Niki Tobi: Exit of a Legal Luminary

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Tobi Soniyi

For those who were within the inner circle, the death of Niki Tobi, a retired justice of the Supreme Court did not come as a surprise. The erudite jurist had been battling to stay alive.

Nevertheless, his death on Thursday June 16, 2016 brought to an end a historic and memorable journey which began on July 14, 1940 in a riverine community of Esanma in what is now Delta State. Tobi was not born into a family of affluence, but with sheer determination he worked himself up to become not only a professor but a justice of the highest court, the Supreme Court. A no-mean achievement for someone whose parents could hardly afford to pay his school fees. He had to skip secondary school because his parents could not afford the fees. But against all odds, Tobi succeeded.

A self made man, he made his way through Teachers’ Training College, Bomadi and became a teacher in 1957 and rose to become a headmaster. For some, being a headmaster would have been enough but not Tobi. He later secured admission into the University of Lagos where he earned both his first degree and a master degree in law. After completing his first degree in 1969, he attended the one year programme at the Nigerian law School and was called to the Bar in 1970.

Between 1971 and 1976 he worked as a lawyer at the Federal Ministry of Justice and Department of Customs and Excise. However, his love for teaching would take him to University of Maiduguri where he was appointed as Lecturer Grade 1 in Law at the University of Maiduguri. He rose through the ladder to become the Dean, Faculty of Law at the university and also acted as Vice Chancellor of the university. He had a brief stint at the University of Calabar.

Having seen it all at the ivory tower, one would have expected him to end it there but not for this village boy. He was not done yet. In 1985, he was appointed a judge of the Rivers State High Court. Tobi was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1990. In 2002, he was promoted to the Supreme Court where he served until he retired in July 2010.
Tobi did not only possess the ability to understand complex facts, he was a gifted writer. Anyone who read his judgment would be forgiven for mistaking it for a novel. Within the ten years he served as a judge, he delivered many landmark judgments. One of such memorable judgments was the case of INAKOJU VS. ADELEKE (2007) 4 NWLR (Pt 1025) 423 otherwise known as Ladoja’s case.

Before his judgment, impeachment of President or Vice President, Governors or their Deputies could not be a subject of litigation in any court in Nigeria because of the ouster clauses contained in sections 143 (10) and S. 188 (10) of the 1999 Constitution.
In departing from the earlier position, Niki Tobi, JSC at page 600 states:

“A legislature is not a secret organization or a secret cult or fraternity where things are done in utmost secrecy in the recess of a hotel. On the contrary, a legislature is a public institution, built mostly on public property to the glare and visibility of the public. As a democratic institution, operating in a democracy, the actions and inactions of a House of Assembly are subject to public judgment and public opinion.”
According to him, it is not every misconduct that attracts impeachment. The judgment had the effect of stopping states Houses of Assembly from recklessly embarking on impeachments.

Tobi, JSC also stated at page 588 thus:
“It is not a lawful or legitimate exercise of the constitutional function in Section 188 for a House of Assembly to remove a Governor or a Deputy Governor to achieve a political purpose or one of organized vendetta clearly outside gross misconduct under the Section. Section 188 cannot be invoked merely because the House does not like the face or look of the Governor or Deputy Governor in a particular moment or the Governor or Deputy Governor refused to respond with a generous smile to the legislature qua House on a parliamentary or courtesy visit to the holder of the office.”

He was a prolific writer and had over 14 major law books to his credit and also contributed to over 25 other books. He wrote numerous papers and legal essays in addition to various law journal articles. Notable among his works include Criminal Procedure and Evidence in Nigeria, Land Law in Nigeria, The Brief System in Nigerian Courts, Understanding the 1989 Constitution Better: The Citizens Companion, Sources of Nigerian Law, The Exercise of Legislative Powers in Nigeria among others.

At various times, he was chairman of the Constitutional Debate Coordinating Committee of Nigeria, Chairman of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Civil Disturbances in Jos and Environs and the Chairman of the National Political Reform Conference.
He was also a recipient of many awards including the national merit award of Commander of the Order of Niger.

One of those who worked with him at the Supreme Court is the present Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed. Although away on religious duty in Saudi Arabia, the CJN said he received the news of Niki Tobi’s death with a deep sense of shock.
He said: “The deceased Justice indelibly contributed to the development of jurisprudence in Nigeria and will be greatly remembered for his assiduousness in reviewing the draft 1999 Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria under the Military administration of General Abdulsalam Abubakar.”

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Joe Kyari-Gadzama, who appeared before Niki Tobi at various courts, described the late jurist as one of the best and brightest jurists this country had ever known.
He said: “He was a jurist of the finest refinement, a noble soul whose lucid and erudite judgments helped in shaping our legal architecture and jurisprudence.”
Gadzama recalled with nostalgia “how the deceased judicial icon, as the pioneer Dean of Law, University of Maiduguri taught us the rudiments of law at the earliest part of our law degree programme.”

He said that because of Justice Tobi’s unparalleled devotion to his craft and to his students including Gadzama and his classmates as well as his contributions to the development of the law and society, he, in appreciation and to honor Tobi even while the late justice was still alive, named the moot court in his J-K Gadzama Court as ‘Justice Niki Tobi Moot Court.’.

In a comment on a book on Justice Niki Tobi, Mr. Yusuf Alli, SAN said: “The judgments of his Lordship, either leading or contribution, in the Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court are the best testimonial to his Lordship’s deep, profound, didactic and gargantuan intellectual prowess.”

Niki Tobi was a teacher, an administrator, a jurist, a writer, a devoted Christian who defiled all obstacles to rise to the pinnacle of the judiciary. He possessed all the attributes and qualities that are in limited supply in today’s Nigeria. Any young man desperate to succeed today where opportunities are limited would be advised to study the life of Niki Tobi. Adieu.
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