After decades of shaping the course of justice in Nigeria, Justice Amina Augie has gracefully hung her gown, retiring from the distinguished halls of the Supreme Court. Her retirement is more than a mere closing statement; it signifies the concluding chapter of a legal expert, whose impact reflects a strong basis of legal examples and steadfast principles, writes Vanessa Obioha
on November 7, 2016, retired Justice Amina Augie was appointed as a justice to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. While such appointments are typically celebrated without much fanfare, Augie’s held special significance. She broke barriers by becoming the sixth woman to serve in this esteemed role. Her appointment was a milestone for Nigerian women, challenging traditional gender roles and paving the way for others to ascend to influential positions within the judiciary and beyond.
In her over four-decade career, her reputation did not diminish; it remains impressive. Therefore, on September 3, 2023, when she clocked 70, the mandatory retirement age for Justice of the Supreme Court, she received well-deserved accolades. Dignitaries from different walks of life convened at Abuja where she was feted by loved ones. Notable names at the high-octane event included the Labour Party presidential candidate in the February 25, 2023 election, Mr. Peter Obi, the former governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome, and the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, among others. The celebration also doubled as a retirement party. Her valedictory session at the Supreme Court is expected to take place later this week.
At 70, Augie is still a sight for sore eyes. Her striking gray hair symbolises the depth of her judgments over the years. Her vibrancy is infectious, exuding good-humouredness. Her brilliance extends beyond the courtroom, evident in her inspiring talks at conferences and interviews, such as her recent appearance on the Hague Talks podcast, where she emphasised the importance of turning weaknesses into strengths.
“Look at the keys to the doors, all those cuts, you know, fit into a lock. That’s how we all are. There is always a door where your peculiar key can open, where you can be the best you can be.”
At the same event where she was the only woman represented in a delegation of African justices, Augie again gave a thought-provoking response to the topic: “Why Having More Women Judges Benefit All of Society.” In rounding up her speech, she said: “When we think of the sociological barrier, a lot of women have locked themselves in a mental prison and they can’t imagine getting out of it’s all auto exclusion. Nobody stopped you from being a judge. Nobody stopped you from aspiring but you have stopped yourself because, inside your head, you just don’t believe that it could happen or you could be a judge at all. You just step back.”
Born Anne Eva Graham in Lagos, Augie’s path to the esteemed Supreme Court bench began with a childhood aspiration. At the age of 14, she boldly declared her ambition to become a lawyer. Therefore, after completing her primary and secondary education in Ibadan, Calabar, Enugu and Kaduna between 1958 and 1971, she pursued her law degree at the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University), graduating in 1977. A year later, she was called to the Nigerian Bar and later obtained an LLM from Ahmadu Bello University.
Her career took an interesting turn when she met her husband, the late Kebbi State Senator Adamu Augie. This love story led her to Lagos, where she continued her legal studies. Despite this, her passion for the law persisted. She obtained an LLM in criminology and related subjects from the University of Lagos between 1986 and 1987.
In those early years, Augie’s career journey saw her transition from legal practice to academia. She started as a Legal Aid Counsel during her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Sokoto. Her commitment and diligence propelled her from this role to becoming the Head of the Legal Aid Council in the state.
In 1980, Augie embraced academia fully, serving as an Assistant Lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University. She later joined the Office of the Chief Counsel to the President as a Senior State Counsel in Lagos. Her passion for teaching resurfaced, and she lectured at the Nigerian Law School, focusing on evidence from 1984 to 1988.
Again, her husband relocated to Sokoto in 1988. Despite the challenges posed by the relocation, Augie’s career in the judiciary took off. She became a Chief Magistrate in Sokoto, marking her entry into the judicial field. In 1992, she was appointed as a Judge of the High Court, later rising to the Court of Appeal in 2002 where she served in various divisions. Her pinnacle moment arrived in 2016 when she became a justice at the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Known for her diligence, Augie’s approach to her cases is marked by dedication and a deep sense of responsibility. She described the process of writing judgments on the Hague Talks Podcast as a personal journey, unravelling the complexities of each case step by step.
“I take each case as it comes. I like to say that a judgment takes my soul. I’m faced with what I’m writing now and it consumes me till it’s done. Then the next one comes without knowing it.”
Explaining further, she added: “Each case is different. So where the law would apply and convict somebody, the same law if you look at the facts and find out and you acquit; so each case has its own twist. Each case has to be unravelled. Each case has to be like, you know, you’re taking it step by step. I write judgments, not because I’m writing for anybody, it is for me. If you read it, I’m unravelling. I don’t know what the end will be but I’m unravelling it.”
Her 45-year career is distinguished by versatility and unwavering integrity. She consistently emphasised the importance of integrity in law and justice, a message she conveyed during the unveiling of Justice Oputa State High Court Complex in Imo State in 2019.
“Posterity beckons, history is calling us. So we don’t write judgments today because somebody gave you some money. Tomorrow that person is gone, your reputation is down the drain, and your children will not want to be associated with you. Is that what we want as judges or do we want to stand and say ‘long after I’m gone, my words will speak for me, will teach and motivate others?”
In addition to encouraging judges to uphold integrity, Augie cares deeply about Nigeria’s judicial system. She believes that the workload on judges should be lightened and that not every case needs to reach the Supreme Court; some should conclude at the High Court or Appeal Court. While this change didn’t occur during her tenure, she remains thankful for the opportunity to serve her nation in the way she saw best.
Augie left an indelible mark with her noteworthy judgments during her tenure at the Supreme Court. One decision that remains etched in the memories of many Nigerians, setting a significant precedent, occurred in February 2020. In a moment that sent shockwaves through the legal community, she imposed a fine of N30 million each on two distinguished legal luminaries, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) and Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN). Their offense? They had jointly filed an application seeking the review of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Bayelsa State election. This decision, delivered with a heavy heart, would resonate in legal circles for years to come.
With tears in her eyes, Justice Augie expressed deep regret that “very senior” lawyers had initiated such an application. She went on to denounce the application, filed by the APC and its governorship candidate at the poll, David Lyon, as vexatious, frivolous, and a blatant abuse of the court process. She stressed that it was an invitation for the Supreme Court to question its own judgment, a violation of constitutional principles. Granting such applications, she warned, would undermine the finality of the court’s decisions and open the floodgates for unwarranted reviews.
One judgment she delivered that did not sit well with some Nigerians, was when she charged and acquitted General Sani Abacha’s once powerful Chief Security Officer, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha. Al-Mustapha had been convicted and sentenced to death for his involvement in the assassination of Mrs. Kudirat Abiola, the wife of the renowned democracy activist and rightful winner of the 1993 presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola.
As a Justice in the Court of Appeal, Justice Augie assumed a pivotal role as the lead judge in Al-Mustapha’s appeal. On June 10, 2013, she delivered a judgment that would forever be debated. In her ruling, she acquitted Al-Mustapha of the charges related to Mrs. Abiola’s murder, a decision that left both supporters and critics with much to ponder.
Augie’s dedication goes beyond her legal career; she passionately supports human and women’s rights. Her numerous awards and certifications underline her commitment to justice and gender equality. These include honours from the International Association of Women Judges (Africa Region) in 2005 and the Lagos State Judiciary in 2016. She’s also been recognised as a fellow by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Nigeria and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. Additionally, she received the prestigious National Honours as a Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), a significant recognition granted to all Supreme Court Justices.
As Amina Augie steps away from the bench and hangs up her gown, her legacy endures. She will be remembered as a trailblazing jurist who, despite facing adversity, remained steadfast in her pursuit of justice.