By Tunde Awobiyi
Ihave watched, read and listened to so many commentaries on renowned jurist and arbitrator, Justice Kayode Eso, who passed on, Friday, November 16, 2011, in a London Hospital. It is no surprise that this extraordinary man of uncommon pedigree would present so many positive sides to so many people and institutions.
That he bestrode the Nigerian Judiciary like a colossus, as a rare voice for the voiceless and the under-privileged cannot be over-stated. His erudition, tenacity, rectitude and courage are all evident in the landmark cases he dealt with fearlessly in and out of the Bench for over a quarter of a century, and until he bowed out gallantly from public and private engagements.
While alive, he never hid his ‘privileged’ background, which he was quick to flaunt for whatever anyone may feel of him. He always emphasised that, ‘no one can give what he does not have’ adding, three things influenced my life significantly’ the Ijesha traits in me, as well as my early and later education in Ilesa Grammar School, Osun State and Trinity College, Dublin, respectively.’
I must say that I am not too familiar with his exploits in Dublin, but if his record of almost always staying ahead of his peers in Ilesa Grammar School is a guide, one could assume that he would achieve no less anywhere else, especially with the overwhelming testimonies about his character and performance in public and private endeavours. He was, however, always quick to confess that the Yoruba concept of Omoluabi had been his guiding principle. Incidentally, the Motto of his secondary school is ‘E huwa omoluabi’, which enjoins everyone to be modest in all things.
And just like his courageous Ijesa kins, Enoch Adeboye, Late Bola Ige, W.F. Kumuyi, his friend, Dr Festus Ajayi, and the renowned Kiriji Warlord Ogedengbe Agbogungboro; Justice Eso was never afraid to walk alone where others feared to tread, daring the military’s rule of force and what he often called, executive recklessness. His minority and landmark judgements including the twelve two third, State Vs Wole Soyinka, Akilu vs. Fawehinmi, Lagos State Vs. Ojukwu cases, spoke eloquently about this very thorough, fearless, courageous and incorruptible man, described by Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) as the Lord Denning of Nigeria.
Just as he managed to come out unscathed in the controversies associated with his judicial activism, on the Bench and other official capacities, little has been written about the unforgettable deployment of his arbitration skills in calming the many storms that nearly tore apart his people in Ijesaland in the last 25 years, over spiritual and temporal matters.
An Anglican to the core, who never missed his early morning service, Eso was the pioneer chancellor of Ilesa Diocese, from November 24, 1974 and subsequently for over 35 years. Until he breathed his last, he was always consulted on the continued growth of the work of God both in his Ibadan and Ilesa abode. One of his last addresses to the Laity of the Anglican Communion was ironically, “Preparing to meet God”
A testimony of his indelible contributions to the work of God is the fact that one of the funeral services lined up for him would be held in a chapel he built adjacent to his Ilesa home. A regular pastime of this loving husband and father of two very distinguished children, is the habit of always throwing open his Green Acres, Bodija-Ibadan residence to all manner of guests, immediately after his consistent 8am worship on Sundays.
It is also noteworthy that, apart from his early active role in the Nationalist pre-independence Zikist Movement, Eso could be said to be apolitical. His impartiality, honesty and outspokenness, no matter whose ox is gored, often recommend him for interventions and arbitrations in difficult political and communal issues, such as the Ogoni peace parley which he presided over.
One of such difficult tasks he took on, a few years back, was the one that challenged him to bail out his community. The issue came on when one of the oldest monuments in Nigeria, the 1000-old palace of his paramount ruler, the Owa Obokun of Ijesaland went up in flames, in controversial circumstances, at a time the community was assailed from all fronts. Although, away in Italy, when the unfortunate incident happened, Eso at 82 then, was promptly and unanimously elected Chairman of the Palace Reconstruction Board of trustee, in absentia. On his arrival, and supported by Prof Wale Omole’s team in the Central Working Committee, Eso, from zero budget level, deployed his legendary credibility and reputation, to source for funds.
He was so painstaking in the mobilisation of resources and the award of the contract for the imposing edifice, fashioned after the Buckingham Palace .He insisted that the winner of the bid, a non-Ijesa, who beat an indigene by just one mark should handle the project, in the face of all kinds of pressure. Until his last moment on earth, he was always checking up on the progress of work and accountability for every kobo contributed and spent .He made sure he attended all the meetings concerning the project, now at the roofing level, whether in Ilesa, Ibadan or Lagos.
Another difficult moment in Ijesaland was what got me close to this forthright and humble man, who is ever ready to nurture and promote the younger ones. He had inspired the invitation of what can be described as ‘who is who’ from all over Ijesaland to discuss the way forward over threats to the very foundation of the institutions and bonds holding the community together.
After a painstaking debate on the contending issues at the expansive palace courtyard of the paramount ruler of Ijesaland, Owa Obokun, Adekunle Aromolaran, Justice Eso insisted on the election of an independent-minded group to henceforth aggregate and disseminate the views of Ijesas’ world-wide. I was one of those elected. I was however to get the shocker of my life’ when, among the star-studded and older committee members, which included Prof Wale Omole, Vice-chairman Justice Omotunde Ilori, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, royal fathers and professionals ,from all walks of life; the late judge nominated and insisted on my election as the committee’s secretary.
I had initially pleaded to be excused from the assignment having been similarly elected the Secretary at the Methodist Cathedral Yaba, Lagos the same week. Justice Eso would have none of such, chiding me with such finality to ‘emulate an 85 year-old man like me ready to live and die for Ijesa unity and progress’. That was how he mid-wifed and nurtured, as Chairman, the Ijesa Consultative and Action Council, the umbrella body for all Ijesa Societies .The group had since embarked on a restoration to the hitherto fractious Kingdom ,the dignity, calm and unity which , for the first time now transcended political, religious and cultural divide.
The passage of Justice Kayode Eso is therefore not only a monumental loss to his family, the nation and judiciary, but his larger family in the church of God and his roots in Ijesaland. One can only take solace in the fact that he lived such an exemplary and distinguished life of service to humanity.
• Awobiyi, Secretary to the Ijesa Consultative and Action Council, is former Sunday Times Editor.
Justice Eso Studied Law at Trinity College
While the natural history of man can be assumed to be pre-ordained, the choices made inter vivos for and on behalf of man or by man himself can influence life outcomes. Justice Kayode Eso, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, made a choice to study law in Trinity College, Dublin famously referred to as TCD. It is also the University of Dublin in Ireland founded by Queen Elizabeth 11 in 1592. Trinity College Dublin’s School of Law, is Ireland’s oldest and most internationally renowned law school. The School, recently ranked 1st in Ireland and 51st in the World in the 2011 QS World University rankings of law schools, attracts students of the highest calibre.
Justice Eso acquitted himself with credit by graduating in 1953 with the LL.B degree in the tradition of old universities with moderatorship in jurisprudence currently known as honours degree. Three years later he was awarded a Masters degree in Arts ( M.A.), by the same college. He was one of the few Nigerian students at that time who finished with a moderator’s degree in law. His cohort at TCD included eminent Nigerian jurists like Justice Udo Udoma, Justice Adewale Thompson, Hon. Jaja Wachuku, Justice Omo-Ebo, Justice Akin Apara, and more recently Justice Nnana Wachuku, Ambassador Babasola Adesola to mention a few. His exposure to the discipline of jurisprudence at Trinity proved to be his forte in logical thinking which he espoused eloquently both in practice and on the bench. He was not averse to dissenting on some decided cases while on the bench, a feature that endeared him to his contemporaries, his learned friends, the legal profession and to society. This could be a legacy from his undergraduate days because “TCD is still widely recognized for providing a liberal environment where independent thinking, the promotion of the ideals of social inclusion and equality is strongly encouraged. The college is distinguished for educating “people to be the leaders of the legal profession, public service and some members of the society”.(TCD webpage). “Res ipse loquitor.”
Justice Eso will be eternally remembered for his advocacy by defending the poor and oppressed miners of Jos when Nigeria was under colonial rule; his erudite judgments in Ojukwu, Soyinka and Awolowo cases where he flaunted his logical thinking presumably from Logic that was a compulsory subject in TCD of his time. A litany of about 463 cases during his tenure on the bench including several landmark cases are too many to catalogue here. However, they will remain as epitaphs of hard work, profound legal insight and genius, comparable to those of internationally acclaimed jurists. His intellect, sound legal education and infinite capacity for taking pains in dissecting legal issues developed and nurtured within the walls of TCD are indisputable. It is therefore not surprising that he had been recognized nationally and internationally as a recipient of numerous prestigious awards and invited to mediate in difficult national issues like the recent Niger Delta enquiry and also in intricate private matters.
We, who will follow him in due course, are very proud of his contributions to advocacy, knowledge in jurisprudence and high moral standard. We know that he will be joining his ancestors on the other side of the divide as well as joining other relatives and former friends including eminent Nigerian TCD alumni he had interacted with including Chief M. A. Majekodunmi (First Minister of Health) , Prof Olikoye Ransome-Kuti (Former Minister of Health) , Prof Tolani Asuni (Former Professor of Psychiatry), Prof F. Dosekun (Former Professor of Physiology) Prof O. Coker (Former Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology) ABA Johnston (Former distinguished public servant), and Dr Ade Bailey (Former distinguished Orthopedic Surgeon) among others.
You will be sadly missed and may your gentle soul rest in perfect peace.
• Prof. Williams M.A., M.D., (TCD, Dublin) F.R.C.P (Lond), former lecturer in Pathology, TCD, Dublin, wrote on behalf of TCD Alumni, Nigeria Branch.