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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #24(a)

A Meeting of the Minds
(Justice Chuwkudifu Oputa (Rtd) in Conversation with Nduka Otiono and Chris B. Ogbogbo, Ph.D., Part I)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation


Chinua Achebe

Prof. Chinua Achebe


Justice Chukwudifu Oputa

Justice Chukwudifu Oputa

Justice Chukwudifu Akunne OPUTA, 80, reminds one of a witticism attributed to the late African oral historian and philosopher, Hampate Ba -- that when an old man dies in Africa a whole library is lost. With three degrees in Economics, History and Law, and a thorough grounding in Literature and traditional lore, Oputa is a rare repository of sorts, a living human heritage.


Even at 80, his mind is unusually sharp; he would rather be an “80-year young man to a 50-year old man.” Served by a phenomenal memory, he quotes with ease passages he first read during his secondary school days at Christ the King College, CKC, Onitsha. Not surprising, then, this interview took place in his well-appointed library at his country home in Oguta, Eastern Nigeria, where he could rapidly retrieve references.


He was called to the English Bar, Gray’s Inn, in 1953, and has earned a reputation as a revered jurist, serving Nigeria in various critical panels, especially The Human Rights Violations Investigation  Commission -- The Oputa Panel and the National Political Reforms Conference. On the Sunday afternoon when NDUKA OTIONO and CHRIS OGBOGBO conducted this interview, Justice Oputa’s aristocratic carriage for which he is well known was particularly imposing, and his aesthetic taste showed in his attire. He fielded questions with disarming frankness and humour, proudly deploying his native Igbo language whenever he deemed it necessary.




Dr Ogbogbo holds a doctorate in History and a Masters degree in Law. He is a Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Ibadan, Ibadan.


Nduka Otiono is an award-winning writer, immediate past General Secretary, Association of Nigerian Authors; an associate lecturer, English Department, University of Ibadan; a journalist and a freelance publisher; and an active member of the National Committee on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural heritage.








A major landmark of your post-retirement services to the country is the Human right violations investigation commission. On October 16th 2002, the federal government declared that it could not take a decision on the recommendations of the Commission, otherwise known as the Oputa Panel; there were several court contestations of the work of the commission. Do you see yourself then as part of “an illegal panel”?


                        The word ‘illegal,’ is a bit harsh, is it not? A thing may be ‘legal’ but not, ipso

Justice Oputa

facto, constitutional. The commission was founded by a law; the mere fact that those who founded the law did so without the approval of the Legislature, is the origin of the trouble. When we [the members of the Oputa Panel] came back from
South Africa, we wrote to the President to upgrade it [the Oputa panel] to a

commission. The government did not get the message; it made no real distinctions … using the term interchangeably…referring to every panel as a commission and vice versa, and then named the Oputa Panel a Commission. This song and dance over semantics you see held great legal ramifications…particularly in the manner in which the Oputa Panel/commission would receive funding, and the degree to which its recommendations would be enforced.


The Oputa Panel was not funded by the government, which had no money, at all; it was the Ford

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Foundation and British Council that funded it. The cars we used were provided by these agencies. So, the court cases held that it [the Oputa Panel] had no constitutional base, that the President acted
ultravires his powers by establishing a commission. That was the main contention. Now, the merits or demerits of the commission were not addressed. The establishment of the commission was attacked, and the Supreme Court ruling was that the recommendations of the Commission should not be implemented.


Most of the recommendations were against certain army officers in high places, and they fought like wounded lions.  IBB (General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida) and others -- they made sure our recommendations would not be implemented. When the panel was concluded, the person who was secretary to the federal government was Alhaji Aminu Saleh. He told us to our face that the panel’s report will not see the light of day. And it didn’t, until he retired, and then somebody took over. Later, the government asked some bureacrats to simplify our findings so that they could be fully digested by those that were affected. Our findings were watered down, and that is part of history.


                        Sir, after reading your outstanding views on the rule of Law in, for example, Ojukwu versus Lagos State, one wonders at the reasons IBB and Abubakar --  two former heads of state -- were asked to appear before the panel…


They refused to, of course, and the issue arose before the commission. I was asked to have them imprisoned for disobedience. A court has the power to imprison individuals for contempt, and the refusal to answer the call of the court is contempt. But for a conviction, there must be proof that one was served a summons. Now, in many of those cases, those summonses did not go beyond the gates of the homes of the people who were being served, and serving summonses to a gate man cannot be counted as service. Service should be direct. So if you are unable to prove that a man was served, how can you say he disobeyed?


                        Couldn’t permission have been given to substitute personal service?


                        Well, permission was not asked for, and this is not something we felt the commission should concern itself with. We would not be judge and jury, in any case. Secondly, many questions have been asked about the publication of the Oputa Panel report. My response is that it was at the panel’s instigation that a public hearing was decided on; we were not bound to ordering one. And it was documented on television, so it was a public affair. We wanted to make Nigerians judge and jury of the events of those days; there was the testimony of people who were subjected to terror by the army officers. The defense of the army officers was also made public to enable people make up their own minds.


                       Critics of the panel aver that without the recommendations, the panel was merely a platform for Nigerians to vent their anger and complaints.


                        Well, that is good, isn’t it? Because one of the aims of the panel was to reconcile those who feel they were aggrieved


                        Do you think you achieved that?


                        We achieved that, at least.


                        In what sense?


Ah…ah…I remember; a soldier of higher rank was to be cross- examined by a lieutenant or a sergeant. And when he was asked a question, the soldier said, “I don’t answer questions from a private.” I laughed, and said: “You are not here as a general, you are here as a witness; you must respond to his questions, please...” And then the sergeant adjusted his expectations, and for one hour, was questioned thoroughly to show equality of all before the Law.  Now, our report is in the archives; anyone who wants to study it may do so. Researchers, of course, are allowed access to it. Many copies were made.  The President was given one, and quite a number archived for the benefit of the Nigerian public.


So, Sir, how would you compare the work of the Oputa Panel to that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa?


Err…you may check for yourself [pointing to a section of the bookshelves]… Publications on the South Africa commission are here; I have them all here…



It is now clear to me that this interview could not have taken place outside your home.


Yes, everything is all here. The truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa was something wider in scope, larger in content and funded by the government, the Legislature. A law was passed. It was on a solid constitution base, and they knew what they were after. Money was provided for research, money was provided for the sittings of the panel. And that Commission produced a report, which was destined to bring together the warring groups in South Africa, and merge them into a nation. Our panel, on the other hand, was an imitation -- and not a very good imitation -- of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As I said, the funding was half-hearted, the legislature was not involved; facilities were not available to the commission. We did go to South Africa; but there were other countries, such as Brazil, with similar commissions that we could have benefited from.  However, we did not visit these countries. But that, notwithstanding, our own instance was not on a scale as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Oputa Panel was commissioned mainly to investigate human rights abuses.



                        Would you subscribe to the characterization of the Nigerian version [of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission] as the degenerate replica of the South African ideal?


                        I don’t think ours can count as a replica, even a degenerate one. The purpose of

Justice Oputa

Justice Oputa

the South African event was reconciliation. In our own case, we were to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. I have a paper here; somebody in
Lagos or I think in Abuja…wrote something to the effect that it could only be “justice or revenge.” So I responded with “The different faces of justice.” Justice is not reserved merely for the activities of the court – that is, what takes place between prosecutors and the accused; plaintiffs and defendants. There’s something like political justice, social justice, economic justice... These are all the faces of justice. So, if the Panel tries to reconcile those who alleged that they were ill-treated by the army…and we did succeed in Ogoni…we are well within the rights of the law. In the Ogoni case, the community was split into two adversarial groups, Ogoni 5 and Ogoni 7. We were successful in the event that both Ogoni 5 and Ogoni 7 joined to become Ogoni 11, and they shook hands. The Panel had planned to go to Anambra where disputes between…

Umuleri and Aguleri?

Cases such as that… Persons came, shook hands and reconciled before the public view and the Commission. So we did achieve some measure of reconciliation between those who were aggrieved and those who were perpetrators. It was not as national as that of South Africa, where whole groups -- the blacks and the whites -- were in opposite camps. Here, we haven’t got such a similitude.


                        And then there is the question of how the Igbo have been treated, particularly with reference to the civil war. Books like Emma Okocha’s Blood on the Niger discuss serious transgressions against the rights of the Igbo. Given that you are one of the outstanding Law Lords in this country and one who chaired the Human Rights Investigations and Violations Commission, would you recognise war crimes in accordance with international law in the ordeal of Ndigbo during the war?


                        War is not a normal situation; war has its own approach to what is just, what is lawful. Now, if you are a strict humanist, to kill is wrong; but in war, to kill is right -- if you are killing the enemy. There is a moral logic that runs through human life. That logic is that we are all God’s children. We all are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same God. That people become enemies is purely by human action; a man-made description. If, in the event, enmity is taken to the extreme, will killing in war become justified? That will take us a whole day to discuss. But my final analysis is that killing is killing. Taking of life is wrong. So when we are discussing war, we are discussing a very particular circumstance -- an abnormal circumstance. Personally I don’t like wars. As a historian I know that no war settled any dispute. No war. The greatest thing one can gain by war is bargaining power. People sit round a table; the conquered and the conqueror, they sit round a table. The conqueror has more bargaining power, even though peace terms can still be tabled.


The classical Romans

Justice Oputa

Justice Oputa (right) with Barrister Ntoko at a Fako Lawyers Association event in Buea, Cameroon

said, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Pope John Paul said, no; “if you want peace work for
justice.” What is justice? Eme onye k’emerie ibe [Be fair to all]. Justice will bring peace, not war. What you sow is what you reap; simple but true. We have still not emerged from the Biafran war…you mention the Biafran war. The books that you referred to that touch on the subject -- Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War by Ralph Uwechue, Blood on the Niger and so on…I have all of them; they are all here. As a historian, one has to be up-to-date. But we are, in effect, still warring against each other with adverse effects on the entire country. Look around you; the effects of what I refer to are everywhere. So if you talk about war, you’re referring to an abnormal situation; and what people do during wartime is to excuse abnormal behavior, and try to normalize their illegitimate actions. Perhaps, you raised this issue in your interview with Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu?


How should these alleged atrocities be dealt with?


What you do during war is not likely to be the same during peace. Whether the so-called war crimes committed during the civil war have met the standards of the United Nations, I don’t know; that has to be investigated. And when they are investigated, they have to be publicly reported before they can be acted upon. Look at what is happening in Darfur, what is happening in Southern Sudan. Aha...things would have to be put in proper focus, and the Secretary General of the United Nations informed, before it is decided whether action should be taken or not. May be some of the experiences will amount to war crimes. That has to be established; but if or when that is established, what happens next?  Don’t forget: When you are on the course of a real reconciliation, it is rather dangerous to open up old wounds. I read a poem when I was much younger that went:


“Let what is broken so remain, the gods are hard to reconcile” (Laughter)… So, sometimes you create more troubles.  You may never have the correct answers.




Do you view corruption as the bane of contemporary Nigerian life?


                        A question to me on corruption may be a question to the wrong person (laughs). During the just concluded Confab, I was Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Committee. And believe me, what we heard and saw is more than what you would have read anywhere. The extent to which there is corruption in this country; the many faces and methods of corruption, the way it has permeated every nook and cranny of our national life, is horrendous, absolutely horrendous! If we are to survive, we must fight corruption to the stand still.


                        And you think this is possible?

                        Why not!


                        Given the effects of the EFCC [Economic and Financial Crimes Commission]?


The Lawyer says: before you commit a crime, first of all, think about it, form an opinion, and then put that into practice. By the way, have you read Macbeth?  



                        When the three witches meet Macbeth and hail him with new titles, including becoming the King hereafter, he expresses surprise saying, “The Thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” But not up to one mile later, the King’s messengers [Angus and Ross] come up to tell him that he has been made the Thane of Cawdor, the Thane of Cawdor having been beheaded. At the time, Macbeth was Thane of Glamis. When he later tells his wife his experience, she remarks that if the prophecies about his becoming the Thane of Cawdor have come true, the one about his becoming King will also come true.


                        It will begin to work out...

                        Exactly. Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, conceive of a plot: the King is passing the night here, I will intoxicate his guards and when the guards are asleep, we can both do in the unguarded Duncan.  But somewhat troubled, Macbeth muses: the king is my guest in double trust; first as a kinsman, and then as his host who should against his murderer shut the door, and not bear the knife myself. But his wife calls him a coward. “A soldier, you call a coward?” So to prove that he is not a coward Macbeth proceeds with their plot. On his way, he confronts an apparition: “Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle towards my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, but I see thee still, or are thou a dagger of the mind?”


There can be a dagger of the mind; urging me towards a devious deed, showing me, providing me, with the instrument to use. When Macbeth comes down from murdering the King, his wife reminds him: Did you rub blood on the attendant….go back up. He responds: I can’t go up there again, to look at those open eyes, so lifeless... Lady Macbeth then takes the sword, goes up and soon comes back with blood on her hands. “My hands are as bloody as yours,” she says; “a little water will wash us clean of this deed...“ But did it?


:                       No…

                        {Continues quoting] “Not even the whole red sea can wash the blood out of this hand…” So…


                        That’s what corruption stands for?

Yes; anyone who is corrupt will first conceive of a corrupt act in his mind, and then work out the details of its execution. Nigerians will have to do a real re-orientation of attitudes. Why are people corrupt? Total disregard of the Law and cultural expectations; because they see that you can get away with anything? If one minister is in jail, dragged around the streets for corrupt behaviour, and then another big official is put in jail, then another three or four, people will be warned.



                        Even if you give them money, they will run away, and say: “Keep your money...”


                        So would you say government is not honest enough in the fight against corruption?


:                       We are not serious. It is not a question of honesty; we are not serious. We don’t want to stop corruption. If we want to stop corruption, we will not just seek two or three imprisonments. Make it uncomfortable, make it…




                        Unattractive, yes... Nobody will do anything that will hurt him, you see.


On our way here, we met someone who gave us directions to your house. In describing you, the person used the action words Odozi Obodo [The Developer or Builder]. She told us that this description not only fits your profile at home, but abroad, in the Church, everywhere. How did you evolve your particular philosophy of life?


                        No…well, we thank God if it’s true…


:                       Well… this is somebody else’s verdict; it appears to be a general one, too. How does this woman’s assertion correspond with your philosophy of life?


                        My philosophy of life is very simple; well, as I said, everything depends on surrounding circumstances. Luckily for me, I came from a family for which money was no object. But, you know, in Oguta, we don’t value money as much as we value a good name. If your son or daughter wants to get married, the question will be --- where does your intended come from? Is he or she well educated? Somebody once told an intended suitor: I di ezu ori, I di agba’ma ma; iburo onye ajo omume ( you are not a thief, you are straightforward, you are a good person) [Laughter]. So we value that. In most cases, as in mine, the match [marriage] is made by the family.


Now that things have gone out of gear -- like Chinua Achebe says, Things have fallen apart -- you advise

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your son, he won’t take your advice; you advise your daughter, she won’t listen to you. Now, you know that
ezie afa ka ego [an honourable name is superior to riches]. I bu godu obei [even if you were a wretch] but have a good name, the rich man is more likely to say: you may marry him my daughter; he is from a good family, even if not a rich one. But these days, it seems that the only thing that counts is money. I have a book -- What money cannot buy. When you go home, list everything you can buy with money on one page, then on another page, list those things money cannot buy. You will find that the second page will be more important than the first.


                        How about longevity; can money buy that? Because the rich also die young...


                        Well, like I said, at the Kayode Eso lectures, I said that Kayode Eso is 80 years young. I prefer a man who is 80 years young to one who is 50 years old. Growing old is a bad habit that active people never want to cultivate. Well, I stay long hours here [in the study] but it doesn’t affect me.


                        Even at this age?


                        And I know where what I want is, and how to get it. When I’m asked to write a paper, all I have to do is look at what others have said on the subject. If I agree with them, I quote them; if I don’t, I challenge them. That’s how knowledge develops [laughter]. When Julius Caesar died, Anthony said:  “I’ve come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, but the good is interred with their bones.” That is why one of the songs -- are you an Anglican?... It goes, “Only remembered by what we’ve done. Only the truthful in life is spoken. These will remain when you are gone. Fruit of the harvest and what to expect...” So, we are remembered for our good or evil acts, not by the material things we left behind.




How will you compare the kind of education you received to what your grand children are receiving today?


                        What we are doing now is a travesty, unfortunately. Everything has been devalued, depreciated. Not only education, everything! May be it is man’s wont --- what you will call Ladatu temporys acti [Quotes in Latin], to praise the time that is past.


                        The glorious past…

               fact, if you compare what Nigeria was in 1960, and what it is now… Well, I wrote a paper, “I Weep for Nigeria.” [Jerome] Udoji similarly wrote a book of which one chapter was “I Weep for Nigeria,” and he gave reasons why he weeps for Nigeria. My response is that, we should read a certain poem:


I weep for Adonis’ death                                                             

Weep, melancholy mother, wake and weep                                         

Though our thirst tore not the rust which binds so dear a head


We may all weep, but does it change things? What will change things is doing something about it, not weeping. (Laughter) Things have depreciated in the country -- education, morality, every aspect of life; even religion. The Reverend Fathers and Sisters are no longer what they used to be; ditto our politicians. And the Bible is very clear on this – [slowly] no one can serve two masters. You either hate one or love the other. And it said: you cannot serve God and Mammon. Now, everybody in Nigeria today is worshipping at the altar of mammon. You are now judged by how much money you have, and not about the intelligence you have. If you go to Abuja, and come back with two cars, your parents will not ask how you got the money to buy them, but will rejoice: my son has made it.



                        Materially, but you see as I had said earlier, the body is made up of three parts: the soma, that is the flesh – the one that you put in the grave; the psyche – the mind, and the spirit; that is the part of God in us, the spirit lifts us up. Are you a Catholic?



                        Good. [In Igbo]: Virgin Maria o nne nke Chukwu ezie, onye bu Chukwu ezie, bulu madu ezie? Maka n’obu nne ke Jesu Christi. Asi kowa kenne ya ofuma.Person nki bua , nki ito na okwu ekelezia bu nke melu onwea k’obulu mmadu site ni wele onwea n’ odi nke madu k’obulu nkea…That they will be equal in merit to his divine nature, that is the main purpose of Christ; to elevate our nature, to lift it up. If you are a Catholic you can relate to this: the Reverend Father will say to the congregation, “Lift up your hearts,” and we respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” That is, translates into Igbo: Rapu kene ife nke uwa, wenyite obi gi enu … The point is that the spirit lifts us up. I was saying that when we are prosperous, we are boastful. But when we are lying down on the sick bed, facing up, we look up to God (Igbo) “Chukwu nyelum aka.” Then you remember the Lord; you ask for his help.


So, that is our fallen humanity; that is what we inherited from our first parents. If you are too body- conscious, you lose the things of the spirit, and Our Lord Jesus Christ came to lift up this fallen human nature, to lift it up as merits His own divine nature.  That was His mission…Ndi si n’fa na ka uka, o okwu ego ka fa na ekwu gide…. (Many claiming to be members of the clergy are largely after wealth.) But that is not what He came for. The name Jesus doesn’t mean somebody who is a miracle worker, no, it means Saviour, Saviour. And I have something here which is so beautiful, a solitary line, “Has not God made foolishness a wisdom of the world?”


It is also written: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews, and a falling to the gentiles, for the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men…” Thus he was born in an obscure village; he worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was 30, he then became an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family, or owned a house. He did none of the things usually associated with greatness. He had no credentials, but himself. He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies, and went through a mockery of a trial; was nailed to the cross. When he was dying, his petitioners gambled with the only property he had -- his clothing. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. 19 centuries have gone and today, Christ is still a central figure of human history. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned have not affected the life of man on planet earth like this one, solitary, life well-spent. I don’t know whether there is a crucifix around here (looks around)…it must be somewhere. Now, can you really imagine that somebody hanging on a cross has stood unshaken for 20 centuries? Rome has fallen, Greece fallen, all the ancient empires fallen, He hasn’t fallen, and He will not fall.


                        But would you say that we have more religion now, and less spirituality considering the number of churches...?


                        Of course, if you can call that religion (laughter). The idea of religion is to change the individual, morally, spiritually. This shouting [by the new churches]; does it change us? That is bastardizing religion; that is why I say, how can you say you are a Christian, and you don’t preach the cross? No way. They never preach the cross, only prosperity. [In Igbo]: E ge new nwa, e ege nwe nwunye, e ge nwe ego, ege nwe miracles. That is you’ll be blessed with a child, wife, money and miracles. Christ did not focus on miracles; he cured.  Look at the Gospel of today [produces a Holy Mass bulletin]… It tells us that faith is necessary. Each time there is a miracle, it is one’s faith that saves him or her. There was a woman who was shouting after the people surrounding Christ; after a time, they were forced to say, give this woman what she wants, so she may keep quiet. The woman went and knelt before Him, calling Him: “Lord.” You see the persistence and the faith? That, indeed, is faith.


                        So, Sir; are you saying that this spiritual sterility is responsible for the moral and social decay in our country today?


You asked one question, which is ancillary to the one I shall now ask you: are we better off than all the other countries that do not have so many churches? The answer to that is: no, we are not better off. Why? If the idea of a church is to change men for the better, then Nigeria would have been a better place with so many churches. All their adherents would have been changed individuals. But we still have bribery and corruption in high places, quest for money… If you read Macbeth, you’ll recall this quote: “I have no spur to prick the size of my intent, but vaulting ambition which overleaps itself and falls on the other side.” So, what is the message of what is happening in Nigeria? Money, money… Money now, money tomorrow; money everything... Christ had no money, He was a poor carpenter, He had no house, He had no family; He had nothing of the material possessions that man appears to value greatly. And as the Master, shall the servant be, and blessed are the feet that follow him. If your feet are old, then you cannot follow him far. So, our country is in real difficulty.  But if the churches preached discipline, preached goodness, preached integrity, preached transparency, and the adherents listened to them, and practiced these, Nigeria would be head up high.





This interview cannot be complete without addressing the area you are most known for; your judicial career. Many have wondered -- who have not read you -- why you are regarded as an activist in the judiciary. Some have proposed that it is partly because of the military, the militarized Nigerian environment when you flourished as a Supreme Court Judge that thrust up the role you played then…


I have two books here about that; one written by Professor Itse Sagay -- The Work of the Supreme Court; I don’t know where it is now [Searches for it in the Law section of his library]...


                       The Work of the Supreme Court: the Legacy for Posterity (1980-88), by Professor Itse Sagay?

 My own publications dealing with some of these…one is still in the offing. I’m writing a paper right now on the Supreme Court: “Is it judicial activism or judicial restraint?”



These are [citing the titles of two books handed to me] Judicial Footprints by Justice Oputa, and In The Eyes of the Law; also by you.


                        Ehh… Kayode Eso, in one of our Judges’ conferences, was called “Advocate of Judicial Activism,” and I am writing a paper for his 80th birthday Lecture…. I started it by saying: What will be the role of our highest Court; the way Lord Denning described…ah…timid Judges who are afraid to break into the unknown? Should it be ‘judicial restraint,’ or should it be ‘judicial activism’? I defined what I meant by progressiveness and restraint, and then added: “Life is motion; life does not stand still, society does not stand still; the Law can not stand still.”


 If the Law is to serve a forward-moving society, it has to be forward-moving too; and not only forward-moving, but forward-looking as well. This is why the Justices of the Supreme Court must be activists, not passivists; not people afraid to leap into the dark. That we made our pronouncements during military reign is a sign of courage. Now, in normal times there will be a greater urge for activism. In the military regime, people were afraid that if one overstated issues, it could have some bad consequences. But we didn’t mind; we criticized the military that were the state Governors for not obeying an order of Court. If the Rule of Law imposes on such individuals a duty to obey, and they don’t, democracy is gone. It becomes a dictatorship.


I shall take a cue from your judgment in the case of Olowu and Olowu. There is now a school of thought that regards you as an advocate of Law, as an instrument for social…




                        And structural engineering…


                        Of course!!! The Law is not a broad omnipotence; it is an instrument of society -- to help society adapt to the changes that occur every day in our lives. If you take a look at some of the cases L. Warren, who was very vocal, decided…


                        The American….

                        L. Warren in America; Lord Denning in England; they were all vocal in saying that if the Law does not keep pace with social change, it has lost its salt. Law has to keep pace, and if legislation is wanting, the Lawyer should not say “my hands are tied…” Because, the question is -- by who? No, the Lawyer should imitate the process of change. Let me get you a paper I wrote on that subject… let me just [searches for the paper]... I wish somebody could photocopy it for you… Unfortunately, it is not here. It’s in my room…


                        That’s alright, Sir.

                        The…”Justicability and Fundamental Objectives and Directed Principles of State Policies.


                        Part of what has been talked about, which you have also reiterated in several of your lectures such as Access to Justice, is the question of not merely holding a hearing in court, but throughout the court system. You know that it is very expensive for Nigerians, even when they know their rights, to seek justice through the court system. Would you advocate a lowering of the fees, the administration fees in our judicial system, and perhaps putting up a legal proviso to enable people…


                        Well, we tried to confront the problem you mention with legal aid; we talked about agencies taking on these actions directly; agencies such as NGOs, which may have the money to do so. Well, I think the important thing is really education.  If people are properly educated, they can find the means, Indians have been finding the means of going to court and exercising their rights.

                        The NBA (Nigeria Bar Association enjoins its members to at least render pro bono services…And then there is the other problem of the long and slow pace with which justice is dispensed, as has been exemplified by the Anambra State petition, which favoured Senator Peter Obi at a time the defendant is nearly serving out his term.. So what is your take on this? Because as it is said: justice delayed is justice denied…


                        I think I wrote a book on that: Our Temple of Justice and I dealt with all the handicaps you mention. The first chapter is titled, “Cleansing our temple of Justice.”


                        I read somewhere where you mentioned that the particular book is one of your first write-ups.


                        You know, after the Kayode Eso Panel started its preliminary work, I became a member of that Panel. When we went through the court system, what we saw was not edifying. Bribery and corruption in the registries, allegations of magistrates being bribed; allegations of Lawyers telling their clients: “I charge for my fee, and I charge you for the Judge.” And allegations of Judges saying you can bring in any Lawyer you like, but I’m the one writing the judgment. This is inviting the client to approach....



The Judge...


                        So I mentioned all that, and I said that if we really want to improve the justice system, we have to cleanse our temple of justice. And I gave an example of when Our Lord came to the temple in Jerusalem and saw people buying and selling. He devised a whip, and drove them out of the temple, saying: “My father’s house is a house of prayer; you have made it a den of thieves.”  I said that any Judge or magistrate who indulges in any malpractice is a thief.



                        And I also talked about delay -- justice delayed is justice denied. I dealt with the cause of the delay: A man who is not worthy to be a clerk of court is made a Judge. What do you get? When Justice Idigbe was at the court, you would have to be prepared, because he would make you look small when you made submissions that had no substance. And when you were done, it did not take him three days to give a ruling; so why should a man take one week, one month, two months…


:                       Sir, one of the very interesting points you raised in your book is the noble art; the noble, but difficult art of writing judgments and rulings. A major hallmark of your judgments has been the very philosophical and literary style that has earned you the title of Socrates. How did you develop this style and what would you recommend for those who may wish to cultivate it?


[Quoting in Latin] Nimo dat qout dat habit . Did you study Latin?  [Translating] “Nobody can give what he doesn’t have.” I once gave a lecture in Owerri…  after it, a young boy held up his hand.  I thought he was going to ask a question on the topic I was delivering, but he said: please, sir: how can I deliver lectures like this? [laughter]. I said to him, “it’s easy if you lived as long as I have lived; if you went to the schools I attended…”


 The point is …. If you had the experiences I‘ve had, you will write better judgments…which is true! When I read some of my lectures delivered 10 years ago, I am always surprised, because I can’t write them now! No way!!! But, at any given time, I believe that if you ask the help of the Holy Spirit, He will come to your aid, and he will speak through you. I strongly believe that every gift is from God, and He wants you to use it for some purpose. If you fail, you render accounts…have you read ‘Milton’s sonnet on his blindness?

Yes, I have…

 [Quoting the entire poem]

“When I consider how my light is spent, /Ere half my days in this dark world and wide/ And that one talent which is death, to hide/Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent/ To serve therewith my Maker, and present/My true account, lest he returning chide;/…They also serve who only stand and wait.”


Now, as I said, the training we had in CKC, and in Achimota…I still have the books I read in CKC; they are there… I even have a copy of my grand-daughter’s book [laughter]…a small anthology of poems; I have that here. No knowledge is wasted, and if you have the discipline of having read widely, and knowing where to find what you want… you’ll find that very few things are original; you think you are quoting an original thought, but it is not necessarily new.


Perhaps said in a different way, though… Sir, how would you compare yourself while in active service as a Judge with corrupt judges of today?


It is extremely tragic when the word corruption is mentioned when you talk about Judges, because the first thing you expect from a Judge is honesty. No matter how brilliant one is, if one is not honest, he or she should not be a Judge. Honesty should be taken for granted. A Judge, like Caesar’s wife, should be above suspicion. The mere suspicion of malpractice is enough to disqualify him. That is why when I see what is going on in the Supreme Court now, I weep.


                        There have been recent charges of corruption against Supreme Court Judges, some of which have been proven. How do you feel about such cases?


                        Some of them are subjudice.  I won’t like to comment on any matter before the court; but generally speaking, members of the legal profession must have honour as members of an honourable profession. If any one of us has degraded that profession by being corrupt, or is being suspected of doing so, the honourable thing is to resign, and then urge an investigation to clear one’s name. Resign first, and let an enquiry be set up. If such a person is proved innocent, he or she will have the glory. But very few Nigerians want to stick by this code. Very few Judges in England will continue with their practice in the occasion that they are suspected of malpractice. No, No, they will resign!




Thank you, Sir, for this revealing tour of your family photographs. And that leads us to the next section of our interview. You sound very much like a very proud Igbo man. A section of your library here offers books on Igbo history – Elizabeth Isichei, and so on…


Some word of God says, “breed thou a man with soul so dead, who never to himself had said, this is my home, my native land.” All the history that you might read, if you haven’t studied Igbo history, you haven’t started. [Laughter]


Is that to say that charity begins at home?

                        Yes (a ga si n’unor maluma we pu’ ilo). We need to know about Ndigbo: where they’ve gone wrong, where they’ve gone right. In Abuja, Ndigbo and I discussed topics such as “Ndigbo: rediscovering yourselves” and “Ndigbo: the way forward.” All these [papers] deal with Ndigbo, and I wish somebody will undertake to publish some of these things, and divide them into the different aspects that I deal with -- that is, non-legal and legal. Now the Igbo happen to be a wonderful race. When we had the South east and Middle belt conference which we finished in Abuja about three weeks ago, you may have wanted to ask: Why did we pick the south east and the middle belt? Why did Danjuma and Justice Oputa pick these two geographical areas? One, the sun rises from the east, and the sun provides light and heat.


When Zik started with The Pilot, he chose the motto: show the light and people will find the way. It is interesting that those who fought for Nigerian unity are mainly of Igbo extraction; Zik, [Mbonu] Ojike (who popularized native dress and is known for his principle, “boycott the boycottables.” At first, it was a shame for one to appear at the governors’ party with a loin cloth or with agbada. It had to be suit and tie. But Ojike said, no; at a party, he would rather drink palm wine. It takes courage to do that in a world such as ours that has struggled with a sense of social and racial inferiority to European culture.  Zik preached the light so that people would find the way. Nwafor Orizu was a gifted orator; he spearheaded the fight for independence. So the sun rising from the east is not a joke; it’s true.


                        Isn’t this a matter of ethnic pride?

                        Well, partly ethnic pride. And we are justly proud of that. What about the middle belt? Now, the middle is a centre; we’re coming to T.S Eliot’s by way of Chinua Achebe’s “Things fall away when the centre cannot hold.” So, if the middle is a center -- the umbilical chord joining the north and the south -- it is appropriate that we start this coming together in the east and the middle belt.


                        Sir, let’s spring off the fact that your name, Chukwudifu, originates from the Igbo world view. How do you see the place of the Igbo in contemporary Nigerian life?


                        That’s a good one. All this fight about Igbo…let me see if I can get [searches for a paper]…that is why I say it is not easy to conduct an interview outside my chambers. Ah…“Ndigbo: Rediscovering Ourselves.”


                        Are these your jottings?

No, lectures hosted by Ndigbo Lagos; Ndigbo organizations.



                        You must have a keen interest in the subject to the extent that you keep files on the various aspects of the organization.


                        Well, it is part of the discipline…  In everything I do, I keep files. Most of these [displaying a pile] are my lectures. When you ask me to say something, I can look it up to see whether I have said something on it before. And if I have, I see if I can add to or subtract from it. In America, for instance, I went to deliver some lectures; I did not know that they had a copy of everything I ever said.  They are wonderful. And when you say something different from what you said before, they quickly point it out to you: “You said so, so thing in so, so year...what you are saying now is different, why?” You got to be prepared if you are going to change your mind, and why are you changing it. I went to the Library of Congress and we were looking through volumes. Someone said to go to a particular corner, and when I got there, I found all my books. Not only books; 90% of my lectures which are not here in Nigeria are there.      


What would you regard as the challenge of Ndigbo in Nigeria?


                        One, the Igbo have all that is required, they are dynamic; no Igbo man accepts defeat. They are the real Nigerians; no other ethnic group will you find everywhere in Nigeria. In every nook, every corner, there is an Igbo man. When I was in Port–Harcourt, other major groups, some Hausa, were all there; but they never built one house outside their own state of origin.  The Igbo would go everywhere, build houses and, sometimes, marry there. If you talk of a real Nigerian, in the real sense, then the Igbo are the real Nigerians. Now if you are as adventurous as the Igbo are, naturally, you will excite jealousy and hatred, and that is why we are hated. I’m not saying we are innocent all through. Sometimes we are boastful, and talk more than is necessary; we are not as diplomatic as the Yoruba who are very diplomatic people, indeed. If a Yoruba man does not want to do something, he won’t tell you in the face – “you bloody fool; I won’t do it “[Laughter]. But an Igbo man will say so, and create an enemy when there is no need for that [Laughter]. So these are our ‘faults.’  We are pushy, we are daring, but sometimes, we talk too much, and we don’t bother about people’s feelings. E kaliam [if you are superior to me] there’s no need telling me that: “Who are you?” Oku karia ite ogbonyua oku [When the heat is in excess, the boiling pot spills over, and quenches the fire]


Do you think the issues you mention have affected the relationship of the Igbo with other ethnic groups?


                        It has affected…ah…Igbo history in Nigeria.  Zik was more tactful than most Igbo leaders. Maybe because he was not brought up in Igbo land. He was born in Zungeru, and then lived for a long time in Yoruba land. He spoke Yoruba, Hausa, even more than he spoke Igbo. Ah… Zik nearly succeeded in bringing the ethnic groups together. He contested elections in Lagos and won. But in Ibadan, there was such open, broad day light carpet crossing that changed the history of Nigeria. Before then ethnic rivalry was unknown. Nobody bothered where one came from. We had a Hausa man as Mayor in Enugu… And a Benin man was Mayor in Port–Harcourt. Most of the Igbo doctors started practice in the north. But when Awolowo started Yoruba for the Yorubas,  Zik had to come back home to make a  deal with the NCNC. He went to Enugu, and Akpabio who was leader had to give way for his leadership in the east. That was when we started ethnic politics.


Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong in being proud of your ethnic group. But when ethnic pride competes with nationalism, when pride in one’s ethnic group is to the detriment of the larger nation, then it is no longer a good thing. Loyalty should be to the nation. There was a seminar at the University of Nigerian once; “Is Tribalism a good thing or bad?” The consensus was that it’s a neutral factor. Everybody belongs to one ethnic group or the other. What is good or bad is what you make of your belonging to your particular group. If the national umbrella is wide enough to protect everybody, then nobody will obsess about his ethnic group. But if groups are marginalized, if they’re cut off from the sources of power and wealth by the federal umbrella, then people go back to their roots to see if they can find solace there. And that is what tribalism does. If people are happy where they are, there will be no need for tribalism. Now when mention of an Igbo President is made, I laugh.  I say, “no; what we want is a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction. Not an “Igbo President.”


                         But do you subscribe to the idea that Ndigbo are marginalized?


                        They are marginalized, there’s no doubt about that. Although when I conducted an enquiry into human rights violations -- the so-called Oputa Panel -- a lot of groups said -- even in the north; the Hausas, the Fulanis – complained of being marginalized. Everyone, these days, claims of being marginalized. Then my answer is:  If you’re marginalized simply as a Hausa man, or simply as an Igbo man, as a Nigerian, you cannot be marginalized. Try to become a Nigerian. There will be no marginalization then. But when you are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba; you become marginalized as everyone focuses on personal, tribal interests.


What is marginalization? One memorandum delineated between marginality and marginalization. When you avail yourself of the opportunities available, and in spite of that, you are not given your proper place in a system that is marginalization. When you refuse to go to school, but expect to become Vice Chancellor of a university, forget it; you should know that this is impossible. That’s marginality; you created the condition that made it impossible for you to become Vice Chancellor. Now the Igbo attend all the universities in the world. There is no university in the world you don’t have an Igbo man. None. They are all over the place. My nephew was in Russia for about 4 years, then in Germany for 3 years before he came back. He is a wonderful doctor in Abuja. When we went to South Africa during the Oputa Panel, on one of the commissions of enquiry -- when our plane landed, one of the first persons to welcome us was onye Igbo, who greeted us: Nno’nu. Ndi bayi nno’nu. [Laughter]. When we went to Germany, my wife was complaining that we hadn’t had time to change currencies -- at the time, one naira equaled $2 -- and we hadn’t changed any money since our arrival. So one Igbo boy heard us, and said: If you go across the road, you can give them your naira, and they will give you German mark. Which we did. I don’t think there’s a spot on earth, that there’s no Igbo man.


                        Well, given this adventurous spirit of the Igbo and the intellectual achievement of men like you who have very rightfully earned the sobriquet, Socrates; how will you account for the seeming disarray within the Igbo political class?


Now…em…it comes to the issue of discipline. Are you from the riverine area?


:                       Not really; from Ogwashi-Uku in Delta State

                        Well…very near, very near…Well, onwe ife ana kpo igurigu – a very small fish, none is bigger than the other…[Laughter]... So Ndigbo, will not accept that you are superior to them.  I don’t like to refer to myself, it’s not good enough.  See, the Yoruba are organizing something for Kayode Eso’s 80th Birthday. Now do you think Ndigbo see the significance in organizing something for Ojukwu’s birthday? No, Ndigbo do not. All the big Igbo names you hear about; who organizes something for their birthday. Ndigbo will not, and that’s part of our headache...our major problem; because we refuse to celebrate our own. We don’t agree or believe that ‘A’ has achieved something special to celebrate, and not resent. As a group, we are unnecessarily proud…ungenerous to ourselves…

To proud to adore our role models?

Not adore, really. At least accept that such people have achieved something, and then to fa nwa ntin tin [honour them a bit]; not much... Because overdoing it, is wrong. The Yoruba and Hausa; may be your own group (Igbo-speaking Delta) and my own group (Oguta) will never greet an elder standing up; they either bow or curtsy out of respect.  The Yoruba and Hausa prostrate… But most Igbo groups insist on greeting their elders standing up.  What they say, na Igbo ama Eze or Igbo enwe Eze [The Igbo have no kings or know no kings] --either one or the other -- means a lot.


Sir, assuming that Igbo enwer’eze [The Igbo have no kings], is it not part of the Igbo political culture? Because they seem to venerate that saying, that philosophy has caused disorder within the political arena in the larger Nigeria political setting…


                        My difficulty there is -- if you know that a particular policy is drawing you back, as I said earlier, the future is what you do today. So if you don’t like what you see, change what you do. Now, we don’t like what we are seeing – yet Ndigbo cannot come together to change those that make it impossible for us to come together. We don’t want to accept that A is greater than B… Look at the five fingers; they are not at all equal. It is a fact that this is the smallest finger. That is a fact. God made it so. [Laughter] They’re not equal.


We must learn as a group to accept that we cannot all be equal. Now, coming to political leadership: Ask Ndigbo to bring one man to be President, they cannot…and this is not a good thing. You would hear the rancour: Ehm e si n’ina ga? Kedu ife enwe ka nni nwero? How much will it cost? Now, the Yoruba have buried all these; the Hausa have done likewise, but will the Igbo? Igbo enwe Eze [The Igbo have no king] is not a good thing. Why do we delight to keep it alive? It’s not a good thing. So the Igbo lack the discipline as a group to say, “You are the man we all put forward.” What is consensus? Consensus means although I don’t agree with the group decision, I will live with it. I am bound by it. Majority has decided, whether I like it or not… But if one solitary onye Igbo says this is white, and the majority says it is black, he will protest: A dem ekwe [ I shall not accept]…



                        Still on the political philosophy of the Igbo; there are some political pundits

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who believe that part of the problem of the Igbo, starting from Zik to the present (and you mentioned this earlier), is that they are too Pan - Nigeria, Pan – African. While other people start from a group background -- Awolowo tried to get the Yoruba together; Sardauna tried to get the Hausa/Fulani together. Afterwards, they came to the center to negotiate for their people. Take the naming of the first regional universities, for example. Zik chose a name that reflected a national vision -- the University of Nigeria; while with Awolowo, it was more or less a regional celebration and vision -- University of Ife, Ile-Ife.  It was the same situation with Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Take the banks as well: we have Bank of the North, a Western Nigeria regional bank now called Wema Bank, and then we have African Continental Bank (ACB), which represents the Pan–Nigeria, Pan–African ideal. Just as you said earlier, the Igbo man appears anxious to be the ‘true Nigerian’; but in the Nigerian equation, he does not get his due…


                        The answer is simple. A na si n’unor malu mma puo ilo [Charity begins at home]. You start from home, put your house in order; that doesn’t prevent you from being Pan–Nigeria or Pan–African. But you must have enough discipline for a well organized home front, and Ndigbo seem to lack that kind of discipline. If we had what it takes to come together and speak one voice, no group in Nigeria would have beaten the Igbo. Now, when the Igbo are in some one else’s land, they try and do things that will annoy the natives…


We need to be more tactful; sometimes, whether we like it or not, embrace the other; then embrace him even more. Then we can go on our way and do what we want to do; make all the money we want to make. But once we have money, we think that is everything. We pay a lot of respect to ego [money]. Whoever has money should know that money is a good servant to avert poverty… Do nothing to avoid it. Wealth we employ, but not for base and idle show –vanity. Money should be properly utilized to create wealth. For example, we can look at what Rochas Okorocha is doing with the Rochas Foundation; unfortunately, leadership has been re-interpreted in this country as a means of making wealth. It just doesn’t make sense.


                        Is it responsible for the emergence of non-credible leaders for Ndigbo?

                        Of course; yes. It is not only among Ndigbo; it is all over the country.  But anywhere leadership is based not on merit, but on money, then that country or system is in trouble.


                        How would you comment on the special case of Anambra State….with the two Chrises?


Well, they are in court… I don’t want to say too much about anything in court. Ah…when there are monied men using their wealth to push people into positions of office in return for favours, then you have problems. But the monied man or men should be disciplined enough to understand that their communal duty is for all of us to give what we have. If I have money, I give money.  If it’s my intellect that I can contribute, then I shall gladly do so. If I have manpower, I give manpower. Money is very significant, but the intellect is just as necessary; perhaps, even more.


If you read Funeral Oration by Pericles, it mentions that man has a peculiar obligation to thinking before he acts. People tend to act and then regret their actions. But if you think before you act, then you will ask yourself; can I do it myself, or will somebody else who is more qualified do it? This is what we’d like Ndigbo to imbibe; that it’s all hands on deck. You’ve got what you have, you surrender to us all you have, and we will all pull together to do what we want for the greater Igbo community.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Justice Chuwkudifu Oputa (Rtd) in Conversation with Nduka Otiono and Chris B. Ogbogbo (Ph.D.)