• Sunday, May 26, 2024
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Cross River state and the non-appointment of a Chief Judge

The refusal of the Cross Rivers State House of Assembly to honour the nomination of Justice Akon Ikpeme as Chief Judge because of her state of origin and “security threat” considerations raises many issues around human rights, citizenship, the rights of women and judicial processes. It is one of the cases that presents an opportunity for the National Judicial Council to make explicit recommendations. It also calls for national introspection.

The House of Assembly sitting in Nigeria’s first capital city, Calabar, voted on March 3, to deny confirmation as chief judge of the state to Akon Ikpeme who had served for three months as Acting Chief Judge. Their reason was that Ikpeme is genealogically from Akwa Ibom State, a state that was carved out of Cross Rivers State in 1987. She was born in Calabar, lived her life therein and married a man genealogically from Cross Rivers State.

Justice Ikpeme has a stronger claim to Cross Rivers State than to her ancestral home of Akwa Ibom State. Her father served in the public service of Cross Rivers State, rising to the position of Permanent Secretary. She entered the state’s public service on graduation, rising to the Director of Public Prosecution. She chose to align with her husband and current state of origin when Akwa Ibom State was created and continued to serve in Cross Rivers State.

The National Judicial Council recommended the appointment of Ikpeme as the most senior person in the state’s judiciary. The Nigerian Constitution 1999 and judicial tradition favoured Ikpeme. But the House of Assembly, evincing clear proclivity for micro-ethnicity, decided otherwise and offered reasons that are at best ludicrous and throw up questions they and the nation must answer.

The CRS House of Assembly committed the most egregious form of discrimination in the denial of rights of a citizen. Section 42 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution is explicit and states that (1) “A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person:-
(a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religious or political opinions are not made subject”.

The Justice Ikpeme case raises the matter of the place of the married woman. To what state or country does a married woman belong? Our traditions state that once a woman marries, she belongs to the place of her husband. How did it change conveniently in the case of Ikpeme?

It is critical for Nigeria to make clear pronouncements including constitutional amendments on the matter of state of origin. The records show that Ikpeme has been a Cross Rivers person more than one of Akwa Ibom State. She grew up and lived in Calabar, Cross Rivers State. She worked there, as did her father. Suddenly, because she is qualified to be chief judge, she must now revert to Akwa Ibom state. Absurd.

Most geographies of the world provide for citizenship by residence of at least ten years. Nigeria needs to consider and approve citizenship by residence as the Nigerian norm in line with global best practice. We could make ours 15-20 years to satisfy those who insist on many generations of a family living in a place as basis for such citizenship.

Cross Rivers State Governor Ben Ayede has gone ahead to appoint the next-in-line to Ikpeme, Justice Maurice Eneji, as Acting Chief Judge. Ayede did not revert to the National Judicial Commission for this appointment. The state runs the risk of suffering the Abia State censure where the National Judicial Council insisted on the sack of Justice Obisike Oji for accepting to serve as Acting Chief Judge without the imprimatur of the Council. It will amount to turning the seat of chief judge in Cross Rivers State to a revolving barber chair. Needlessly.

Cross Rivers State must take a second and critical look at the matter of Ikpeme and remedy the injustice done to her. She deserves to serve as Chief Judge of the State. The sub-ethnic undertones that has seen the appointment of a Chief Judge from the same zone as the governor are beneath contempt and deserve no further mention. Please do the right thing in our nation’s founding capital.