Sunday, 17 January 2021

Anxiety grips C'River judiciary as 4th acting chief judge within a year is set to emerge

Since the retirement of Justice Michael Edem in November 2019, the state has remained without a substantive chief judge following a disagreement between the state government and National Judicial Council (NJC).

NJC wants due process followed and the most senior judge appointed as a chief judge while the state government wants its favourite candidate, a junior judge to take the position.

Governor Ben Ayade had in November 2020, after much pressure, sworn in the most senior judge in the state, Justice Akon Ikpeme, as Acting Chief Judge, but three months after the expiration of her acting tenure, the House of Assembly, through alleged manipulation of the executive, declined to confirm Justice Ikpeme on the ground that she is from Akwa Ibom State and will constitute a security risk, despite the fact that she is married to a Cross River man and her mother is from the same state.

When Ikpeme was not confirmed, Governor Ayade went ahead to swear in a junior judge, Justice Maurice Eneji, as acting chief judge twice, as the NJC declined to recommend him for appointment as substantive CJ. The situation forced Ayade to swear in Justice Eyo Effiom Ita-as acting CJ on October 19, 2020, for the third tenure in an acting capacity.

Ita's three-month acting tenure expires today, January 18, 2021.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in the state, Ntufam Mba Ukweni, yesterday said the governor might go to the next judge, Justice S. M. Anjor if he insisted on not swearing in Justice Ikpeme.

"That will be the fourth acting chief judge the state will produce in one year and two months. For how long do we continue roaming in this unholy circle of shame?

"Let the governor assist himself, the judiciary, legal profession, and Cross River State by doing the needful. That is, to retransmit his request for the House of Assembly to clear Justice Ikpeme to be sworn in as the substantive CJ," Ukweni appealed.

It is being rumoured that Justice Ikpeme may go to the Court of Appeal as a judge.

But the senior advocate said: "The issue of Court of Appeal is not yet certain. It is just an application that has been sent. The NJC may recommend any other person to the President for that appointment. It is not signed and sealed that it must be Justice Ikpeme. The one that is her due is the CJ of Cross River State. Why will the governor not give her the one that is in his hands. Why will he propose for her that which is beyond him to do. Appointment of federal judges and justices is not in the hands of state governors".

On the consequences of the situation, Ukweni said: "What the state has lost is enormous. For three consecutive times, judges have been appointed in the country across the states but none for Cross River State. Just here in December 2020, 69 Judges were appointed across the country, none for Cross River. What about the indignity being suffered by us as Cross River people because of those shameful actions? Let it be redressed so that we can rise above the shame".

The Guardian learned that NJC is insisting on the most senior judge, who is Ikpeme, to be sworn in. It was also gathered that senior lawyers in Cross River and Akwa Ibom states have charged NJC to speak out on the matter or take it to the presidency.

Ayade, during the swearing-in Justice Ita, denied emasculating the judiciary, saying the government was in keeping with the obligations and provisions of the constitution.