For over one year, the Cross River State House of Assembly struggled to confirm Justice Akon Ikpeme as chief judge of the state. She was rejected severally by the house despite the position of the National Judicial Commission. One of those who stood by her was Ntufam Efa Esua who represents Calabar Municipality and doubles as the chairman, House Committee on Judiciary. He told CHIEMEKA ADINDU in this interview that the house was in error all this while. He however expressed satisfaction that the law has been vindicated.
What motivated you to stand by Justice Akon Ikpeme even when majority of your colleagues were against her?
The motivation was simple because I know I was on the path of the truth. You know we’re talking about a legal profession and so the position of the chief judge of a state is not political. You don’t zone it amongst the three senatorial districts like political positions. So I knew that Hon. Justice Akon Ikpeme remained the highest ranking judge in Cross River state judiciary. And in accordance with the extant laws and rules of the National Judicial Council, it is the most senior judge that must take over as the chief judge of a state. So simply, I was on the path of justice because I know the proper things have to be done and also remember that I took an oath to defend the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and to do right to all manner of persons irrespective of creed or knowledge. So that was it.
Does it mean that other members of the house were not informed about what you stood for?
Some, may be ignorantly not aware and others, because we have lawyers, we have law students that opposed her confirmation. They had other considerations but certainly they knew the position of the law and even during screening, the woman submitted herself for screening and the committee screened her thoroughly. We examined all the documents and we saw that she was qualified; so I may not know why others decided not to tow the path of truth at that time.
You made mention of other considerations by your colleagues. What were these considerations?
Not really because when they mentioned security risk, you know, that word is pregnant and I decided not to tow that line of argument because the statutory body established by law to screen judicial officers is the DSS and DSS cleared her. May be I may need to go back to school to understand what security risk meant. But like I said, in spite of all that, remember that the woman has been sent to us twice before that of yesterday and on those occasions the resolution was that she will denied confirmation. Even though some members supported me but the majority felt otherwise and you know in this game of the parliament, minority will have their say but the majority will always have their way. And when the resolution comes out, it represents the entire decision of the house of assembly; so that was the position. But like I said, all of that is now history because as at yesterday, everybody now realized that we erred, so that is why the assembly had to revert itself and then did what they know was right in the eyes of the law.
But while addressing the press shortly after the confirmation, the speaker said the house never mentioned security risk as no interview to that effect was granted to anyone. What do you have to say about this?
Well the position of the speaker will be adopted by me. You know, during the first appearance of the woman for confirmation, there were two reports; so except you look for the other report. One was from me, I never mentioned anything like a security threat; I cleared her. But the other report, I can’t now recollect what exactly was contained therein but, there has been this rumour about security risk. So if the speaker has said that nobody said so, I think I go with him that nobody said so.
You’ve rightly pointed out that the house made a mistake. What do you advise the house to do to avoid making similar mistakes in the coming years?
I think that going forward like the speaker said yesterday, that the house discovered facts that were not there before when they took that earlier decision; we will not be hasty in going forward and in taking such a decision. In a matter as important as this because this act had created a vacuum in the judiciary which even the law abhors. So we take pains to do proper scrutiny and gather necessary information before future decisions will be taken.
How do you feel now that she has been finally confirmed?
That is the yearning of everybody, from Mr Speaker to everybody in the state because the problems we have in the judiciary are enormous. That’s the last hope of the common man. As we’re speaking, so many people are languishing in police cells without bail. So many are awaiting trial and when you do not have a chief judge to assign cases, these people will keep suffering. There are other cases even civil cases that have been lying down there without a judge to attend to them so all of that were taken into consideration and recently you heard about the protest by some magistrates. Now that we have a substantive chief judge, I’m sure she’s also going to investigate the matter and then relate back, put her heads together with His Excellency, the governor to see how all of these will be resolved. So it’s a win- win situation. It’s better for all of us and those things that we lost by way of appointment of judges into federal high court, court of appeal; they’re going to be corrected because at some point, the NJC looked at Cross River as being in confrontation with their decision because in the appointment of chief judge, NJC’s recommendation is final. So with this confirmation, as soon as she’s sworn in, all of those things will be taken into consideration so that the judiciary will have the peace of mind to dispense justice which of course, is their fundamental calling.
What does her confirmation mean to the state house of assembly and Cross River as a state?
What this simply means, for us as house of assembly, we have discharged our constitutional mandate. For Cross Riverians, there is going to be stability in the judicial system of the state. So everybody is happy for it that for once, the rule of law has been upheld. Judiciary as I said earlier is not a political party and so positions there, their norms, promotions, everything is based on seniority. You cannot bring a junior judge to superintend over a senior one. So everybody will be happy for it because this was the yearning of even the Nigerian Bar Association. This was the yearning of everybody in Cross River state so there has been peace now. I call on her once she’s sworn in to collaborate with the executive even the legislature to ensure that dividend of democracy is brought to our people.
Kindly recall the things you were told when you stood your grounds to support her.
A lot was said but I didn’t have time for the negativity. I was called names but that was just a handful of Cross Riverians. Majority of the opinions were that what I did, I was on the path of justice; that is what bothers me. I don’t give a dime to anything that was said in the negative, and it doesn’t make any sense to me. Let me also use this opportunity to thank the governor, His Excellency Professor Ben Ayade for restoring peace in the judiciary and also within Cross River state and Calabar metropolis in particular of these hoodlums. You remember there were cases of kidnapping; there was a day they kidnapped up to four people but with the advent of Operation Akpakwu all of that is now history. You can now sleep with your windows open without fear of molestation. Curfew is in place, you can move up to 9:30 without being molested as it used to be. I want to commend his Excellency and appeal that this be maintained so that completely, we can rid this state of hoodlums. So I commend the governor for that.
What is your least expectation from Justice Akon Ikpeme?
My least expectation will be that; because I know she has the carriage and capacity, unfortunately before she was presented to us for screening, I never met her. I never had any reason to meet with her, my first day of seeing her was when she appeared before my committee for confirmation and we looked through the credentials and I saw that she was a woman of very high integrity. So I know that she is going to deliver. We trust in her capacity because if you read through her CV, she has served in so many election tribunals and other panels of inquiry and she has been found unblemished. So I know she will go places. I know that she will bring the much needed sanity in the judiciary.
What transpired at the house when her name was brought the previous times?
Well, it is a normal thing in the parliament. People spoke for and against her. There was tension because she was there present and so many senior lawyers and magistrates present, so you should expect some level of tension. That was what played out but like I said earlier all of that is history now. The important thing is that we were given an opportunity by His Excellency to right the wrong and that we did successfully.