevation to her rightful position of substantive Chief Judge of the state.

Instead, in less than 24 hours, Ayade swore in Justice Maurice Eneji as the acting Chief Judge, a development that has generated crisis of confidence in the state judiciary.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mba Okweni, who has been very obvious in canvassing the elevation of Justice Ikpeme on merit said from whatever angle one looks at it, the judge is the most qualified to become the substantive chief judge of the state.

“By our Constitution, tradition in the legal profession, and rules of practice, it is the most senior judge that will take over from the Chief Judge upon his retirement, first in an acting capacity, pending when the Governor will make a formal appointment. It is provided for in Section 271(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended). That is not an issue for debate. The profession does not tolerate a deviation from the practice.

“Hon Justice Akon was born here, married a Cross Riverian and bore her children here. Her father was the permanent secretary in Cross River and retired here.

“When Hon Justice Akon Ikpeme finished her School, she was employed by the Cross River State Ministry of Justice where she rose to a position of a Director of Public Prosecution and from there she was appointed a Judge of Cross River State Judiciary.

“Our rules allow women to choose where to work, she can choose to work in Akwa Ibom State, or choose to work where her husband comes from, Cross River or work at where her mother was from. These are the things put in place so justices may not be over discriminated,” Okweni said.

Justice Ikpeme had functioned in acting capacity for three months, and was expected to be confirmed as the substantive Chief Judge by the state House of Assembly, latest on the fateful Monday, but that expectation did not materialise as it was botched by the 25-member legislature, whose resolution to deny her confirmation was anchored on the argument that she hails from Akwa Ibom State by birth, and would constitute a security risk to Cross River State, where her husband hails from, should there a conflict between both states.

The decision of the lawmakers to deny Justice Ikpeme confirmation on the basis of ethnicity has generated many reactions for, and against the action of lawmakers, whom many accused of doing the bidding of the state governor, Professor Ben Ayade.

Those who accuse Ayade of truncating the inauguration of Justice Ikpeme as the state Chief Judge hold strongly to the view that from the outset the governor never hid his agenda of imposing a person from the Northern senatorial district where he comes from as Chief Judge of the state at all cost, even when it was obvious that rules of succession mandates the most senior judge to assume office.

Those who think along this line believe that Ayade swore in Justice Ikpeme as acting Chief Judge on December 3, 2019 due to pressure, stressing that for reasons best known to him Justice Maurice Eneji was the person he preferred to be the next Chief Judge of the state.

On November 29, 2019, Justice Michael Edem, while speaking during a valedictory court session heralding his retirement from service, tacitly unveiled his would be predecessor by announcing that based on precedent, the most senior judge being Justice Akon Ikpeme would be the next chief judge.

Referring to Section 271 (4), Justice Michael Edem said, “The constitution is clear and compact enough on the issue. It needs no further elucidation or embellishment there being no impediment whatever against Akon Bassey Ikpeme who so qualifies.

“It is not too late to recover the battered jurisprudential image of the state by the renunciation of the unfortunate saga before it is too late to salvage it from decomposition. Lastly on this web, let the culture of decency, proportion, and contentment rule the passion of waiting for one’s turn and not jumping the gun… Friction between the three arms of government, being revoltingly counter-productive, should never be heard in their coasts. From elementary physics, friction generates heat (and) heat can explode into a consuming fire.”

Perhaps, Justice Edem, was making a veiled reference to the governor’s inauguration of a parallel State Judicial Service Commission, and appointing retired Justice Bojor Ogar as chairman, when the substantive Chief Judge and statutory chairman of the commission was still in office.

It is generally believed that Ayade had inaugurated the parallel judicial service commission as one of the ways of circumventing protocol, by enlisting the support of the commission, in his determined efforts at ensuring that Justice Ikpeme, the rightful claimant to the position of chief judge was not sworn in.

In what has been variously described as inauguration based on purely ethnic sentiments, Ayade appointed and inaugurated only the Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Tanko Ashang, who working in league with him and the parallel Judicial Service Commission forwarded the name of Justice Maurice Eneji to the National Judicial Council, NJC, for appointment as acting Chief Judge, a request that did not scale through because Justice Ikpeme is the most senior judge in the state.

The letter addressed to the NJC after they the parallel judicial service commission met on Novermber 27, 2019 read in part, “In view of the earlier recommendation for Justice Ikpeme to be appointed as president of the Customary Court of Appeal, Justice Eneji is now the next most senior judge for the position of the acting Chief Judge of the state.”

The attempt to install Justice Maurice Eneji is believed in many quartets to have had the backing of Ayade irrespective of the fact that Justice Akon Ikpeme, aside from being the most senior judge, is married with children to a medical practitioner, Bassey Ikpeme, an Efik man from Odukpani Local Government Area, of Cross River State; and her mother is from Big Qua Town, Calabar Municipal Local Government Area of the state.

It was after the NJC rejected the request to swear in Justice Maurice Eneji, initially as acting Chief Judge that Ayade, perhaps, without an immediate option, inaugurated Justice Ikpeme as acting Chief Judge, and thereafter submitted her nomination and approval of the NJC to the State House of Assembly for confirmation as prescribed by the enabling laws for the appointment of a substantive chief judge of a state.

On Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019, while swearing in Justice Akon Ikpeme as acting Chief Judge, Ayade, swore to abide by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in his approach, and in discharging his duties with regards to the appointment of a substantive chief judge of the state to succeed retired Justice Michael Edem.

Ayade said, “I have full respect for section 153 of the 1999 constitution as amended, which provides for the setting up of the National Judicial Council to safeguard the judiciary from the executive….

“The National Judicial Council is the final authority on matters involving the appointment of the Chief Judge of the state. I also recognise the role of the governor as well, and I believe that for the interest and peace of the state, for the goodness of character and the warmness of the state, the right thing to do at this point is what the state has done by swearing in an acting Chief Judge….

In specific reference to the personal and professional competence of Justice Ikpeme, the governor said, “Given your extensive experience as I read out from your CV, it is obvious and clear that indeed your tenure as the acting Chief Judge of Cross River will see a tremendous improvement in our judicial system.”

Ayade may have used her inauguration as a decoy to buy time, and ward off prying eyes from the appropriate time he will strike, and finally scuttle her appointment as substantive chief judge.

And it appears, Ayade struck on March 3, 2020 when the state House of Assembly rejected Justice Akon Ikpeme’s nomination by playing the ethnic card that she was from Akwa Ibom by birth, and therefore a security risk to the state.

With the benefit of hindsight, given the intrigues that played out before Justice Ikpeme was inaugurated as acting chief judge, the refusal of the House of Assembly to confirm her for inauguration as the substantive chief judge, has been blamed on Ayade who has been accused of playing the ethnic card, and eventually manipulating and enlisting some members of the state legislature to simply rubber-stamp the plot he orchestrated at stopping her ascendency to the highest height in the state judiciary.

The role allegedly played by Ayade, and 25-member House of Assembly, some of whom are married to women whose origin is Akwa Ibom State, has received wide condemnation by individuals and groups.

In their reaction, a group, Concerned Gospel Ministers in Cross River, have condemned the denial of Justice Ikpeme’s right to occupying the office of the state chief judge.

The Chairman of the group, and former Chairman of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the state, Archbishop Archibong Archibong, and the group’s secretary, Rev. Okoi E. I. Okoi, wrote in statement, “Since Hon. Justice Akon Ikpeme was screened by the Department of State Services (DSS) and other relevant services without any form of indictment or blemish, there is no way Justice Ikpeme could constitute a security risk as postulated by the House of Assembly.

“Using ethnicity as a reason to disqualify Hon. Justice Ikpeme is the height of injustice to a woman who is married to a Cross Riverian and served the Cross River State meritoriously. Using ethnicity and security risk reasons to deprive Justice Ikpeme of her constitutional right is an act of wickedness on a loyal Cross Riverian who, for many years, had toiled for enhancement of Cross River State Judiciary.

“The rejection of Justice Ikpeme has tacitly injected the venom, fear, hate, distrust and uncertainty into the heart of non-indigenous women married to Cross Riverians, this alone has threatened the fabric of marital relationship of families and could lead to broken homes.

“The decision of the House of Assembly against our sister and mother, Justice Ikpeme, could work against the existing cross-border marriages in the future thereby negating principle of mutual co-existence and relationship between Cross River and it neighbours.

National Vice Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Hilliard Eta, a Qua by origin, as Justice Akon Ikpeme’s mother has also added his voice in condemning the rejection of the woman whom he described as a daughter of the Qua nation by tradition, and by extension a daughter of the entire Ejagam nation, which cuts across the entire state, from the South to the northern parts of the state.

Eta said going by the tradition of the Qua people she is a bonafide daughter of Cross River State, even if she wasn’t married to a man from the state.

Describing the non-confirmation of Justice Akon Ikpeme by the state House of Assembly on the grounds of ethnic discrimination as “a very ugly, shameful and disturbing development in the annals of Cross River State”, Eta said, “Obviously, this ugly scenario, if allowed to stand would have taken Cross River State many years backwards, and every lover of democracy should rise to the occasion and speak up against the glaring injustice and a broad day rape on the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

This culture has been in practice over time and Governor Ayade, cannot feign ignorance of the way of life of the people he claims to govern. Justice Ikpeme was born in Cross River State, after her education, she started her working life in Cross River State and resides in the State all her life.

Needless to say that Justice Ikpeme has used her intellectual prowess and wealth of experience for the development of the Cross River State. So the decision of Governor Ayade to interfere and meddle with the independence of the judiciary, by influencing the state House of Assembly to deny her confirmation as the Chief Judge of Cross River State, is highly vexatious and ill-advised. The laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria are very clear on the issues of marriage and the protection of the rights of women in marriage.

Former Attorney General of the state, Eyo Ekpo has totally faulted the decision of the House, and has accused Ayade of being responsible for the action of the lawmakers in refusing to confirm Justice Ikpeme as the Chief Judge of the state.

Ekpo emphatically stated that so long as the Cross River State judiciary was concerned, Justice Ikpeme is the de jure Chief Judge of the state.

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“That he failed to do so but rather compounded the House of Assembly’s illegality with his own illegality and unconstitutionality, by hastily swearing in that usurper named Maurice Eneji, has simply confirmed that he is the prime mover of this macabre puppet show and at the same time ended the totally lackluster career of Maurice Eneji as a judicial officer. Because, if the precedents of Abia and Rivers State are anything to go by, Maurice Eneji will be sacked by the National Judicial Council, which constitutionally exercises disciplinary authority over him.

“Before he committed that unconstitutional act did he seek the advice of his predecessors in office, his Attorney General, the Chief Justice of Nigeria who signed the letter to him nominating Justice Ikpeme? Did he seek wise counsel? No, of course not. Our all-knowing Professor couldn’t be bothered with such a waste of time as seeking advice.

“He has done what he has wanted to do for the past five or six months. Let us see where it will all end. All I know is this: Justice Akon Ikpeme is the de facto Chief Judge of Cross River State. Soon enough, the right things will be done and she will become the de jure Chief Judge under the Constitution of this country, the same one that made Professor Ben Ayade the Governor of our State, the same one under which he took his oath of office to obey and uphold that same Constitution. The right things will be done. Mark it,” Ekpo stated.

While swearing in Justice Maurice Eneji, Ayade reacted to the allegation of playing up the ethnic and tribal card to deny Justice Ikpeme confirmation.

“Cross River State is known for fairness, equity and what is fair. We are opposed to anything that is repugnant to natural justice. Our people are not known for bias and prejudices….

“Currently, I have over 20 non-Cross Riverians holding various appointments in my government. Some of the appointees are from far-flung states like Kano, Imo, Edo to as close as Akwa Ibom state, which has a commissioner in my cabinet. I am not known or given to sectionalism or tribalism. I believe in equity,” Ayade said.

The state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Tanko Ashang, has absolved Ayade of any blame and complicity in denying Justice Ikpeme confirmation, and the swearing in of Justice Maurice Eneji as the state acting chief judge.

Speaking on the development in Calabar, he condemned the various attack on Governor Ben Ayade over the non-confirmation of Justice Akon Ikpeme as chief judge, saying it was uncalled for.

He said all the major actors, the NJC, House of Assembly and Governor Ayade played their constitutional role effectively without blemish.

“Essentially, it is just a misunderstanding because everything was done right. Incidentally, it is incumbent on the attorney general of the state to advise the governor and I assure you everything was done by the books and according to due process.

“The legislature only did their work as a deliberative House and not everyone said ‘no’ to her confirmation. Some members said ‘yes.’ So, the outburst are just an overflow of emotions. All allegations and attacks on Governor Ayade are misplaced and uncalled for,” Ashang said.

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The laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria are very clear on the issues of marriage and the protection of the rights of women in marriage. Former Attorney General of the state, Eyo Ekpo has totally faulted the decision of the House, and has accused Ayade of being responsible for the action of the lawmakers in refusing to confirm Justice Ikpeme as the Chief Judge of the state. Ekpo emphatically stated that so long as the Cross River State judiciary was concerned, Justice Ikpeme is the de jure Chief Judge of the state