By Awa Kalu, San
Hon. Justice Niki Tobi, late Justice of the Supreme Court, was notably a simple man – so simple that he was known without any epithet but addressed only as NIKI TOBI! I can’t recall any other Judge within our judicial firmament who was addressed so simply, without any titular adornment or embroidery.
Nonetheless, he was learned and of robust intellect. His sojourn through academics, the bench of the High Court of Rivers State, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, left no one in doubt that he was a Jurist for the ages, that is, a Judge who understood not just the Law and its interstices but acknowledged the need to deploy the Law for the attainment of Justice and as a veritable tool for social change.
He was wise and clever, brilliant, assertive but unassuming. He knew when to interrupt an unwarranted and long winding submission and had sufficient “language power” not only to express himself but to deliver his numerous Judgments – whether leading, concurring, dissenting – in a telling manner leaving no iota of doubt as to what had been decided. The Nigerian Judiciary, even from pre-independence, has had its shinning stars and Niki Tobi, now of blessed memory, was one of them.
Little wonder, the encomia have been pouring in for several weeks. Justice Niki Tobi would have turned 76 in the month of writing this tribute, July, 2016. We now mourn him after his passing on June 19, 2016, nearly a month before the anniversary of his birthday. Yet, his was a star we all hoped would never wane, such was the fire and the zest with which he illuminated what legal problems on which he was tasked to shed light.
On that note, we can look back on his legacy and at the work he left behind, the many erudite pages of coruscating legal insight which reverberated in many a chamber of justice, and conclude that, though he has passed on, his light will always be with us.
Justice Niki Tobi was born on July 14, 1940 in the riverine community of Esanma in what is now Delta State, into a stable family. Perhaps, Niki Tobi was one high profile Nigerian, who was tossed from one state to another on account of boundary adjustments which at one time located his state of origin somewhere in Rivers State and at another, in Delta State.
He was called to the Bar in 1970. His stint in practice was short but allowed for his engagement with a variety of legal issues as he was counsel at the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Customs and Excise between 1971 and 1976. At that point he returned to academia to take on the role of Don at the University of Maiduguri and in that vantage position groomed several world class legal practitioners who are still active.
While he sojourned at the University of Maiduguri,I was fortunate to have met him shortly before his elevation to the bench of the High Court of Rivers State, in or about 1985. Before that, he made a quick climb up the ladder to become Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Maiduguri where, as an already-celebrated master of the theoretical underpinnings of the law, he was able to hold forth on a broad range of issues.
He would also, in his time in Maiduguri, act as Vice Chancellor of the university. This training in scholarly research and rigorous study brought with it the antecedent advantages of a sound understanding of the dogma, doctrine and doggerel of the law. It prepared Justice Niki Tobi for his ascent to the apex court in Nigeria, our own Supreme Court, in 2002, after twelve years sitting as a judge at the Court of Appeal to which he was appointed in 1990.
He would eventually spend eight years as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, cutting and shaping the text and texture of our jurisprudence with numerous acclaimed decisions on matters affecting the rights of Nigerian people and the constitution of the Nigerian state.
Of his mastery of the law, there was no doubt. And, in his willingness to look beneath the surface of a claim or an appeal to ascertain the proper construction of issues presented to the courts, he was peerless. He found prominence in an age of economy in the use of words- a practice which is advocated by every coach on legal style in common law jurisdictions.
Somehow, he managed to deliver his judgments in florid but highly resonant prose resembling the work of late American Supreme Court Justice, Benjamin Cardozo. Still, he did not alienate his audience. Lawyers from all over Nigeria have paid tribute to his reasoning and his erudition, accepting as a quirk his tendency to be elaborate when a word or two might have been sufficient.
It is to the exhortations of Justice Niki Tobi that many young lawyers will first turn today when seeking to be guided on their conduct in litigation. I helped publish his manual for the new wig- The Nigerian Lawyer- a handbook on conduct and practice in the legal profession which was released several years ago and remains in currency.
Up till the present day, I continue to give out copies of that book to newly called barristers who happen to come under my supervision. I confess my immense satisfaction with the quality of advice dispensed within its pages and its terse instruction for lawyers just learning the ropes. It makes my job much easier to be able to point in the direction of the late great jurist’s wisdom.
Of course, experienced practitioners would equally have found themselves engrossed in his words on many an occasion. Landmark judgments in law reports emanating from the nib of his pen sit on the bookshelves of law firms up and down the land. There is the famous lead decision in the case of Inakoju v Adeleke ( 4 N.W.L.R (pt.1025)423] delivered while he was at the Supreme Court.
Trite principles of law recapitulated in that judgment already make the case a monument of legal precedent yet it is in the novel principles encapsulated by Late Justice Niki Tobi that the decision shines. Dilating on the scurrilous nature of impeachment proceedings which had erupted at the time, and in particular on ‘Ladoja’s Case’ as that particular matter came to be known, the late jurist stated that.