Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the planners of the obsequies for the departed Justice Godwin Karibi-Whyte were able to strike a balance to reflect the many sides of his life as a strong Christian, a legal icon and an enthusiastic promoter of his culture
The waters of the Sombriero River in Abonnema, Rivers State was calm that morning. A few persons were carrying on with their normal activities of fishing or dredging sand on the river. They paid little or no attention to the boisterous ceremonies on the foreshore, particularly the entire stretch of over 800 metres, part of which is home to St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
The narrow road between the river and the built-up area was packed with all kinds of vehicles and human beings from all walks of life who came to honour the memory of the departed distinguished Kalabari son, Justice Godwin Karibi-Whyte, a former Justice of the Supreme Court and Judge of the International Court of Jistice at the Hague, Netherlands.
There were as many people milling around the church courtyard and its adjoining neighbourhood, not quite taking part in the religious rites. Perhaps, they were oblivious of the spacious overflow hall at the back of the main church building which was fitted out with a huge television screen, showing proceedings in the main church.
St. Augustine is an important landmark in Abonnema. A good part of the heritage of the people is tied to the church. Sir (Chief) David Briggs, Knight of the Order of St. Christopher disclosed that the church was established in 1882. However, a plaque on the wall announces that the foundation of the present main church was laid by His Lordship the Rt. Rev. E. T. Dimieari CBE, Lord Bishop of the Niger Delta Diocese on Monday 16th January, 1961.
The departed Judge was a member of the St. Augustine parish and a Knight of St. Christopher. He was baptised in church, possibly in the river across the road.
Sharing the same premises with St. Augustine is the Bishop Crowther Memorial State School, Abonnema. Samuel Ajayi Crowther was the freed slave boy who became the first African Anglican Bishop in Nigeria.
Briggs was the first elected Chairman of Akuku-Toru Local Government Area. A former member of the Rivers State Executive Council, he served as Commissioner of Works and Commissioner for Water Resources. He was dressed in the colourful gear of a knight. There were others like him. They were all adorned in the same distinct apparel. Incidentally, the body of Justice Karibi-Whyte was clothed like that.
The knights of St. Christopher are defenders of the faith. And part of the courtesies to their departed colleagues includes the Sword Crossing ceremony. Justice Karibi-Whyte deserved no less an honour. For over one decade he was the immediate past Chancellor of the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion.
Justice Karibi-Whyte had many strong affiliations. He was an Anglican, an icon in the legal profession and a promoter of his culture. In honouring his memory, the planners of his obsequies were able to strike a good balance to reflect the many sides of his life. The funeral ceremonies which held at different times and dates in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abonnema aptly captured all the colours and parts of his life. The Evening of Tributes in Lagos took place at the Church of Nativity at Parkview Estate in Ikoyi-Lagos.
The Evening of Tributes witnessed a large gathering at the Church of Nativity. Jurists, politicians turned up to celebrate the legacy of the late Karibi-Whyte
Cars lined up the tarred streets of the quiet neighbourhood while bodyguards and security personnel manned the area to ensure safety and orderliness.
Inside the church, family, friends and relatives extolled the deeds of the dead in a melancholic ambience.
His wife described him as a loving and honourable father and husband. She noted that though his demise was unexpected and shocking, that he passed peacefully.
Former Group Executive Director of the energy conglomerate Sahara Group Tonye Cole whose message was streamed described the deceased as a man of integrity.
“He taught us about integrity, eschewed intelligence in every way, not tribalistic. He showed us how to be a legal professional. He taught us what it meant to take a name and go international. He gave us such a high pedestal to stand on, to defend our name and family. There was no distinction in the family because of how he embraced us all. He stood and gave me advice on everything. I’m certain he lived an exemplary life. We would not be where we are if not for what he gave us. He has left us to do more. And we are carrying the baton.”
The immediate past President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro told the high-heeled audience that he was honoured to share unique similarities with the revered Justice.
“I’m honoured to share two things with him. First, I’m a lawyer, the second we come from the same Niger Delta region. And for those of us who come from there, one thing stands for us, you must be exceptional before you are recognised by the Nigerian nation. That is what the deceased stands for us. He was exceptional as a judge. Testimonies about his works and how he changed the course of justice. That was exceptional, and it requires someone exceptional to do that. He represented all of us and made us proud that he was our father. We must also strive to get into the shoes of the late, to follow his example. We will miss him, he laid the example and showed the way to attain greater heights.”
The Commendation Service in Port Harcourt was held at St. Cyprian’s Church. The Port Harcourt and Abonnema leg of the ceremonies were secured by a sizable number of soldiers and Mobile Policemen to keep mischief makers at bay and ensure the safe passage of a teeming number of eminent personalities who came to honour the late judge.
One prominent public figure who made it to all the events and spoke glowingly about his relationship with the late Judge was Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, a former governor of Rivers State and currently, Minister of Transportation.
Justice Karibi-Whyte was a double chief of the Whyte family and the Iju-Jack group of houses in Nyemoni community, Abonnema in Akoku Toru local government area of Rivers State. Apart from Abonnema, there are other major Kalabari towns including Bakana, Degema and Buguma, headquarters of the kingdom, where the late Highlife music maestro, Cardinal Rex Lawson hailed from.
Tonye Krukrubo, a first cousin of Karibi-Whyte who works with the law firm of Aluko and Oyebode explained that owing to the high reverence for the departed Judge, the natural ruler of the Abonnemas, King Disrael Gbobo Bob-Manuel, who seldom attends such events in person, led the Abonnema Council of Chief to the church to be part of the burial ceremony.
Karibi-Whyye was a prominent member of the Abonnema Council of Chiefs. As a chief, his primary duty was to resolve disputes.
Abonnema boasts of a long line of prominent Nigerians including the Secretary to the Rivers State Government, Dr. Tammy Danagogo and Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs who were in the church service, Alabo T. O. Graham-Douglas, Dr. Bekinbo Graham-Douglas (SAN), Chief T. J. Krukrubo (MON)
Cultural display of different hues depicting Kalabari culture were on parade to the amazement and enjoyment of guests. One of such prominent exhibition were the exciting outfits worn by the children of the deceased led by his first son, Dagogo. His other children are Askiya Ige, Tonye Uwensuyi-Edosomwan, Abiye Karibi-Whyte, Tokini Karibi-Whyte, Sodogi Karibi-Whyte and Nengi Karibi-Whyte. The grandiose apparel for the men included a headgear covered with bright feathers, while the ladies topped it up with a beaded crown. This contrasted with the all-white clothing worn by their aged mother and widow of Justice Karibi-Whyte.
Conforming to tradition, members of the Bar and Bench turned up in their numbers to honour their distinguished member, who was a philosopher judge and a legal colossus. The lawyers came from different bars fully and formally dressed and they were led by Mr. Olu Akpata, President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). Akpata extolled the stellar qualities of the late Karibi-Whyte noting that he belonged to a cadre of distinguished jurists that was fast becoming extinct.
The NBA President said, “I consider it a great honour and privilege to pay tribute to this great man on behalf of the Nigerian Bar Association. Justice Karibi-Whyte was held in the highest of esteem by members of the NBA and indeed the entire legal profession.He was one of our heroes, one of the greats, a member of that distinguished cadre of Jurists that is fast becoming extinct. His many judgements bear eloquent testimony to his intellect and profundity and remain indelible in our body of case-law.”
Playing a prominent role in the entire funeral arrangements were Dagogo’s partners, Anire Kanyi and Segun Adeyemi at the law Lagos-based firm of KanyiKaribi-Whyte&Hastrup, known as KKH. Until his death, Justice Karibi-Whyte was a consultant to KKH. But Dagogo’s friends are not limited to lawyers. They cut across all professionals.
Therefore, the likes of Irene Din, Neil Egbor, Lekan Olanrewaju, Francis Ikeneku, Broderick Arogbodi, Dan Akpovwa, ,the late Dolapo Bamgboye, Abiye Mebere Former GED Exploration and Production NNPC, Assistant Commissioner of Police Ibiye Don Braide, Adokiye Ikpoki Obelema Isokrari, Prince Joe Okojie, Iboroma Akpana and Omubo Frank-Briggs were at the different events. They put a pause on everything else they were doing to support their friend. A good number of them were clad in the white Niger Delta outfit for men known as Etibo, with a bowler hat to match.
After his body was lowered on the expansive grounds of his country home, guests were treated to a large, lively party with music, choice three-course meal and assorted drinks.