Chidi Anselm Odinkalu pays tribute to Benjamin Nwabueze, statesman, scholar, and foremost constitutional lawyer

            In July 2013, Akunnia Obiefuna Benjamin Nwabueze, the extraordinary scholar, teacher, lawyer, winner of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), who has died at the age of 92, applied to the Almighty for another five years on earth. In keeping with the record of a man in whose life Providence appears to have been both present and generous, he received double the time he asked for, living another 10 years.

At the time of his passing at the end of October 2023, Nwabueze was the most senior lawyer in Nigeria. With a scholarly output that included over 30 books, 100 conference keynotes, and over 200 peer-reviewed and scientific articles, he was probably also the most prolific and influential legal scholar out of Africa. Published between 1973 and 1977, his trilogy on Constitutionalism in Emergent StatesPresidentialism in Commonwealth Africa, and Judicialism in Commonwealth Africa reshaped the study and understanding of public law after colonialism.

In 2013, Nwabueze published Ben Nwabueze: His Life, Works and Times – An Autobiography in two volumes and 719 pages to tell his own story by himself. What follows is sourced to this autobiography. The book, he explains, is “more than a story of events that have occurred in my life; it is also a commentary on people, institutions, such as the marriage and family institutions, and ideas that have played a significant part in my life….”

The story begins sometime in 1931 in Atani, a community on the banks of the River Niger, currently in Ogbaru Local Government Area of Anambra (north), south-eastern Nigeria. It proceeds through his pre-analogue education in primary and secondary schools capturing the age before the introduction of the transistor radio and basic public utilities such as (pipe-borne water and electricity) in Nigeria.

It tells the story of life “as a clerk in a commercial firm, a civil servant/telegraphist in a federal department, a teacher in a secondary school, a law professor, an executive director/legal adviser in a commercial bank, a minister in the federal government, member of the ILO Committee of Experts, deputy chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council, and a private legal practitioner.” It is the story of a war survivor, constitution maker in Nigeria and beyond, and an active participant and broker in Nigeria’s internecine inter-ethnic battles.

Nwabueze’s Autobiography is told in two volumes. Volume 1, comprising 15 chapters and an epilogue in 322 pages, is an intimate self portrait of the man; his life and loves; his family and his community; his beliefs and the closest people to him. The 15 chapters and 397 pages of Volume 2 are devoted mainly to the ideas and pursuits in his life. Volume 1 is a story of life and love; Volume 2 is mostly a story of adventures.

The story that emerges is defined by its clarity, candour and contradiction. Nwabueze narrates an almost charmed progress through challenging personal and professional difficulties and various character-shaping scrapes with injustice. His was a pioneer in communications technology. He was a town-crier, a telegraphist, and an expert in the Morse Code – all forebears of the digital age in which he lived out his advanced years. He was also a son, a life-saving swimmer (entirely predictable for a boy born on the banks of the River Niger), lover, husband, community leader, citizen, father of ten, grand-father to at least 23 children and grand-children respectively and a cancer survivor.

For a man widely associated with the supposedly abstemious study of law, Nwabueze was also an avid theorist on and occasional practitioner of love. Far from deriding the sentiment he admits that he “appreciate(s) it and, sometimes get(s) passionately involved in it.” But even his telling of his loves is done with a clinical candour that is both disarming in its naivete and somewhat brutal in its narrative. The story of his introduction to teenage sex is touching in its innocence:

I led Comfort into my mother’s bedroom. She removed her dresses. We laid on my mother’s bed. I did not know what to do with her. I was scared. I had never had sex before. (I did not have it until 1951 when I was in Enugu as a civil servant). I was then nineteen, going on twenty. After waiting for me to do something, she got visibly angry, jumped out of the bed and, putting back her dresses, said she was going. I tried to hold her back, but to no avail. She was gone. After years of passionate but platonic love, she had wanted us to consummate our love as a farewell, but I had messed it up by my sexual immaturity and shyness with women.

With time, it appears, the professor may have made up for lost opportunities in this department, evolving into a believer in free love, “subject to people willingly imposing moral restraints or moral chains on their sexual appetite.” Unsurprisingly, he takes a rather post-modern view of marriage, believing that “the ritual of the marriage vow whereby parties are made to swear to remain together for good or ill, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health till death do them part is meaningless nonsense, and an exercise in futility since, in reality, it carries little or no obligation after the ritual for the parties concerned.”

Besides the narrative of live and loves, Nwabueze’s life is a compelling story of the pursuit of diverse forms of public service in which he demonstrates the stubborn power of ideas. To him goes the credit for the Chapter in Nigeria’s constitution on Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy. He also takes the blame for making them non-justiceable. Beyond Nigeria, he also played influential roles in constitution making in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zambia.

Professor Nwabueze embodied a life of contradiction: a Christian who does not go to church nor believe in life after death; a rationalist who is nevertheless very passionate and can be impulsive; a Nigerian nationalist who found himself on the side of Biafra during the war; an Anglophile with deep commitment to African traditions and culture; a thinker who morphed into an activist; constitutionalist who served as Minister under military rule (under General Ibrahim Babangida), which – in his own words – is “an obnoxious system of rule.” On this last point, Nwabueze admits to some nagging doubts, perhaps even some regrets as to whether he “did the right thing in accepting the appointment.”

In 1961, Nwabueze enrolled for Ph.D. research as a Commonwealth Scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) with the thesis topic: “The Position of Chiefs under the laws of Eastern Nigeria.” He was to abandon the Ph.D. programme in favour of the patriotic adventure of establishing the Law Faculty of the University of Lagos with his former Professor and mentor, LCB Gower, subsequently also teaching at the University of Nigeria and the University of Zambia, among others.

We will never know what his thesis would have turned into. On the evidence of what transpired thereafter, we have a lot to be grateful for and little to mourn but we may never stop wondering what would have become of the institution of chieftaincy in Eastern Nigeria if Obiefuna Benjamin Nwabueze had been permitted to give it the fullest attentions of his extraordinary intellect.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at

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