By Tobi Soniyi
On March 3rd, 2014, the then president of Nigeria, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, appointed a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, retired Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, as chairman of the National Conference convoked by him.
Although the work of a judge is tough, Justice Kutigi who was saddled with the responsibility of organising the national conference was handed one of his toughest jobs by Jonathan.
Managing 492 Nigerians coming from different professional, ethnic, religion and political backgrounds proved not to be an enviable job in an emotionally charged atmosphere like Nigeria.
As a jurist who rose to become the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Kutigi had over the years acquired one of the greatest skills every jurist needed to succeed: patience. Though, not one of the nation’s jurists gifted with patience, Justice Kutigi nevertheless demonstrated a high degree of patience to control the delegates. His ability to manage lawyers came handy in the national assignment.
A bold judge, Justice Kutigi would not hesitate to dissent even when all other members of the panel disagreed with him. That was another quality which the retired jurist found useful while presiding as the chairman of the National Conference.
Justice Kutigi demonstrated this rare quality when the late president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was away on health ground and was not available to swear in the next Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloysius Katsina-Alu. Before then, it was customary for the president to inaugurate the new CJN. Yar’Adua was away. Goodluck Jonathan had not been mandated to act as president.
Justice Kutigi’s decision to swear in Katsina-Alu was greeted with controversies. First, If he administered the oath office on Katsina-Alu to become CJN while he was still the CJN, there would be two chief justices at the same time. Secondly, if he did after he had retired as the CJN, he was no longer the CJN and had divested himself of the power to swear in someone else since he was no longer the CJN.
In a bold move, Justice Kutigi brushed aside the criticisms and did the needful.
Justifying his action, Kutigi said: “This is because the law had always been there. The swearing-in of the CJN is either done by the president, or the outgoing or retiring Chief Justice. I am aware that this has generated a lot of commentaries and controversies from people who were supposed to know. The law is there. There is nothing new.
“If you look at the Oath Act 2004, you will see the provision there where the CJN, justices of the Supreme Court, President of the Court of Appeal and the justices of the Court of Appeal, among others, are all listed in a column, all of them, according to the Act are to be sworn in by the President or the Chief Justice of Nigeria. The provision is there and it has always been there that the outgoing CJN has never done it does not make it wrong. The law is clear.
“If you also look at the 1999 Constitution, it also makes it clear that the person who has the responsibility of swearing in the new CJN is the Chief Justice of Nigeria. What I am saying is that there is nothing new about it. The law is there but for the first time we are just using it today.”
An extremely conservative jurist, he avoided politics and politicians like plague. He believed that for a judge to do his job well, he must maintain a safe distance from politicians and once the politicians knew that a judge had established a reputation of not dealing with them, they would let him/her be.
Kutigi was also a comrade who enjoyed the respect of all his colleagues at the bench. Never known to be at loggerheads with any of his colleagues while he was on the Supreme Court bench.
Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi was born on December 31, 1939 in Kutigi, North-Western State (which is now located in the Lavun Local Government Area of Niger State). He attended elementary school in his home town, but moved to Bida for middle and secondary schooling. After finishing his basic schooling, Kutigi moved on to Government College (now known as Barewa College),
and then to Ahmadu Bello University. Both educational facilities are located in Zaria, Kaduna State.
Following his graduation from the Nigerian schools, Kutigi left the country for England, where he attended the School of Oriental
and African Studies, University of London and the Gibson and Weldon College of Law. When he returned home, Kutigi studied at
the Nigerian Law School in Lagos, Lagos State. His time at these prestigious learning institutions allowed Kutigi to become a lawyer,
and later a judge within Nigeria.
Justice Kutigi served as the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Niger State until 1976, when he was appointed as a high court judge. He served with honour in that position for more than a decade, and later joined the Supreme Court in 1992. After 10 years with the Supreme Court, based on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council former President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed him to the position of Chief Justice to succeed Justice Salihu Alfa Belgore, who retired on January 17, 2007. By January 30, 2007, Justice Kutigi was confirmed by the Senate and took over as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commission and Chairman of the National Judicial Council. He occupied these offices simultaneously between January 30th, 2007 and December 30th, 2009.