According to the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the Chairman of the National Judicial Council, NJC, of Nigeria, Justice I. Tanko Muhammad, the National Judicial Council is one of the Federal Executive Bodies created by virtue of Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is responsible for the Appointment, Promotion and Discipline of Judicial Officers. The Council has through various Reforms ensured that it protects and preserves the sanctity of the Judiciary.
It is rightly stated in the National Judicial Institute Act, Cap N55, LFN 2004 that in recent times there has been much concern by the public about efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of the judicial system. In particular, there has been waning confidence in the performance of the superior courts in regard to justice delivery. Such concerns make it imperative to identify issues and problems militating against a credible justice delivery system that would command the confidence of the citizen.
The vision of the NJC is to have a judiciary that is integrity-driven with adequate measures to enhance timely and equitable dispensation of justice in Nigeria. This, the council seems to have proven over the years by ensuring that efficient and effective administration of justice is felt by every Nigerian. And it has always been believed that the judiciary is the last hope for the common man.
It is this unbending nature of the NJC that finally made the Cross River State House of Assembly and the state governor, Professor Ben Ayade yield to reason to confirm and swear in Justice Akon Bassey Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the state after much fracas with the NJC. Justice Michael Edem had retired as substantive Chief Judge of Cross River in November 2019 and since then the state has had three Acting Chief Judges as they refused to confirm Ikpeme who was recommended by NJC ab initio.
After Justice Ikpeme acted for three months, the House of Assembly rejected her confirmation and Justice Maurice Eneji, Ikpeme’s junior acted for six months and later Justice Effiom Eyo-Ita, who was sworn-in in October 2020. Ita’s tenure elapsed as Acting Chief Judge on January 19, 2021. It was this that made the legal battles over who became the next substantive Chief Judge of Cross River between Governor Ben Ayade, House of Assembly and the NJC to last for barely thirteen months.
However, the legislative arm made a volta face when they convened an emergency sitting and confirmed Justice Akon Ikpeme as substantive Chief Judge following a letter with reference no SSG/S/300/VOL.XVIX/550 and dated January 20 transmitted to them from Governor Ayade. In the letter signed by the Secretary to State Government, SSG, Barr Tina Banku Agbor, the Governor sought for the confirmation of Justice Akon Ikpeme as substantive Chief Judge in line with the power conferred on him by Section 271(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended.
During the emergency sitting on Thursday, January 28, 2021, the House presided over by the Speaker, Rt. Hon Eteng William, in a unanimous yes-vote, confirmed Ikpeme after the motion moved by the Leader, Hon. Peter Odey, representing Ogoja state constituency and seconded by Whip, Hon. Okon Ephraim who represents Calabar South 1 state constituency.
Before now, renowned citizens of the state both at home and in Diaspora had bemoaned the situation which made the state stay for more than a year without a substantive Chief Judge. Lawyers in the state, both the junior and senior lawyers joined their voices with that of the NJC to appeal to the governor to do the needful. They cited Chapter 7, Part 2, Section 271 of the 1999 constitution where it is clearly stated on who gets appointed as the Chief Judge of a state.
The NJC must be commended for their unflinching courage and firmness of purpose to ensure that the cause of rule prevailed in the matter.
We call on everyone to set standards in their various fields; standards that will stand the test of time and standards that are borne out of selflessness; so that everyone will enjoy the peace and order that exists in the Cross River State judiciary as a result of the standard set and sustained by the NJC. And as Steve Brunkhorst puts it, “Supporting the truth, even when it is unpopular, shows the capacity for honesty and integrity”, let all hands be on desk for us to regain and retain our integrity before other countries of the world.