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KAYODE ESO (1925-2012)

Published by Tribune on Fri, 01 Mar 2013

AS if the nation had not had enoughof elegies, another tragedy ofunquantifiable proportions struck on Friday, November 16, when the widely acknowledged father of judicial activism and great exponent of an independent judiciary in Nigeria, Justice Kayode Eso, JSC, CON, CFR, died in London. Even though he died at the ripe age of 87, Justice Eso's demise struck a very sad chord across the country because he was truly such a huge institution.GARLANDED for relentlessly protecting the integrity of the courts through adherence to strict discipline and unblemished conduct, Justice Kayode Eso held the uncompromising belief that the courts must always rise to the challenge of the nation's constitution. In his view, the judiciary, being a guardian of the constitution, must shed any form of inferiority complex and take its proper place as a coordinate arm of government saddled with the sacred responsibility of checking the excesses of the other arms of government. Indeed, once during a study of the British and Scottish judicial and penal systems, on the invitation of the British Council, Eso was honoured with an honorary sitting on the Bench of the English Court of Appeal at the invitation of no less a personality than Lord Denning, master of the Rolls and proponent of the principle of judicial activism.IN a career marked by many firsts, Eso, who earned his Bachelor and Master of Law Degrees at the Trinity College, Dublin, between 1953 and 1956, served Nigeria meritoriously as acting judge of the High Court, Western Nigeria; Justice of the Court of Appeal, Western Nigeria; acting President of the Court of Appeal; pioneer Chief Judge of Oyo State, and Justice, Supreme Court of Nigeria, from where he bowed out of service on September 18, 1990. In his 46 years of service, the jurist was said to have left a record 464 reported judgments, 70 of which were lead judgments, 390 concurring judgments and four dissenting judgments. It is no wonder then that his 12-year stay in the Supreme Court (1978-1990) is referred to as the golden era of the apex court.A fiercely independent mind and refined intellectual, Eso would be remembered for many landmark decisions which pitted him against a self-destructing establishment. Among these, two have remained particularly etched in the annals of the country as imperishable hallmarks of jurisprudence. These are the trial of Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, over his role in a broadcast which challenged the autocracy of the then government of the defunct Western Region and the 1979 celebrated case of Chief Obafemi Awolowo versus Alhaji Shehu Shagari (S.C.Suit Sc 62/1979), arising from the results of the presidential election held that year which Chief Awolowo challenged. In the former case, also known as the mystery gunman case, Justice Eso's discharge and acquittal of Soyinka so rankled the establishment that it fetched him a transfer from Ibadan to Akure, a move then considered as a kind of demotion. But the eminent jurist was not deterred. In the Awolowo versus Shagari case, Eso was the lone dissenting voice who held that at least two-thirds of 19 states could only be 13 states and not 12 2/3 states, as held by his colleagues in that historic 6-1 judgement which affirmed Shagari as the duly elected president. To date, the arguments canvassed by Eso in arriving at his lone decision continue to be reference points in the annals of legal adjudication and political discourse in the country.In the heat of the bitter dispute between former Court of Appeal president, Justice Isa Ayo Salami and the National Judicial Council (NJC), the late jurist wrote a powerful, lengthy discourse detailing the widespread corruption in the judiciary and proffering radical solutions. Eso was, even after retirement, saddled with national responsibilities. He served as vice chairman of the Body of Benchers (1988 and 1989); chairman, Body of Benchers (1989-1990), serving simultaneously as the chair of the Committee on Corruption and other Economic Crimes; chairman, Committee of Pro-Chancellors/Committee of Vice Chancellors' on Crisis in the Nigerian Universities (1993), simultaneously chairing the Judicial Panel on the Reorganisation/Reform of the Judiciary in Nigeria, a committee whose report indicted 47 Judges on corruption charges and also recommended the setting up of the NJC, now a big player in the polity. Indeed, while presenting the report of the Rivers State Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the chairman on March 11, 2009 to the Rivers State governor, Honourable Rotimi Amaechi, Justice Eso said his commission 'was able to reconcile 15 communities who, before the existence of the commission, were at daggers drawn.''Defending the integrity of his panel against the allegation of bias by former Governor Peter Odili, he said: 'With us, it has always been the Shakespearian melody of : Set honour in one eye and death in the other and I will look at both indifferently. That is how much premium we put on honour and it is that credo that advised us to have accepted this assignment, notwithstanding its being set within the din of battle, insurgency and threats of death. No one among us could be moved to do the wrong thing by blackmail.'While we urge quick action on the resolve by the National Assembly to immortalise Eso, we are of the view that the best way to immortalise him is to continue his campaign against using the law as a tool of oppression and to tackle the rot in the judiciary.
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