Justice Paul Nwokedi turned 85 recently. Upon his retirement from the Supreme Court, he became the pioneer chairman, National Human Rights Commission, NHRC. Justice Nwokedi was at a time chairman, Nigerian Law Reforms Commission, a position he held for four years. The octogenerian speaks with BASHIR ADEFAKA, at his GRA residence in Enugu, recently. Excerpts:
What was your growing up like?
I was born on November 3, 1925. I started schooling at Onitsha. My elementary education was at Holy Trinity School, Onitsha. From there I moved to St. Gregory’s, Lagos for my secondary education. I spent six years there. After secondary school, I worked for sometime because in those days, there was one thing I never believed in: to stop working for a moment.
So, when I didn’t get scholarship to go to England, I started reading on my own until I was able to do my BA London. I passed my BA London on my own. By then, the Zikist Movement had been formed and at St. John’s School, Aroloya, Lagos, I was a member of the Committee of Students that wrote to what they later called Action Group. By then, it was called Nigerian Improvement or something like that; that they should form a national front.
We had no reply and so, we wrote to Zik. He replied and we started the NCNC. But when Zik came back from America, he started preaching these anti-colonial sentiments and then we formed the Zikist Movement to support him. I was a member of that movement, and in fact I became one of the leaders. Then we were banned by the British Government over the allegation that we formed Zikist Movement to go against them.
And was that allegation true?
We were preaching for independence and I have forgotten the second one we were doing. We were banned and then we turned to Socialist Movement. So, I left them to go to London where I later studied Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I came back as a lawyer, established and practised at Aba. From there, I was able to control the entire Eastern Nigeria for the nationalist movement.
How did you become a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria?
I had practised Law for about 17 years or so and I was appointed a Judge of East Central State when they were trying to reorganise Nigeria. Then, when the East Central State was split into Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi and Imo, I was Chief Judge of Anambra State. We (Anambra) were again split into two: Anambra was split into Anambra and Enugu and then I became the Chief Judge of Anambra State. According to them, in Enugu, they had their independence (laughs). It was later I was nominated and accepted as Supreme Court Justice.
You went straight to the Supreme Court, skipping the Appeal Court?
I didn’t have to go to the Court of Appeal because my judgements were there to bear witness… Particularly, your records as a Judge were very important at that time and so, from Chief Judge of Anambra State ,I became a Justice of the Supreme Court.
As a matter of fact, when I was told to go to the Supreme Court, I protested but they said, look, man, we have left you here because Anambra area was very notorious for justice but now we want to show the world; we have seen the appeals and we have seen the sort of work you have done and so we are satisfied that you should be there. That was how I went to Supreme Court.
How did you feel reaching the peak of your career?
Eventually, I was elated but I was not carried away.
As a Judge, how did you treat judgements that were against your interest?
It didn’t matter to me. Even whether you were my mother or my father, I would deliver my judgement. Whether you were related to me or you were a friend or enemy, it didn’t mean anything to me. I delivered my judgements, straight and clear.
Did you have any such case that conflicted with your interest?
It’s difficult to recall now. For example, I remember when Nigeria was expelled from the Commonwealth and they sent the Commonwealth Magisterial Group to come and examine the condition in Nigeria and to find out whether Nigeria was fit to be re-admitted. And they asked me: If you are appointed by the government, how do you give judgement against government? I said I don’t understand what you mean. They said it was always thought to respect the government that appointed you. I said no, that is not the law. The law is for you to give judgement as you see it. And that if anybody is dissatisfied, he can go ahead and appeal.
You must have practised as a very conscientious Judge.
Tell me, why should I ever do such a nasty thing? My son is lawyer. How would he like his father being abused by the Court of Appeal for giving stupid judgement? I said to the Commonwealth group that my daughter is a lawyer. She will read my judgement. Others will read my judgement and criticise it. I said I have another son who is also a lawyer. I said with all these people around me, why should I lie in judgements? I said I had given judgements against government in this country and I had given judgements in favour of government wherever I found it so. That was how it went….
Besides, one of the reasons I went to study law was to be independent of anybody. I was in the Lands Department and I was a Land Officer when I made up my mind to go and study law because I wanted to be an independent person. I was even engaging in nationalist politics. I mean, you can’t be a civil servant and still engage in nationalist politics.
Having paid your dues to the growth of the judiciary, how do you feel seeing the way Nigerian treatment of the rule of law?
I am not quite aware, whether the rule of law is not properly taken care of in Nigeria. You see, there was a judge who retired and people were giving him encomiums and people said he was a good judge. But when he was replying he said ‘don’t forget that when I was in service, there were people who said I was a good judge and there were some who said I was a stupid judge.’ There are very good judges. A man who loses will say you are a stupid judge who doesn’t know the law. So, that is the situation with laws in Nigeria. Nobody believes in any law on its merit.
After the Supreme Court, what followed?
It can’t be described by words of mouth. However, I was appointed chairman, Law Reforms Commission and for four years, I was busy reforming Federal laws. When that was completed, I was appointed Chairman, National Human Rights Commission, NHRC. In fact, I was the foundation chairman of that commission and you can see that from that plaque (pointing to it at a corner of his sitting room), which they gave me in appreciation of my service at the NHRC. They wanted to give me another appointment after my tenure as chairman of NHRC but I said no, that I was getting tired. Because in Nigeria, when they know that you can work, they work you to death.
Hope for a better Nigeria is currently hinged on credible election. How can we achieve this in 2011?
There is one thing in this country and that is to say that we are very fond of mouthing words. Who are these who make elections not being credible? They are the very same politicians, of course! I contested election twice in Nigeria: the first one was at Awka where I contested for a seat in the Eastern House of Assembly. There were no states at that time. I beat the opponent, a man, flat; but then, the electoral officer went and said ‘well, there are some other polling stations which were not counted.’ And after all the counting, the man was said to have beaten me by 16 votes and I went to court. But people always besieged me and said I should withdraw the case. So, I dropped the case and they made promises that, ‘the next election you will stand out.’
Why did you decline to be crowned as Igwe-Achalla, and give the opportunity to your younger brother, Dr. Alex Nwokedi?
The fact is that village politics is tougher than national politics. I just didn’t want trouble.
And Your Lordship thought your brother had the liver for bearing those troubles?
Besides, before I retired from the Supreme Court, I had started having chest pains and so I didn’t want anybody to worry me. It was because of my chest pain, better put, that I refused to be crowned as Igwe-Achalla and so I allowed my younger brother, Alex Nwokedi, to go on with it.
A Justice of your status is seen differently above an ordinary man. How do you shop for your dresses?
I buy my dresses like anybody else. In those days, a lot of these dresses were made locally and there was a shop in Lagos, which was known for selling very excellent dresses for men and there were a lot of them like that. At times, my children bought for me. At times, my wife bought for me. I wasn’t very much of a dress-man. There are people who take dressing as a serious concern but that is not for me.
How did you meet your late wife and how would you describe the fruits of that marriage?
I met my wife at Onitsha. She was then a teacher and I was a teacher. That was ever before I went to study law. She’s dead now about a year ago. So we had five beautiful children. And by ‘beautiful’, I mean children beautiful to their parents. One is Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), another one is Assistant Director in the Ministry of Justice. They all had their university education without trouble and I was happy that I was able to bring them up.
How has life been: one good year without her?
It’s been lonely anyway. It’s been lonely with intervals of sadness. There is no doubt about that. But life must go on.
A child at 50 still crawls. What is wrong with Nigeria?
What is wrong with Nigeria? You see, I remember when I attended a conference in Geneva, where many of the issues we are talking about Nigeria now were raised, especially the issue of stealing and foreign bank accounts. When I wanted to reply, I told them that our trouble is British trouble.
I said: if you want us to overcome what you are unable to overcome, for example, the whole of Europe should be one country and I asked: Can you make it? I said for example again, in the European Union, there are 30 nations. Take away Germany, take away France and take away Britain. I said one ethnic group in Nigeria is bigger than all the others combined, and yet you want us to agree on issues at the same time.
Now, in Nigeria, we have over 150 million population with over 30 ethnic groups. We cannot agree at the same time. We must always argue to agree on anything that will affect the majority of us.
I said as for foreign accounts, why are you people worrying about Nigerians stealing and having foreign accounts? I said but the money is in your banks. Why not pass a law that any money that belongs to a Nigerian should be repatriated back home. I moved that as a motion and the English man, who was in charge of that conference as chairman, said okay, we would take that as a formal motion. We have to bring it up tomorrow. The next day he disappeared (laughs).
He never appeared again at that conference. Another person was appointed to that seat and that was how the matter was closed.