By Ike Abonyi
“Whoever says to the guilty, ‘You are innocent,’ will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come on them.” – Proverbs 24:24-25
The widely reported outburst of Mary Odili ahead of the questionable verdict of the presidential election tribunal comes away as uncalled for, especially her status as a supposed carrier of dignity. Her comments were worrisome because, as it turned out, they were an omen of the darkness befalling our nation the following day.
An Igbo adage says that when a bird cries at night and a baby dies the next morning, it is easy to connect the two incidents. It is easy to decipher that Mrs Odili, chair of the Body of Benchers, retired justice of the Supreme Court, and former first lady of Rivers State, merely flew a kite and dropped a hint of the calamitous verdict. By accepting to do that hatchet job, the 71-year-old grandma does not care a hoot about her postcareer image. She could have been what or who they said.
My admiration for the now-benched legal icon prompted this discourse. My plaudits date back to when the bencher’s husband was a governor of Rivers State. Twice, my colleagues and I were guests of the governor; at no time did we leave the Odilis without an impression that the governor’s wife was uncommonly humble, never allowing attainments to enter the head. This humble spouse would never compete with the governor in the media space. Other governors’ wives often operated as de facto deputy governors.
The gubernatorial days were gone and then came climbing up the judicial ladder. Despite this rapid rise, the professional comportment of Mrs Odili was the most dignifying from the point of view of the watching public.
Perhaps an inkling of the other side of this top justice showed during a controversial perpetual injunction restraining anti-graft agencies from harassing a particular ex-governor. She was fingered in that scandal. That perpetual injunction was seen by many as taking undue advantage, especially as other former governors who had cases to answer were harassed, tried, and jailed. For example, Taraba and Plateau state governors went to prison.
Mary is a common Christian name, especially among Catholics [I am Catholic] who venerate the mother of Jesus of Nazareth to no end. According to the Bible, Mary had been betrothed to a woodworker called Joseph before the angel announced Jesus’s immaculate [without sexual union] conception.
Everything about Mary, the wife of Joseph of Nazareth, is spotless, so the Bible says. Hence the reference to her as the immaculate virgin. A Christian who has Mary as a patron saint must strive in all things to reflect her life of purity, even if measurably.
Nigerian Marys are legion, but easily the most visible is Odili the justice and former governor’s consort. Dwelling on this Nigerian version of that biblical name in this space today will show how the Nigerian Mary so far lived up to the name from whom she often seeks God’s mercy and grace.
While sitting at the Supreme Court, the legal luminary was seen as one of the deep sources at the apex court, and not a few wished that she made it to the exalted position of the Chief Justice. Alas! Age caught up with her. Against this backdrop, many Nigerians, including yours sincerely, took it badly when there was an attempt in 2021 to rubbish that sterling career in its twilight years.
Some pro-establishment hirelings, so the story goes, had invaded the justice’s Abuja home on October 29, 2021, purporting to have a dubious search warrant. Somehow, the mission failed and the alleged sponsor and federal attorney-general denied the operatives despite the ample evidence of where they came from.
Perhaps, there was a divine hand; the search warrant was meant for No. 9 Imo Street, but the search team went to No. 7, the residence of the justice. As a result, on November 4, 2020, a few days after the unwarranted invasion, this column condemned the arm twisting.
In it, I retold a story I had read online on how we came about the phrase “Naked Truth” to buttress the danger of ceding responsibilities. It bears rehashing here:
The truth was always dressed in snow-white apparel. So appealing was Truth that countless people would readily embrace it wherever it was found. One hot afternoon, on the way to a date, Truth stopped by a pool to have a dip in the water before continuing. Unknown to Truth, Lie was on its trail and stumbled on Truth’s apparel left by the poolside. Lie wanted to join Truth in the pool but had an uncanny change of mind; Lie dropped its filthy rags put on the clothes belonging to Truth and disappeared into town.
When Truth emerged from the pool it found that Lie had worn its white clothes and was already gone to town in them, looking squeaky clean and angelic. Many who saw Lie in Truth’s clothing hugged endlessly, believing it was indeed Truth.
Well, Truth had to get going and soon arrived in town, naked. Everyone was put off and they shunned Truth. The naked truth is still shunned to this day, even in Nigeria. In many cases in Nigeria, white lies have taken the place of naked truth.
I cannot imagine that the woman I defended so vehemently and trounced her traducers in 2020 came up to get involved in the most scandalous judicial pronouncements where judges turned themselves into defense lawyers and were abusing petitioners as if they were in a political rally.
What on earth does a retired justice want, after swimming and surviving all the sharks in the nation’s murky political waters? Whose interest was she serving? Is it the same APC government that nearly undid her judicial career?
One would expect a grandma, who has seen it all, should know how to tread softly and treasure her credibility.
Our understanding of the Body of Benchers is a group of practitioners of the highest pedigree in the legal profession, which is responsible for the formal call of aspiring legal practitioners as well as disciplining errant lawyers.
How on earth does a justice’s outburst ahead of the verdict
of the Presidential Election Petition tally with the status of one who oversees discipline on the bench and bar?
How can Justice Odili defend her eulogizing two defense counsels as masters and known winners of election petitions when the case they were handling was awaiting the final verdict? How can Justice Odili now react to the situation where the justices went beyond their bonds of delivering their ruling and abused petitioners? How will Justice Odili react to all the apparent contradictions in the ruling? The fact that after spending N355 billion to get BVAS and IRV and after INEC’s Festus Okoye (spokesman) 48 hours to polling declared them mandatory, Odili’s court is now saying that INEC is not under any obligation to use them.
Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah of the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka forewarned that the justices were not from Singapore, so we could manage our expectations. What Nigerians didn’t know was that a retired Supreme Court justice of Odili’s standing would drag herself into the fray. How did she enter this Club of electron manipulators?
We have had in this country justices who, after retirement, became oracles and consciences of both bar and bench. Ready examples were Chukwudifu Oputa, Kayode Esho, Adolphus Karibi-Whyte, Anthony Aniagolu, Idris Kutigi, and Mohammad Uwais, to mention just a few.
It’s almost an agreed fact in this country today that professionalism is on vacation in many areas of our national life. The judiciary, the supposed last hope of all dangerously entrenched in the mess. However, many had expected that an elder in the hallowed temple of justice and mother like Justice Odili, should not be seen dancing “Jerusalema” lyrics in the grave of disfigured justice.
It pains me as a long-time admirer of this woman that into her envious profile has been deliberately injected what ought not to be found near her and which will follow her till death. In this killing of democracy that has begun with the judiciary and INEC as co-executioners, Justice Odili will be recorded as a principal character.
Whenever judicial operatives go outside their terrain and join politicians in a game of the mud, they will end up the loser and the politicians who are used to the mud will survive. When “naked truth” kept its apparel carelessly, see what “lie” did with it in the story above.
Nigeria’s judiciary will be the victim of all their pandering to interests other than those that serve the end of justice. They may think such unprofessional acts are without consequences on the system, but history is not blind to all these, and no matter how far lies and injustice may travel and endure when justice arrives it will overshadow them.
All over history, truncating the will of the people has a repercussion, and the opening quotes above from the book of Proverbs uncovers to us what will befall all those who set the guilty free and convict the innocent, they will be cursed by the people and denounced by the nations.
Justice Tsamani and his team certainly did not come from Singapore but are under the God of justice and seek his face daily. Therefore, for freeing the innocent after lavishly being aided and abetted by words from senior bencher, they should also await what follows. God help us.