Encomiums Galore for a Great Jurist

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Davidson Iriekpen peeps into the life and times of a retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Paul Kemdilim Nwokedi who will be buried today in Achalla, Anambra State

When hard work, competence and sagacity propelled one to the highest peak of his career, there are bound to be endless encomiums pouring in from different angles. This is the case with a retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Paul Kemdilim Nwokedi who will be burial today at his residence, Uthoko Compound III, Amukabia, Achalla, Awka North Local Government Area of Anambra State.

Nwokedi died last September at the ripe age of 90, leaving behind great children and grandchildren. For him, not only was he a great father to his children, entire family and a strong community leader, in his chosen profession, he excelled and rose to the highest level, discharging his duty well for all to see.

Since his was a life well led, it was not a surprise to see that in death, he was celebrated with the high and mighty pouring encomiums on him and calling on everybody to emulate him for the country to move forward.

Today, as his remains would be committed to the earth, not only would more praises be showered him, one thing that would be clear in the minds of those who knew him is that if only the country had or has at least five of his types, things would not be the way they are now.

At the special court session organised in his honour at the Supreme Court last week Wednesday, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen and senior lawyers paid glowing tribute to the late Supreme Court judge. Onnoghen described Nwokedi as a great jurist whose life was worthy of emulation by the incoming generation, adding that the late jurist in his lifetime, stood for justice, integrity and reputation, something that is clearly lacking today in most people in the same position.

He noted that it was not a surprise that upon his retirement from active national service, Justice Nwokedi dedicated himself to a quiet but laudable work of charity, with special interest in the training of Catholic Priests and support for seminarian.

“As a judge he earned the reputation of being fair but firm as reflected in his judgment in the several cases he handled while on the bench. I recall the now renowned case of Obi Okongwu and the State that saw to the contempt conviction of the then Solicitor General of Anambra State for casting aspersions on the integrity of the judiciary. Another notable and landmark case was the judgment of the then Anambra State High Court where the court under Nwokedi held that the practice of the governors to willy-nilly revoke the Certificates of Occupancy of lands belonging to their critics was not in accordance with the public purpose requirements of the Land Use Act,” he said.

The CJN then prayed serving judges, legal practitioners and family members of the late jurist to emulate his courageous life so as to build an egalitarian society.

In their own tributes, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BoSAN), canvassed the elevation of Chief Judges of High Courts, who have track records of performance to the Supreme Court as done in the appointment of the late Justice Nwokedi from the State High Court to the Supreme Court.

In the tribute delivered by Chief George Uwechuwe (SAN), the Senior Advocates claimed that the current practice of appointing Supreme Court Justices from Court of Appeal alone should be revisited, so as to pave the way for the elevation of the hardworking judges from the High Courts to the apex court. BoSAN recalled the appointment of Justice Anthony Iguh, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Justice Kayode Ego, Justice E. B. Graig and Justice Saibu Kawu, who were Chief Judges of their respective states and got elevated to the Supreme Court where they left indelible marks with their profound performance.

“On occasions like this, it is customary to use a tribute to such a legal luminary to address some issues that deserve the attention of members of the Bench and Bar, with particular reference to the service of the deceased jurist. In the case of late Honourable Justice Nwokedi, there is the need to revisit the current practice of not elevating serving or retiring Chief Judges of the “High Courts”, who have served commendably, directly to the Supreme Court, instead of the Court of Appeal which is the current practice, to complete their service until they attain the age of 70,” he said.

According to them, the urgent need to resume discussion on the issue was underscored by the recent “Guidelines for the Conferment of the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, which they said placed much greater emphasis on a candidate’s “final judgments” on the High Court.

“This is most appropriate, in my view, because it is at the High Courts that the witnesses are examined and cross-examined and the major legal tussle between the parties and their counsel is engaged,” he added.

At another valedictory session organised in his honour at the Enugu State High Court, judicial officers and renowned legal practitioners from the three states (Enugu, Ebonyi and Anambra) where Justice Nwokedi started his career in the old Eastern Region, took turns to pay their last respects by pouring encomiums on the late retired Supreme Court judge.

The two-hour event presided over by the Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Ngozi Emehelu, saw notable members of the bar and bench from the three states, who turned out in their numbers, unanimously agree that the late jurist left lasting legacies on the sands of time.

The event which had the Chief Judge of Ebonyi State, Justice Alloy Nwankwo, Chief Judge of Anambra State, Justice Umeadi represented by the President of the Customary Court of Appeal, Anambra State, Samuel Okoye, retired Justice Chukwuma Eneh of the Supreme Court and Onyekachi Otisi, Justice of the Court of Appeal in attendance, saw Justice Emehelu saying in her tribute that it would be difficult to capture all aspects of the life of late Justice Nwokedi, noting that the late jurist’s practice in both the bar and bench was one characterised by complete devotion.

“He had no divided loyalty. His main love was given to the legal profession and in the true ethics of his judicial calling, he maintained a spotless life style. To the best of my knowledge, in the public offices he held, he kept a clean record behind him and despite all the key positions he held at both the federal and state levels, he was never swayed by the trappings of office. He took no interest in wealth acquisition, estate development, hustling for and lobbying for political offices. He lived a quiet, decent and modest life to the very end,” he said.

Other speakers, including the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Enugu State, Milletus Eze, Chairman of NBA, Enugu State, Nnamdi Otukwu, senior advocates led by JHC Okolo and the Leader of Enugu lawyers, EJ Okereke, extolled the departed jurist for writing his name in gold.

“We have assembled in a very solemn and pensive mood to honour Nwokedi. His exit evokes emotion of thanksgiving for a life well spent. He has done his best and he left behind virtues worthy of emulation,” Eze said.

Otukwu on his part, observed that the death of Nwokedi had unified the judiciary in Enugu, Ebonyi and Anambra States, adding that if such solidarity was extended to other judicial activities, it would go a long way in fast-tracking justice delivery in the area.

The leader of Enugu NBA, Okereke and a classmate of the late Nwokedi described the departed jurist as a good dancer and said the jurist deserved to be immortalised in view of his service to humanity.

The son of the deceased, Mr. Uche Nwokedi (SAN), described his late father as a reference point who would always give direction to his children, adding that they would greatly miss his advisory role. He added that the calibre of legal practitioners that turned up at the valedictory session was a clear signal that one must be careful in his conducts, adding: “What I have seen here today is a lesson in humility. One must be humble because it pays at the long run.”

Justice Nwokedi was born on November 3, 1926. He started his elementary education at Holy Trinity School, Onitsha. From there, he moved to St. Gregory’s College in Lagos for his secondary education. Thereafter, he worked for sometime. Since he didn’t get scholarship to go to England, he started reading on his own. He later left for London to study Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Upon his return to Nigeria as a lawyer, he established and practised in Aba. From there, he was able to control the entire Eastern Nigeria for the nationalist movement.

After practising Law for about 17 years, he was appointed a judge of the defunct East Central State and later became the Chief Judge of Anambra State when the state was created in the early 90s. He was automatically nominated as a Supreme Court judge some years later. He did not have to go through the Court of Appeal as is customary because his sound judgments were there for all to see.

Unlike these days when people lobby for practically everything, Justice Nwokedi was nominated to the Supreme Court bench on merit. In an interview he once granted, he said: “When I was told to go to the Supreme Court, I protested but they said, look, man, we have left you here because Anambra area was very notorious for justice but now we want to show the world; we have seen the appeals and we have seen the sort of work you have done and so we are satisfied that you should be there.”

When he asked how he treated judgment as a judge, he simply said: “It didn’t matter to me whether you were my mother or my father, I would deliver my judgment. Whether you were related to me or you were a friend or enemy, it didn’t mean anything to me. I delivered my judgments, straight and clear.”

The late jurist retired from the Supreme Court in November 1991. Due to his brilliant performance at the Supreme Court, shortly after he bowed out from the bench, the then Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, appointed him the pioneer Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He was also the Chairman of the Nigeria Law Reform Commission.