Justice Victor Erere Ovie-Whiskey
Olawale Olaleye and Adibe Emenyonu
After a prolonged but tough battle with illness, former Chairman of the defunct Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO), Justice Victor Erere Ovie-Whiskey, passed on Wednesday at the age of 88.
For the renowned legal icon, his death was perhaps insidious. He passed on at Agbarho, his home town in Ughelli North Local Council of Delta State, having had a running battle with old age-related illness at Ekotor Clinic in Agharho.
Appointed FEDECO boss in 1980 by Second Republic President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Ovie-Whiskey certainly had an indelible place in the nation’s political history. Before taking up the thankless job of the nation’s electoral umpire, Ovie-Whiskey, who was the then Chief Judge of the defunct Bendel State, was considered upright and non-partisan, even as he had a brilliant and flourishing legal career.
Unfortunately, the general election of 1983 which were marred by widespread irregularities cast serious dents on both his person and the electoral body.
Yet, he was not perturbed about the outcry that followed the result. “We did not expect to be perfect,” he said, and consequently denied any wrongdoing. When confronted with allegations of bribery, he gave a rather comic response when he said he would faint if he saw N1 million cash. But later in life, he outgrew such thinking.
As a jurist, Ovie-Whiskey paraded an incorruptible reputation, fitted with an independent persona. A father of nine children, eight of whom are females, Ovie-Whiskey was said to have never shown regret about the sex ratio of his children.
He once told a national daily in an interview that when he retired, his daughters contributed money and built him a befitting mansion where he lived till he breathed his last on Wednesday. He got himself busy with fish farming as well as running a “small but busy poultry”. He obviously enjoyed a quiet life in retirement at Agbarho.
As FEDECO boss, Ovie-Whiskey recalled being insulted as a result of the reality outside and that it was not until he left office that he realised the level of rot in the system. At old age in retirement, he was involved in community service and spent much of his time mediating in family matters as well as church activities.
Born on April 6, 1924, Ovie-Whiskey attended King's College, Lagos, Yaba Higher College and then University College, Ibadan. He had a brief spell in the civil service as a marine clerk. In addition, he had stints as a teacher at Western Boys High School, Benin City, and Hussey College, Warri before he proceeded to the University of London where he studied civil law and jurisprudence.
He was called to the bar in 1952 and practised as a lawyer until 1960 when he became a magistrate in Western Region. In 1963, he was appointed Chief Magistrate of the then Mid-Western Region, renamed Bendel State in 1976. He rose to become the Chief Judge of Bendel State.
Save for the 1983 experience, Ovie-Whiskey sure had a fulfilling career. He was the judge at the Warri High Court when Chief Tony Anenih, former chairman, Board of Trustees (BoT) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was the District Police Officer (DPO) of the police formation in the neighbourhood.
Strict and fearless, Ovie-Whiskey was said to have dispensed justice, irrespective of who was involved. A story was told of how one of the parties to a case had cajoled his mother to his court, hoping to secure the sympathy of the judge as a result of his action. Sighting his mother in the courtroom, Ovie-Whiskey allegedly ordered her out and insisted that the court order be given effect. That was the man that the nation’s mysterious system almost remoulded.
His shortfalls notwithstanding, the truth about his personality was constant and in such, he as well as his family, took solace and made up for whatever damage his experience in service to fatherland as FEDECO boss may have caused him.
And it is in remembrance of what he stood for that tonnes of tributes have continued to pour in for the eminent jurist.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, has described his death as a great loss to the nation.
In a statement signed by his Special Adviser on Media and Public Affairs, Malam Imam Imam, Tambuwal said the deceased served the country diligently as the Chief Justice of the former Bendel State and later as its electoral umpire.
The speaker said of particular interest to him is the unassuming manner with which the deceased lived his retirement life where he neither courted undue publicity nor unwarranted controversy.
According to Tambuwal, “He was an icon of the legal profession who served Nigeria selflessly as its chief electoral umpire. I remember him for his calm disposition and mature contributions which helped Nigeria's electoral process between 1980 and 1983 when the military took over power."
Former Vice-President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, described his death as another major loss to Nigeria’s legal profession. Atiku noted that one of the greatest qualities of the deceased was his insistence on accuracy on the part of those who made allegations.
He particularly recalled Ovie-Whiskey’s famous denial of allegedly collecting N1 million during the Second Republic to influence the outcome of the 1983 election, to which he reportedly said he would faint at the sight of such a huge amount of money.
In a condolence message by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Peter Okhiria, Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State recalled that “as Chief Judge of the defunct Bendel State, Ovie-Whiskey provided exceptional leadership qualities which endeared him to the Federal Government leading to his appointment as Chairman of the then FEDECO.
"Justice Ovie-Whiskey will be surely missed, not only by members of his family but also by the Bar and Bench in Edo and Delta States."
A former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Chief Thompson Okpoko (SAN), also described Ovie-Whiskey as “a perfect gentleman” who tried his best during his days in legal practice and as FEDECO chairman.
“He was an old man and an excellent gentleman to the core. He was also a man of principle who related with people just as he did not allow his personal interest, either from his family or friend to affect his judgment,” Okpoko said.
On his part, Secretary-General of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), Mr. John Onojakpor, said the late justice was “one of the few honest and patriotic Nigerians who had the opportunity to amass wealth as FEDECO chairman but chose instead to serve his fatherland conscientiously.”