19 November 2012

Nigeria: Kayode Eso, 1925-2012 - Exit of a Judicial Activist


Justice Babakayode Eso, who died on Friday morning at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, was one of the nation's greatest legal minds. A celebrated jurist who is known for his just and moral lifestyle, Justice Eso's exploits dated back to the colonial time when he defended black miners in Jos while they were protesting the discriminatory practices of the British colonial authorities.

Justice Eso started his formative years in the public service. He assisted in the establishment of the legal department of the civil service for the Western Region during the politically turbulent Akintola years, and the controversial Western Nigeria Court of Appeal. He made a number of landmark judgements including the "mystery gunman case" involving Wole Soyinka who was alleged to have taken over a government-owned radio station armed with a handgun and compelled the staff to make a certain broadcast which the government found offensive. Eso returned a not-guilty verdict and, not long after, he was transferred to Akure which was seen then as a rural station.

As a Supreme Court judge, Eso delivered a total of 463 judgements, 390 of which were concurring judgements, 69 lead judgements and four dissenting judgements. One of them was the unforgettable, celebrated case of Chief Obafemi Awolowo Vs Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1979. The apex court, in deciding the law relating to election cases, had, by a majority of 6-1, affirmed the election of Alhaji Shagari as duly elected president. However, in a show of sheer courage, Justice Eso dared to be different. His decision in this case gave him a legendary image. In his dissent opinion, Justice Eso held that two-thirds of 19 states could only be 13 and not 12 2/3.

Described by Justice Eugene Ubaezonu of the Court of Appeal as a strong protagonist of judicial activism and the Lord Denning of Nigeria, Eso refused to be tied to the apron strings of bad statutes or bad decisions. His activism did not dim with age. He was a member of the 28-man judicial reform panel set up by the immediate past chief justice of Nigeria, Dahiru Musdapher, last year. He also headed the Rivers State Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 2008 and 2009.

Justice Eso ranks high in the pantheon of forthright, erudite and courageous judges whose views on national issues were not only respected but deified. In recognition of his sagacity and ethical inclinations, the late jurist received several awards and honours. He is Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) and recipient of LL.D (honoris causa), University of Ibadan, 1990, and University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 2001.

The late Justice Eso was born on September 18, 1925, in Ilesa, Osun State. He holds both a Bachelor's and a Master of Laws degrees from the Trinity College in Dublin. The courageous legal luminary is survived by his wife Helen, two children - Funmilayo and Olumide - and five grandchildren.

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