BY DAYO BENSON & BARTHOLOMEW MADUKWE
Death is a natural part of life. Since we are all going to die, it is obvious that when and how do not matter, but the legacy that is left behind. This best describes the death of Justice Bobakayode Eso, whom a Lagos State High Court judge, Justice Ebenezer Adebajo, and senior lawyers see as “a giant among giants.”
Justice Adebajo said, “that is, a chapter has closed in the history of the judiciary in Nigeria. Without doubts, he was a giant among giants. He is a man that I may say has done so well, such that he lived among kings.”
Justice Adebajo, who noted the relentless efforts of the late justice in maintaining discipline and protecting the integrity of his court, expressed shock on the announcement of Justice Eso’s death.
Former NBA President, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, pointed out that the late justice was a great mentor to him, apart from being his father’s professional colleague, adding that late Justice Eso played a great role in his life by getting him his first job in Lagos.
Agbakoba said, “Everyone knew he was a leading architect of judicial activism and participated in crucial decisions of the Supreme Court at the Zenith of glory. Justice Eso’s eternal contribution is contained in his epochal report on judicial corruption fittingly referred to as The Eso’s Report. His period at the Supreme Court was a golden moment with the Justice Oputa, the Justice Idigbe, among others. He was one of the best in the judiciary and he would be greatly missed. His was a life well spent.”
Similarly, human right activist and lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, lamented that the mighty iroko had fallen, saying “the legal titan and erudite jurist has gone the way of his ancestors. Nigeria has lost one of its greatest defining oracle of the bench. Eso was a man of great scholarly depth, wide jurisprudential knowledge and a most courageous, fearless, incorruptible and patriotic jurist of our time, whose years at the Supreme Court with that of Cicero cannot be forgotten.”
On his part, Professor Itse Sagay, SAN, a Professor of Law, said “it is a big loss to the country. He epitomised integrity, honour and uprightness. He was among the jurists that created standard at the Supreme Court. His era was golden in the Supreme Court. Some of his contemporaries are Oputa, Nikky Tobi, Anyagholu, among others. They created standard that unfortunately has dropped and which may never be regained. In terms of moral, integrity and character, he stood for uprightness. A very big tree had fallen. It is a colossal loss to Nigeria.”
Chief Morah Ekwunoh, a legal practitioner, pointed out that the death of Justice Eso was like a burnt national archive or library, adding “all his revolutionary ideals, as encapsulated in judicial pronouncements and post- retirement national roles, which he brought to bear, as a leading light, during his time, particularly at the Supreme Court, and thereafter, till he died, appear to go in flames.”
Ekwunoh noted that the late judge represented Lord Denning of our time, as he introduced monumental judicial activism into our jurisprudence, which revolutionalised our judicial activism, adding “No lawyer worth his salt or onion sought vital judicial precedents, in aid of his case, without particularly seeking for the erudite pronouncements of Justice Kayode Eso, for guidance and direction.”
He stressed that on the personal side, the late judge epitomised excellence, which he, among countless others, benefited from, on numerous occasions, saying “he will be greatly missed, though we thank God that he will still be speaking to, and guiding, the legal world, even from the grave, through his countless pronouncements, which dot all our notable Law Reports.”
Late Justice Eso, who died at the age of 87, was born on September 18, 1925 at Ilesa, in Osun State, Nigeria. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Law with Hons Degree in Legal Science in 1953 and a Masters in 1956.
The late justice had stayed more in the United Kingdom than Nigeria after his retirement, returned home in October this year, to receive his country’s belated honor, Commander of the Order of the Niger, CON. He received LL.D honoris Causa, University of Ibadan: 1990, and University of Nigeria, Nsukka: 2001, respectively.
The late justice, father of Judicial Activism in Nigeria, was also decorated last December by civil society groups in Lagos, with the honor of the Defender of Anti-corruption. His celebrated landmark judgments speak for themselves, for example, “The mystery gunman case, which is the trial of Wole Soyinka over his role in a broadcast, which the government of the defunct Western Region of Nigeria termed offensive. Justice Eso returned a verdict of not guilty on Soyinka, and shortly after the judgment, was transferred from Ibadan to Akure, then regarded as a rural station.”
Another celebrated case is that of Chief Obafemi Awolowo Vs Alhaji Shehu Shagari, in 1979, which remains green in Nigeria’s jurisprudence. The apex court in deciding the law relating to election cases had by a majority of 6-1, affirmed the election of Alhaji Shagari as duly elected President. However, the courageous decision of Justice Eso in this case remains legendary. In his dissent opinion, Justice Eso held that at least two-third of 19 states could only be 13 and not 12 2/3.”
But like the saying “Death is the condition of higher and more fruitful life,” so late Justice Eso is wished, knowing that death was the only kept promise out of all life’s starts and ends, all there was at the end of the dusty road.