Justice Kayode Eso
By Davidson Iriekpen
For eminent jurist, and retired justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Kayode Eso, the curtain fell early yesterday morning. He was aged 87.
Highly revered for his integrity and brilliance, he was often described as the father of judicial activism in Nigeria and "the Lord Denning of our time" largely due to his incisive analysis of the law and for being an unrepentant advocate of justice for all.
Eso’s immense experience at the bar, public service and on the bench spanned a total time frame of 46 years.
Eso would not fail to chastise judges who he felt had denigrated the bench. He once lamented that judges have become now billionaires as a result of corruption.
Eso was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1978 during the military era. This was the period when there was a covert attempt to humiliate the Supreme Court and undermine its authority and independence.
In his 12 years sojourn on the apex court, he bestrode the court like a colossus. Within the legal circles, he was greatly venerated as one of the most courageous judges who ever sat on the Supreme Court. He belonged to the realist school of jurisprudence which sees law as a veritable instrument of social change.
In all, he delivered 464 considered and reported judgments. Seventy of these were lead judgments, 390 were concurring judgments and four were dissenting judgments.
While on the Bench, he was noted for bold and imaginative decisions in the mould of Thurgood Marshall of the US Supreme Court.
He was a fearless and courageous judge and acclaimed for his dogged and uncompromising dedication to the pursuit of justice, and creative and purposeful interpretation of the law, mostly described as judicial activism.
Some of his celebrated landmark judgments speak for themselves. Notable among the cases he handled were Wole Soyinka vs Western Nigerian Government, sometimes called "the mystery gunman case". This was the trial of Soyinka over his role in a broadcast which the government of the defunct Western region of Nigeria termed offensive. Justice Eso returned a verdict of not guilty on Soyinka.
Also in the case of Ojukwu vs Military Governor of Lagos State (1986), Justice Eso delivered the lead judgment where the Supreme Court more or less demystified the military government.
In the judgment which till date stands as a precedent and reference point, he declared that the forceful seizure of Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu’s property when a case in respect of it was pending in the court was a demonstration of executive lawlessness and an attempt “to infuse timidity into the court and operate sabotage of the cherished rule of law."
Eso's last public appointment was as head of the Rivers State Reconciliation Committee set up by Governor Rotimi Amaechi. That appointment is another testament to the high esteem in which Eso, a non-native, is held given that the state and the zone boasts several equally distinguished retired jurists.
Rueing the level of degeneration in the judiciary especially over incongruous, ambiguous and incoherent judgments and allegations of corruption, Eso recently took a swipe at the judiciary, saying that it was full of judges and justices who ought not to have been there in the first place. He said until the bad eggs in the institution were flushed out, the sector would continue to retrogress.
He noted that gone were the days when it was a pride to be counted among justices of the Supreme Court which helped curb abuse of power even in the military governments.
On his retirement from the Bench, Hon. Justice Eugene Ubaezonu, JCA, described Eso as a strong protagonist of judicial activism and the Lord Denning of Nigeria who refuses to be tied to the apron string of bad statutes or bad decisions.
Another Supreme Court Judge, Justice Pius Aderemi also paid tribute to Eso's glittering credential. “Eso’s decisions as a judge is legendary and a delight to study.
“Full of erudite scholarship, well reasoned and replete with legal authorities, there are fine statements of law and veritable guides for all in the legal profession or concerned with law.”
Eso in his life time, received several awards and university honours too numerous to mention. He is Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), 1979; received LL.D honoris Causa, from the University of Ibadan, 1990, and University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 2001, respectively.
He is author of several books, articles and has delivered various papers at national and international seminars. He was married to Helen Aina Eso and they are blessed with two children and five grand children.
Even after he left service, he remained particularly vocal. He would occasionally break his silence to lend perspective to a troubling issue.
On many occasions, he would break his silence to publicly voice concerns over issues of corruption and transparency and once he made an intervention, he sort of silenced those whose custom it was never to admit anything was wrong with the judiciary.
His voice commanded that kind of universal authority. He spoke like a statesman, and with subtlety, knowledge and wisdom. Justice Kayode Eso was the jurist who would, ever so often, speak truth to power because he cared deeply.