Honourable Justice Kayode Eso has come and gone and fittingly, much ink has flowed in the acknowledgement of his service to the legal profession and to mankind. His gargantuan contribution to our jurisprudence has been appropriately chronicled and will bear no repetition.
However, as an African adage reminds us, ‘a big snake can only be killed with a very big stick or cudgel.’ Placed in an appropriate context, Honourable Justice Kayode was no vermin but his judicial might only makes the adage relevant in the sense that his life and times will continue to be x-rayed until the eulogies and encomiums are exhausted.
After all, at all stages in the growth of the legal profession in Nigeria, we have had ‘Lilliputians’ and ‘Brobdingnagians’. Those who have read Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ will at once recognise that His Lordship, Hon. Justice Kayode Eso, now deceased, was not a ‘Lilliputian’.
In that context therefore, although so much has already been said and written about that colossus, not all, I dare say, has been said- at least from my point of view. Having worked with him at some point in my career, it is my intention to offer further insight into the life and times of that special lawyer and jurist who worthily stamped his authority through judicial dicta and unassailable pronouncements on the colours that justice should wear.
Having refrained from joining the fray once the news of his Lordship’s demise broke, where should one start? Much has already been written about his undoubted discipline on and off the Bench and on his fidelity to the law. As I said elsewhere in an appraisal of the abiding hallmark of judicial office:
“There is no better way to begin than to make reference to the speech delivered by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone, on the retirement of the late but great Lord Denning as Master of the Rolls. He said:
‘…without him, things will never be quite the same again. I like to think that notwithstanding his retirement our period of creativity will not quite come to an end, still less relapse more into quiescence. But Master of the Rolls, we shall miss you.
We shall miss your passion for justice, your independence and quality of thought, your liberal mind, your geniality, your unfailing courtesy to colleagues, to counsel and to litigants in person, who, like the poor, are always with us, particularly in the Court of Appeal. Above all, we shall miss you and your unflagging and effervescent enthusiasm.’
A tribute by the Lord Chancellor cannot be taken lightly. His reference to judicial attributes such as ‘independence and quality of thought’, ‘liberal mind’, ‘geniality’, ‘unfailing courtesy to colleagues, to counsel and to litigants in person’, ‘gift of friendship’ and ‘unflagging enthusiasm’ speak volumes. They emphasise and underpin, more or less, the belief of must jurists that one of the basic principles which underline rules of judicial conduct is the integrity of the adjudicator’”
Would any of these epithets apply to the deceased jurist? The answer is an emphatic Yes! His mien on the Bench, based on an array of accounts by lawyers who appeared before him, will be better illustrated by reference to what has been said about another distinguished but dearly departed jurist, Lord Goddard. It is said that:
“An appearance before Lord Goddard was more troublesome to the stomach than a dawn attack on a heavily defended enemy position. When Sir Walter Maerkton rose to move that the Editor of the Daily Mirror be committed to prison for contempt, he was one of the most distinguished leaders of the Bar and one of the foremost men in the country. His hands were shaking uncontrollably behind his back.
Was this just ordinary nerve, or possibly the consequence of a hangover? A glance at Lord Goddard put these thoughts out of one’s mind. A gleam of light shone directly upon the hunched figure of the Lord Chief Justice. The large court seemed to be quaking under the impact of his personality.
Not only the assembled Directors of the Daily Mirror but everyone else held their breath. When called upon to stand up, the Editor sat immobile with fear abd had to be pushed to his feet by Counsel, Valentine Holmes. The crisp prison sentences and equally crisp warnings of the newspaper’s Directors followed. One left the Court in no do
ubt of the majesty of the law.”
Although no comparison with any other jurist, dead or alive, is necessary in order to capture his sternness while on the Bench, we need to remind ourselves about late Justice Eso’s exchanges with the late doyen of the Bar, Chief F.R.A. Williams, SAN in Architects Registration Council of Nigeria v Fassassi (Nos. 1 & 2).
The law reports clearly indicate that the late Chief Williams had undisguisedly asked for an assurance of impartiality from the Supreme Court. In response, His Lordship, in equally unmistaken terms, told the distinguished silk that the apex court would do no such thing. It was to be assumed, he emphasised, that the Supreme Court would do justice to all manner of men without affection or ill will.
Perhaps it was his penchant for doing justice and his leaning to incorruptibility that led to his appointment by the Babangida administration as the Chairman of a National Committee on Corruption and Economic Crimes. Corruption, as far back as the Babangida era, was already fingered as a demonic cankerworm which would in no time, if unchecked, consume the foundations of our economy.
I had the very distinguished privilege of serving as secretary of that Committee and to underline its determination to stem the tide of that corruption, the Federal Military Government named very eminent Nigerians from all walks of life and all critical sectors of the economy to serve on the Committee.
It is generally believed that the aftermath of the Committee’s extensive work, including the recommendations, led to the rather belated establishment of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC). In search of an answer and a solution to acute corruption, the Committee was permitted by the Federal Military Government to travel to far flung places such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Hong Kong where Commissions on corruption already existed to study their situations.
Part of the Committee’s work also resulted in a trip to Tanzania. What are my recollections? At close quarters, one could see that His Lordship had no difficulty in achieving consensus just as he could whip dissentions into line. There were no boring moments. If there was tension, a lull or a loss of momentum at the sitting, His Lordship would float a hilarious joke and would allow members to let down their hair.
Professors Cyprain Okonkwo and Adedokun Adeyemi are still alive and will bear unquestionable witness to the late jurist’s integrity, astuteness and businesslike disposition. Little wonder the Committee completed its assignment within schedule and handed in its well-articulated report in late 1989. From hindsight, the Committee’s key finding that the underpinning element of Nigeria’s woes was mainly as a result of indiscipline cannot now be faulted.
In addition, its ‘discovery’ of a major corruption-inducing malady which it called the ‘Nigerian Factor’ remains medically unassailable. The Committee led by His Lordship had an accurate diagnosis and several cures but the ubiquitous Nigerian Factor has continued to impede the efficacy of the drugs administered to cure the malignant tumour called corruption.