Cross River State government has kicked up an unnecessary controversy, one that reopens the old debate over one’s state of origin. Governor Ben Ayade, earlier this month, passed up Mrs Akon Ikpeme for appointment as the state’s substantive chief judge, preferring instead Mr Maurice Eneji as acting chief judge. His excuse is that Akon originally came from neighbouring Akwa Ibom state, though married to a Cross River man for 40 year and she is the most senior officer in the state’s judiciary. In preferring Eneji to Akon, the governor agreed with the state’s lawmakers that Akon “is a security risk”.
Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution and legal tradition favour Akon over Eneji who is far junior to her in the state’s judicial hierarchy but politics matter more to the government. She was born in Calabar when Akwa Ibom was a part of Cross River. She is married to a man from Cross River, and has been working for decades as a judicial officer, including being a director of public prosecution and a judge. Akwa Ibom was created out of Cross River on September 23, 1987 by the military regime of President Ibrahim Babangida.
The confirmation hearing was marred by high drama. Two oppositions were presented to lawmakers for consideration. A faction of the State’s House of Assembly clearance committee, led by its chairman, Efa Esua, reportedly cleared Akon for confirmation, while another led by Godwin Akwaji (Obudu State constituency) and five others recommended that she be rejected because she was not originally from Cross River State. The House rejected both reports and formed a Committee of the whole House which, through a voice vote, rejected Akon’s confirmation.
The allegation that the whole farce was engineered by Governor Ayade cannot be casually dismissed. Eneji, the new acting chief judge, is believed to be a relation of the governor’s and both come from the same senatorial district.
Reactions to the Ikpeme case have been quick and in torrents. The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has called on the National Judiciary Commission (NJC), whose prerogative it is to recommend a candidate for appointment as a state chief judge, not to recognise Eneji. “This absurdity and naked injustice and prejudice must not be allowed to stand,” the NBA President, Paul Usoro, said in a statement. The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in Nigeria has called on Governor Ayade and the Cross River Assembly to retrace their steps and allow Mrs lkpeme be sworn in as the state’ chief judge. It said what has happened “is a “grave infringement” on the human rights of Mrs Ikpeme”. A statement by Rhoda Tyoden and Eliana Martins, the country vice president/national president and the spokesperson, respectively, said “It is heart-breaking to note that at this point of our struggle to stop all forms of discrimination in our society, we will be awakened to such discrimination on grounds of ethnicity and political zoning.”
Gov. Ayade, on his own part, has said his government is “receptive to everyone, irrespective of where they come from. Cross River State is known for fairness, equity and we are opposed to anything repugnant to natural justice. Our people are not known for bias and prejudice.”
As we said at the outset, the Ikpeme case has reopened the old debate over who is an indigene and who is not. Nigerians are discriminated against economically and politically in their own country because they are not indigenes of a particular state even if they have been residents for decades, paying local taxes and contributing to their host communities’ development. The Nigerian Constitution forbids discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity against any Nigerian citizen.
Even more worrisome was the reason Gov. Ayade and the lawmakers gave for rejecting Mrs Ikpeme. She was not “a security risk” during all the 40 years she lived and worked for the government until now? Unbelievable this is. The NJC must not let this rape on the Constitution stand. Ayade should be reprimanded and made to rescind his choice of chief judge for Cross River state. He says his government is fair to all. Let him walk the talk.