Justice Kayode Eso
By Davidson Iriekpen, Tobi Soniyi and Tunde Sanni
The death of retired justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Kayode Eso, has unleashed a stream of eulogies from Nigerians of diverse background.
President Goodluck Jonathan described the late jurist who died in a London hospital early Friday at the age of 87 as a "courageous advocate for an independent judiciary".
A press statement signed by Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, noted that, "President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has received news of the death of retired Honourable Justice Samuel Kayode Eso with sadness and a feeling of great national loss.
"On behalf of himself and the Federal Government, President Jonathan extends heartfelt condolences to the Eso family, their friends, associates and the government and people of Osun State as they mourn the eminent jurist, courageous judge and consistent advocate for an independent judiciary, whose long and exemplary life was dedicated to the service of law and order, and the dispensation true justice, equity and fairness to all."
The statement urged family and friends to take solace in the fact that Justice Eso carried out his duties with courage and also worked hard towards enthroning an independent judiciary.
"President Jonathan believes that members of the legal profession in Nigeria will always owe a debt of gratitude to the late Justice Eso for his immense legacy of learned, erudite and seminal judgments, prodigious writings and major interventions in national debates on and outside the Bench which will always be remembered for their incisiveness, thoroughness, intellectual touch and impact."
With Justice Eso's death the country's rank of accomplished justices has been further depleted. It was however not known if he had been ill.
A statement released by Olumide Eso, an architect and son of the late justice, on behalf of the family said simply: "With Glory to Almighty God we wish to announce the peaceful passing on of our husband, father, grandfather, and brother the Justice Kayode Eso, JSC, CON, CFR, on Friday, 16 November 2012 at Hammersmith Hospital London United Kingdom.
"He is survived by his wife Mrs. Helen Aina Eso, his children Funmilayo Eso-Williams and Olumide Eso, as well as his grandchildren."
The Esos' family home in Ibadan was virtually deserted when THISDAY visited mid-Friday. Barring a lone security guard who later opened the gates to the residence after some sympathisers began to swarm the entrance, there was no member of the family in sight.
For President of the Senate, Mr. David Mark, "Eso was a voice for the voiceless. He defended the defenceless and was there for the oppressed. He was forthright and a distinguished officer."
"Nobody doubted his integrity and where he stood on national issues were clearly unambiguous. He was a patriotic Nigerian."
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, described Eso as one who exemplified "what was best in our judiciary", adding that the country has lost a moral voice.
In a condolence message issued by his Special Adviser on Media and Public Affairs, Malam Imam Imam, Tambuwal said: ''He was a thorough professional, a man who staked his all for the development of the judiciary. Nigeria has lost a moral voice at a time men of his virtue are clearly needed in all facets of our national endeavour. We are blessed to have had such a wonderful person pass through this nation as one of our citizens."
Former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Abia State, Chief Awa Kalu, SAN, said Eso fought the good fight with all his might. "I knew him fairly well and I will do a tribute when I return to the country," he said.
In his tribute written in the condolence register at Eso's residence, Justice Peter Aderemi, a retired justice of the Supreme Court said: "A quintessential and an adroit judge has departed this sinful world. Your cherished contribution to the development of law and promotion of justice will remain indelible in the hearts of all of us. May your great soul rest in peace."
Eso was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1978 during the military government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and spent 12 years on the apex court. He was highly venerated in the judiciary and considered one of the most courageous judges who ever sat on the Supreme Court.
There were many cases in which Eso displayed his independence and progressive interpretation of the law. Some of the remarkable ones was Wole Soyinka vs Western Nigeria Government, a case in which the Nobel laureate was docked for his alleged role in a broadcast which the government of the defunct Western Region deemed offensive. Justice Eso returned a verdict of not guilty on Soyinka, and shortly after the judgment, he was transferred from Ibadan to Akure, then regarded as a rural station.
Another significant case, easily one of the country's most controversial, was that between Obafemi Awolowo and Shehu Shagari in 1979. Of the seven justices on the panel, Eso wrote the only dissenting opinion in which he held that “at least 2/3 of 19 states could only be 13 and not 12 2/3.’’
It was largely due to his reputation as a reform-minded jurist that Eso was appointed by the late Head of State, General Sani Abacha, to head a panel to sanitise the judiciary. The panel’s report and recommendations gave a comprehensive blueprint for the restoration of the judiciary's disturbing image.
In the report, Eso made the most profound call for the restructuring of the National Judicial Council (NJC). It was an instructive call that foreshadowed the crisis between the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu and the suspended President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Isa Salami.
Eso, who apparently foresaw the dilemma that could arise if there are allegations of abuse of office against the CJN, had called for the scrapping of the NJC and its replacement with a body he called the Judicial Performance Commission.
He submitted that there was no way the country could effectively deal with the problems of the judiciary presided over by the CJN with most of the members appointed by him. He, therefore, recommended the transfer of certain powers presently resident in the NJC to a body not presided over by the CJN which will be responsible for disciplinary matters concerning members of the bench.
That recommendation, sadly, was not implemented till the death of the eminent jurist.
Born on Sept 18, 1925 at Ilesa, Osun State, Eso was admitted to Ilesa Grammar School in 1940 and completed his studies in 1944. He would later attend Trinity College, Dublin where he graduated with an LLB in 1953 and a Masters in 1956.