Ntufam Mba Ukweni is a former chairman of the Nigeria Bar Association in Calabar. Through dint of hard work, he became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN and is today, the most senior lawyer that practices and resides in Cross River.
He used to handle cases for the governor, Prof Ben Ayade and most PDP members. But it appears they have gone their separate ways. Ukweni appears to be the face of the opposition as far as the government’s position on the issue of the confirmation of the chief judge of the state is concerned. He has stood by Justice Akon Ikpeme, insisting that the state governor and the house of assembly must do the right thing by ensuring that Ikpeme is confirmed the chief judge.
In this interview with TNN which was transcribed by EDITH CHUKU, Ukweni berated the governor and members of the house of assembly for denying Ikpeme the right to become chief judge. He also spoke on what he called the collapse of governance in Cross River State.
Let’s do a post mortem on what happened on the floor of the House of Assembly, last Monday, how did you see the whole drama?
Well, it was a drama that we had not expected; even the members themselves said so, that this is the first time. Even those who have been there- three term members- complained openly that that was the very first time that the report of a committee was being presented by the chairman, then a counter report was being presented by other members of the committee and I think the members who were induced- everybody knows they were induced- I do not have any fear of any contradiction in saying that they were induced to come up with a different report. Their anger is that their chairman refused to be induced alongside. The chairman insisted on presenting the position of the committee. So clearly on the face of the report, the counter report that was presented, you will see it that it was an after-thought, and they did that purposely to achieve the purpose they eventually achieved. It wasn’t well intentioned, it was done out of malice and ill purpose. So the house sat after the chairman of the committee on judiciary and public complaints had presented his report. The members from Obudu, the governor’s own constituency rose up to oppose the report, that they have a counter report, that members were not carried along in the preparation of the report by the chairman of the committee, and that they have a counter report. But from the two reports which are public now, you will know which one is the proper report of the committee. The counter report did nothing else than to malign and insult the person of the (then) honourable acting chief judge, the person of honourable Justice Akon Ikpeme. There was no reason given other than she is from Akwa Ibom State although married to a Cross Riverian, and because of that, it constitutes a security risk making her the chief judge of the state, which is a very, very sad thing to come from the hallowed chamber of the Cross River State House of Assembly. People ordinarily who should enjoy the respect of their constituency and the generality of members of the public, they reduced themselves for the parochial sentiment, and very, very nasty monetary inducement and influence by the governor of the state, through the chief of staff, which we all know. It was a sad day for the people of Cross River State.As you can see, some complaints and protests from various angles, from various quarters ever since that decision was taken, and the purported swearing in of honourable justice Maurice Eneji as the acting chief judge to replace Akon Ikpeme.
What is the implication of the swearing in of the acting chief judge?
Well, the three months term given by section 271, sub 4 of the constitution elapsed on the 2nd of March. The letter from the National Judicial Council(NJC) signed by the honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Tanko Muhammed, was transmitted to the house of assembly on the 9th day of January, 2020. The governor of Cross River State sent the letter on the 9th day of January communicating to the house of assembly to consider the confirmation of Honourable Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive chief judge of Cross River State as recommended by the NJC. Having sent the letter, the governor went behind to tell the speaker not to confirm, this was exactly what happened, to tell the speaker not to confirm.
That’s a heavy allegation?
Yes. He was not bold enough to put it down in writing to him, do not confirm, but in a tricky manner, he went behind and told the speaker not to confirm. And of course the speaker acted the script. Their original intention was to keep the letter there for the three months to elapse for the house of assembly not to consider the letter until the members started protesting, right there on the floor of the house; then the time was already running out. How else can someone show you the ill intention behind it? The speaker in the first place denied that he did not receive such a letter. But of course, members knew that such a letter was received. Eventually, it was found out that the letter was received since 9th day of January. So he placed the letter before the house, the house referred it to the committee to screen. Immediately they found out that the lady has been screened, that was on Thursday last week, the chief of staff quickly called a meeting of members of the committee for the sole purpose of inducing them to make a counter report to that of the chairman because the chairman of the committee, the right honourable Efa Esua refused to be compromised. But the other gullible members of the committee chose to be compromised. So they came up with a different report. So the implication of the swearing in as you said is that the tenure of the acting chief judge has elapsed. The implication, as far as I’m concerned, what the governor did and what the house of assembly did is an illegality because the house of assembly and the governor have no power on their own to act contrary to the recommendation made by the NJC. That is the position. They cannot act outside the recommendation of the NJC. Know that if there was no recommendation, then the argument that oh, the governor can act under section 271 sub 4, to appoint the next most senior judge would have come up. If for any reason the confirmation cannot be done within the three months, it was incumbent on the governor to communicate to the NJC, to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, ‘this confirmation cannot be done within the three months; or we have rejected your recommendation.’ The NJC should, in its wisdom, decide what is the next thing to do. Like I said and I maintain, the appointment, promotion and discipline of judges is the prerogative of the NJC. That power cannot be taken away from them under the guise of oh, there is a vacancy, particularly in the instant case, where that was done on purpose and for the purpose of overriding what the NJC has done.
What you are saying is that swearing in the acting chief judge without writing to the NJC….
(Cuts in)It is an illegality and there are precedents that whoever among the judges in the country who presents himself for swearing in without clearance from the NJC has committed a misconduct, professional misconduct and is liable to be disciplined.
In other words, Eneji has committed professional misconduct?
It’s a gross misconduct, gross misconduct on his part.
Is there any legal authority backing this, is there any provision of the law, or is there anything from the NJC to back this?
There is rule of conduct for judicial officers. They are called honourable because they are supposed to act in honour and candour. His conduct in the circumstances does not reflect honour and candour.
So, are you saying that as a senior lawyer in the state, you will not honour whatever he is doing, or if a case is assigned to his own court, that you will not appear before him or you will discourage other lawyers from appearing before him or taking instructions from him?
I have said it and I maintain my position, that I won’t appear before honourable Justice Maurice Eneji, acting in that office which he gained by usurpation and through the uncanny manipulation of the governor of Cross River State, I won’t appear before him and if my case is assigned to him, I will protest it and I will write to him to send my case to another judge. I have said it as clear as that, that I will not appear before him and if he assigns any of my cases to be in his court, if he is allowed to remain- which I know the NJC will not condone that type of unduly behaviour and allow him to remain- but if he stays there for the period he is going to stay there, I will not appear before him. I will not do any case before him.
Senior lawyers in the state, what’s their position on this?
We’ve taken a position that as a branch; that was just the decision we took in our meeting in the chambers of distinguished Senator Victor Ndoma Egba, we had what we call the elders meeting of the branch. We’ve taken a decision that the branch has to take up the fight because it’s an injury to the profession. So the branch has taken a position, writing a petition for the discipline of honourable Justice Maurice Eneji by the NJC because of this misconduct, gross misconduct.
Now what does all of this show when looking at governance of Cross River State as a whole?
Governance of Cross River State is in zero. The governor is doing nothing in the state except what will serve his personal interest. Nothing is working, there is no water, there is no electricity, the roads are dilapidated, government offices are not functioning. Where ever there would have been a functional office, he will disrupt them by sending the officers who would have enabled the system to function. So that is why I asked the question, I have asked him the question, I said Your Excellency sir, is there any wrong, is there any evil that Cross Riverians have done to you? That throughout the period of your governance you will not do one single thing that will benefit Cross Riverians? You appoint commissioners, you can’t even pay them well to even pay the school fees of their children? They have no cars. A friend was appointed to be the Managing Director of Cross River State Water Board; no money was sent to that place, not even 10 kobo was sent to that place. On his own, this gentle man started working and seeing how he could attract international donors for the purposes of providing water. And water started flowing. Immediately he discovered that water has started flowing and that money was coming from international donors, he removed him and put his native man in the water board and since that time till as I am talking to you, no water. That is why I keep asking the question, is there any evil? Iif there is any evil, let Cross Riverines know so that we can come and beg you. So nothing is going on in Cross River State. There is no government department or parastatal that is functioning the way it should function. The worst is that even governor’s office, go to the governor’s office, there is no electricity. You can only see electricity if the governor himself is in the office, that’s when they will put on the light. The deputy governor stays in the office and uses paper to fan himself, in the governor’s office of Cross River State.
So, are you saying governance has collapsed?
There is no governance in the state. Governance has collapsed. There is no governance in the state and it was for this reason that I warned Cross Riverians. I warned the elders who met and convened a meeting inviting me to attend the meeting in Chief Asuquo Ekpeyong’s house. I warned them, I said don’t return this man for a second term, he has failed us in the first term; returning him for a second term means rewarding his failure. But the people of the Southern senatorial district surprisingly and embarrassingly felt that they wanted governance to return to the southern senatorial district quickly and they put their strength behind him. Of course he is taking us for a ride because he got everything on a platter of gold and he feels that he is the smartest of all governors, he is the smartest of all persons. Why we have all risen up now, why we took this level of reaction is because the only arm of government that there is a semblance of governance, and where things are working, is the judiciary. So, it appears to him that the judiciary should not also function, that is why he has taken this step to emasculate the judiciary. But we will not allow it. God will not allow him to destroy the judiciary. What we want to do is to ensure that the little independence- he is not funding the judiciary, monies that are the due entitlement of the judicial officers, he is not giving them. Since Ayade came into governance, he has not bought one single car for the judges in Cross River State, even those appointed newly during his time. That type of wicked governance I can’t understand it. That is why I kept asking the question, if there is any wrong that Cross Riverians have done to him, he should let us know if it was wrong to have elected him to become governor, a privileged position.
The super highway he promised and said it was his signature project has not started anywhere. The deep seaport is nowhere but if you go to visit him he will show you photographs. Photographs of the sketch of the project, as if the project has already been done, Spagheti flyover that he said he was building at Odukpani Junction is still in his brain and he tells people that there is spaghetti flyover and I cried out during the 2019 opening of the legal year; I said please Your Excellency, spaghetti has become too expensive because it is of English origin, please give us indomie, let us have indomie flyover (laughs). If spaghetti is beyond our reach, let us have indomie that is locally made here (laughs). It’s a very sad thing, you know, it’s a very sad thing that we are passing through in Cross River State. You appoint how many commissioners and thousands of special assistants but people working in the civil service are not being paid and they are being relieved of their job. So what an irony and what a contradiction? And he sounds as if he is passionate, as somebody who has feeling of people at heart. But the action completely contradicts what he tells people, completely contrary, the opposite of what he says.
Its ironical hearing you sound this way, I know you used to be his lawyer and you used to be very close to him, what went wrong?
What went wrong is bad governance; I’ve nothing against him other than the fact that I became disappointed to have a friend who is running down the state and who will listen to no advise and our people have a saying that if a king refuses to be advised inside the house, then you advise him in public. So since he refused to listen to advice inside the house to do the proper thing, that is why we have to advise him now in public and on pages of newspaper and on television.
So, what is the fate of Justice Akon Ikpeme, what hope?
(Cuts in)Her fate lies with the National Judicial Council which is the ultimate body to take a decision in the matter and we believe and are praying to God fervently that the NJC will do the needful and refuse to be rubbished by the uncanny manipulation of the Cross River State governor.