Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State finally toed the path of honour on 8th February when he made a detour and swore in Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the state 10 months after she was rejected by the House of Assembly.
We commend Ayade, who ensured that things were done properly by ensuring that the rules and the constitutional provisions guiding succession process in the judiciary were strictly, at last, adhered to. But without mixing words, the governor goofed barely a year ago following his infamous decision to place a junior judge ahead of Justice Ikpeme when he sworn in Justice Maurice Eneji in acting capacity as Chief Judge of Cross River State with a view to taking over from Justice Ikpeme whose acting capacity tenure terminated on 2nd March, 2020.
The governor ignored recommendations by the National Judicial Council (NJC), mandating him to swear in Justice Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the state ahead of his preferred candidate and indigene of Cross River State, Justice Eneji. For about two years, Ayade brushed aside the NJC’s recommendations for Justice Ikpeme and held on to his preferred candidate against rules and regulations simply because Justice Ikpeme is from the neighbouring Akwa Ibom State. Justice Ikpeme was the most senior judge as at the time the governor was pushing for Justice Eneji. Justice Ikpeme’s offence was that she is from Akwa Ibom State and not from Cross River where she had lived all her life including serving the state in judicial capacity. Even Justice Ikpeme’s husband is from Cross River State.
This singular act by the governor in making Justice Eneji the Chief Judge in acting capacity, however, brought him in collision course with the sacred judicial institution where succession process is anchored on seniority and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) which insisted that due process must be followed in Justice Ikpeme’s appointment as recommended by the NJC in accordance with Section 271 of the Constitution.
Section 271 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) provides that “the appointment of a person to the office of the Chief Judge of a State shall be made by the Governor of the State on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of the appointment by the House of Assembly of the state.” This, however, made the appointment of the Chief Judge as the responsibility of the governor after the state’s Judicial Service Commission, which will interview and recommend candidates to the governor had completed its assignment. Justice Ikpeme started her career in Calabar where she later got married to an indigene of Cross River State.
Justice Ikpeme continued to discharge her duties as a judge in Cross River State even when she, alongside other members of staff of the judiciary were given an option to move to the new Akwa Ibom State when the state was created on 27th September, 1987.
She continued to discharge her duties as a judge in Cross River State; handled several cases and delivered judgements without any blemish on her judicial career until she rose to become the most senior judge in the state. Regrettably, Governor Ayade erected indigenization obstacles on her way when he inaugurated the State Judicial Service Commission with the manipulation of the House of Assembly contrary to the National Judicial Council’s recommendations which had hitherto cleared Justice Ikpeme for the exalted office of the Chief Judge.
This led to Cross River State’s House of Assembly to reject Ikpeme’s candidature solely on ethnic ground which nonetheless became the first time ever in history that the most senior judge would be denied appointment as the substantive Chief Judge. Above all, we commend Ayade for at last allowing wise counsel to prevail while upholding his oath of office to respect, observe, defend and enforce the 1999 Constitution (as amended) without ill-will, fear or affection.
This is the way it should be especially when it is obvious that nothing should be personal in the appointment of the Chief Judge of a state being a tenured office that is purely statutory in nature because a miscarried justice and a dangerous precedent would have been set even as the court also would become the major casualty should Ayade insist in defiance of the 1999 Constitution to retain his preferred candidate in office as Chief Judge instead of the most senior judge, Justice Ikpeme. We must also not leave out the Cross River’s House of Assembly which played vital role to right the wrong in the swearing-in of Justice Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge.
The House deserves commendation for acting in a mature fashion to reverse itself and confirmed Justice Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of Cross River State. The House of Assembly’s making detour to confirm Justice Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge has also shown its readiness at all times to defend the 1999 Constitution (as amended), preserve our noble institutions and allow the rule of law to prevail over the rule of man.