At 78, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi passed on to the great beyond. He would be remembered for many of his landmark judgments. But lawyers, who appeared before him, would continue to remember him as a judge, who had no time for frivolities. Kutigi would enjoin lawyers to go straight to the point and avoid the usual legalese and verbosity that had become part and parcel of the Nigerian legal system. If there was anything that distinguished Justice Kutigi from his peers at the Supreme Court bench, it would be his unrivalled sense of humour.
There was something else. His infectious laughter! When Kutigi laughed, you would join him before you asked him why he was laughing. He also had a voice that was unmistakably his. He was his own man. He would not do anything to please anyone.
As tedious as his job was, Kutigi would not miss an opportunity to crack jokes in the course of hearing cases. By providing comic relief in the course of a boring and lengthy court hearing, Kutigi often helped his colleagues to relax and enjoy their work.
A very bold and incorruptible jurist, Kutigi once shocked his colleagues, when he announced openly in court that there were reports that a litigant, who was then a sitting governor had withdrawn millions of United States Dollars for the purpose of bribing justices of the Supreme Court hearing an appeal that was likely to result in the removal of the governor from office.
His Lordship told the justices that whoever collected the money was on his own. The governor eventually lost the case. Justice Kutigi would not hesitate to dissent even when all other members of the panel disagreed with him. That was another quality that the late jurist found useful while presiding as the chairman of the National Conference.
Kutigi demonstrated this rare quality, when the late president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was away on health grounds 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, it was believed that if he administered the oath office for Katsina-Alu to become CJN while he was still the CJN, there would be two chief justices at the same time. Second, if he did after he had retired as the CJN he would have divested himself of the power to swear in someone else since he was no longer the CJN. But in a bold move, he brushed aside the criticisms and did the needful.
Justifying his action, Kutigi had then said: “This is because the law has 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.”
On March 3, 2014, then president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, appointed Kutigi as chairman of the National Conference convoked by him. Although the job of a judge is tough, 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, 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, Kutigi nevertheless demonstrated a high degree of patience to control the delegates. His ability to manage lawyers came handy in the national assignment. An extremely conservative jurist, he avoided politics and politicians like plague. For him, for a judge to do his job well, he must maintain a safe distance from politicians. And that once the politicians knew that you had established a reputation of not dealing with them, they would let you be.
Kutigi was also a comrade, who enjoyed the respect of all his colleagues at the bench, never known to be at loggerhead with any of them while he was at the Supreme Court bench.
Born on December 31, 1939 in Kutigi, North Western State (which is now located in the Lavun Local Government Area of Niger State), Kutigi 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 State. His time at these prestigious learning institutions allowed Kutigi to become a lawyer, and later a judge within Nigeria. He 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 honor 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 30, 2007 and December 30, 2009. Kutigi left behind a fruitful and enviable family.