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Cross River govt waging war against judiciary – Barr Erokoro

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Barr Paul Erokoro, a Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) has condemned the prolonged political crisis that has stalled the appointment of the state Chief Judge. He also took a swipe at the state government over its poor handling of the crisis, as well as the violent twist to the recent #EndSARS protest in Cross River state. Erokoro who led a team of SANs and other lawyers from Cross River and Akwa Ibom states to pay a sympathy visit to Sen Ndoma Egba over the inversion of his house by hoodlums, captured the mood of the people in an interview with journalists, saying that the sad scenario was indication that government has failed. JOSEPH KINGSTON was there. 

The state, for a year now, has no substantive Chief Judge. What is your position on this? 

We said earlier that we feel that this government is waging war against the judiciary. The process of appointing a new chief judge is very simple. It is just to appoint the most senior judge. The governor sent the name of the most senior judge, Honorable Justice Akon Ikpeme, to the state House of Assembly and the State House of Assembly refused to endorse her appointment and because of that we have been on the position of acting chief judge.

Akon Ikpeme acted for three months, Maurice Eneji acted for six months and now we have another. We cannot allow this to continue because, there is too much uncertainty and it’s creating difficulty in the development of the judiciary. Cases are not being properly assigned and we are expecting that we will run through the list of judges in Cross River state, so that everybody will act? The point to be made is that we want a substantive chief judge in the state.

What is your take on the kind of destruction meted out on Cross River state by people suspected to have hijacked the EndSARS protest?

One may not really understand the impact of the damage until he sees it himself. With this horrible sight, I believe that if our colleague (Ndoma Egba) would have been in with his family, they probably wouldn’t be alive today. It’s hard to believe that this was a random attack. The methodical way in which the damage was inflicted calls for concern. There is strong suggestion of malice and hatred because, it’s hard not to think that this was a planned attack and they took advantage of the situation in the country and perpetrated it.

We all have houses in Calabar, we all live here. Victor Ndoma lived here in this estate and bought his first plot of land in 1981, Victor started his first house here in 1981, so, those who think this is the money that he made from the government are wrong. We were in our second year in private legal practice, when we bought lands here and Victor built. This particular one started in 1991, years before it could ever occur to him that he will be a senator one day. Obviously, it was not only this house that was attacked, Senator Gershom Bassey’s house was also attacked. They also ransacked and looted his father’s house, the pride of white house. They went there and burnt it. Why would you burn the house, which would have been a thing of heritage? I can understand the hunger in the land, we are witnesses and we recognise that they have never seen as much hardship in this land as it is today; but that does not explain this level of carnage.

What do you think state governments should do in view of the colossal damages?

The first thing the government should do is to accept that white elephant projects have never developed the country. What we want from the government is actual governance and that is not hard. Actual governance requires simply a sincere approach to taking care of the welfare and the security of the people, and it’s very easy if their salaries are to be paid, fill the potholes in the streets; if water is not running, give them running water; make sure that pensions are paid, there should be no escapism.

Government projects should be focused on reality. We congratulate the government of Cross River state for the industries they’ve built. We congratulate them for the super highway they are building, the deep seaport, whether they have finished or not. We appeal to this government, hold on, leave those projects for now, they have gone far enough. We are happy that the government of this state in its 2021 budget has told the whole world that it is devoting 69% of the budget to youth empowerment and creation of jobs, we thank His Excellency the governor for that very bold step; but we are interested in how it would be implemented.

We have here a situation in our state, where perhaps, government policies are ironically putting poverty. I take the issue of taxation for instance, Cross River state ranks very high in the nation in internally generated revenue. Everybody knows that we are a poor state, a civil service state, so, how are we able to generate so much tax? Obviously, by probably over tax. Most of the quarries are scaled down because, the taxation is too much and a lot of businesses have closed down because, the people are overburdened by too much taxation. We thank the government for waving taxation for the poorest people in the society; but you must also cut taxes for businesses so that they can expand and employ people. Government already receives statutory allocation; why do they need to tax the people so much?

Second policy is that the local governments are not functioning. If the local governments are allowed to function as a tier of government, they would create employment opportunities; they will create economic activities. Every month, they just pay salaries and that is it. I attended a primary school built by a local government in this state, that primary school with the same infrastructure trained the technical college, the college of education. Today, it houses the campus of University of Cross River State. It was built by Ogoja council. So, the local government councils should be encouraged to work; they should build schools, they should do water works, they should do roads. The local government should function as pure government. If you go abroad, you hear of councils flags, much of the houses in those communities are done by the councils; so, let our councils work.

Then, what is our main resource in the state? The main resource we have in Cross River is land. Yes, land. Our government must understand that making land easily available for people is economic empowerment. Set aside two Saturdays to sign certificates of occupancy. I should be able to come to Cross River state and say I want land without going to any community, and it should be possible to collect my certificate of occupancy in no time. In Cross River, the government should put up a law where certificates of occupancy would be collected in 5 days, and the World Bank will immediately put 200 million dollar into the state.

We in the legal profession believe that somehow, the government has waged war against our profession. Lawyers in the Ministry of Justice are not paid, so many were sacked recently, more than thirty. There is a magistrate, who has not been paid for two years; but they are still working. The last batch of judges that were employed have not been given cars. These are things I am sure that the government can easily address. There is so much that can be done, if you do not deal with the effect of the law enforcement agencies, look at the consequences.

It is said that people came from outside to do the attack on four local government in the state, what’s your take on this?

It is a thing of shame that the narrative out in the street is that people came in from other states to invade us. How can that happen? There must be a security architecture that is supposed to safeguard and prevent that kind of thing. We have a security vote, which is meant for collection of intelligence for untold things like this. Those people operated in this (Ndoma Egba’s) house alone for four hours and from one house to another and none of the security agencies could come and intervene. Clearly, there’s something wrong. From what we gathered, the information about this attack was known about 24 hours before it actually happened. This narrative that people came from here and there creates unnecessary tension and danger. Akwa Ibom people are not our enemy. So far as I know, many of these houses you see here are owned by Akwa Ibom people, up to one third of the population of this state is made up of Akwa Ibom people, from here right up to Akamkpa, Biase, Ikom and the rest. So, the idea of trying to dehumanise our neighbours, we don’t accept. So, we are calling on the state government to please, do all that it can to find out and tell us how and why all of these destructions happened.

Should victims be compensated?

The state and federal governments must compensate those, who suffered this damage because, the primary responsibility of government is to protect lives and property. If under his (Governor’s) watch, this happened, government should speak out; but if the government does not speak clearly, it gives room for these conspiracy theories, so, that is why the government must speak. Government should pay compensation! Senator Victor Ndoma Egba may not need the compensation, not because he has the money to restore his house, but if he has received this kind of discouragement from investing in his state, then, why should he come back. Many people are running away to Abuja, Lagos etc, so, those who actually invest their money in their states should not be singled out for victimisation, they should be encouraged. It is clearly a failure of government. There is no way you can sugar-coat it. I don’t know what method the government will use; all we are saying is that the government owes the people the duty to tell us how and why this happened.

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