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There Goes Eso, the Man with Swag

18 Dec 2012

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The Wig and Skirt By Funke Aboyade. Email, Olufunke.aboyade@thisdaylive.com

Mine honour is my life. Both grow in one.

Take honour from me and my life is done’ – Shakespeare’s Richard II

My abiding memory as a young lawyer of the Supreme Court whilst it still sat in Lagos was of a court which gave me the shivers. Indeed, the courtroom was cold what with the air conditioners at full blast, but that was not the primary cause of my (young) heart’s trepidation. Looking at and listening to the forbidding (or so it seemed to me, given as I was to sudden flights of fancy) looking wise men (no women there then) was what did it for me – shiver. I only went a few times, and of course with my seniors or my principal in chambers – at that time, proper pupillage and tutoring for at least five years was compulsory.

Still, the fact that I didn’t have to utter a word in that court didn’t stop my heart from beating rather fast each time we appeared before the court. Once the court began sitting there would be pin-drop silence and it was always a learning experience and delight for any counsel present to watch particularly the Senior Advocates such as Chief FRA Williams, Chief G.O.K Ajayi, Mr. Kehinde Sofola, Mr. Abayomi Sogbesan, my boss Chief Sobo Sowemimo, et cetera engage their Lordships in a game of wit, banter and sheer knowledge of the law.

Behind all this of course lay the knowledge that were a recondite issue to be at stake, one deftly framed penetrating question (that one question that counsel dreaded, that one question counsel prayed would have escaped the Justices’ attention, that one question that could derail counsel’s appeal without more) from any of the Justices on the panel, or perhaps a polite (you’d be a deluded fool to be lulled into a fall sense of security by the politeness, no one was taken in by it!) invitation to counsel to consider a specific line on a particular page in his brief, and counsel knew it was all over. Or at least that he had quite a battle ahead of him. I was always glad it was not me in the line of fire!

One of the Justices at the Supreme Court then was Justice Kayode Eso. A lot has been said and written about him since he passed away last month. His prodigious intellect, his razor sharp mind, his integrity as a Judge. All true.
To quote my sister, Mrs. Ayo Obe, ‘Justice Kayode Eso merits all the superlatives. It’s just that simple.’
‘In Nigeria’, she’d written on his passing, ‘we use words like “legal luminary”, “brilliant”, “colossus”, “towering intellect” and so on, so casually and usually inappropriately in describing the mediocre, that they have almost lost their meaning. I try to be more circumspect in using them, but if I do so in respect of Justice Kayode Eso, it is because they are more than merited’.
How true!

The only thing I could think that Friday morning when I learnt of Justice Eso’s demise was, ‘What a brain, what a colossal loss of intellect! You mean that brain is gone?!’ Those were not shallow thoughts. Random musings perhaps, but not superficial. The only other time I’d entertained such a thought in respect of any one was when my father passed away rather suddenly, 18 years ago. Given that I was very close to my dad and loved and respected him so very much and given that he was my hero and role model one would have thought that I should (understandably) have been overcome with grief However, the only thing I could think as he lay in his casket in his academic robes was, ‘What a brain, what a colossal loss of brain and intellect!’ It seemed odd at the time, but there you have it. I wished desperately there was a way of preserving and making continued use of his brain and mind.

18 years later, another hero, another role model, an extraordinary man with an exceptional mind, a jurist of the finest calibre passed away. And those were my first thoughts. Even I was taken aback by those initial thoughts. Sitting back to analyse it, it wasn’t because I wasn’t pained (in spite of his old age) at Justice Eso’s passing. It wasn’t because I was indifferent; how could I be? I knew him on a personal level – he was my dad’s friend and living as he did in Agodi, not far from our home in Bodija in Ibadan. I knew him on a professional level. And I’d had the privilege of assisting in an Arbitration many, many years ago in which he was one of three Arbitrators.  Plus I had had the privilege of interviewing him a couple of times at his residence and occasionally speaking with him on the telephone seeking his view on one thing or the other. It wasn’t because there were no other very admirable qualities in him.

For all I have been labouring to say - if I may borrow that phrase from our appellate courts! - my reference to the similarity of my thoughts upon my father’s death and that of Justice Eso highlights just how much I admired and held His Lordship in the highest esteem.

As I digested the news of Justice Eso’s passing I thought back to my last interview with him. It had made an indelible impression, and what he’d said and from which I’d subsequently cast our headline resonated with me and has since stuck; in fact I immediately made it my mantra, drumming it into my children’s head at every available opportunity - ‘There’s Always Room at the Top for the Best’.

I deeply now regret not thereafter being able to interview him one more time, on front burner issues in the profession even though he’d each time I’d requested graciously indicated his willingness to oblige. He made it clear though that I had to personally undertake the interview myself at Greenacres, his residence in Ibadan. However, having resumed litigation, my court dates which often came up without much notice put paid to that and it very quickly became a logistical nightmare. Moreover, he’d spent the greater part of the last couple of years mostly in the UK.

On the few occasions I encountered him at public events, I was always full of admiration and pride. A spritely, dapper and truly honourable gentleman, his looks belied his age. As his daughter, Mrs. Funmilayo Williams said to me after his passage, ‘Grandpa with a swagger!’
How true! If I may echo that sentiment and borrow a contemporary term, His Lordship had swagger! Yes, he had swag!

As the most Honourable Justice Kayode Eso is laid to rest this Friday in Ilesa, I write this tribute in farewell to a man who inspired several generations of lawyers and judges including myself, a jurist of unimpeachable integrity, a man of prodigious intellect and profound learning, a man who knew his onions, who did not suffer fools gladly, a man of panache, a man who personified honour and all things good and great about the Nigerian Judiciary, a man who in death caused even those of questionable antecedents to recognise his sheer greatness and worth, a man who stood head and shoulders above many of his generation, a man in whom ‘the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand up and say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!’
As he meets his maker, all I can say is Requiescat in pace.

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