I nearly derailed my destiny – Justice Ogunbiyi

March 8th, 2018

As Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi bowed out from the Supreme Court bench last week, encomiums poured as she called for radical reforms in the judiciary, writes AMEH EJEKWONYILO

 

Having shattered the proverbial glass ceiling that hindered girl-child education in her time, retiring justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, revealed during her valedictory court session at the apex court in Abuja, last Tuesday that, an impetuous behaviour as pupil almost ruined her destiny as a jurist of note that she has become today.

In a fully packed court session, Justice Ogunbiyi who hails from Lassa in Borno State, but married to a medical doctor, Dr. Bamigboye Ogunbiyi from Kwara State, told the audience that she nearly became a “shepherd girl”; rearing livestock, after playing truancy from school for a whole week.

“During my last year at Lassa LEA Junior Primary School in 1958, I nearly derailed my destiny.

“I got carried away with the company of a young girl in our neighbourhood. She was a ‘shepherd girl’, not enrolled into school because her parents did not believe in western education.

“On this eventful day, I was all made up to go to the school in the morning in my smart uniform. Immediately I was out of the vicinity of our home, I veered off to my friend’s compound, removed my school uniform and joined her in caring for their animals until the school closing time when I returne home in my uniform as if I had gone to school that day. So, I played truancy for a whole week.

“On my next school attendance, my teacher asked me why I was absent from school for some days. I tried to wriggle out of it by telling a lie that my mother was ill and I had to remain at home to look after her. The lie was uncovered. That was the first and perhaps the worst canning of my life by my loving father,” Justice Ogunbiyi disclosed.

Speaking on the endemic corruption in the country’s public sector, Justice Ogunbiyi who is the first female judge from the Borno State and the entire North-East, recalled her first bitter experience in trying to secure a job after her academic sojourn in the United Kingdom.

According to her, she sought a job as Legal Secretary to the Northern Nigeria Development Corporation, but was discriminated against on the account her being a woman.

“On my return back to Nigeria, I attempted seeking for a job as Legal Secretary to the Northern Nigeria Development Corporation. To my uttermost dismay, the job offer was turned down by the then Chairman of the Board on the ground that he could not work with a female as a Legal Secretary. This created displeasure and a temporary setback for the family,” she lamented.

Her second experience, which threw up the issue of favouritism and “godfatherism” in the appointment of judicial officers in the country, featured prominently at the launch of an biography in her honour last Saturday.

Encouraged by her husband to seek elevation to the appellate court, Justice Ogunbiyi approached the then Chief Judge of Borno State and registered her interest to get elevated to the Court of Appeal Bench.

But that was not an easy move as the CJ never recommended her for the appellate post. Rather he recommended two of her juniors who were male judges.

“Through the counsel, assurance and encouragement of my dear husband, I was motivated that I have the intellectual capacity and tenacity to go higher, God helping me.This counsel afforded me the encouragement and confidence to inform my Chief Judge of my interest to the Court of Appeal in the event there was an opening for Borno State quarter.

“His response was that, he would let me know when the time comes. This he never did despite the fact that at that time there was nobody at the Court of Appeal on the Borno quota. However, he recommended two of my juniors.”

However, relying on fate, she was eventually recommended by some justices of the Appeal Court who had sat on appeals over her some of her judgments. These Justices, who quickened her elevation to the Appeal Court, she described as “destiny helpers.”

She expressed gratitude towards former Chief Justices of Nigeria, Justices Aloma Maryam Mukhtar and Mahmud Muhammed as well as Justices James Ogebe (JSC rtd.) and Ibrahim Tanko, for their immeasurable role that led to her elevation to the Court of Appeal in 2002.

Justice Ogunbiyi’s experience which but for divine intervention made her miss out on being appointed to the Appeal Court on account of not being a match for the high-level of favouritism and lobbying that accompanies appointments and elevation of judicial officers in the country, propelled erstwhile CJN, Hon. Justice Mukhtar’s outburst at the launch of Ogunbiyi’s biography – Honey from the Rock.

In her remarks as the co-Chair of the event at the impressive Nigeria Air Force event centre in Abuja, Justice Mukhtar stressed that it was high time the issue of “favouritism, lobbying and godfatherism,” in the judiciary is stopped. “The issue of lobbying, favouritism and godfatherism in the appointment of judicial officers in the country is worrisome.A� It is sad that we allow this rising culture of lobbying to influence appointments to the judiciary. If we are to revive what held sway in the past; a highly maintained and competent judiciary, then merit should be our watchword.

“Lobbying, favouritism and godfatherism should be discouraged and discarded as it leads to the fall in standard, and instead of enhancing the institution, they devalue and weaken it because of the incompetence of the personnel. These practices negate the principles of justice and breed indiscipline.”

She praised Justice Ogunbiyi for the hard work and integrity exhibited in the course of her judicial function, adding that her appointment to the judiciary, opened a vista for women who aspired to great heights in the society.

“Justice Clara Ogunbiyi achieved this feat by dint of hard work. She put in her best at sheres of her career,” the ex-CJN said.

Joining the league of those who poured commendations, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) led by its President, Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), noted that the celebrant’s “astuteness and progressive mind” was responsible for the brilliant judicial pronouncements that she has made in the course of her career on the Bench, which he said spanned over three decades.

He further stated that Justice Ogunbiyi has always been an apostle of substantial justice over technicalities, adding that she sought to enhance and strengthen reform in the country’s justice system.

On his part, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, described her as a “champion of gender rights and an advocate of the greater inclusion of women in the affairs of our nation.”

His words: “Justice Ogunbiyi’s contributions to the judgments of the Supreme Court were rendered in clear and concise language, whether in dissenting, in support of a lead judgment or when delivering the leading judgement of the court.

“Outside the formalities of the courtroom, his Lordship was the epitome of effusive civility and kindness, exhibited at all exchanges with her brother justices. Although we will miss her wit, her measured and erudite contributions and her active advocacy of women’s rights.

When it was the turn of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN), Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), who spoke on their behalf, said the “nation’s judiciary is under siege.”

Recalling their days at the Nigerian Law School Lagos in 1976, Olanipekun reminisced on how he and other young men used to admire her lordshipa��s beauty and calm composure.A� Noting that, “Justice Ogunbiyi’s elegant prose will be missed by the Bar,”A�he thereafter, eulogised her for her enormous contributions to the development of law and judiciary while advocating for the review of retirement age for judicial officers. The one time NBA President pointed out that retired judges are even more valuable than ever as a result of their huge experience.

Justice Ogunbiyi retired on February 28 from the Supreme Court having attained the constitutional retirement age of 70 years for appellate court judges.

 

Quote

“On this eventful day, I was all made up to go to the school in the morning in my smart uniform. Immediately I was out of the vicinity of our home, I veered off to my friend’s compound, removed my school uniform and joined her in caring for their animals until the school closing time when I returne home in my uniform as if I had gone to school that day. So, I played truancy for a whole week.

“On my next school attendance, my teacher asked me why I was absent from school for some days. I tried to wriggle out of it by telling a lie that my mother was ill and I had to remain at home to look after her. The lie was uncovered. That was the first and perhaps the worst canning of my life by my loving father,”

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