CR Chief Judge Crisis: Again NJC Rejects Eneji, Insists on Ikpeme, Assembly Says ‘No’

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There is palpable tension in Cross River state as the House of Assembly has again rejected Gov Ben Ayade’s nomination of Justice Akon Ikpeme as substantive Chief Judge as directed by the National Judicial Council (NJC). The NJC had, some weeks ago, rejected the nomination of Justice Maurice Eneji.

The House, which sat for ten minutes during a plenary on Tuesday June 2, 2020, to deliberate on the said nomination of Ikpeme for the second time, vindicated the April 24 report carried by Pillar Today newspaper that the NJC had rejected Justice Maurice Eneji as substantive Chief Judge of the State and had instead asked Gov Ben Ayade to swear in Justice Akon Ikpeme.

The issue had been in the cooler since then but our roving reporters had got feelers for some weeks now that the authorities had been in possession of the expected second letter from NJC for Ikpeme’s confirmation., 

The Secretary to the State government confirmed Pillar Today’s report, which some people had dubbed ‘speculations and beer parlour gossips.” The local tabloid was even vilified by very senior members of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) who threatened to take the paper to ethics committee of the union.

But, in a letter dated May 29, 2020, addressed to the Speaker and read on the floor of the Ninth Assembly with the title: ‘RE: Confirmation of Hon Justice Akon Ikeme,’ the Governor, through the SSG, Barr Tina Agbor appealed to the House, for the second consecutive time, to confirm Ikpeme.

The letter read: “I am directed by His Excellency, the Governor, Senator Prof Ben Ayade, to convey the attached correspondence from the National Judicial Council on the above for your consideration and further necessary action.

“You are to treat the above with the urgency it deserves in view of the emergency situation we find ourselves in our world and to ensure that there is no vacuum  created in our Judiciary and the concomitant effects in the entire political space as a result thereof. Please accept the kind regards of his Excellency, the Governor.”

However, the House which did not read the letter from the NJC which was attached to the one sent by government, rejected the Governor’s letter for the second time through Voice Vote, saying it would not reverse its earlier decision on Ikpeme, a situation many who spoke to our reporter feared it could create a lacuna in the State Judiciary.

In a chat with reporters shortly after the sitting, the Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Public Petition, Public Service Matters and Conflict Resolution, Hon Efa Nyong Esua, feared that the rejection of Ikpeme for the second time was not in the best interest of the State.

He said: “I got to know about the letter today during the Executive session. It wasn’t addressed to my committee. Their contention is that since the NJC cannot overrule itself, the House should not also overrule itself.

“There have been cases like this in other States like Rivers and Abia, the much I know is that you cannot have a Chief Judge without being recommended by the NJC. Also, the tenure of the acting Chief Judge, Hon Justice Maurice Eneji, ends today and according to their letter, there shouldn’t be any vacuum. It means that by tomorrow, somebody has to be sworn-in but the question is: who are you going to swear in?

“This development will make the legal profession to be very robust. I think that the drama is just unfolding. My only worry is that the House of Assembly should not have been dragged into these unnecessary controversies in my time. The implication of this action is that the Judiciary in Cross River state is thrown into confusion.”

However, unconfirmed reports says the third Judge in the Judiciary hierarchy, Hon Justice Eyo Efiom Ita, was being considered as acting Chief Judge but our sources said Justice Ita may have distanced himself from the drama. It is now left for the State government to decide either to swear in the fourth Judge in command or allow the State Judiciary to be rudderless as sheep without shepherd.

Recall that The NJC had earlier cleared and recommended Justice Akon Ikpeme for the state to appoint her as the next substantive Chief Judge going by the fact that she is the most senior judge in the state and was not found wanting.

But on March 2, 2020, after much intrigues, ethnic sentiments and alleged financial inducement, the Assembly rejected the confirmation of Justice Ikpeme and put forward Justice Eneji.

Following the rejection of Justice Ikpeme by the House, Gov Ayade had, on March 3, sworn in Justice Eneji as the acting Chief Judge, saying it was “imperative as law and nature abhor vacuum.” Eneji’s name was thereafter forwarded to the NJC for a formal clearance and recommendation but the NJC thought otherwise and instead insisted on Ikpeme.

The Pillar Today had quoted dependable Judiciary sources in Abuja as saying during National Judicial Council meeting in April, that “The NJC unanimously agreed that Justice Ikpeme could not be a security risk considering the fact that all security agencies in the country had cleared her. Accordingly, they turned down the State government’s request for the NJC to accept another person insisting that Justice Ikpeme remained the most senior Judge in the Cross River state Judiciary.”

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