Nigeria mourns as two of its senior citizens, Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa, retired Supreme Court Justice, and Michael Otedola, former governor of Lagos State, succumb to death
| By Olu Ojewale | May 19, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT
EVEN though they were already advanced in age, the death of Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, and Michael Otedola, former governor of Lagos State, struck Nigerians like lightning bolts. For Oputa, it was not just the death of one man, it was the passing away of the last survivor of the golden era justices of the Supreme Court. He died in Abuja on Sunday, May 4, aged 93, while recovering from a stroke. Oputa, who was popularly known as ‘Socrates’ among his peers at the Supreme Court had, as colleagues, the likes of Justice Kayode Eso, Justice Nnaemeka Aniagolu, Justice Otutu Obaseki and Justice Babatunde Craig, who made up the golden era.
Charles Oputa aka Charlie Boy, eldest son of the late jurist, who announced the death of his father, appealed to Nigerians not to mourn but to celebrate the passage to glory. President Goodluck Jonathan said in his condolence message to members of the deceased family, that they should be comforted by the fact that the jurist had led a fulfilled life. The statement of the president issued by Reuben Abati, his special adviser on media and publicity, said the late justice would always be remembered for some of his works at the Supreme Court and especially for his celebrated chairmanship of Nigeria’s Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission 14 years ago. The statement said in part: “The President believes that Justice Oputa will always be honoured now and in posterity for having served the nation as a most distinguished and courageous jurist who made very significant and indelible contributions to the advancement of Nigerian jurisprudence. President Jonathan is confident that although Justice Oputa has now left the world of the living, the late jurist will be long remembered for his spirited legal activism and will continue to serve as a splendid role model for present and future generations of Nigerian judges.”
In a similar tribute, Atiku Abubakar, former vice-president and a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, APC,described the death of Oputa as cutting off from a huge branch from the nation’s judicial iroko tree. Abubakar also described him as a man of extraordinary courage and of profound knowledge on account of which he was famously branded the “Socrates of the Supreme Court.”
According to Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State, Oputa would always be remembered as an exceptional jurist who sacrificed his time, knowledge and energy for Nigeria and the rule of law. In a statement signed by Felix Ofou, press secretary to the governor, Uduaghan described him as a judge who was fearless, bold and courageous, while ensuring that the rights of the poor, deprived and defenceless were further protected. Uduaghan recalled some of the landmark judgements of the late Supreme Court justice, while serving on the bench which, he noted, have continued to stand the test of time. “His judgements have stood the test of time and like a good wine, are eternal epitaphs from which our laws draw inspiration and are admired. The philosophy and wisdom behind his judgements make them almost infallible. The governor further recalled fond memories spent with the radical legal luminary at the instance of showbiz maestro and music legend, Charlie Boy, who is the son of Justice Oputa. Everyone knows Charlie Boy is my friend and through him, I shared a special bond and relationship with the late justice who ultimately also became a father to me.” Uduaghan said the legal profession and the entire country was affected by the death notwithstanding that he lived a fulfilled life and asked God to grant all, including the immediate family, the fortitude to bear the loss.
Some legal luminaries have been reacting to the death of Oputa, describing it as a colossal loss. Funke Adekoya, SAN, said: “The Bar and Bench have lost another icon, our own Lord Denning. He was one of the greatest philosopher judges Nigeria has produced and his judgments always displayed an interplay between law and morality. He has gone to rest, but remains with us through his judgments and legal writings.” Echoing Adekoya’s sentiment, Yusuf Ali, SAN, said: “Justice Oputa’s death is a great loss, not only to Nigeria and Nigerians but to the Commonwealth nations. He was a renowned jurist, who was cast in the mode of Lord Denning. He was classified with first class brain. There was no legal problem he could not tackle. He was extraordinary and also an orator, who could not be waved aside. He will be solely be missed by all.”
Oputa was born on September 22, 1920 in Oguta, Imo State. He was educated at Sacred Heart School, Oguta and Christ the King College, Onitsha, Anambra State. Thereafter, he went to Yaba Higher College, Lagos, but due to the exigencies of the World War 11, he was sent along with others to the famous Achimota College, Ghana, then Gold Coast. There he graduated B.Sc (Hons) Economics in 1945. After this he returned to Nigeria and took up a teaching appointment at Calabari National College. He later worked as an Assistant District Officer in Lagos. While residing in Lagos, Oputa studied at home and obtained a bachelor’s degree in History. Oputa then proceeded to London where he got his law degree and was called to the English Bar in Gray’s Inn, London.
On his return to Nigeria, Oputa went into private practice, handling such celebrated cases and special inquiries as the Oguta Chieftaincy dispute 1958/ 59, the Amanyanabo Dispute 1956/ 60 and many more. In 1966, he was appointed a high court judge of the then Eastern Nigeria and later became the first chief judge of Imo State 10 years later. In 1984, he was appointed justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He retired from the bench of the Supreme Court in 1989.
While the nation was still grappling with the death of Oputa, Otedola also died on Monday, May 5, at the age of 88. The former governor was said to have died of a stroke-related ailment, which kept him from public functions for the past five years. Doja Otedola, widow of the deceased, announced the death, saying “Sir Michael Agbolade Otedola passed away this morning at 88. Funeral arrangements will be announced later by the family.” Governor Raji Fashola of Lagos State, has ordered that flags in the state should fly at half staff for seven days in honour of and in remembrance of the service rendered by the late politician to the state.
While extolling the late governor, Fashola said that his record of service could be seen speaking for him. “The Centre of Excellence that we proudly proclaim today was his choice when he was invited among other governors to chose a sobriquet for Lagos and that will remain evergreen in our memory. The housing estates he started – some of which he completed and others completed by his predecessor – the contributions he made to the development of the state are appropriately documented,” the governor said.
Fashola also prayed for the peaceful repose of the deceased, just as he expressed the sympathy of the state government to members of the Otedola family, especially his wife, and his children who, he said, were his childhood friends.
Ahmed Tinubu, Fashola’s predecessor in office, described the death of Otedola as a big loss to Nigeria. “Though 87 years, his passing away is still a big loss. I pray that God will comfort his family and stand by them. They must be comforted in the knowledge that Baba played his part well and the rest is now left to all of us.” Tinubu acknowledged Otedola’s tenure as a governor saying though it was short, it witnessed some progress. “He brought stability to our state and maturity to our politics. He was quite unassuming and an individual one would always want to have in the room and on his side. He was a key player in shaping the politics of Lagos State and Lagos will never forget him. His philanthropy is almost legendary just as his devotion to serving humanity and God was unwavering.
Razak Atunwa, speaker of the Kwara State House of Assembly, described Otedola’s death as a great loss to Nigeria. Atunwa, in a statement by Abdul-Rahman Sanni, his media aide, described that Otedola as a foremost nationalist and a democrat par excellence who contributed significantly to the socio-economic and political emancipation of not only Lagos State but Nigeria as a whole. According to the speaker, the deceased would be remembered for being a bridge builder.
In the same vein, Gbenga Ashafa, a serving senator and vice-chairman, Senate Committee on Housing, Lands and Urban Development, expressed shock over Otedola’s demise. In a statement, Ashafa said the former governor was an elder statesman who served the state with commitment while in office. He said Otedola was a true legend whose impact would be felt greatly by his immediate family, Epe people and Lagos in general.
Otedola, a Third Republic governor of Lagos State on the platform of the defunct National Republican Convention, NRC, between January 1992 and November 1993, was born in Epe, Lagos State, on July 16, 1926. After his formal education in Epe, he won a scholarship to read journalism at the Regent Polytechnic, London, and graduated in 1958. When he returned to Nigeria in 1959, he worked as an information officer in the Western Nigeria Government and was later appointed the editor of the Western Nigeria Illustrated. In 1961, he moved to the Western Nigeria Television/Western Broadcasting Service, and in 1964, he joined Mobil Oil Group of companies. After he left the company in 1977, he continued as a consultant to Mobil Oil before joining the political train. The late elder statesman is the father of Femi Otedola, billionaire owner of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited.