Justice Mary Odili A Peek into Her Life and Illustrious Career
While celebrating her retirement from the bench and 70th birthday with a heart of appreciation, Justice Mary Odili in her valedictory speech unveiled layers of her childhood, surviving the Nigerian civil war, marriage and motherhood, as well as her fulfilling career from the Magistracy to the Supreme Court, capping it all with her position on unemployment, insecurity, policy on state of origin and other
issues of national concern. Vanessa Obioha writes
At midnight on May 12, the retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Mary Ukaego Odili turned 70. This milestone naturally marks her retirement from an illustrious career on the bench, having served at the apex court for 11 years. Spanning 44 years, her entire journey to the Supreme Court trailed a steady climb through the Nigerian Law School Victoria Island in 1976 and was called to the bar the following year.
Shortly after, she participated in the mandatory National Youth Service Corps and fulfilled her primary assignment at the Ministry of Justice in Abeokuta before proceeding to the Ministry of Justice in Bendel State as a pupil state counsel.
For the first time since she became the second most senior justice of the Supreme Court, she had the privilege to speak about herself and the nation that she had served dispassionately for over four decades.
Born May 12, 1952, at Orieonuoha Maternity, in Onicha Ezinihitte-Mbaise, Imo State, young Mary’s father Bernard Chigbu Nzenwa was a reputable lawyer, sports enthusiast and traditional ruler while her mother, Bernadette Nwatuma Nzenwa was a seamstress and textile trader. As a baby, she was raised at Kaima and would later share her family home with six other siblings comprising four females and two males: Martina, Agnes, Nnenna, Onyinye, Okechukwu and Chikere. Summarily, she had a taste of two worlds- the city and the village life.
In her valedictory speech, she recounted how it was to grow up in an African home with an extended family. Mary experienced this soon after her father left for England in 1955 to study Law. Although away from carrying out his paternal duties, Mary experienced the familiar kind of maternal love her father witnessed growing up. This translated to them moving back to their hometown, Amudi Obizi Ezinihitte from Kaima to live with her paternal grandmother Nmema Nzenwa.
“Grandma Nmema and our maternal grandparents, Chinyere Otuechere and Nwekenyia imbued in us loads of teaching which enriched us with the knowledge and experiences that have remained invaluable at the same time, indelible.”
Sadly, her grandmother died months before the return of her son in 1959, but in many ways than one sufficiently played a significant role that continually inspired Mary to attain her life goals.
Upon the return of her father, the entire family moved to Umuahia where he set up his private legal practice under the name of Obizi Chamber. Mary confirmed that the practice is still in existence and runs at full capacity. No doubt, the tenacity of her father in more ways than one inspired her to pursue a career in law, especially with the trajectory of her father’s career that culminated in him serving as the Secretary and Legal Adviser of the Nigerian Airways, a career move that demanded the entire family to relocate to Lagos – a short-lived stay – before the emergence of the precursors of the Nigerian Civil War.
The hostility towards the Igbo tribe as the precursor to the Nigerian Civil War ousted many families from Lagos and other cities in the South-west region. To escape the killings of civilians, the retired Justice Odilli recalled how she and her family fled from their Ikeja GRA home to seek a refuge in a room at Surulere before heading to the east. But the trouble had only begun.
“The crisis dovetailed into the Nigerian Civil War and we were in the theatre of war named Biafra,” she recalled with a deep sense of sadness.
“During the war, we survived the air raids with the bombers and fighters as low as the height of fruit trees with me catching the eyes of one of the pilots on an occasion. I am bringing this period up not to whip up animosities or negative feelings but to call to the mind of all and sundry the emergency situation which now faces our Nation. Some of the actions or speeches that propelled the unfortunate war which took the lives of millions of our people are being re-enacted at this time hence the necessity for this reminder.
“From my recollection, the war ended in January 1970 and we resumed schooling in March of that year and I took the School Certificate in 1971. Upon the release of our results in 1972, I went for ‘A-Levels at the Queen of the Rosary College (QRC) Onitsha which was a brief stint as I got into the University of Nigeria the same year of 1972 to study Law and in 1976 graduated. The same year of 1976 saw me in the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island Lagos.”
Following her call to the bar on July 1, 1977, Mary saw her dream of having her own family come to fruition. She and Dr. Peter Odili who had long been acquainted right from their days in the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus that housed both the medical and law colleges within it, decided to be joined in holy matrimony in Benin City, two months later (August 26, 1977). The two were said to have met at a campus party and began a lasting relationship that culminated in a wedding.
Their union welcomed their first child, Adaeze, in 1979. Soon after, they welcomed three other children – Chinelo, Peter, and Njideka. For her, child-bearing was not an easy feat.
“The children did not come without enormous sacrifices, care and attention in the course of duty by the personnel of UBTH between 1977-1984. I am grateful to them all, professors, consultants, doctors, nurses, paramedical, and other staff in the hospital.”
In relaying this journey of childbirth, her eyes lit up with joy acknowledging the ups and down of having all her children through caesarean and surviving them. But prior to those wins, she recalled her miscarriage episode when she was transferred to serve under the NYSC in July of 1977 at the Ministry of Justice in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
“I made a lot of effort to get transferred to Benin and in the course of that period had a miscarriage in Benin which the Youth Corps Director, Mr. Soyege chose to disbelieve that I was hospitalised in spite of the medical report. That period of being in hospital earned me a four-month extension of service to be done in Benin City, hence I found myself in the Bendel State Ministry of Justice as a Pupil State Counsel. Before the end of that extension of service, I applied to the Bendel State Judiciary for the post of a magistrate.”
By 1992, she became a High Court Judge. She was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2004 with the encouragement of the then President of the Court of Appeal, Umaru Faruk Abdullahi and a host of others.
She acknowledged the supportive role of her husband especially when the biggest offer yet came- she was asked to submit her resume and 10 judgments to be considered for an appointment to the Supreme Court. Besides being the topmost aspiration for any judge on the bench, the Supreme Court bench was a male-dominated one.
As the Presiding Justice of the Kaduna Division of the Court of Appeal, Justice Odili recounted how she was elevated to the Supreme Court bench, adding that only God could have made it possible.
“In 2011 to my shock the President of the Court of Appeal then Justice Ayo Isa Salami asked me to send my resume and 10 judgments for appointment to the Supreme Court. I did not see the feasibility and Peter and I had a good laugh at the joke. The words of Hon. Justice Salami when I took the papers to his office was soothing and fatherly and I remain grateful to him. I was at the time Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division and as only God would make possible the unreal, I got to the apex court and the pinnacle of my judicial career.”
Justice Odili will be documented in history books as the third woman to rise to the apex court. He support for women’s perseverance in public service may have been understated in her valedictory speech but it stood out nonetheless. While acknowledging other females on the bench before her, she acknowledged and accorded respect to their supportive husbands as well.
“I cannot fail to acknowledge the trailblazing role of the Hon. Justice Atinuke Ige, Justice of the Court of Appeal of blessed memory; and Hon. Justice Fati Abubakar, retired Chief Judge of Niger State which judicial officers prevailed in their duties despite the political and national positions of their husbands; Chief Bola Ige, Governor of the Oyo State and husband of Justice Atinuke Ige; General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Head of State and husband of Justice Fati Abubakar. The courage and strength of these females to persevere in their professions and duties in spite of those temporary attainments of their spouses were the spur I needed to get on with the task at hand when Peter became the Deputy Governor in the old Rivers State between 1992 and 1993 and later in 1999 when he was the Governor of Rivers State up till 2007.’’
In 1999, following her husband’s election as governor, Justice Odili became the First Lady of Rivers State, serving until May 29, 2007.
Having served for over four decades on the judicial bench, Mary advocated for a change in the way policies were implemented, calling on the government to install appropriate facilities to tackle socio-economic problems and political unrest. Her concerns grew from the eye-witness account of the Civil War which took millions of lives and she fears a re-enactment of that sordid history.
“While one ought not to hold on to the past but must move forward, the lessons of the past should not be dispatched to the dustbins of history but utilised positively to navigate the present and the future.”
She lamented the incessant perennial strike by Nigerian universities which leave students roaming for months or idling away.
Her resolution, she said, is to copy the efforts of Maryam Abacha as the wife of the Chief of Army Staff who instituted skills acquisition in army barracks for wives of soldiers. By extension, she sees investment in human capital as one of the practical steps towards curbing insecurity and unemployment.
“It was Maryam Babangida that orchestrated the programme up to every local government area of the country down to the community level. The programmes were later to be propelled under the Family Support Programme. I bring these efforts up because what seems to be happening in our polity is that in denigrating the spouses of those women, the laudable efforts they had espoused and championed are left unattended affairs or women pet projects but treated as NGO instead of having them given full steam by Government at all levels, with success assured and the current menace albeit emergency situation of unemployment with the attendant insecurity that has followed. The millions of idle youth are not unrelated to the security on ground.”
Justice Odili proposed that the Head of State should take on the garb of Minister of Youth, Employment and Social Welfare or “such related name so that he directs the implementation of what is called for and put in place without middlemen, utilising the assistance of adequate and qualified personnel. Similarly, the governors of the respective states take over such ministries as the situation needs to be done to stem the current tragic situation. The massive unemployment of tertiary institution graduates is a tip of the iceberg as the conditions of the non-graduates who are numerous have made the matter of grave concern. The situation is not helped by the perennial strikes which leave students roaming for months on end or idling away with their thoughts better imagined.”
Mary has tested this solution in Rivers and is confident of its success if well implemented. She shared some thoughts on restructuring, arguing that it should be given immediate attention.
As regards the issue of state of origin, her advice was that a person’s state of origin should be gauged by the number of years he has lived in a given place and his choice. Having lived in different parts of Nigeria, she understands cultural dislocation and the implication of this ‘imposed state of origin’ on citizens who grew up in communities that are different from their parents’ or spouses.
Justice Odili also used the valedictory session to appreciate those who made her judicial journey memorable, some of them are resting with the good Lord and some alive.
“They are Chief Justices, Mohammed Bello, Muhammed Lawal Uwais, Alfa Belgore, Alloysius Katsina-Alu, Dahiru Musdapher, Mahmud Mohammed, Walter Onnoghen and Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad who also was my first Presiding Justice in the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division.
“I must mention with gratitude Justice O.O. Adekeye, Bode Rhodes-Vivour, Suleiman Galadima, Clara Ogunbiyi, Amiru Sanusi, Sidi Bage Mohammad and the current President of the Court of Appeal, Monica Donghan Mensem, Hon. Justice Constance Momoh, retired Chief Judge of Edo State and Hon. Justice J. Omorodion who I understudied in the magistracy.
“I cannot but put down on paper, the wonderful relationship I have enjoyed with my noble Lords of the Supreme Court who have served with me and who I can no longer refer to as current colleagues having made 70 years at midnight. I cherish and can never forget what we have shared in the spirit of brotherhood while I was in service at this apex court.”