Tuesday’s swearing-in of Justice Maurice Eneji as acting chief judge, Cross River State has attracted the anger of the Nigeria Bar Association. President of the NBA, Mr Paul Usoro, SAN, said in a statement on Tuesday that Eneji was wrong to have accepted the position, knowing that it was constitutionally wrong.
The NBA also berated the state governor, Prof Ben Ayade and members of the state house of assembly for going against the oath of office they took.
The statement urged the NJC to take immediate steps on the matter to save the state, while also asking the legislators to retrace their steps and confirm Justice Akon Ikpeme as chief judge.
The statement reads in part:
“It has just been announced that HE (Prof) Ben Ayade, the Governor of Cross
River State (“CRS” or “the State”) has, this morning sworn in Honorable Justice Maurice Eneji as the Acting Chief Judge of Cross River State to take over from Honorable Justice Akon Ikpeme whose tenure as the Acting Chief Judge expired yesterday, 02 March 2020.
“This absurdity and naked injustice and prejudice must not be allowed to stand. The Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”) is unequivocally opposed to the appointment of Eneji J as the Acting Chief Judge of the State and even more opposed to the unsavory political intrigues within the Executive and Legislative arms of the Cross River State that has so far resulted in the unconstitutional failure of both arms to confirm and swear in Ikpeme J as the substantive Chief Judge of the State.
“Honorable Justice Akon Ikpeme is the most senior Judge of the CRS 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 J as the preferred candidate and Eneji J as the reserve candidate based, amongst others, on seniority.
“The NJC, in December 2019, interviewed both candidates, found them respectively suitable for the position but recommended Ikpeme J for appointment as the Chief Judge, being the most senior Judge and not having any negative report howsoever.
It was after the NJC’s recommendation that the political undercurrents and intrigues became full-blown and culminated in today’s purported swearing-in of Eneji J as theState’s Acting Chief Judge.
“To be sure, those intrigues had simmered even before the NJC
recommendation and it all centred around Ikpeme J’s State of birth, Akwa Ibom State (“AKS”) as distinct from her State of Origin, which is Cross River State, based on her marriage to a Cross Riverian. Following those simmering and clandestine political machinations, Ikpeme J was not confirmed nor appointed as the Chief Judge of the State several months after the NJC recommendation. Yesterday, 02 March 2020, words came out from the plenary session of the CRS House of Assembly (“HoA”) that Ikpeme J was a security risk by virtue of her State of birth and therefore not fit to be appointed as the Chief Judge of the State. According to the CRS HoA, Ikpeme J is a security risk because she is, by birth, from the neighboring Akwa Ibom State even though her husband and children are, by birth from Cross River State. Ikpeme J was born, bred, schooled and has worked, all her life in Cross River State and rightly claims Cross River State as her State of Origin. Governor Ayade, this morning, gave
fillip to the absurdity and farce of the CRS HoA by substituting Eneji J as the Acting Chief Judge of the State.
“The NBA is, in the first place, dismayed that Eneji J has agreed and accepted
to be such a pawn in the unconstitutional intrigues of the CRS Executive and Legislative arms. His Lordship, Eneji J, must be familiar with all the facts that we
have set out above and must know, as a judicial officer, that the reasons given by the CRS HoA for the non-confirmation of Ikpeme J as the substantive Chief Judge of
the State are not only untenable but wholly unconstitutional and unjust. In the first place, Ikpeme J has, to the knowledge of the State apparatchik, consistently entered her State of Origin as Cross River State and not Akwa Ibom State, in all relevant records, by virtue of her marriage to a bona fide Cross Riverian, and it is factually incorrect and inane for her to be denied the office of the Chief Judge of the State based on a preposterous claim that she is purportedly a non-indigene of Cross River
State. But even assuming that she is, or the records were to show her to be of Akwa Ibom State origin (which is not the position), did the CRS Governor and his
Assemblymen not swear to uphold the Nigerian Constitution, the provisions of which
inter alia forbid discrimination on grounds of ethnic background? Are they, the Governor and the House of Assemblymen, upholding the sacred provisions of that
Constitution by so brazenly discriminating against Ikpeme J in the appointment of the CRS Chief Judge?
“Even more bewildering and fatuous is the suggestion that Ikpeme J, as the
CRS Chief Judge, would constitute a security risk to the State. To the best of our knowledge, Ikpeme J had security clearance from the Department of State Security
(“DSS”) – the body saddled with handling security issues and appropriately screening candidates for judicial appointments – before her name was sent to the NJC by the CRS Government as the preferred candidate for the position of CRS Chief Judge in
December 2019. Now that the CRS HoA is revising the DSS security clearance that was given to Ikpeme J prior to the NJC recommendation, neither the CRS Governor nor the HoA has supported their security risk assertion with any revised report from the DSS. In any case, what security challenges could there possibly be between two neighboring States whose indigenes historically come from the same pod? We know
of no such fantasized security challenges and even if there were, that would not justify denying a fit and proper Ikpeme J the position of the State’s Chief Judge and committing an unconstitutional act.
“To be clear, Ikpeme J, upon her appointment as a judicial officer, swore to an oath to dispense justice to all manner of persons without fear or favor and without affection or ill-will. Nothing has been proffered by the CRS Governor and HoA to
suggest that Ikpeme J has reneged howsoever from the obligations of that oath to warrant any concerns about the discharge of her functions as the State Chief Judge if she is so appointed. The CRS Judiciary is in any case not in a position to determine disputes, if any, between CRS and AKS the exclusive jurisdiction thereon belonging as it does, constitutionally, to the Supreme Court. Even where disputes between federating States deflect from that apex Court, they end up inexorably before the
Federal High Court and not the State High Courts. The question does not therefore even arise as to where Ikpeme J’s allegiance would be in the event of any conceivable dispute before His Lordship’s court between CRS and AKS. The administrative
functions of the State Chief Judge do not also involve issues of security between Nigeria’s federating States, howsoever. In effect, whether from a judicial or administrative prism, Ikpeme J as the CRS Chief Judge would have nothing to do with purported security challenges, if any between CRS and AKS.
“The NBA calls on both the Executive and Legislative arms of the CRS Government to urgently retrace their steps and confirm Ikpeme J for appointment as
the substantive Chief Judge of Cross River State. The NJC indeed owes the Nigerian Judiciary and the justice sector the duty of insisting on that position, to wit, the confirmation and appointment of Ikpeme J as the Chief Judge of Cross River State.
If we, of the justice sector, do not and cannot stand up for Ikpeme J today, we would effectively have abdicated our responsibilities and should expect similar and worse degradations and desecration of the judiciary and judicial appointments by the
Executive and Legislative arms of Governments in the various States of the Federation and, indeed, even at the Federal level. The NJC should also appropriately
sanction Judicial officers who connive at these unworthy and unconstitutional acts by the Executive and Legislative arms of Government. Precedents of the NJC’s
actions abound in this regard. The Judiciary in CRS and beyond should stand as one in facing down this fundamental breach of our independence and the cherished
tradition of appointing the most senior and unblemished judicial officers to fill the vacant positions of the Heads of Courts of the States and/or Federal Judiciaries.”
The position of the NBA at the national level was also corroborated by the Calabar branch of the association.
This is coming just as judiciary workers, for the second day on Tuesday, stayed off their offices in protest of the action of the house of assembly.