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Intrigues! As Cross River’s crave for indigenous Chief Judge Robs Ikpeme of appointment

By Anietie Akpan, Deputy Bureau Chief, South South
08 March 2020   |   3:09 am
Days after the Cross River State House of Assembly (CRSHA) turned down the confirmation of Justice Akon Ikpeme, as the state’s substantive chief judge on the ground that she hails from Akwa Ibom State

Raises Constitutional Questions

Days after the Cross River State House of Assembly (CRSHA) turned down the confirmation of Justice Akon Ikpeme, as the state’s substantive chief judge on the ground that she hails from Akwa Ibom State, hence constitutes a security risk to the state, condemnation has continued to trail the action.

The latest is the one from some aggrieved women groups under the umbrella of Mboho Iban Isong Efik Association (MIIEA), led by Senator Florence Ita-Giwa.

After Ikpeme, who is married to an Efik man from Cross River State was rejected by the Assembly on March 2, 2020, Governor Ben Ayade immediately swore in a junior judge, Justice Maurice Eneji, as the new acting Chief Judge on March 3, 2020, without recourse to the National Judicial Council (NJC).

From the beginning, it was obvious some forces were at play. Ayade had set up a parallel Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which preferred Justice Maurice Eneji. But since Ikpeme is the most senior judge in the state, this was rejected by another JSC, headed by then Chief Judge, Justice Michael Edem.

Before what played out at the state Assembly, it was alleged that Ayade never wanted Ikpeme as he feared that she would not do his biddings. With the governor, the state’s Attorney General, and now the acting Chief Judge all coming from the northern part of the state, many are suspecting a hidden agenda, especially in cases concerning the state government.

Ikpeme bid to be sworn in as acting Chief Judge last December was not without high drama and intrigues, which eventually necessitated the intervention of the NJC and subsequently, the Chief Justice of the Federation, who directed that she be inaugurated.

Left with no choice, Ayade on January 8, 2020, forwarded Ikpeme’s name to the Assembly for confirmation, but the Speaker’s Office, which received the letter on January 9 sat on it until February 25, when the member representing Bakassi State Constituency, Dr. Ekpo Ekpo Bassey raised the matter on the floor of the Assembly and was supported by the member representing Calabar Municipality and Chairman, House Committee on Judiciary, Public Petition, Public Service Matters and Conflict Resolution, Mr. Efa Esua, who expressed concerns over the collateral effect of not having a substantive Chief Judge in the state saying: “My worry is the attendant effect on the state because we are not going to have a Chief Judge, and no judge will be appointed to either the Court of Appeal or the Federal High Court.

“Even the purported local government elections they want to conduct, and acting Chief Judge will not set up a petition tribunal, which ought to have been in place 30 days to the election, and must be done by a substantive Chief Judge.”

Reliable sources in the Governor’s Office said the delay in tabling Ayade’s letter before the House was a deliberate ploy to frustrate Ikpeme, but that strategy failed, when Dr. Bassey brought up the issue on February 25 and was supported by Mr. Efa Esua, even though he was shouted down by the Speaker, who claim the matter was not part of the agenda for the day. He also denied knowledge of such a letter from the governor.

When the issue came up again on February 28, 2020, the House again failed to confirm Justice Ikpeme’s appointment, as most members surprisingly stayed away from proceeding.

Consequently, the Judiciary Committee report could not be tabled in the tension-soaked Assembly, which had security men taking strategic positions around the complex.

Accordingly, the House leadership ordered that the House reconvened on March 2, 2020, to receive the report on the Chief Judge’s confirmation from the committee that had earlier screened Ikpeme.

Ahead of the March 2 sitting, protesters had stormed the Assembly complex at the weekend with placards, alleging that the committee members were induced to stop Justice Ikpeme so as to create room for Justice Eneji’s emergence.

But Mr. Ogbor Ogbor Udop, representing Biase State Constituency, debunked the allegation.

He said: “I have also heard about the said gratification of N500, 000, but nobody has offered me a kobo for anything. Why should anybody offer or accept a bribe to work against the dictates of the law? The law is straight and upright, and I tell you, the crisis would always erupt in a situation where someone attempts to bend, suppress or ridicule the law. No group of people can exist without the law. A lawless society is a dangerous society. Whoever you are, something must guide you…”

Dr. Bassey of Bakassi State Constituency equally denied knowledge of any gratification to stop Ikpeme’s confirmation. He, however, said he would always do the right thing in line with the rule of law.

Chairman, House Committee on Information, Mr. Francis Bassey Asukwo, who briefed the media after the House failed to sit on February 28, described the allegation as destructive, claiming that the lawmakers’ inability to sit was not related to the bribe allegation, but because “the Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary informed them that the report was not ready.”

The Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to the Governor, Mr. Christian Ita also denied all allegations against his boss, saying, “Governor Ayade has not given anybody one kobo. You know politics is never devoid of name-calling. The whole thing is rubbish. How can he be against her confirmation? Is he not the one that nominated her? I don’t know what is playing out in the House of Assembly, which is an independent arm of government. The Assembly has its rules, and I don’t know when they will sit to confirm her or otherwise. Everything is in their hands. So, what has that got to do with Ayade?”

However, when the matter came up on March 2, the final intrigue was evident, as two, instead of one committee report were presented, causing serious confusion.

Esua, who said that Justice Ikpeme appeared before the committee on February 26 said: “We vetted her credentials; we asked questions, and members interrogated her. We found her fitting and worthy of the position and recommended her for confirmation.

“My report was submitted as the committee chairman, and it was accepted as a working document without any dissension when put to a voice vote.”

But in a surprise move, the Speaker gave the floor to the member representing Obudu State Constituency, Mr. Godwin Akwaji, who informed the House that there was another report aside the one Esua submitted and that it was signed by six out of seven members of the same committee headed by Esua.

Accordingly, the committee’s deputy chairman, Mr. Chris Nja Ogar, representing Etung State Constituency, read the counter-report. He also alleged that the chairman of the committee prepared the report, which he submitted earlier without other members’ participation.

Ogar said Ikpeme was not confirmed on the grounds that “she is an indigene of Akwa Ibom State and will pose a security threat to Cross River State. If confirmed and there exists any conflict between Akwa Ibom State and Cross River State, there will be a likelihood of bias by Justice Ikpeme. We considered the conscious reality and the security threat Justice Akon Ikpeme’s confirmation may likely pose to the state, by virtue of her ethnicity and resolved that she should not be confirmed.”

Others, especially those from the same local government area as Ikpeme, rose stoutly in her defence, but all to no avail.

While swearing in Eneji as acting Chief Judge on March 3, Ayade used the occasion to clear any doubt as to how receptive the state is to everyone, irrespective of their origin. “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,” he said.

However, the governor’s body language and the action of the lawmakers are seen by many in the state and beyond as a serious breach of constitutional procedures.

In making their grouse known, the Ita-Giwa-led MIIEA lamented: “As women from different parts of Nigeria but bound together by our love for Calabar and many years of co-existence, the Mbono Iban, for all intents and purposes, see and know that Akon Ikpeme is a woman of Odukpani LGA origin in Cross River State. We reject all spurious attempts to dissociate her from her husband of over 30 years and her four children, who are fully part and parcel of the Efik ethnic extraction. In her own right, Akon Ikpeme is fully Efik as she was born in Calabar and had her early livelihood experiences here in the state. During the last 35 years or more, she has habitually resided and worked in the public service and paid her tax here in Cross River State, where she has not been found wanting.

“We are, therefore, unable to understand what the logic behind her disqualification or rejection is about. Although she was denied confirmation by a voice vote, the reasons had nothing to do with her competence and service to Cross River State. No specific instances of her being a security risk were established and therefore, the resort to her state of origin was vile and hateful.”

Stating that the act, which was a “premeditated arrangement to marginalise her since 2019 when the question of succession was announced, the women expressed surprise that the “plot was followed through.”

The agitators wondered why Ikpeme, who was born and married to an Efik man, would be treated as a displaced refugee.
“Our challenge is that women are continuously displaced just because they are that gender. In their fatherland, they have no place because they are carried out, and in their husband’s land, they are strangers or refugees. The Mbono Iban Isong Efik totally refuses to believe that women are now seen as internally displaced persons or refugees, and therefore calls for a total overhaul of this situation,” the groups said.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in the state, Mr. Mba Ukweni, linked Ikpeme’s non-confirmation to Ayade, alleging that, “he has never done anything right. The NJC, which is the body responsible for the appointment, promotion, and discipline of judges, has already taken a decision and recommended somebody for the substantive position and it is the person recommended by the NJC that I support.

“What Ayade is doing is not the proper thing. It cannot be proper and it was never intended to be proper. It does not have the character of any goodness coming out of it… Judiciary is a career thing and not a political appointment that you can pick even a carpenter and put anywhere. So, everyone should queue and wait for his/her own turn…”

The immediate past Chief Judge of the state, Justice Michael Edem (rtd), in a recent interaction with newsmen, had insisted on respecting the independence of the judiciary, while cautioning against any interference by the executive arm.

He said: “Without such independence, the judiciary will always be going cap-in-hand to the executive to get what it could have got by itself. And you know he who pays the piper dictates the tune. In the process, certain issues, which would not have been would come to be; something tending towards compromise. So, the way out is complete financial independence, although that does not mean brick walls must be built between the judiciary and the executive. The link of that seismic relationship would still remain, but on a more respectable note…”

During his valedictory speech last year, Edem said: “The Constitution says ‘the most senior judge of the High Court… and not the most senior indigenous judge of the High Court’ should take over. The Constitution is clear enough on the issue. It needs no further elucidation or aggrandised embellishment, there being no impediment whatever against Akon Bassey Ikpeme who so qualifies…”

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in a statement titled, “The Absurdities in Cross River State,” signed by its President, Paul Usoro maintained that the absurdity and naked injustice and prejudice that have played out in the state’s judiciary “must not be allowed to stand.

“The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is unequivocally opposed to the appointment of Eneji as the state’s acting Chief Judge, and even more opposed to the unsavory political intrigues within the executive and legislative arms of Cross River State that has so far resulted in the unconstitutional failure of both arms to confirm and swear in Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the state.

“Honorable Justice Akon Ikpeme is the most senior judge of the Cross River State Judiciary and next to His Lordship is Honorable Justice Maurice Eneji. The names of their Lordships were both recommended to the National Judicial Council (NJC) for appointment as the Chief Judge of the state, with Ikpeme as the preferred candidate and Eneji as the reserved candidate based, amongst others, on seniority.

“The NCJ, in December 2019, interviewed both candidates, found them respectively suitable for the position, but recommended Ikpeme for appointment as the Chief Judge, being the most senior judge and not having any negative report whatsoever. It was after the NJC’s recommendation that the political undercurrents and intrigues became full-blown and culminated in Eneji being sworn in.

“To be sure, those intrigues had simmered even before the NJC recommended, and it all centred around Ikpeme’s State of birth, Akwa Ibom State, as distinct from her state of origin, which is Cross River State, based on her marriage to a Cross Riverian…”

The NBA, which expressed dismay that Eneji “agreed and accepted to be such a pawn in the unconstitutional intrigues of the CRS executive and legislative arms, stressed that the reasons given by the State House of Assembly for the non-confirmation of Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the state are not only untenable but also wholly unconstitutional and unjust…”

The association called on both the executive and legislative arms of the state government “to urgently retrace their steps and confirm Ikpeme for appointment as the substantive Chief Judge of Cross River State…”