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NJC, Cross River government flex muscles over chief judge appointment

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For six months running Cross River State has remained without a substantive Chief Judge as the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the State government flex muscles.

Twice the NJC had recommended that the Cross River State government should confirm and swear in Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the state given the fact that she is the most senior Judge in the state.

But twice the state through the State House of Assembly through the said manipulation of the governor, Senator Ben Ayade declined to confirm Ikpeme claiming she is from Akwa Ibom State and constitutes a security risk and went ahead to put forward the second in seniority, Justice Maurice Eneji for the governor to swear in as acting Chief Judge.

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On March 2, 2020, after much intrigues, ethnic sentiments and alleged financial inducement, the Cross River State House of Assembly rejected the confirmation of Justice Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the state and put forward Justice Eneji.

Following the rejection of Justice Ikpeme by the House, the State governor on March 3 swore in Justice Eneji as the Acting Chief Judge of the state saying it was “imperative as law and nature abhor vacuum” and subsequently the state government forwarded his name to the NJC for a formal clearance and recommendation to be appointed as the substantive Chief Judge of the state.

But the NJC had since written to the state government declining to recommend Eneji on grounds that he is the number two judge in the state insisting that their earlier recommendation on IKpeme stands hence the state government should reconsider Ikpeme’s case and appoint her as the substantive Chief Judge as the basis for her rejection by the House is not tenable.

It was gathered that NJC may not be pleased with the unnecessary and undue interference by the state government most especially when same person was said to have been presented two years ago to be screened and recommended for the number one position even though he was number four then when the immediate past Chief Judge, Justice Michael Edem was presented as number one for recommendation by the NJC.

Thus as the three months acting capacity of Eneji will officially end on June 3, the State House of Assembly sat on June 2 to consider the confirmation of Ikpeme but for the second time they declined to confirm her.

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The Secretary to the State Government, Tina Agbor in a letter to the Speaker and read on the floor of the floor of the House, dated May 29, 2020, and titled: “RE: Confirmation of Hon Justice Akon Ikpeme”, reads: “I am directed by His Excellency, the Governor, Senator Prof Ben Ayade, to convey the attached correspondence from the National Judicial Council on the above for your consideration and further 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 created in our Judiciary and the concomitant effects in the entire political space as a result thereof. Please accept the kind regards of his Excellency, the Governor.”

However, the House presided over by the Speaker, Mr Eteng Williams did not read the letter from the NJC, but in a voice vote rejected the Governor’s letter and that of the NJC, saying it would not reverse its earlier decision on Ikpeme.

Chatting with some newsmen shortly after session, the Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Public Petition, Public Service Matters and Conflict Resolution, Mr Efa Nyong Esua, feared that the rejection of Ikpeme for the second time was not in the best interest of the State.

He said: “I got to know about the letter today during the Executive session. It wasn’t addressed to my committee. Their contention is that since the NJC cannot overrule itself, the House should not also overrule itself.

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“There have been cases like this in other States like Rivers and Abia, the much I know is that you cannot have a Chief Judge without being recommended by the NJC. Also, the tenure of the acting Chief Judge, Hon Justice Maurice Eneji, ends today and according to their letter, there shouldn’t be any vacuum. It means that by tomorrow, somebody has to be sworn-in but the question is: who are you going to swear in?

“This development will make the legal profession to be very robust. I think that the drama is just unfolding. My only worry is that the House of Assembly should not have been dragged into these unnecessary controversies in my time. The implication of this action is that the Judiciary in Cross River state is thrown into confusion.”

The 3rd Judge in the state hierarchy, Justice Eyo Efiom Ita, was being considered as acting Chief Judge but our sources said the Justice Ita may have distanced himself from the entire exercise said to be manipulated by the governor who may swear in the 4th in seniority.

When the matter came up three months ago, some of the House members were alleged to have collected N500, 000 bribe each from the governor not to clear Ikpeme but when this allegation came up then, the Special Adviser Media and Publicity to the Governor, Mr. Christian Ita had denied all saying, “Governor Ayade has not given anybody one kobo. You know politics is never devoid of name calling. The whole thing is rubbish”.

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Similarly, the House members had denied the bribe allegation as the member representing Biase State constituency Mr. Ogbor Ogbor Udop had said it was not true that he was paid such an amount saying, “I have also heard about the said gratification of N500, 000 but nobody has offered me any kobo for anything, but why should anybody offer or accept bribe to work against the dictates of the law?

Chairman, House Committee on Information, Mr. Francis Bassey Asukwo of Odukpani State Constituency, had in a briefing with some newsmen then denied the allegation against members describing it as “destructive speculations.”

On the implication of all these, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Mba Ukweni said, “we learnt this time around the governor has instructed the House to turn down the request for Ikpeme’s confirmation without any reason and we also learnt Justice Eyo Ita the number three man was lobbied to take over but he turned down the request.

By constitution, Eneji’s acting capacity by section 271 sub 5 ends since the NJC declined to recommend him and the constitution says his acting capacity cannot be extended. They are said to be plotting to move to number four in the rank. Is this not embarrassing for lawmakers who should know better?”

He said “by following the governor sheepishly and foolishly is to ridicule the state because if the NJC does not accept who you are as a Chief Judge or even as a Judge, the governor can not make appointments because they (NJC) are the ones to make recommendation for their appointments and they are the ones to pay them.

“So everything as concerned to the working of a judge is controlled by the NJC and I can now see the wisdom in the makers of that provision in the constitution because it was not originally there. It keeps the NJC at the apex otherwise the governors in this country because of their political and selfish reasons would have completely messed up the NJC”.

Justice Ikpeme schooled in the state since early seventies, joined the Ministry of Justice 1982 to date and got married to Dr. Bassey Ikpeme of Eniong Abatim in Odukpani Local Government Area of Cross River State in 1986.

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