By Awa Kalu

Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, formerly Judge of the High Court of Niger State, and of the Court of Appeal and until December 31, 2009, the Chief Justice of Nigeria – the foremost Judge in our nation – has braced the tape in the typical tradition of long distance runners; successful but not tired. Justice Kutigi’s story unfolded at a valedictory session held in his honour by the Supreme Court of Nigeria on January 20, 2010.

As is usual on such occasions, there were speeches by the current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu,  the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Michael Aondoakaa, SAN. Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, spoke on behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria while the speech of the Nigerian Bar Association was read by its 2nd National Vice-President on behalf of Chief Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN, National President of the Association. The valedictorian himself also read a speech.

It is perhaps necessary to indicate that at such sessions, the speakers more often than not, allude to several matters of national interest. In that connection, the speech by eminent Senior Advocate, Chief Wole Olanipekun stoked the embers in such matters as the procedure for the appointment of Senior Advocates, the calls for scrapping the rank entirely and the refusal of the powers that be to diversify appointments to the Supreme Court Bench.

The leaned Senior Counsel did not shrink from denigrating those who tend to shred the reputation of our Judges while matters before them are subjudice. It will also be beneficial to refer tangentially to the spat between the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association which resulted in brief exchanges in the speeches delivered at the valedictory session.

Justice Kutigi in his speech recalled that he was ‘born in the ancient towns of Nupe-speaking Kutigi, which is about 50 kilometres from Bida in Niger State, on December 31, 1939’. His father was a ‘self subsisting farmer… a stern disciplinarian who was never tired of teaching his children the virtues of morality and the fear of Allah in all our dealings’.

Similarly recalled that his mother Hajiya Fatima was a devoted house wife and a devout Muslim. Justice Kutigi’s education took him through several schools including Niger Provincial Secondary School, Bida where he ‘first came into contact with leadership responsibilities’, having regard to his appointment as Head Boy or School Captain. His Lordship was in that school with the likes of General Ibrahim Babangida, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Colonel Sani Bello, Late General Mamman Vatsa, General Gado Nasko, General Inua Wushishi, General Duba, General Magoro, General Sani Sami, Emir of Zuru, Alhaji Muhammed Awwal Ibrahim, Emir of Suleja, etc.

His Lordship’s thirst for knowledge took him ‘to the prestigious Government College Zaria (now Barewa College Zaria) for the Higher School Certificate which was then being introduced in Northern Nigeria for the first time’. His Lordship confessed that his admission into Barewa College was ‘a dream come true.

It was every student’s dream from the then Northern Nigeria to attend this school, as only the best brains from the region then got admission to this College’. Justice Kutigi was also spotted as a man with a mission and was saddled once more with leadership responsibilities having again been appointed the House Captain of his Boarding house. Late Air Marshall Ibrahim Aifa was the house prefect. In Bida and Zaria, His Lordship’s endurance was tested to the fullest in that he was ‘a long distance runner’.

His Lordship recalled that he competed in ‘1 mile, 880 yards and 440 yards’ and ‘in Bida, I held school records in 1 mile and 880 yards. Perhaps, in the good old days those races would be classified as ‘long distance’ but in these days of races in 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 metres and even the marathon, he would have been at best a middle distance runner.

His Lordship’s speech revealed that he had classmates who have equally distinguished themselves in different fields of endeavour. The story of very many persons always reveals that stroke of luck that invariably directs one to his destiny. His Lordship’s story in that respect is not different. His sojourn through legal training started as an accident.While in Kaduna to take up appointment as an Assistant Executive Officer in the then Northern Nigeria Ministry of Finance, His Lordship was informed that an interview was about to be held for a legal officer’s course at the Lugard Hall, Kaduna.

Having not applied for the interview, he was reluctant to go through the process except that those who persuaded him to do so were senior civil servants and there being no representation from the then Niger Province, he felt duty bound to attend. In the final result, His Lordship attended the course at the Institute of Administration of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in the company of eminent judicial personalities such as Justice Timothy Oyeyipo (rtd.)- one time longest serving Chief Judge of Kwara State; Justice Umaru Abdullahi, – recently retired President of the Court of Appeal. His legal training took him further through the school of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and between 1963 and 1965, he found himself at the Inns of Court School of Law and almost simultaneously attended the Gibson & Weldon College of Law.

His Lordship was called to the English Bar at the Lincoln’s Inn on July 20, 1965. After a stint at the Nigerian Law School, he was admitted to practice at the Bar in Nigeria on July 22, 1966. His Lordship enjoyed a distinguished career in public service which started by his appointment as a Pupil State Counsel a few days after his call to the Bar.

This may be contrasted with the current experience of new wigs whose job quest cannot easily be accommodated in an economy that is continuously shrinking. Having climbed to the pinnacle of the ladder in the Ministry of Justice, His Lordship found himself in a position where he was fondly referred to as “3 in 1” by his Colleagues in the Executive Council of Admiral Murtala Nyako, the then Military Governor of Niger State.

This nickname arose from the fact that at that stage of his career he was at one and the same time the Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary of the Niger State Ministry of Justice, Director of Public Prosecution and also doubled as Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice. What an enriching experience this must have been. His Lordship was appointed a Judge of the Niger State High Court on a unique date  of October 1, 1976.

One always had the impression that that date was reserved only for the celebration of our Independence from our colonial masters but in the instant case, a gift was presented to the judiciary-the appointment of a Judge who would later become the Chief Justice of the country.  It was also in the month of October, in another year (1980) that His Lordship was elevated to the Court of Appeal alongside late Justice Dosunmu, late Justice Olajide Olatawura and Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte. Apart from Justice Dosunmu who retired at the Court of Appeal, Justices Olatawura and Karibi-Whyte retired from the Supreme Court.

In that sense, Justice Kutigi always enjoyed good company. After an interesting period in the Court of Appeal (twelve long years), his elevation to the apex Court came on the 12th of February 1992. He served on the Supreme Court Bench for eighteen years including the period he served the nation as its Chief Justice i.e. from January 18, 2007 to December 31, 2009 when he retired having attained the mandatory age of seventy.

The only other point to note is that Justice Kutigi joked about his marriage to his two strikingly beautiful wives – the first was married for him by his parents while he married the second by himself! In the next instalment, we will examine whether it is right to require Judges to retire compulsorily at a particular age and we will also examine some of His Lordship’s judgments while at the apex court.

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