SIMONKOLAWOLELIVE! BY SIMON KOLAWOLE
Were you as disgusted as I was on Monday when the Cross River house of assembly voted against confirming Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive chief judge of the state for purely ethnic reasons? In the wisdom of the state lawmakers, Ikpeme had to be rejected because — and I am not joking! — she is “naturally” from “rival” Akwa Ibom state, even though she was born and bred in Cross River, schooled in Cross River, practised her law in Cross River, is married to a man from Cross River and all her children tick “Cross River” as their home state. The rejection happened in Cross River, otherwise one of the most cultured, progressive and liberal states in Nigeria!
In no time, Justice Maurice Eneji (“naturally” from Cross River) was sworn in as the acting chief judge by Senator Ben Ayade, the state governor of the “olimpotic meristematic” fame. For those who may not know, Ikpeme is the most senior judge in the Cross River judiciary. Next to her was Eneji. Ikpeme was recommended to the National Judicial Council (NJC) to fill the position full-time, having acted in that capacity all along. Eneji was nominated as the “reserve” candidate. The state lawmakers concluded that Ikpeme is a “security risk” because she is “naturally” from Akwa Ibom. There were insinuations that she would sell Cross River to her “natural” state in land disputes. So it goes.
The judiciary committee of the house, in an unprecedented drama, submitted two reports for consideration. In the first report, Hon. Efah Esua, chairman of the committee, recommended the appointment of Ikpeme based on merit, all other things considered. In the second report, Hon. Godwin Akwaji, representing Obudu constituency, along with five other co-conspirators, said she should be rejected because she is not a “native”. In a moment when political intrigues triumphed over common sense and natural justice, the house decided by a voice vote that Ikpeme, who was born when Cross River and Akwa Ibom were one, was not fit for purpose.
For the record, it was not every lawmaker that missed the road. Honourable mention must be made of Hon. Ekpo Bassey (Bakassi constituency) who warned the assembly against sentiments that would set bad precedents. “This is my fifth year in the house and I have never seen two reports by a committee being presented to the house… We need to strengthen institutions and avoid sowing seeds of ethnicity and disunity in the house,” he said. It is also on record that Hon. Itam Abang (Boki constituency) said that “the assembly has been prejudiced by ethnic sentiments”. She added: “It’s very sad that in the 21st century we are whipping up ethnic sentiments.”
Many issues have been thrown up, once again, by the disgraceful conduct of the ethnic chauvinists. The first that comes to mind is the place of women in the Nigerian set-up. It appears once a woman marries from outside her “state of origin”, she is automatically in trouble. In 2012, Justice Ifeoma Jumbo-Ofor was nominated to the court of appeal from Abia state. Although she was “naturally” from Anambra state, her husband was from Abia. She had served in the Abia judiciary for 14 years. But some said she was still not qualified to be nominated from Abia! An Igbowoman not fit to represent another Igbo state! Thank God, President Goodluck Jonathan was able to push it through.
Unfortunately, there are other conventional prejudices. When I lost my dad and we moved to our village in the old Kwara state, I met several Igbo entrepreneurs there. They were mostly shop owners. One of the apprentices, Ejiofor, was about my age. Ejiofor still lives in my village — 44 years after I first met him there. He’s made my village his home. He speaks clean Yoruba “naturally” and raps my Yagba dialect in a way that makes me appear incompetent. But you know what? He dare not come out tomorrow and say he wants to be a councillor. They will remind him his name is Ejiofor not Abejide. That is how entrenched chauvinism is in the Nigerian society.
The Justice Akon Ikpeme situation has yet again awakened my belief that we badly need restructuring in this country. There is something definitely wrong with us. How can a woman be treated as a stranger in the land where she was born, where she was brought up, where she schooled, where she has worked all her life and from where she married? How tame and regressive can a state legislature be to conclude, by a majority, that such a woman is a “foreigner” and a “security risk” in Cross River? Does anyone among them remember that Akwa Ibom and Cross River used to be one state? Why do we so often allow politics to trump common sense in this country?
How can an Igbo state object to the elevation of an Igbowoman, married to an Igboman, to the court of appeal on the ground that she is from another Igbo state even when she had spent a significant part of her life outside her own part of Igboland? We desperately need restructuring in this country. We need to restructure this backward mindset that prioritises selfish politicking and pettiness above rational thinking and societal progress. Sadly, women tend to bear the brunt most of the time. Once they are married, some are automatically treated as “foreigners” in their home states and “foreigners” in their husbands’ states. For such women — heads, they lose; tails, they lose.
The Ejiofor situation is so commonplace in Nigeria, even though I must admit that there have been flashes of encouragement in many states where “non-indigenes” are elected or appointed into public office. Most are tokenistic, yet we have to be thankful that they happened at all. For long, people have argued that the term “state of origin” should be replaced with “state of residence” in our lexicon and civil service rules. Some have also made the case that this change should be written into the constitution. I fully support the motion, but at the same time we must also restructure the prejudiced mindset that treats people as foreigners in their own country.
We can very well re-write the constitution and replace “state of origin” with “state of residence” but the person taking the critical decision at the backend knows where “Saduwa” comes from. If the chauvinistic mindset is not restructured, they will still see Saduwa as a Biniman in Urhoboland. After all, there is this story that when Chief Bankole Akpata was championing the creation of the Midwest from the Western region in the 1960s, the inimitable Chief Ladoke Akintola reportedly retorted: “Let them go. Our own Apata is not spelt with k.” Very witty retort, but it tells you that when the Yoruba see “k” in “Akpata”, they know “this is not one of us”. It’s the mindset, stupid!
As far as I can understand the issue, judging from the distasteful Ikpeme situation in Cross River, we badly need to restructure our mindsets and mentality — not just the laws. How can we restructure our minds to such an extent that discrimination — overt or covert — on the basis of ethnicity, religion and gender can be tamed? It is not as if I have the answer. But we can reason together. If you were socialised to be prejudiced against those who are not like you — or those who do speak your language or practise your religion — it will be an uphill task to remove the bigoted and xenophobic scales from your eyes. It will be very, very tough, although not impossible.
To be fair, we have been able to rise above these sentiments at times. When Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was nominated as minister of finance in 2003 by President Olusegun Obasanjo, she was to fill the Abia slot. Although she is from Delta state, her husband, Dr Ikemba Iweala, is from Abia state. There was strong opposition from those saying “she’s taking our space” but Obasanjo had a way of winning such battles. It is also a thing of joy that in 2007, Mrs Grace Folasade Bent, a Yoruba woman from Osun state, was elected senator in Adamawa south, northern Nigeria. A woman and a southerner elected senator in a northern state! That says a lot about what is possible in Nigeria.
Of course, around the Independence era, people were elected mayors and councillors outside where they “naturally” came from. Indeed, there have been encouraging stories across the country, particularly in terms appointments. They are not as commonplace as we would want, but these developments tell us what can happen in Nigeria. We can do it. We did it before. We can do it again. Restructuring our mindsets is inevitable if we are to tame prejudice and allow reason to prevail in the quest for national integration. As we mark the International Women’s Day today, we should be thinking of positively discriminating in favour of women. Politicians must stop milking our faultlines.