By Bashir Adefaka
Justice Paul Nwokedi, pioneer Chairman, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), former Chief Judge of Anambra State and retired Judge of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, played a major role in the defunct Republic of Biafra as Administrator, Awka Province. Working with a protective army rank of lieutenant colonel at that time, he joined late Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in most of the struggles before it all ended in 1970.
The retired jurist, who had a stop over in Lagos on his return from a medical break in the United States, spoke to Vanguard. Excerpts:
You were Administrator of Awka Province in Biafra. What is your own account of that era?
Ojukwu, as against what many say, was a man with kind heart. The Civil War was just an unfortunate development because nobody liked the war. But in a situation where the Ibos were being attacked and killed all over Nigeria, in most indescribable manner, you don’t expect more or less than attempt by people to defend themselves and that was what happened.
Ojukwu went into that war to defend himself and liberate the Ibos from the outrageous attacks and killings. That was what happened. The Civil War fought by the late hero was a fight to defend, he didn’t start the war.
What exactly was this issue of one Japan too much for Europe when talking about Biafra?
I can’t remember that much but I can only remember that we were sent on a mission abroad and when we got to Bulgaria or somewhere in Europe, we had a meeting to solicit support for Biafra. At the meeting they said if they support Biafra, it would mean the emergence of another Japan and that one Japan was already too much for Europe and so, that they could not afford to support Biafra and that they would rather support Nigeria.
By that they were equating Biafra to Japan because they already saw the potentials for Biafra to emerge as big as Japan if they succeeded in seceding out of Nigeria and they said it would be too much for Europe if it happened. That was it.
What was the nature of your relationship with late Odumegwu Ojukwu’s Biafran regime and how did you become a lieutenant colonel in the now defunct republic?
As an administrator, governing Awka Province, I was meant to play an army role and so I was given the protective rank of lieutenant colonel. It was a political office quite alright but it was also meant to play army role and so they felt the best way to support that office like others was to give the administrator the protective rank, which I was given.
How did you start out together with Ojukwu?
We all started out in Lagos. Ojukwu attended King’s College and I went to St. Gregory’s College. We were all friends but he was best of friend to my brother, the late Igwe Charles Nwokedi and that was the relationship.
How would you describe human rights under Abacha, Obasanjo and now?
I have not participated in national activities for quite sometimes now and so I leave comment on that to those in the system.
As Chairman, National Human Rights Commissioner that you pioneered, you were alleged to have turned your eyes to the other side while the Head of State, General Sani Abacha was busy abusing the rights of many. What is your take on that?
Do you have one example to show? Just produce one example of one person, whose rights was being abused by the Head of State and I turned my eyes away from it. Then I will be able to give my comment. As far I am concerned, I am hearing this from you for the first time and so I am not aware of that during my time.
Just for the record, I happened to be the first chairman to steer the affairs of the National Human Rights Commission under the Abacha regime. When I was there, a human rights delegation visited me and they told me that I was appointed by Abacha and that their fear was that I was going to be pro-Abacha.
I then asked them if the Chief Judge of Britain was not appointed by the Prime Minister of the country that did that mean the chief judge would not support the Prime Minister? They answered no. I said, “Well, I am here for the truth and nothing but the truth and that no matter who you are, what I would do I must do.” And the delegation went back to meet Abacha and told him that he had got the right person to head the National Human Rights Commission.
On his own side, General Abacha invited me and asked what I needed and I said nothing. Abacha wanted to give me oil well but for what reason should I sell my conscience for the good of this world which was going to be temporary?
Rejection of oil well offer
I rejected the oil well offer by Abacha. As a matter of fact, I never enriched myself by virtue of the many positions I had served in this country, not even as Judge of East Central State or Chief Judge of Anambra State or Judge of the Supreme Court. I went in there not a rich man and I came out of the place exactly the way I was when I went in.
How did you become a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria?
I had practiced Law for about 17 years or so and I was appointed a Judge of East Central State when they were trying to reorganize Nigeria. Then when the East Central State was split into Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi and Imo, I was made Chief Judge of Anambra. 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 Court of Appeal?
I didn’t have to got to the Court of Appeal because my judgments were thee 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 of Nigeria.
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.
What was your attitude to justice delivery as a judge in your days at the bench?
It didn’t matter to me who you were,. Even whether you were my mother or my father, I would deliver my judgment. Whether you were related to me or you were a friend or enemy, it didn’t mean anything to me. I delivered my judgments, straight and clear.