Justice in his Blood: Tribute to Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour JSC, CFR

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By Alex Muoka

My Lord the Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour JSC, CFR, attained, the landmark age of 70 years yesterday, Monday, the 22nd of March, 2021 and (in accordance with the Constitution) will retire from the Bench of the highest court of the land. He has earned his rest.

Born in Lagos on the 22nd of March, 1951, to Hon. Justice (Chief) Akinwunmi R.W. Rhodes-Vivour (who retired as a Judge of the Bendel State High Court) and Mrs. R.W.A. Rhodes-Vivour, Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour (as he is popularly called) has had an unbroken career in law from 1976 – some 45 years of ‘hard intellectual labour’. He has, literally, ‘seen it all!

My Lord started his legal career as a Pupil State Counsel with the Lagos State Ministry of Justice. He rose through the ranks to Principal State Counsel in 1984, and in 1989 became Director of Legislative Drafting. Perhaps the best years of his life at the Ministry were between 1989 and 1994, when he held sway as the Director of Public Prosecutions at the Lagos State Ministry of Justice. He and his team were responsible for securing numerous convictions and putting away villainous felons.

Our First Encounter

My first encounter with My Lord did not occur until he had started his second (and perhaps more glorious) legal career – on the Bench. On the 18th of February, 1994, he was appointed a Judge of the High Court of Lagos State. He brought to the Bench, years of forensic advocacy skills, a deeply questing mind and a steely compass for justice.

He also brought a ruggedly attractive visage and formidable physique – tall, athletic, with a stern look, deep piercing eyes and a gravelly voice. He dominated his courtroom. I had started out in practice in 1992, and in the mid-nineties, enjoyed appearing before him. Outside of court and his sober robes, he was quick witted, humorous, and charming. He was, easily, one of the well-loved (and respected) Judges on the Lagos High Court Bench. And, it was our earnest prayer then that he would reach the Supreme Court.

On the 25th of April, 2005, our prayers were partially answered, and the journey to the Supreme Court began with his elevation to the Court of Appeal. Three years later, My Lord reached the Supreme Court Bench – in Sierra Leone! He was seconded by the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to Sierra Leone, to serve the Judiciary there as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone for two years.

Of course, our prayers intensified. My Lord Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour served with distinction in Sierra-Leone, and proved his mettle at the Apex Court there. Upon his return to Nigeria, he was appointed as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on the 16th of September, 2010.

Ukeje v Ukeje

In his ten and a half years at the Supreme Court, Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour’s judicial industry has been prodigious. Of his numerous leading judgements, one that stands him out as a courageous change-maker was his lead judgement in the watershed case of Mrs Lois Chituru Ukeje and Another v Mrs. Gladys Ada Ukeje [2014] 38 WRN 1.

In that case, the Supreme Court was invited to pronounce upon the Igbo custom which disentitles a female child from inheriting the estate of her late father. In his lucid and very simple language, Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour succinctly set out the facts of the case, the judgements of the two lower courts, the issues framed by the parties and the submissions of respective counsel.

Having agreed with concurrent findings of the trial court and Court of Appeal that the Respondent was indeed, a daughter of the late L.O. Ukeje, Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour went on to proclaim the law in the following clear terms:

“Agreeing with the High Court, the Court of Appeal correctly found that the Igbo native law and custom which disentitles a female from inheriting in her late father’s estate is void, as it conflicts with Section 39(1)(a) and (2) of the 1979 Constitution (as amended).

Section 39(1)(a) and (2) of the 1979 Constitution are now contained in the 1999 Constitution as Section 42(1), (a), and (2) and state that:

“42(1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person:-

(a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are made subject: or ………………….

(2) No citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth”.

He then declared with finality (in his characteristic no-nonsense gruff voice):

“No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate. Consequently, the Igbo customary law which disentitles a female child from partaking, in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is in breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian. The said discriminatory customary law is void, as it conflicts with Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution.”

And the women rejoiced! As did all men of good conscience.

It should not have come as a surprise, though. Coming from a cosmopolitan background, and with generations of learned ancestors (including a Judge father), Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour has justice flowing in his veins. The idea that a child should be disinherited solely on account of sex, must have been repugnant to his sense of justice and equity. He could not brook it.

As he retires after 45 years of active service to grateful State and Country, I join in wishing him a very well deserved rest. From what I know of him, though, I suspect that his agile and razor-sharp mind will not allow him to idle away. I see him consulting, writing and taking on special interest projects. I hope he will also make out time for family and friends, and enjoy his wife and companion of many years – Mrs. Doyin Rhodes-Vivour, SAN, Chartered Arbitrator – and their children and grand-children.

My Noble Lord Justice – I bow before you in admiration.

Alex Muoka, Esq, Former Chairman, NBA Lagos Branch