There Was Once A Bench

Justice Adetokunbo Ademola
Justice Adetokunbo Ademola

By Eric Teniola

“Chief Justice, I am glad you gave that judgment, because I want you to feel free, If I commit a crime or do wrong in your opinion, to say so … if I am brought before you, send me to your jail – this is the way I want the judiciary to perform. You will never waver from the truth”.

These were the words of the late Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912-1966), to the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, Sir Adetokunbo Adegboyega Ademola (1906-1993) in 1961 as published by Mr. Trevor Clark on page 541 of his book titled ”A RIGHT HONOURABLE GENTLEMAN”.

Trevor Clark, a Briton, worked in the colonial administrative service in Nigeria from 1948-1977. Sir Adetokunbo Ademola was the longest serving Chief Justice of Nigeria (1958-1972).

The case Sir Abubakar was referring to involve the National Bank of Nigeria and Federal Government of Nigeria over an attempt by the latter to probe the bank on certain allegations.

But the Supreme Court ruled against the Federal Government. In another instance Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa told Justice Ademola: ”CJ, if I do anything wrong and I am brought before you, deal with me; and if necessary send me to jail…”

Justice Ademola himself quoted Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in the preface to the book. He added that after the case between Doherty vs Tafawa Balewa and others as saying after Judgment has been passed against the Prime Minister ”I am glad you have put us in our place; this is what we deserved. If I do anything wrong, do not hesitate to deal with me”.

That was when the Judiciary was at its highest level in terms of integrity.

Clark later described Justice Ademola as “a cultivated man with a quite manner”.

In 1964, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola spoke out publicly once more for his brethren on the bench, calling the abolition of appeals to the privy council premature, and the abolition of the Judicial Service Commission deplorable.

“The day that judges have to take instructions from politicians, or to acquaint them with their decisions beforehand, it will be time for us to pack up and go”, he said.

Kudos must be given to Justice Ademola and others for establishing the integrity of the Nigeria’s Judiciary.

He was the son of Alake of Egbaland, Sir Oladipo Samuel Adeomola II (1872-1962), who reigned from September 1920 to 1962. Despite being appointed Chief Justice over first the African to serve in the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the person of Justice Samuel Olumuyiwa Jibowu (1899-1959), Justice Ademola performed his duties creditably and was non partisan.

He served as Chief Justice of Western region in 1955 and was appointed Chief Justice of Nigeria on April 1 1958.

During his tenure and after his tenure, the Nigeria’s Judiciary was held high to the extent that there was a high demand from other countries for Nigeria’s Judges.

Sir Lois Nwachukwu Mbanefo (1911-1977) from Onitsha, who was believed to be the first lawyer from eastern region of Nigeria, was called to bar in 1935 and served in 1961 as an adhoc judge at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands.

Justice Charles Dadi Onyeama (1917-1999). Father of the present Minster of Foreign Affairs, Geofrey Jideofor Kwusike Onyeama (60), was an associate Justice of the Supreme Court between 1964-1967.

His contemporaries then were Justice Eugene Olufemi Morgan, Justice John Idowu Conrad Taylor (1917-1973), Justice Michael Oguejiofo Ajegbo Former Attorney-General of Eastern region, Justice George Baptist Ayodola Coker (1917-1991), Justice Chukwunikweike Idigbe and Justice Lionel Brett.

He was appointed Judge of International Court of Justice in the Hague in 1966 and served till 1976.

Justice Taslim Olawale Elias (1914-1991) was Chief Justice of Nigeria between 1972 and 1975. He was elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations to the International Court Justice at the Hague.

In 1979, his colleagues on that court elected him Vice-President. In 1981, after the death of Sir Humprey Waldock, the President of the Court, he took over as Acting President. In 1982, the members of the Court elected him President of the Court. He thus became the first African Jurist to hold that honour.

Five years later, Elias was also appointed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

General Thomas Johnson Umanakwe Aguiyi Ironsi (1924-1966) in January 1966 appointed the former director of Public Persecution in Eastern Region of Nigeria, Chief Michael Chike Gabriel Onyuike (1922-1993) from Awka, as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation. After his tenure he later served as Justice in the High Court of Tanzania between 1970 and 1974.

Prince Bolasodun Adesumbo Ajibola (82) served as a Judge of the International Court of Justice at the Hague between 1991 and 1994. Justice Timothy Akinola Aguda (1923-2001) from Akure in Ondo State, was the pioneer Chief Justice of Botswana when the landlocked country gained its independence September 30, 1966.

Justice Egbert Udo Udoma (1917-1998) from Ikot Abasi,Akwa Ibom state, was the first Chief Justice of Uganda from 1963 to 1969. He handled the Buganda crisis case in 1965.

Justice Udoma handed over handed over to Justice Dermot Joseph Sheridan who later became the first indigenous Chief Justice of Uganda. He is the father of the present Minister in charge of Budget and Planning, Senator Udo Udoma.

Justice Emmanuel Olayinka Ayoola (83) from Ilesha, Osun State, served as a Justice of the Court of Appeal in the Gambia between 1980-1983. He later became the Chief Justice of the Gambia between 1983-1992. He was Vice President of the World Judges Association in 1991.

That was then. Not now.

One can see the shock and disappointment when one reads the arrest and persecution of some judges recently. We can’t be all wrong. If we miss our way I guess it is the bench that must serve as the touch light to show us the way. In spite of what has gone wrong in the bench, there is still hope.

Section 211 of the 1979 Constitution says “the appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President in his discretion subject to confirmation of such appointment by a simple majority of the Senate.

The appointment of a person to the office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall be made by the President on the advice of the Federal Service Commission subject to approval of such appointment by a simple majority of the Senate.

But Section 231 of the 1999 Constitution says that “(1) the appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.

“(2) the appointment of a person to the office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”

Sections 230 to 296 have given wide powers to the National Judicial Council to carry out necessary reforms within the Judiciary.



    If you look at the profiles of members of the council, I am sure you will never doubt their integrity. The submission is for us to allow them to carry out the required exercise, not only rooting out corrupt judges but also in the appointment of Judges.

    As they say in Latin ”Post cineras Gloria venit” – meaning after death comes glory. They can still bring back the old glory to the bench. It is not impossible.

    ”A lawyer lives for the direction of his people and for the advancement of the cause of his country”.- Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams (1855-1915), first Nigerian Lawyer called to the bar on November 17, 1879, who later became Chairman Nigeria Bar Association between 1900 and 1915.

    Eric Teniola, a former director at the presidency, resides in Lagos.

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