Again, Cross River Government Dares NJC

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Ben Ayade

Who blinks first between Cross River State government and the National Judicial Council over the refusal of the state’s House of Assembly to confirm Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive chief judge for the second time? Davidson Iriekpen reports

The Cross River State House of Assembly for the second time on Tuesday rejected the request by the National Judicial Council (NJC) seeking the confirmation of Justice Akon Ikpeme as the state’s substantive chief judge.

On March 2, after serving as acting chief judge of the state for three months, the lawmakers had rejected a similar request from the NJC on the grounds that Justice Ikpeme was not an indigene of the state and therefore constituted “security risk.”

Instead, they approved the appointment of Justice Maurice Eneji as the Acting CJ of the state. However, from indications, through a second letter penultimate week to the lawmakers, the NJC insisted on Justice Ikpeme’s confirmation for her to function as substantive chief judge of the state.

Based on the council’s insistence, on May 29, 2020, Governor Ben Ayade through Secretary to the State Government, Tina Agbor, wrote the lawmakers appealing to them to do the needful.

The letter titled, ‘Re-affirmation of Honourable Justice Akon Ikpeme,’ said, “I am directed by His Excellency, the Governor, Prof. Ben Ayade, to convey the attached correspondent from the National Judicial Council on the above for your consideration and other necessary action.

“You are to treat the above with the urgency it deserves, in view of the emergency situation we find ourselves in our world and to ensure that there is no vacuum in our judiciary and the concomitant effect in the entire political space as a result thereof. Please, accept the kind regards of His Excellency, the Governor.”

After the letter was presented to the lawmakers, the Leader of the House, Peter Odey representing Ogoja State Constituency, moved a motion which was seconded by the Deputy Leader, Hon. Fred Osim representing Ikom (I) state Constituency, to the effect that the assembly could not reverse itself on the issues bordering on the confirmation of Justice Ikpeme, because there was no fresh information on the issue.

“The correspondence from the governor to the House is not new, and had been treated before,” Odey said.
There was, however, no counter motion, prompting the Speaker of the assembly, Eteng Jonah Williams, to put the motion to voice vote and and those who were in support of the motion were in the majority, the speaker ruled.

Speaking to journalists after the sitting, the Chairman, House Committee on Judiciary, Effa Esua, said he was sad over the resolution of the assembly, adding that the lawmakers’ decision has thrown the judiciary into confusion and further crisis.

“It is sad and unfortunate that it is happening in a House that I am part of. It is the resolution of the House but as they say, we the minority have had our say and the majority have their way,” he said.
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. In 1987, the state was split into two – Cross River State and Akwa Ibom State – and by virtue of her father being from Akwa Ibom State, her state of origin changed.

She is married with children to an indigene of Cross River State. She started her career in Cross River State Ministry of Justice and rose to the position of Director of Public Prosecution and later appointed as a judge in the state. She has served meritoriously and despite several challenges along the way, has had various accomplishments 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 has consistently claimed Cross River State, not Akwa Ibom State, as state of origin in all relevant records, by virtue of her marriage to a bona fide Cross Riverian.

With the retirement of the former Chief Judge, Justice Michael Edem, last December, in compliance with Section 271 (1) of the Constitution, which states, “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.”

However, following political undercurrents and intrigues, the state’s assembly rejected her confirmation as substantive chief judge of the state on the grounds that she was not originally from Cross River by birth even though she is married to an indigene and the fact that she would constitute a security risk to the state.

Signs that there was trouble over her confirmation first played out on February 28, the day slated to deliberate on her confirmation, when most members of the assembly stayed away from sitting, the day slated to deliberate on her confirmation.

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 the judge 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 precedent, 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 precedent. We need to strengthen institutions and avoid sowing seeds of ethnicity and disunity in the House.”

Though the non-confirmation of Justice Ikpeme has been blamed on the state’s assembly, many people believe that it is Ayade that is behind the plot. Knowing the overwhelming influence governors have on state assemblies, analysts noted if the governor did not support the move, the lawmakers would not have had the effrontery to reject NJC’s nominee.

They wondered what Cross River State has against Justice Ikpeme. The 1999 Constitution does not emphasise indigeneship. Instead, the constitution talks about citizenship of Nigeria, making one to wonder where the state derives the authority to reject Justice Ikpeme on the ground of ethnicity or state of origin.
Other examples abound of judges like Amina Augie and Mary Peter-Odili who rose to the peak of their career using their husbands’ state of origin.

Observers equally wondered how the Cross River State government concluded that Justice Ikpeme would pose a security risk to the state when she got security clearance from the Department of State Services (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 state government as the preferred candidate for the position of chief judge in December 2019.

To date, they are wondering 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?

This is why her rejection had elicited reactions from a cross-section of eminent Nigerians, civil and non-governmental organisations.

Specifically, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) vehemently condemned the action of the state, describing it as an absurdity, naked injustice discriminatory and gross violation of human rights, which must not be allowed to stand.

They called on the NJC to ensure that Justice Eneji is not confirmed as the substantive chief judge of the state.

For now, Nigerians are anxiously watching to see if the NJC, under Justice Tanko Muhammad, would allow such discrimination and impunity by the Cross River State government to stand. In Rivers and Osun states, the council under Justice Aloma Mukhtar vehemently resisted every attempt by the states to alter the hierarchical seniority in the judiciary.

In Rivers particularly, under former Governor Rotimi Amaechi, the crisis that led to the rejection of Justice Daisy Okocha, who was NJC’s choice for the state and Justice Peter Agumagu, the state government’s choice, led to the shutting down of the state judiciary for almost two years.

This is why observers are of the view that the NJC should not allow Cross River State government to get away with its impunity, discrimination and unconstitutional act, as doing so would make other states of the federation to do the same.