The Case for Justice Ikpeme

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Denying Akon Ikpeme the position of substantive chief judge is untenable
The consistent refusal to confirm Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of Cross River State by the House of Assembly is symptomatic of the impunity with which public officials trample on the rights of citizens and disregard the constitution they swore to uphold. For the past six months, Cross River State has remained without a substantive Chief Judge despite repeated interventions by the National Judicial Council (NJC) that Justice Ikpeme be confirmed and sworn in. Her elevation is being thwarted because she hails from neighbouring Akwa Ibom State even when her husband is from Cross River State, and where she had been practising her career on the bench.

In a simplistic manner, the sordid drama in Cross River State could be viewed within the context of competition for space. But it goes beyond that as it shows how some of our leaders promote clannishness and sow seeds of division. In saner climes, people claim the state where they reside and fulfill all legal obligations. But in Nigeria today, citizens could have their rights casually circumscribed on the pretext of being ‘non-indigenes’ in a state some of them had lived and worked all their life. This particular case also depicts lawlessness because there are clear and definite constitutional provisions on such appointments based on the recommendation of the NJC that are being observed in the breach.

Sadly, Cross River State is not alone in this practice. It is commonplace that many Nigerians outside their ‘state of origin’ suffer all forms of discrimination and are denied certain rights and privileges. Women are the most discriminated against in this regard. A woman who has lived, married and worked for over 25 years, paying taxes and performing her civic duties and responsibilities to the ‘host state’ suddenly finds that she cannot claim a position rightfully earned.

The Ikpeme saga started in January following the retirement of the former Chief Judge, Justice Michael Edem. Although Ayade sent Justice Ikpeme’s name to the State House of Assembly for confirmation as prescribed by law, he was believed to have engineered the refusal by the lawmakers. The reason is that Justice Ikpeme hails from Akwa Ibom State by birth, and would “pose a security risk to Cross River State” should there be a conflict between both states. A day after the House declined confirmation, the governor swore in Justice Maurice Eneji as the acting Chief Judge on grounds that “law and nature abhor vacuum”. Since then, all the interventions by the NJC had been rebuffed by the State House of Assembly.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Federal Character Commission (Establishment Act) 2004. Section 2 of Part II of the principal act was substituted with new provisions which grant married women the option of choosing the indigeneship of either their father or husband’s state of origin. While the Senate is yet to concur with this important bill, since married women are considered indigenes of their husband’s state by virtue of the subsisting act, the law is still on Justice Ikpeme’s side. Instructively, going by section 271, subsection 5 of the 1999 constitution, Eneji’s acting capacity ended two weeks ago. Since the NJC declined to recommend him and his acting capacity cannot be extended, the judiciary in Cross River is now in limbo.

While what is happening in Cross River State highlights the negative consequences of making citizens ‘foreigners’ in their own country, the case of the Nigerian woman deserves special attention. Nothing perhaps speaks to the gender imbalance in Nigeria than the number of representation in the various arms of government both in the states and at the federal level. To now begin to exclude professionals among them fromtheir rightful position simply for archaic and oppressive reasons is unacceptable. Governor Ayade and the House of Assembly must be compelled to do the right thing by confirming and swearing in Justice Ikpeme as the Chief Judge of Cross River State.

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Ikpeme’s case depicts lawlessness because there are clear and definite constitutional provisions on such appointments