Appointment of C’ River Chief Judge: NBA takes a Swipe at Ayade, Calls on NJC to Sanction Eneji

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Newly Appointed Acting CJ Justice Eneji

The Nigerian Bar Association has condemned in strong terms, the appointment of  Justice Maurice Eneji as the Acting Chief Judge of Cross River State in place of Justice Ikpeme who is the most senior Judge in the state.

In a statement issued by the President of NBA, Mr. Paul Usoro SAN, the NBA calls the appointment an absurdity, naked injustice and prejudice which must not be allowed to stand.

Below is the full statement:

  1. 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.
  1. 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 the State’s Acting Chief Judge.
  1. 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, word 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.
  1. 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?
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. From whichever angle one looks at the on-going macabre dance in Cross River State, it is distasteful and must be denounced by all lovers of Nigeria’s Judiciary and its independence. The cherished tradition of appointing the most senior Judges, where they have no reported blemish howsoever, to fill vacancies as Heads of Courts in the States and Federal Judiciaries promotes harmony within the judiciary and extirpates political corruption. That tradition must be protected in our overall interest and for the preservation of the Rule of Law and the precepts of justice. With these principles in mind, it is not too late for Eneji J to relinquish the acting appointment that, presumably, has been foisted on him by the CRS politicians and we respectfully urge His Lordship to so act. By so doing, His Lordship would earn himself a position of honor and distinction in the annals of Nigerian justice administration.
  1. The NBA also 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.
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Paul Usoro, SAN
NBA President

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