Cross River State has been without a Chief Judge since September 2, 2020. In this interview, Ntufam Mba Ukweni, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN is angry that the Cross River governor, Prof. Ben Ayade is trying to cripple the judiciary in the state as he has crippled other arms of the government. He re-echoed that governance in the state has collapsed.
For about a month now, Cross River State has been without a chief judge. What is your position on this?
It’s quite a disturbing situation. We’ve not had a situation like this in Cross River state even though we have had incidence of things like this in other states like; Rivers state, Abia state, and one or two state in the West. But we’ve not had this and it is a situation that we were not expecting will happen if people are behaving in accordance with the rules that are supposed to follow. What I mean by that is to follow the normal rules that are applicable for the appointment of a person to the office of the chief judge of a state.
Kindly take us into the journey of this whole matter.
The genesis of the matter will take us far back to the period of Justice Okoi Itam before he became a chief judge of the state. I know too well that our good friend, Justice Maurice Eneji has been interested in becoming a chief judge for quite a long time and I did not know how he was going to do it as at that time when, during the time of Itam, there were about three or four persons ahead of him. And we know that both the constitution and the NJC regulations governing the appointment of chief judges insist on appointing the most senior person to the office.
Close to the time Justice Michael Edem, the immediate past chief judge of the state was about leaving, close to the time he was to leave the office, we started hearing the rumour, I received messages and calls that we should pray for Justice Maurice Eneji that it was going to be his year to become a chief judge and I said well, I would be happy that Maurice Eneji, my friend becomes the chief judge but how is it going to be because the provisions of the constitution is very clear on that. I was surprised at that. The arrangement was to work with the governor to supersede the next most senior Judge, Justice Akon Ikpeme, I was surprised how that was going to happen. They started putting everything in shape to do that. In our profession, we don’t toy with seniority. It is not allowed that you bring a junior person to come and head the senior person, we do not allow that. That can only happen if there are certain issues that have to do with the integrity of the senior person. And it has to do with issues of disciplining the senior person and in which case, he will not be in the office for the junior person to take over. So suddenly, when I said that from the beginning, the governor does not intend to appoint Justice Akon Ikpeme to the office of the Chief Judge, I meant it because if you interview the immediate past chief judge he will let you know the pressure that the governor put him through to insist on recommending Justice Maurice Eneji. But it couldn’t work that way because the provisions of the of the constitution is very clear that it is the most senior judge that has to be appointed and that was what compelled the governor in the first place to appoint Justice Akon Ikpeme in an acting capacity and they started planning the next thing to do which was to deprive her of being confirmed as a chief judge and they waited for that three months to elapse; that after three months, they will not.
The governor told her, the governor said it; all the things that they have been talking about my interest in Akon and many other things were nonsense. The governor told Akon to her face that, yes, I will swear you in, in acting but what if I do not confirm you. So what happened in the house of assembly in rejecting Akon Ikpeme was the governor’s handwork. The house of assembly sleeps with the governor’s side. I said so and I don’t have any fear of being contradicted on that point because no one can contradict me on that point. I know what I am talking about; I have interacted with all of them. I have interacted with the speaker. I have interacted with the leadership of the house and we know what goes on. So it was the governor that directed the house of assembly not to confirm Akon, to give any reason not to confirm Akon and that is why immediately they rejected Akon’s nomination, the governor came out of his journeying that they said he has travelled and swore in Maurice Eneji.
The governor did not intend to appoint Akon Ikpeme even in the acting capacity that she was appointed. It is because the constitution does not permit him and it was impossible for him to appoint any person other than Akon Ikpeme who was the most senior judge in the Cross River state judiciary. The provision of the constitution is very clear on that, that you must appoint the most senior. Okay, if he intended to appoint the next most senior person, since the 2nd of September that the tenure of Maurice Eneji elapsed has he appointed the next most senior person who is Justice Eyo Eta? It is because his mind is bent on doing that which is in his mind to do. That is to make Justice Maurice Eneji, his in-law, the Chief Judge of the state. But I have said severally and I warned them and said this is the shame you are going to put this state into. This is the embarrassment you are going to put the state into because the National Judicial Council, no matter what you will do, no matter the situation in the country, no matter how bad Nigeria is, we still have certain arms of government, we still have certain bodies that are made of men of integrity and they may not bend the rules for the purpose of supporting a person in office of the governor or any other person. So it will not be done. I know we were going to get this point where we were not going to have a Chief Judge. We were going to run into this constitutional crisis that the state will remain without a Chief Judge.
So whatever I have few announcements, few press publications being run in Cross River state radio about trying to blackmail the NJC that they have refused to make an appointment or to make recommendations. The NJChas made its recommendations and they’ve insisted that they are not going to make a second recommendation. They can’t be that inconsistent and we stand by them. We the lawyers stand by them, we the senior lawyers in the state stand by them and any right thinking person who loves this profession have to stand by the NJC and if the governor loves the state, he should retrace his steps and go and ask the house of assembly to reconsider his report to confirm Justice Akon Ikpeme as the Chief Judge so that he will swear her in as the Chief Judge of the state. That is the only solution to it.
What is the constitution saying in the case where one body, either the Executive or the Legislature does not agree to confirm someone’s appointment after the NJC’s recommendation?
There is no provision in the constitution that has provided a remedy to it because in fairness, the constitution, the law makers did not intend that we will have somebody who will operate the way the governor is operating. So this should give a clear indication to the National Assembly that there is a problem here and with this problem, they should find a way to be able to circumvent it in events like this. The judiciary does not have a hand in the appointment of commissions. The judiciary has no hand in who becomes the speaker or the deputy speaker or leader of the house of assembly, so why will it be that the head of the judiciary will now be something that the executive will now manipulate? The independence of the judiciary which everybody is crying for which is in interest of the generality of Nigerians, the interest of the people who seek justice is a very important thing. When we keep shouting and crying that the judiciary should be independent, it is because the independence of the judiciary will enable the judiciary to do its work fearlessly. To allow the judiciary to be controlled as it is being controlled by the executive in particular is not proper. So your question is appropriate because the National Assembly and the bodies that are concerned with ensuring that the provisions of the constitution relating to the appointment of chief judges and even judges of the various courts are now left to the executive to determine, should be amended. The proper thing to be done in this instance is the position of all of us. The governor should retransmit the recommendation made by the National Judicial Council of Honourable Justice Akon Ikpeme to the house of assembly to enable the house of assembly reconsider their report and clear Akon Ikpeme to be sworn in as the substantive Chief Judge of the state.
Is it possible for all the lawyers to write to the National Assembly to point them towards this direction?
I’m aware that a proposal is being made in this direction to the National Assembly to ensure that this provision of the constitution is amended with a view to ensuring that this undue interference in the affairs of the judiciary is minimized.