By Mikky Attah
Now, this whole succession debacle of Chief Judge for Cross River State began after the unexpected death of Justice Okoi Ikpi-Itam the then Cross River CJ in March 2017 after a brief illness. With that sudden demise, Justice Michael Edem became the State CJ, in line with clear and established order of succession. Mr Edem’s tenure was for two years, he was due for retirement in November 2019. However events strangely began to take a downturn a year to his official exit. Dark clouds began to emerge and overhang the office of the State Chief Judge. Inexplicably, but in full public glare, Justice Edem began to be harangued and harassed, he was pressurised and was being stampeded out of office. All he kept getting was – Vacate the official residence. The keys are illegally in possession. Mr Edem bore it all with stoic calm. Later, sensing thicker darkness portending, Justice Michael Edem made a most selfless, and profound pronouncement on his successor at the commencement of the legal year 2019/2020 , and that pronouncement was to turn into a prophecy of sorts, a short few years later .
Justice Edem reminded his audience of the constitutional provision that the most senior Judge of the High Court becomes the Chief Judge. Then he stated, “It calls for no debate as to who is the most senior Judge of the Cross River State High Court after me. Indisputably, the most senior Judge for the avoidance of any illusion, is Justice Akon Bassey Ikpeme , admitting no sentiment ”.
In fact, events following made it appear that the former Chief Judge was woefully wrong in his assertion. However, and in reality, his conclusion was simply as clear as day precedes night.
But then it happened.
Dark clouds fell thick and heavy across the Peoples Paradise, as Cross River State is also called.
Without any reason given or extenuating need; without precedence, without explanation -an acting Chief Judge was appointed for the Cross River State Judiciary.
The legitimate CJ was, is both alive and active, but was shockingly denied her rightful position at the time she should have been confirmed after also serving in acting position.
Justice Maurice Eneji, brother of a past State Deputy Governor was sworn in, in less than 24 hours and sat in office as CJ, for six months. Throughout, the National Judicial Council declined to recommend Justice Eneji as State Chief Judge.
Those were six months of vociferous complaints from the bar and bench alike, as well as from the public. Well meaning Nigerians tried every available legal means to reverse the decision.
They were legitimate complaints which all, sadly fell on deaf ears.
The National Judicial Council was petitioned. The media, including social media, was engaged . The public space was charged. Still nothing happened.
Justice Mrs Ikpeme for no fault or reason , was made to face the trauma, and the humiliation of serving under a junior judicial officer as a regular judge, with the government appointee sitting as State Chief Judge.
Justice Ikpeme probably must have consoled herself by projecting that, with a maximum tenure of six months in acting capacity, the other person would then have to vacate the place for her. How wrong she was. When Justice Eneji’s term ran out, ANOTHER acting CJ was sworn in. This time, that action caused an uproar. Not once, but twice, an injustice so glaring ,repeated without giving a hoot.
Was all this happening just because Justice Ikpeme is a woman? And was she not a woman all the while as she served diligently and meritoriously; up until this crowning point of her career?
The reply came as another National Shocker- Justice Ikpeme was originally an indigene of Akwa Ibom , and so was declared A SECURITY RISK TO CROSS RIVER!
The Cross River State House of Assembly thence turned down her nomination, opting for another person in her stead.
Alas, the thick, paralysing darkness was to cover the landscape of the office of the State Chief Judge for two whole years.
Akon Ikpeme who was born and brought up in Cross River State, who, importantly and legally, is married to a Cross Riverian, whose children are all from Cross River was all of a sudden, a security risk. To who- TO HER OWN SELF? Justice Ikpeme is in every ramification and identification a Cross Riverian. She was, and is the most senior serving Judge in the Cross River State Judiciary, and is the next rightful Chief Judge, regardless of whether or not she comes from the People’s Republic of China!
Over in Abia State, a WHITE (caucasian) woman very recently served in high judicial capacity. Justice Mba is married to an Ibo man, Engineer Mba from Ohafia, Abia State. Just last year Gov Hope Uzodinma swore in Honourable Justice Agugua as the Imo CJ. Mrs Ijeoma Ogugua, from Anambra State is married to a man from Imo.
The pioneer Chief Judge of Cross River was Sir Darnley Alexander, yes, a man, from the Caribbean Islands!
It is pertinent to mention additionally that the littoral state of Akwa Ibom was created 33 years ago when it was carved out of the then Cross River State, with all previous regional appellations now defunct . Bearing in mind that in age, the Lord Justice is way above 33 years, then as at the time she was born, her state of origin, as a matter of course was Cross River. Justice Ikpeme ‘s father was a Permanent Secretary in Cross River State, before his retirement.
Additionally her parents had lived in the “current” Cross River Part of the state – and that is where Akon Ikpeme was born, grew up and has lived her life right to this day, currently residing on Ndoma-Egba Street in Calabar, the Cross River State capital.
It was a grave injustice to have labelled the impeccable Judge, Justice Ikpeme a “security risk ”, just to serve political interests.
Then came Mr Olumide Akpata. Against all predictions considering he had not taken silk himself, Barrister Akpata defeated two SANs to be elected National President of the Nigeria Bar Association on July 30 2020.
The NBA is one professional body that by sheer grit and determination, has refused to bow, bend or break in the face of executive intimidation. They were previously involved and engaged in the struggle against military rule in Nigeria.
Barr Akpata, immediately he assumed office made it known that the NBA would of a certainty, look into the Justice Ikpeme/ Chief Judge case. Early in September 2020 he issued a statement saying that the NBA demanded the swearing in of Justice Akon Ikpeme as State Chief Judge. His predecessor in office, Paul Usoro SAN was also tough talking on the matter. In his statement in March last year, the same morning that Justice Eneji was sworn in as acting CJ, Paul Usoro SAN released a statement saying “The NBA is unequivocally opposed to the appointment of Eneji J as the acting Chief Judge of the State ”.
Indeed, there are others who cannot be left out in the struggle for the elevation of Justice Ikpeme. Senator Anietie Okon was highly proactive in the debacle. He was a one- man activist, deploying all of his contacts and using his personal resources for constant advocacy. He sensitised the serving Senators from the Akwa- Cross Zone, and implored them to be fully involved in the matter . Sen Okon granted interviews on national television , online and in the press, screaming against the denial of the lawful right of Mrs Ikpeme . Mba Okweni, SAN was another person who fought steadfastly against the travesty of justice.
The entire Cross River State Judiciary was also tested, like never before. They remained unshaken and unmoving, focused on justice being done by Mrs Ikpeme.
With the tenure of the second acing CJ coming to an end (making the third in one year), with a lacuna impending, and the probable swearing in of another “government friend”- suddenly, astonishingly good news broke out of Cross River. It even came from the most improbable quarters: the self-same House of Assembly that had originally denied Justice Ikpeme her place. On Thursday January 28 2021, the House spectacularly acceded to the request of the Secretary to the State Government for the appointment of Justice Akon Ikpeme as substantive Chief Judge. That would be the third request by the Secretary to government, Tina Banku Agbor, herself also a barrister at law.
The legislators said they had new knowledge, and new facts. Of course, it is all common knowledge, and established facts and truths. However, we thank them.
Justice is not only done, but finally seen to be done. Congratulations are due My Lord Justice Ikpeme. I am so thrilled by the turn of events that I intend to attend that glorious swearing in ceremony.
Thankfully, it would appear that the Righteous Judge, the Almighty , who abhors injustice stepped in. But we mortals are not to expect that the Almighty will continually step in over problems created by humans that have human solutions.
I want to urge the NBA President to move with urgency after this victory, unto other parts with similar unjust situations. The cloud of darkness, seemingly fuelled by the Cross River situation is currently enveloping other states in Nigeria.
Lovers of justice in Nigeria are solidly behind him on that one. Recall that one legal maxim of note is, “JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED”.