FORWARD BY Hon Justice James O. Ogebe JSC Rtd, CON, LLD
Introduction by author
THE SUPREME COURT OF NIGERIA lies majestically in the heart of Abuja. The complex is located within the Three Arms Zone, the most exclusive and secure area of the Federal Capital Territory. In the Master Plan of the Federal Capital Territory, the three arms zone is reserved for the operational headquarters of the three arms of the federal government: the Executive (represented by the Presidency) the legislature (represented by the National Assembly) and the Judiciary (headed by the Supreme Court of Nigeria). The Supreme Court is a product of constitutional architecture and is the chief defender of the rule of law and the chief custodian of the values of the judiciary.
As I drove towards the Supreme Court complex, I thought of my appointment with Hon. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, JSC. It was a sunny May afternoon in the tropical city of Abuja. I marched up the several steps leading to the main entrance. It is an inevitable part of the approach to the Court, which ought to remind litigants of the step-by-step journey towards the apex court, which begins mostly in the lower courts. I walked briskly towards the section of the edifice which houses the chambers of the Justices, to keep my 2 pm appointment. After going through security, I was directed to chambers 7, located on the third floor.
As I sat waiting on the sofa opposite the Secretary’s table, I had mixed feelings and my mind raced a bit. As far as Nigeria is concerned, this is the ultimate arena for all legal battles. It is the engine room from which final judgments are churned out. Somewhere in these offices, a handful of powerful Justices are penning down words that will terminate a criminal’s appeal or even his life. In another context, a politician’s ambition for political office is being decided. With the stroke of the pen and the pronouncement of the tongue, the dreams of some are realized and the aspirations of others are dashed. It is the ultimate arena for all legal battles, not because the honourable Justices are perfect or infallible, but because the Law says so.
In these hallowed chambers, judicial policies are formulated and rules for the administration of justice are drafted. From time to time, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (in consultation with his brother Justices of the Supreme Court) issues instructions to the many organs of the judiciary. Indeed, the complex is home to the offices of some of the most powerful men and women in the land. The conservative architecture and atmosphere of the entire complex is a reflection of the sobriety and gravity that the top Court is known for.
Justice Ogunbiyi’s secretary, a warm middle aged lady wearing a modest dark grey suit, welcomed me warmly and asked if she could help me. I informed her that I wanted to see Honourable Justice Clara Ogunbiyi. Politely, she asked me, “Is my lord expecting you, sir?” As I answered, I nodded, “Yes, my lord is.” Then she handed me a visitor’s form, which I quickly filled and handed back to her. As she walked into the Judge’s chambers, I rested my back on the comfortable sofa. I had prepared my mind for a long wait, and had even taken my tablet along, to keep me busy. I was pleasantly surprised when, barely two minutes later, she returned and asked me to go in. According to her, the Honourable Judge was ready to see me. As I walked into the spacious and well-furnished office, I took in the numerous shelves and the array of law books that were neatly arranged in them. Hon, Justice Clara Ogunbiyi stood up from behind her rich wooden executive table. I bowed and greeted her warmly. With her characteristic pleasant smile, she made me feel at home and we exchanged pleasantries. Apparently, she had just finished a Supreme Court session, the evidence being her dark suit and long skirt combination. She was her usual self – warm, hospitable, simple, uncomplicated, straightforward, without airs. Her admixture of simplicity and firmness is baffling, and sometimes remotely unsettling.
As we sat on her visitor’s sofa to commence the first in a series of interviews that would culminate into the writing of this book, I had a burst of inspiration, and a huge sense of responsibility descended on me. It began to dawn on me that this project was not just the writing of a biography; it was a tour in a school, not a school of theoretical academics that awards degrees, but a school of life, character, morals and true greatness. This is what Justice Clara Ogunbiyi embodies and personifies.
Writing this biography brought me face to face with several people who had come in contact with Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi. As we talked, I realized that sometimes God pens down lessons for generations and posterity through the lives of people. In such instances, the decision to document the story is more of a service to the current and future generations of men than it is to the person whose story is being told. I discovered that it is possible for us to attain national excellence and glory, if we can put in place a system that promotes justice, equity and excellence and if we are able to reproduce or multiply our present crop of brilliant, patriotic men and women of integrity. In the course of this project, I have seen again how events in the family, the oversight of parents and the commitment of teachers play formidable roles in shaping people and the destiny of nations.
Our nation is in dire need of credible and authentic leaders whom the next generation can emulate, persons whose lives can inspire faith, hope and national unity. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi is undoubtedly one of such. It is my pleasure to document for posterity the story of this erudite, God-fearing and exceptionally brilliant jurist. I hope that her story will inspire everyone (and women in particular) to develop their gifts/skills, to engage in nation building and to surmount the challenges that stand between them and their destinies. What you have in your hands is the twin narrative of her journey through life and her step-by-step progress on the judicial ladder. At different points, it was tough and challenging, but she was able to obtain honey from the rocks.
This is by no means a praise-singing book; rather, it is an expression of gratitude to God for the 70 years Justice Ogunbiyi has spent on earth. In addition, it is a beacon of hope to the hopeless, an encouragement to men and women who face insurmountable challenges and are on the verge of giving up. God is able to make a way!
My hope is that everyone who reads this book will understand it, and be inspired by it. To this end, I have taken some steps. An attempt has been made to tone down the legal jargon in the text and to reduce the number of court cases that feature therein. Finally, court cases are reported in simple words and in an interesting manner.
Deliverance from air crash
One week before her NYSC passing out parade, Clara had gone to Maiduguri to sort out her employment issues and was heading back to Kaduna where her family was then based. She boarded in Maiduguri a Kaduna–Lagos bound Nigeria Airways flight without any misgivings. The plane was scheduled to stop at Kaduna, both to drop Kaduna bound passengers and pick Lagos bound passengers. Her husband was expected to pick her up at the Kaduna Airport. The flight was scheduled to take off at 8: 30 am on that day, while her passing out parade was scheduled for the next day. She hated to rush; she quickly checked in her baggage and settled down at the departure lounge. She was dressed in a simple soft ankara, made into a traditional northern outfit, with a headscarf to match.
Something turned in Clara’s stomach. She had made sure she took a cup of tea before leaving the house. Her mind was preoccupied with the job application she was processing. At the same time, she hated a divided family. Her two very young children (Bunmi and Sam) deserved good care, and she resolved to not compromise her commitment to her family. She was in a pensive mood, turning things in her mind and intermittently muttering prayers to God. At about 8.00 am the flight was called and she headed for the boarding gate with her boarding pass and went through the usual airline ticket checks. She found her seat and made herself comfortable, awaiting the completion of the routine in-flight pre-departure procedures. She relaxed, knowing that within an hour, she would be in Kaduna; she had committed the trip to God’s hands. Once again, she felt the sharp pang in her stomach.
The Nigeria Airways plane taxied on the airport runway and took off as scheduled. It was a full flight, filled with business men. About 10 minutes into the flight, there was a deafening bang, confirming that something had gone wrong. There were vibrations inside the cabin and everywhere went silent. No one knew what it was. The aircraft was still on its shaky ascent, but the fear on the faces of the passengers was palpable. The air craft public address system came on and, as the pilot cleared his throat ahead of making an announcement, passengers held their breath, waiting for the worst – which did come:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your flight captain…I am sorry, we have an emergency. We have a mechanical hitch. The plane just developed a hydraulic system failure, which has affected the landing gear and the break system. We are doing our best to manage the situation, so we can land at the Aminu Kano International Airport. Kindly ensure that your seat belts are well fastened, as the landing of this plane will not be smooth and normal. We will crash-land. Kindly get ready to vacate the cabin, taking note of all the exit routes and points…”
The assurances of the Flight Captain to calm his passengers had no iota of effect on the palpable tension that followed. A momentary heavy weight settled on Clara’s mind. She quickly reviewed her life, and her thoughts went to her husband and the two children that she left at home. The imminent possibility of death enveloped the cabin like a dark cloud. The frightful discordant choruses of commotion and wailings that followed the pilot’s announcement highlighted the ominous reality and possibility of death. The lives of the passengers on board were in mortal danger, for a faulty aeroplane cruising at an altitude of about 32,000 feet above sea level does not stand a chance. Clara bowed her head and began to pray aloud for her husband and children. There was in the midst of this crisis, and the possibility of death, an unreasonable peace, as well as an assurance of an eternity with God. A settled assurance of blissful eternity with her Lord is something she had always known, but she did not think it would come so soon. The flight attendants did their best to calm down the passengers and to reassure them, even though they themselves looked like they needed reassurance. The pilot preferred to head for Kano airport, because it had better landing and emergency infrastructural facilities than Maiduguri airport.
The plane began to drag and the flight became unstable. As the plane began its precarious descent towards the runway, it appeared as if the pilot switched off the engine, and the shrieks and screams of passengers got louder. As the pilot moved closer and closer to the runway, men and women wailed loudly in agonizing panic. As the final moment of dreaded impact approached, everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the airport environment. There were fire-fighting trucks everywhere. The emergency services moved fast and were very close to the runway and the aircraft.
The reduced capability of the plane for normal landing made the plane to crash-land. They heard a loud bang as a passenger’s baggage fell from the cabin baggage compartment, and it worsened their fear. It was a threshold moment, a life and death battle…
– (CHAPTER 7, PAGES 72-75)
A glimpse behind the curtains
Justice Ogunbiyi went down memory lane and spoke of a time when she had to change her mind. And it happened while she was handling a criminal case. She woke up in the middle of the night with a troubled mind; she was a bundle of nerves. The previous day had been a particularly long one. She had presided over a protracted court session. In a few hours, she was due to deliver her judgment in a culpable homicide case. To be precise, she was due to deliver her judgment by 9 am. It was a cold harmattan night. She got up from the bed, picked a SWAN water bottle by the bedside table and poured some water into a glass cup. She glanced at the wall clock in the bedroom with blurred eyes. It was about 1.30 am.
The ancient city of Maiduguri was asleep, except for the occasional chirping of crickets and the intermittent whistle of the North Eastern wind. Even though she had not slept enough, her mind was wide awake. She began to review the facts of the case. Ahead of coming to her final verdict on the accused person, she tried to recapture the demeanour of the key witnesses who testified for the prosecution. There was that inward turmoil that made her uneasy. As she lay down again, she mentally reexamined the highlights of the judgment she was going to deliver in the next few hours…”… Pages 107-108
I met Hon. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi for the first time at about 2004. We served together at the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division. She is calm, gentle, polite and hardworking. I’ve been working closely and interacting with her at the Supreme Court since 2012. What is striking about her is her commitment and adherence to the Christian faith, Justice Ogunbiyi is a practicing and practical Christian. Her belief in Christianity is the summation of her life. She is transparently honest and straightforward.
I have sat on several panels with her and in appeal conferences; she is undoubtedly a hardworking and diligent judicial officer, who is on top of her game. Her judgments reflect her personality. She is ever ready to stand in for assignments when she is called upon to do so, even when it meant added load of judgments to her assigned tasks. You can tell that this is Justice Ogunbiyi when you read her judgments. She has been a source of inspiration to me.
I wish her long life and good health, to enable her enjoy her well deserved rest. I also wish her continued strength in her faith.
Hon Justice Walter S.N. Onnoghen (CJN) GCFR