Justice Innocent Umezulike: The Irony of the Wheels of Justice

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By Dr Cynthia Chisom Umezulike

Hon Justice Prof Innocent Azubike Umezulike OFR, FCIArb, FIIAN, born in Mgbidi to Mazi Unaegbu Umezulike and Perpetua Umezulike as parents, September 21, 1953, was appointed from the University chair to the judicial bench, August 6, 1993. He was to pull out therefrom, September 21, 2018, by the prescription of the organic law. The 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, section 291(2) dictates a self-elected terminating age of 60, and the state behest of 65 years ad terminus. By staying in that office beyond 2013 AD, Justice Umezulike had opted to remain therein till the mandatory retirement age. The choice was his but fate however dictated otherwise.

The National Judicial Council (NJC), the body that warehouses the contents of the conscience of the judicial officers in Nigeria, retired midstream, the brilliant career of Justice Umezulike by administrative fiat, October 6, 2016. On his hospital bed in London thereafter, Justice Umezulike had asked me; “is it not the same petition, in exact words, which had been previously sent twice to NJC, and dismissed twice by the same NJC as lacking in merit, that now informed my being relieved of my office, by the same NJC, after exactly the same petition was sent to them the third time? Is the principle of fairness no longer obtainable in administrative decisions of judicial bodies? Is interest rei publicae ut sit finis litium no longer recognizable in decisions of the Nigerian judicature?”

These unanswered questions reflect Justice Umezulike’s final state of mind – a frantic predisposition to seeking justice and truth before reluctantly answering nature’s final call. As his remains were being ushered into the Enugu State High Court auditorium named after him, September 27, 2018, it was for the valedictory Court proceedings to bid him farewell from mother earth, not to eulogize him for his fecundity and industry on the bench as is the long-established tradition. Ironically, that month and year were to have been the date for his mandatory pull-out from the bench, being the 65th year of his sojourn on earth according to the Gregorian calendar. That extraordinary farewell he was denied while alive was nonetheless granted him in death.

‘A man can die but once’ and death indeed forced the judicial curtains to be drawn, the red carpet to roll and the greatest man I have ever known took centre stage – decked in a bespoke Ede and Ravenscroft suit and lying motionless in a solid bronze gold casket atop the procedural table of the court, the remains of Justice Umezulike was complimented. The man in Justice Umezulike was not physically present in court. What was there in person was his lifeless remains, mud at best. What was being eulogized was Umezulike’s memories and image imagination. The cheers were loud; greatness was thrust upon him; and at that moment, I knew for sure that his toil would not be interred with his bones. I took succour in the overwhelming tributes and homage from the Bar and Bench, accentuating his legal prowess – and accomplishment evident in the twenty-three books he had authored, and a repertoire of incisive landmark judgments which depicted a man at home with the essence of justice delivery. Then, it became glaringly apparent that my father not only altruistically fulfilled the demands bestowed on him as a custodian of the law but also led through integrity and uprightness – shunning all grandeur of corruption. The intrinsic worth he exhibited before his last breath was aptly enunciated in his widely acclaimed book “The New Wigs and the Challenges of Legal Practice in Nigeria”. In that book, Justice Umezulike had written:

“One of the basic things which lawyers must learn in active legal practice is that there is no Parry Mason magic. Success at the bar and bench is built squarely on extraordinary hard work, integrity and Gods Favour. But where a practitioner had worked very hard and had not compromised his integrity and yet had not advanced far in the profession, he should be content that he has given his best, to his client, to society and the legal profession. He should be consoled by the unyielding fact as stated under Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6 verse 10 in the Holy Writ: ‘All things are decided by fate; it was known long ago what each man would be. So there is no use arguing with God about your destiny’.”

In these words, it was apparent that Umezulike was sharing the immutable words of Louis Brandeis who once noted; “If we desire respect for the law, we must make the law respectable”.

Justice Umezulike was a man resolved not to allow the immoral acts of the universe to taint the precise essence of justice. He worked passionately to espouse the virtues of justice administration without falling into the booby traps of obsequious flattery. He was reputable – undauntedly committed to upholding the applicable rules of ethics and canons of conduct. On the Bench, Justice Umezulike championed the rule of law without letting any prejudice interfere with his sense of duty. The father I knew was not bogged down by a slavish acceptance of the reasoning of superior courts. He no doubts disagreed with the reasoning when necessary, but had no alternative than to let them govern the cases before him if they could not be distinguished. In his celebrated judgment in the matter of “Arthur A. Chikwendu vs Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria”, suit No E/502/97, Justice Umezulike wrote:

“I must state clearly that I still stand by those views. But they are my personal views, which have not been accepted by superior authorities. Judicial adjudications are determined by facts of the case and applicable stare decisis, which the lower court cannot dance away from”.

While the maxim “fiat justitia ruat caelum” recognizes the insistence of the judex to pronounce justice against the wrongdoer however highly placed, the logo of justice, ubi jus ubi remedium, is an age-old exhortation refusing to leave a victim without a remedy. In keeping with the hybrid legal maxims, Justice Umezulike, delivering his judgment in the case of “John Foster Ene vs Enugu State Government & Anor”, suit No E/95/2011, opined:

“The object of the rule of law which all democratic institutions and bodies have subscribed to uphold is obedience to order of the court. The order restraining the defendants from revoking the plaintiff’s certificate of occupancy was to last during the duration of the pre-action notice issued to the defendants by the plaintiff. However, the ink on the order of this court had scarcely dried on the paper upon which it was made when the defendants moved with lightening bulb to make nonsense of that order of the court. The revocation is therefore invalid and cannot be recognized by this court. In a constitutional democracy where the rule of law is paramount, it would be a gross oddity for persons, government…. to make a habit of disobedience to court order”.

This disposition to the reverence of the rule of law was vintage Justice Umezulike. In his judicial life, he always toed the thought of another legal mind with whom he had a lot in common, and with whom he now shares the same divide – Hon Justice Akunne Oputa, of blessed memory. Justice Umezulike was at home with the sembles of Oputa in reference to the maxim fiat justitia ruat caelum, let justice be done though the heavens fall. He would always insist, like Nnaemeka Agu, JCA (as he still was), demanded peremptorily, in the causa celebra of “Chukwuemeka Odumegu Ojukwu Vs Governor Lagos State” [1986] 3 NWLR (pt 26) 39 that the offending act, contemptuous of the court, must be undone. Outside the bench, a few individuals, with whom he also shared his belief in the repudiation of corruption, influenced him. Delivering a speech at the special court session in honour of Sir Clement O. Akpamgbo, SAN, 08/02/2007, Justice Umezulike wrote of Akpamgbo:

“SIR CLEM has left us with a legacy that is more valuable than real estates and cash stashed in banks. He has by his way of life given us reason to believe and hope that our society will continue to endure and grow by producing more silent heroes like him in each generation, who are obviously built not upon the fleeting desire to achieve cheap wealth and fame, but rather upon the more enduring quality called integrity, and fidelity to the public good”.

Academia was nonetheless, the first love of my father, and he thus became the first Professor of Law in the Eastern Region of Nigeria to be made the Chief Judge of a State. He indubitably loved writing and researching and made the library his sceptred Isle … his realm and kingdom. There in his private library at home – without window breaks he wrote from dusk to dawn, emerging a prolific writer and the optimum authority on land and property law. In his magnum opus on Property Law – ABC of Contemporary Law in Nigeria (Revised and Enlarged Edition), Justice Umezulike wrote:

“Evidently by this work, I seek to literally secure a ticket for my eventual re-entry into the academic world from whence I came unto the bench. The world of academics holds a special and compelling appeal to me. It is a world marked by freedom of speech, freedom to research and impart knowledge; freedom of disputation or freedom to disagree with colleagues on sundry issues free from sanctions and victimization. I look forward to returning to that great world at the end of my journey in the Judiciary of Enugu State of Nigeria.”

Hon Justice Umezulike shunned materialism, rebutted judicial corruption and expressed disgust for the act of primitive acquisition of materials. Sometime in the distant past, while he was in his office as the Chief Judge of the state, Justice Umezulike was visited by a high ranking officer of the government, who brought to him, three certificates of allocation in a high brow estate, which financial worth then ran into Hundreds of Millions, “just to greet and appreciate him”. The officer of government cannot, up till today, believe that anyone in his right senses could have rejected that mouth-watering offer. But Justice Umezulike did unreservedly reject the offer. He was a quintessential jurist.

Justice Umezulike occupied the Enugu State Nigeria judiciary centre chair for 13 years and remained the longest-serving Chief Judge in the South-East and South-South of Nigeria. The one-year memorial lecture and book presentation, which was held, at the Enugu State High Court Auditorium on September 27 2019, attracted eminent jurists, Senior Advocates of Nigeria and politicians. Former Anambra State Governor and Nigerian PDP Vice Presidential Candidate in the 2019 election, Sir Peter Obi, who was chairman of the lecture described Justice Umezulike as “one of the finest judges the country had produced – a man of great ideas and intelligence”. Obi, reiterating that his contributions to law and the Bench, “would remain forever evergreen.” The current Chief Judge of Enugu State of Nigeria, Justice N.P Emehelu, praised the members of the Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike foundation for putting the memorial lecture and book presentation together, describing Justice Umezulike as an “acclaimed scholar and erudite jurist”. The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed GCFR wrote the forward for the book presented in Justice Umezulike’s honour. In the book opening pages, Justice Tanko Mohammed GCFR wrote:

“Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike: A Chronicle of Leading Judgments” presented in his Lordship’s honour is a must-read and highly beneficial to Judges, Legal Practitioners, law students and the public too. Honourable Justice Innocent Umezulike’s versatility in law will be helpful to all and sundry in resolving or understanding the matters at hand. I found his Lordship to be one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. His style of writing judgments was incisive, astute and pragmatic. His quest for excellence remained his driving force.

A devout Christian who vehemently kicked against corruption in all its forms and facets. His presence depicts prominence, intelligence and above all, a very caring family man “.

My father was indeed a family man – consciously assuming the role of my mentor, guardian and best friend. He was gentle, firm, strict, but very generous with his love, time and resources. He always believed that knowledge is life with wings, and so he invested unconditionally in my wellbeing and academic advancement without seeking any form of reciprocity. In adversity, my father manifested insurmountable strength, in disappointments he exhibited calmness and in betrayals he showed decorum. He always told me “Chisomeje my dear daughter, learn from what happened to me – learn from my travails”.

I have now since learnt that indeed law and justice are not always the same because although my father devoted his entire life to the spirit and letters of the law, justice eluded him. Like Cordelia in William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, I say, “so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides”. There is no doubt that the untimely retirement of my father from the institution he fought so hard to uplift and defend is a case of corruption fighting back. However, it is also clear that after his demise, his traducers appear to be borrowing the words of Macbeth himself when he warned Lady Macbeth on the need to get their outward disposition not belie their act of the murder of Duncan. In that great drama “Macbeth”, William Shakespeare wrote:

“I am settled and bend up.

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.

Away and mock the time with fairest show:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know”.

Two years on and there are no words to describe how deeply I still mourn the loss of the only man who loved me unconditionally. I am far from perfect, but what is best in me, I owe to him. The baton was passed before his macabre transit to a land of no return, and I now must move forward with twice the tenacity of the strong tour de force who raised me. In ensuring that my father’s legal footprints are not erased, I can live a fulfilled life knowing that his sacrifices were valid, and his toil was not interred with his bones.

• Dr Umezulike is a London-based International Human Rights Lawyer, Lecturer in Law, Activist and Co-Chair Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation