“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”—Winston Churchill.
I write this piece not to mourn you sir, but to celebrate you – your life and times.
How do I begin? To access a big masquerade, an onlooker does not stand in one spot, arms akimbo. He must gyrate around with its sprightly and deft steps. He must leap if need be. But this was perhaps only possible within the rusty playground of Iviukwe, my community (now a big city), where I grew up.How do I describe a behemoth masquerade that scales bridges, leaps across swathes of forested lands, or dances on rooftops? Perhaps, the helpless onlooker would only waddle in wonderment, muttering borrowed incantations and wishing he could do likewise with such dexterity. This is my dilemma in writing this ode for Chief Kolawole Shola Okeaya-Inneh, SAN.
Much has been written about you, o sage, legal giant and erudite scholar, making me wonder where to start from. Suffice it to say that you were a lawyer’s lawyer; a quintessential Bar-man; a mentor to a generation of younger members of the profession. You were a fine gentleman and one of the foremost elders of the Bar; indeed, the leader of the Bar in the entire South-South. Calpurnia, wife of Julius Caesar, in William Shakespeare’s eponymous opus, Julius Caesar, once intoned, “When beggars die there are no comets seen: the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes”. These words fit you squarely sir – a case of res ipsa loquitur. So, permit me, sir, to speak to you directly and conversationally as “you”; not in the third person.
Born over three scores and seven years ago, you were discovered very early in college by your tutors; especially the Reverend J. S. Adeniyi, the College Principal, who showed you the path of Law. You took the hint and pursued the path astutely. In 1963, you were called to the Bar. Thenceforth,the epic story of one of the most successful law careers in Africa kick-started. You practised law across Nigeria and made a mark quite early in life. What with your adroitness, experience of the workings of the courts system and; and your savvy at cultivating relationships across all divides.What with your polished diplomatic credentials; your abiding interest in the welfare of the downtrodden, to mention but a few. On 13th April, 1984, in the midst of one of the most tyrannical and despotic military juntas in Africa, you took silk, becoming one of the first Senior Advocates of Nigeria from the South-South of Nigeria. Your peers were Chief Toye Coker, Chief M.A. Agbamuche, Chief T. I. Onafowokan and Chief Fidelis Nwadialo. Your only seniors of the Silk from the South-South were Dr. Mudiaga Odje (1978), Dr. Okoi Arikpo (1980), Chief M. O. Akpofure (1981), Chief Effiom Ekong (1982), and Chief Gally Brown-Peterside. To be one of the first seven Senior Advocates to have emerged from the entire South-South comprising of six states was certainly no mean feat. You carried on admirably, nurturing young men; building young women and raising generations of Jurists and Advocates across the nooks and ceanies of Nigeria. You were a bottomless fountain of inspiration to me and other Edolites, lnay Bendelites.
My first closest encounter with you at the Bar was at the temporary Federal High Court (FHC), Abuja,when we crossed legal swords in the causa cèlèbre, President of the Senate v. Nzeribe (2004) 9 NWLR (Pt. 878) 251. This was before Justice Stephen Adah (as he then was; now a Supreme Court Justice-designate). In that case, the Plaintiff, Senator Nzeribe, had challenged his suspension from the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly barely six months to the end of his term. I remember vividly, your epoch-making application that clement Thursday morning on 9th January, 2003 (nearly twenty-one years ago). You argued that your Originating Summons be heard together with my Preliminary Objection challenging the jurisdiction of the court to hear the matter. I vehemently opposed your application for ‘merger of proceedings’ (a step that appeared novel and strange then), which sought to save judicial time owing to the urgency of the matter. The court delivered a ruling, upholding your position. Your argument was that in some cases, a court can exercise its discretion to hear an application challenging the court’s jurisdiction together with the Originating Summons to save time, rather than taking the application separately from the substantive suit, and then delivering two decisions- a separate ruling and judgement, respectively. I disagreed and headed for the Court of Appeal. My argument was that such application must be taken separately from the main case and ruled upon first, one way or the other. The Court of Appeal, in a unanimous judgement, coram Justices George Adesola Oguntade, JCA, Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa, JCA and Albert Gbadebo Oduyemi, JCA (as they then were), upheld your argument. I vividly recall that during the FHC proceedings,you led your son, a very brilliant lawyer, now a silk, Ade Okeaya-Inneh. This recherche pronouncement of the appellate court was so profound that it would later be grafted onto the new Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules, 2009, which revoked the old 2000 Rules, to stabilize the law in this respect. The case also established the power of the court to determine disputes arising from the “exclusive domain and domestic arena (internal affairs)” of the Legislature, and the principle that impeachment proceedings are sui generis,of which time is of the essence.
So abstruse and arcane was this point of law which we threw up that the Supreme Court went ahead and cited its principle with approval, in both Inakoju v. Adeleke & 3 Ors (2007) 1 SC (Pt. 1.) 1; and Dapianlong & 5 Ors v. Dariye & Anor (2007) 4 SC (Pt. 111) 118. There is no better elegy to be paid to you sir.
Your deep understanding of the law was matched only by your uncommon passion for social justice,equity and equality. That was whom you were sir.
Chief, you bestrode the length and breadth of the legal space in Nigeria like a colossus, championing the cause of justice and the oppressed. You won numerous landmark cases reported in law reports. You were one of the few courageous legal gladiators that rose up in law (not in arms; well, law is a very effective weapon for the engineering of society- Prof Dean Roscoe Pound), against the then government of Bendel State. You fought it for unconstitutionally arresting and detaining your client, who was consequently freed. This story is archived in the annals of our legal history. You hated corruption with considerable passion and avoided it and its perpetrators like the Bubonic plague. In your own words: “I was the first lawyer to expose corruption in the judiciary. I did a case and won. Three judges who became corrupt surreptitiously changed my judgement to 4,000 pounds. I went straight to the Head of State, General Ramat Muritala Muhammed, to complain and they were disciplined accordingly.” Not many would have possessed the balls (sorry, guts), to beard the lion in its den.You had no traces of condescension or superciliousness; nor were you patronizing. On the contrary, you were fearless and rightly famed (and admired) for your bluntness, even-handedness, equanimity and geniality.
Throughout our years of interaction both in and outside the courtroom, I only saw you lose your temper just once- during the hot proceedings in the said Nzeribe case. Those were the beautiful days when forensic advocacy was allowed and encouraged. Not anymore! Now it is “simply adopt your brief and don’t waste our time”.I never again beheld you lose your temper; not even in the face of extreme provocation. You were always suave, debonair, calm,smiling, collected, and magisterial. Never mean-spirited. I recall sir, that when the FHC rose after the Nzeribe matter, I approached you outside the court, took a bow and said, “I hope you were not crossed with my persistence which led to hot altercation between us sir”. In your usual genial disposition, you simply smiled, tapped my bent shoulders, and said, “No, I enjoyed your advocacy, young man”. Keep it up”. That incidence drew me closer to you,with awe. You were humane and generous to a fault. If the stars are to be believed, you were a typical Aquarian, having been birthed on 23rd of Janus, the god of beginnings.
To our noble profession, you bequeathed personal legacies and worthy heirs. Some were those sired in your loins (such as fecund and cerebral Hon.Justice Joy Oghogho Okeaya-Inneh of the Edo State Judiciary, Ade Okeaya-Inneh, SAN, and other illustrious children). Others were those sired under your tutelage,such as Judges, Senior Advocates, consummate Barmen and women, administrators, teachers and philosophers. These are well archived sir.
An illustrious Benin prodigy with a pan-Nigerian disposition, you used your talents and resources to build bridges. You delivered the goods of your professional and interpersonal excellence to distant corners of Nigeria,winning cases,hearts, accolades and respect.A curator and perservator of the finest human values, customs and traditions of your people, you took the troubled route that goes with pioneering academic work.This was in the rare field of ascertaining and mirroring the customary laws and age-old traditions of your people through your seminal work, “Benin Native Law and Custom at a Glance”. Is not this also there for all to see?
So, this piece is not to mourn, but to ceremonialize and celebrate the octogenarian years in your life,including the fruitful life in those years. What we have lost in your flesh, we have instantly recouped in your good deeds. Death is so silly, poor and blind that it only succeeded in filching only your flesh. It could not pilfer your good deeds. They remain undesecrated,outside death’s filthy phalanges. We thank God that it is so, for with what implement could man have unearthed good deeds interred six feet under the feet? Yours is a celebration of an illustrious life of service. Little wonder therefore that the small and the mighty are ‘mourning’ you. Great was your faithfulness to God.Accomplished was your service to man and law. Your achievements will continue to inspire generations of legal minds.Your contributions are forever etched in Nigeria.As you march on to Heaven, because of your good deeds, please sir, accept on your arrival, every offer which Jehovah extends to you, to serve as an Amicus Curiae. AMEN.
You are forever immortalized in our memories as a symbol of noble allegories, even as I hope the Edo State Government does same.
When the true story of Nigeria’s Legal Profession is written, your name will be in the top pantheons.Say me well to the following legal deities in no order of superiority: Sapara Williams, FRA williams, Gani Fawehinmi, Osobu, Aka Basorun, Akinrisola, Elias, JIC Taylor, Sowemimo, Alexander, Eso, Oputa, Nnamani, Idigbe, Udoma, Tobi, Chukwura, Fani Kayode, Awolowo, Douglas, Odje, Majiyagbe, Nwadialo, Ajibola, Agbamuche, Abdul-Razak, Peterside, Eghobamien, Ihensekhien, Nweze, Aguda, GOK Ajayi, Ogundare, Karibi-White, Olatawura, Akinjide, the Akandes, Umeadi, Akpamgbo, Olagbegi, Ibironke,etc.You will meet more. Sir, YOUR NAME was CRYSTAL CLEAR.
To your beloved family, WEEP NOT; MOURN NOT!
To all friends and well-wishers (and even random professional mourners), CRY NOT!
Chief, you have not died sir. You have merely transformed from mortality to immortality.Adieu, papa! Goodbye, sir. Fare thee well, good man.