By: VITALIS UGOH, Çalabar
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and former Senate Leader in the 7th National Assembly, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, has said that it is the lawyers and the masses that are suffering the consequences over the non appointment of a Chief Judge for Cross River State by the state governor, Senator Ben Ayade for over 10 months running.
He stated this in Calabar at the weekend during an interactive session with some journalists.
According to him “the lawyers have no other sources of income other than going to court. If this ugly trend continues, very soon you will see them riding “keke NAPEP” The legal profession in the state will be dead if we continue in this way. I was born in the profession and I am 42 years in the bay this year. The problem is not the Constitution but us. The Speaker who presided over the disqualification of Hon. Justice Akon Ikpeme, the wife is also from Akwa Ibom, the Deputy Speaker the same thing. You do not use politics to divide families. If you are a real man your duty is to protect a woman”.
Another implication of the entire face-off, he said, “is that the litigants can not have access to court again because fresh cases can not be handled because it is only the Chief Judge that can assign cases”.
Also, he further said, “when the police do wrongful detention and you rush to court on someone’s behalf, nothing can happen because only the Chief Judge can assign the case. For those that are being wrongly detained you can not do anything. This affects the masses”.
“For the lawyers who want to apply for (SAN), they must have done a number of cases within a given time. Do if you have not done the cases now in the next four to five years you will not see Cross Riverians who are eligible to apply for Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), he added”.
Ndoma-Egba who has been in practice for 42 years said, “if cases are not being assigned and cases are not being done, how do you get a judge from Cross River. So the implications are far reaching. The constitution says the NJC recommends, and government appoints. You cannot appoint without the NJC recommendation noting that “I told the governor that the NJC will not concede an inch of its constitutional territory to him. I know those old men. I have been a Bencher for 29 years so I sit down with them and I know how they think”.
While explaining further, he said, “even if Akon is 100 percent Ibibio by marriage, she is a Cross Riverian. If we can accept one from the West Indies as Chief Justice, Ibo as Solicitor General, Ghanaian as DPP, how come we can not accept somebody whose husband is Efik and children are Efik. The constitution is very clear and it says the next most senior judge when there is a vacancy. If I have spoken to you, Paul Erokoro, Kanu Agabi and others have spoken to you why still playing politics over the appointment.
Ndoma-Egba said under current stand off between the state governor and the NJC saying “nobody has anything personal with the governor but you are governor by virtue of the constitution. You swore to an oath to defend and protect that constitution. All we are saying is abide by the constitution and do the correct thing. You can not make people suffer because you have a personal preference. It is not the first time it is happening. It happened in Imo state and what did they do, they just retired the person who made himself available.’.
It would be recalled that “this position has pitched the state government against the National Judicial Council (NJC) which is insisting on the right thing to be done by maintaining the order of seniority which is sacrosanct in the Judiciary. As a result the state has remained without a substantive Chief Judge as the twice acting tenure (six months) of Justice Eneji ended on September 2, 2020. Before Eneji, Ikpeme had acted for three months”.
The state had remained without a substantive Chief Judge for about 10 months since the retirement of Justice Michael Edem in November last year as the state government and the State House of Assembly preferred a junior judge, Justice Maurice Eneji to emerge over his senior Justice Akon Ikpeme on grounds that Ikpeme is a security risk to the state”
Ndoma Egba said “you can not beat the queue in the legal profession. The legal profession is all about seniority. I was still in school when Sir Justice Alexander, a West Indies was brought in to be the Chief Justice of a South Eastern state after Esuene, then military governor removed Justice P.O.E. Bassey the first indigenous judge. After All Udo Udoma was Chief Justice in Uganda, Akinola Aguda was Chief Justice in Botswana, Omo Agege’s father was Chief Justice in Gambia, even our own Okoi Itam was Chief Justice of Gambia and Akimaye Agim who is now going to the Supreme Court was Chief Justice of Gambia. So we follow seniority”.
According to him, “if you put all our laws together the way I understand those laws, if you aggregate them, a woman can choose her husband’s place or her place of birth but she has to be consistent. She can not today say I am from Akwa Ibom and tomorrow you say I am from Cross River. That is how Okonji Iweala who is from Delta state was Minister representing Abia because from her records she has been an Abia person.
He therefore advised the governor to have a rethink as the National Judicial Council will not shift an inch of their constitutional powers to make a junior judge in the state a substantive Chief Judge over the senior.