Mary Odili: Celebrating a Woman of Steel and Talent

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Ifeanyi Omokwe

Today Saturday May 12, 2018,  Mary Ukaego Odili is 65. I am sure as you read this many of her friends, admirers and those she had inspired by her brilliant career in the judiciary across the country are planning birthday celebrations for this legal icon.
Mary is one of the few women in the Nigerian Bench that need no introduction. And this is not just because she is the wife of Peter Odili who served as Governor of River State from 1999 to 2007. But she is even better known and respected for her professional accomplishments.

Mrs Odili became a Justice of the Supreme Court on May 3, 2011, representing the South-South geo-political zone. This is a position only the best on the bench attain, and one which only few women in the country were able to attain before their retirement.
But before sitting at the apex court, she had held several important positions on the bench. She commenced her career in the judiciary as a Magistrate grade III in November 1978, and rose to the position of high court judge by 1992.She had also held the offices of Justice, Court of Appeal, Abuja Division and Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division.
Inspired by her father- Eze Nzenwa –who trained and worked as a lawyer in the United Kingdom before returning to the country, Mrs Odili chose to study law at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus. In her second year at the university she earned a scholarship for maintaining the second class upper division league with higher scores. In 1976, she graduated with an LLB (Hons) and was rated the best student of the department of commercial and property law.
But getting to the top in the judiciary requires not just brilliance, but a shining integrity that inspires confidence in the justice system. Mrs Odili must be celebrated for having both qualities in abundance. Not only has her talent propelled her to the top of her chosen career, but she has remained a shining example of exemplary professionalism in the bench.

In an era where judges have come under intense scrutiny by anti-graft agencies in the country, it is a thing of joy and one that inspires hope in the judiciary, that a justice of the Supreme Court who is also the wife of a politician has remained stainless and sparkling.
Her husband, as a former governor, has been in and out of court for one reason or the other. But at no time has Mrs Odili’s name been linked with any attempt to subvert the course of justice either for her husband or for his political associates. On one or two occasions, some desperate political forces in Rivers State had attempted to smear her glittering career robe but failed woefully. They sponsored media reports that she attempted to bribe some judges sitting on the Rivers State election petition case against Governor Nyesom Wike. But the allegation was unsubstantiated.
Despte the temptation of the limelight, Mrs Odili stuck to the conservative tradition of her calling and remained almost self-effacing even as First Lady of Rivers State. In a turbulent political environment as Rivers, it is amazing how she managed to remain above the fray and out of political scandals.

Mrs Odili’s distinguished accomplish on the bench is rightly complemented by her sterling qualities as a wife.  She met her husband, Odili at a campus party while at the Enugu campus of UNN, and married him in 1979. Since then she has been a duty wife and mother in the family. The story of her romance with Odili aptly illustrates the saying that behind every successful man is a woman.

After her marriage, she moved to Portharcourt where her husband had a thriving medical practice. With her support, Odili entered politics and served as member and leader of Rivers State Delegates to the Constituent Assembly. That move paved the way for his emergence first as deputy governor of Rivers and later as governor.
She owes her teeming admirers the responsibility to answer this and many other questions that could inspire the coming generation of lawyers and judges. If she had not considered before now, she must now start to think of writing a memoir for the benefit of the coming generation. Her story is one that needs to be told for all its wisdom, brilliance, integrity and fidelity to the law and justice.

It bears a resemblance, even if remotely, to the story of United States of America’s woman of steel and talent, Mr Hilary Clinton. She shares Clinton’s intellectual brilliance and moral strength. But she has shunned the limelight of politics. But both women have broken the glass ceilings for women in their different societies, and many women and girls are finding inspiration for their own lives in their stories.
Mary Ukaego Nzenwa was born on 12 May 1952 in Amudi Obizi, Ezinihitte-Mbaise Local Government Area of Imo State. She is the second daughter of Eze Bernard Nzenwa and Ugoeze Benadette Nzenwa. Her father Eze Nzenwa worked as a lawyer in the United Kingdom during 1959 before he was made Secretary of the Nigeria Airways. She attended a number of primary schools as a child including St Benedict’s Primary School, Obizi Ezinitte, St Michael’s Primary School, Umuahia, St Agnes Primary School, Maryland and Our Lady of Apostles Primary School, Yaba. She briefly attended Our Lady of Apostles Secondary School, also in Yaba, Lagos.

Following the outbreak of the civil war in 1967, she and her parents relocated to the southeast of the country where she continued her education at Owerri Girls High School until her family moved back to Mbaise. She then attended Mbaise Girls Secondary School and later enrolled at the Queen of the Rosary College in Onitsha. In 1972, she passed with Grade I (aggregate 6) in the West African School Certificate Examination and entered UNN to study law.

Congratulations at 65, and still counting!

–Omokwe is with The Whistler Newspapers