The three-month tenure of the controversial acting chief judge of Cross River State, Justice Maurice Eneji, has come to an end. Stakeholders who condemned the appointment by Governor Ben Ayade anxiously await and fear a repeat of the shenanigans that led up to his appointment; shenanigans that threaten the principles of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. Will the Cross River State legislature and judiciary effectively come under the control of the executive led by Governor Ayade?”
By way of background, a certain lady, Justice Akon Ikpeme, a Nigerian citizen born and bred in Cross River State, called to the Nigerian Bar and practicing law in Calabar, the Cross River State capital; elevated to the Bench as a judge of that state’s high court, having risen through the ranks of the Bench to become the highest-ranking judge in the state judiciary, was set to become the Chief Judge of the State.
In keeping with the best tradition of the judiciary in Nigeria, the National Judicial Council (NJC) rightfully screened her as the highest-ranking judge in the state, following the imminent retirement of the previous chief judge and submitted her name to the state governor, Ben Ayade, for appointment as Chief Judge. But inexplicably, the governor unduly delayed presenting the name of Justice Akon Ikpeme to the House of Assembly for confirmation, even when the tenure of the previous chief judge was coming to an end, leading the then out-going chief judge, Justice Michael Edem to administratively hand over to Justice Ikpeme as acting chief judge, before exiting the bench.
Ayade held on to the nomination of Justice Ikpeme until close to the period her acting role as chief judge was to lapse. When eventually the nomination got to the House of Assembly, the legislature did the unexpected and by voice vote purported to have rejected her nomination. The lawmakers claimed that Justice Ikpeme was by birth a non-indigene of Cross River State but from neighbouring Akwa Ibom State which used to be part of Cross River State, at the time Akon Ikpeme was born. The fact that the judge was born a Cross Riverian, is married to a Cross Riverian and had lived all her professional life in the present-day Cross River State, contributing immensely and impeccably to the judiciary was overlooked by the legislators.
The House of Assembly in fact alleged that Justice Ikpeme is a ‘security threat’ to Cross River State. In what seemed a synchronized act involving the executive arm of government, the state governor was quick to swear in Justice Maurice Eneji, Ikpeme’s junior as acting chief judge. Apparently, the members of the state legislature have lived under the rock all these years not to know of the various instances of ‘non-indigenes’, whatever that means, heading state judiciaries in the country. Only few days ago, Governor Hope Uzodinma swore in Justice Ijeoma Agugua as Chief Judge of Imo State. The new chief judge is from Anambra State and married to a man from Imo State. As a matter of fact, the pioneer Chief Judge of Cross River State was Sir Darnley Alexander, from the West Indies, not even a Nigerian.
Expectedly, the decision of the Cross River State legislature was thoroughly condemned as a travesty of justice by many individuals, professional bodies, organizations and groups. These included the Nigerian Bar Association, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Women in CAN and a plethora of non-governmental organisations and community associations in and outside Cross River State.
Today, the acting tenure of Justice Eneji is over and the NJC has insisted that the rightful thing be done, which is to confirm Justice Akon Ikpeme as the only duly recommended person from them to assume the office of Chief Judge of Cross River State. But it seems the state legislature and those behind the shenanigans are reluctant to end this macabre dance that has brought the Cross River State judiciary to a situation in which it is now paralysed and liable to be ostracised from the judicial community and cause a constitutional crisis. The House of Assembly should therefore do the right thing under the law.
While condemning the prior conduct of the House of Assembly in this matter, it must equally be stressed that members of the judiciary cannot and should not submit themselves as tools to be used by politicians in this sordid scheme. Should this happen, it will be the end of any credibility or independence that the state judiciary has.
It is feared that the dance of shame may be further orchestrated to set the stage for yet another illegal and unconstitutional Acting CJ appointment, presumably of someone perceived by the governor to be more amenable to his political preferences. And this is where the members of the bench in that state should act honourably to uphold the sanctity and independence of the judiciary.
This is because their calling as judicial officers is of infinitely higher value than becoming playthings on the political chessboard of a governor and his collaborators in the legislature whose fleeting hold on power cannot and will not outlast the tenures of the judges. At a temporal level, it must be pointed out that going by the established precedence of the NJC, any judge of the State High Court that lends himself/herself to the political scheming now going on is almost certain to be sanctioned by the NJC. And one wonders what gain there is for any judicial officer to ruin his/her entire professional career built over the years by playing into the hands of politicians.
The judges need to be reminded once again of the provisions of Section 271 (4) and (5) of the 1999 Constitution. Reading the two subsections together, as advised by abundant judicial authorities, it is clear that any judge of the State High Court who presents himself or herself to be sworn-in as an acting or substantive Chief Judge, without a recommendation to this effect by the NJC, thereby puts his or her judicial career in terminal decline.
As national attention is turned to events in Cross River State, it is imperative for members of the revered bench in the state to demonstrate unmistakably to all, especially those persons behind this unwarranted breach of judicial integrity and independence that the Judicial arm of government will not become a tool in a political scheme by anyone, however highly placed.
The state and indeed the entire country are watching to see what will happen next. It all depends on their lordships and one prays that they will individually and collectively rise to the occasion and stand firm against this assault against the Judiciary.
Mrs. Josephine Effah-Chukwuma writes from Lagos.
NB: Opinions expressed in this article are strictly attributable to the author, Josephine Effah-Chukwuma and do not represent the opinion of CrossRiverWatch or any other organization the author works for/with.
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