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Jurist's Lifetime with Destiny: Late Justice Arikpo
By Eric O Ifere
( Wednesday, November 21, 2007 )
As hard as it is to believe, it will be 12 years- to be precise on November 10, 1995- since the nation was transfixed by the shocking and bizarre news that Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were executed on the judgement of the Ogoni Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal sitting in Port Harcourt, thus provoking international outrage. The hearing panel consisted of three members and one of them was no other than our own Late Justice Etowa Eyong Arikpo, as he then was.
The period during and after that trial was remarkable for Justice Arikpo as he referred to it as the "darkest days of his professional career" by reason of his perception of institutional and personal hatred towards him. I remember late justice Arikpo express dismay at the enormity of hounding he had gone through, and the scorn from many people at him for sitting on this tribunal. He posits that given the prevailing circumstances at the time, he did what must be considered practicable by accepting the appointment. Justice Arikpo came back at the end of his term from the Tribunal in poor health with little or no prompt medical attention from the government of the day. However, he recovered at least some of his strength afterwards, emerging as one of the most high-ranking in the bench of the Cross River State, as Chief Justice of the State through hard work and a deepening personal discipline.
In legal circles, Justice Arikpo was known as a careful, methodical and painstaking judge, who is perceived and admired for his long time commitment to integrity, human right and profound professional conduct, in and outside the court room. The natural question that probed my mind was how a man with such an enviable career and reputation could have been involved with the trial of a case that drew so many storms? For years I contemplated over this question until my curiosity led to my anxiety to listen to his side of the story. It then became more obvious to me that exploring how late Justice Arikpo got into this dilemma and his key in the Ogoni trials could be a splendid basis for a book on the flip side of the Ogoni trials.
This curiosity was the rational basis for my meeting with late Justice Arikpo at his modest home in Calabar purposely in December 2006. On arrival at his home, I was ushered into the sitting room by his wife, who after exchange of pleasantries made my presence known to the eminent Judge. Few minutes afterwards, I observed the emergence of this frail looking personality devoid of his characteristic ebullience and sturdiness I have known for years. However, that he appeared weak in physical body was compensated by the intellectual alertness displayed throughout our discussion and his trade mark baritone voice revealing the steel in the man.
After revealing my mission to him, he informed me that he would rather not comment on the Ogoni trials in line with the oath of office which forbade him speaking publicly on matters he has presided over. Nevertheless, after much talk he said to me “I have been maligned, persecuted, denied my rights and entitlements and castigated over the Ogoni trials, but one thing I know for sure throughout my judicial career is that I have always aimed at making decisions that I believe are correct under the law, even if such decisions are unpopular.”
On this high note, we set our conversation rolling into what is to make for a book soon to be published on late Justice Etowa Arikpo’s position and participation in the Ogoni trials. Subsequently in our discussions, Justice Arikpo expressed his mind thus: “a lot has been said about me, but unfortunately because of the code of conduct of my office I cannot take my case to the public. I have been disturbed at my inability to speak openly on this matter and by the constraints in putting straight the records regarding my place in this proceeding.”
Throughout our conversation, which lasted for two days, he maintained all through that he wished he could speak out publicly on this issue but was greatly constrained by the law. I have since after my encounter with Late Justice Arikpo wondered if one could be right to draw inference that Late Justice Arikpo was a mere victim of the debacle of Ogoni trials orchestrated by prevailing media hype and political manoeuvring of the time. I was privileged to learn from him that his appointment to the tribunal came to him as a rude shock and surprise with no offer of any pre-knowledge or explanations as to why he was chosen for this national assignment.
Nevertheless, it is incontrovertible that Justice Arikpo is a man of great courage and a consummate jurist, a very fair, conscientious and hard working man, held in high esteem both in public and private life. However, in November 1994, General Abacha’s Junta set up a tribunal to try offences arising out of the “Civil disturbance which occurred on 21st May 1994 at Giokoo” and Justice Arikpo was one of the two high court Judges, together with a military officer appointed to this tribunal and noticeably things began to take a new turn in the career and personal life of the erudite judge thereafter.
Prior to 21 November 1994 when the Chief Justice of the Federation at the time, Mohammed Bello swore in the three members of the tribunal, Late Justice Etowa Arikpo who studied at the Middle Temple and was called to the Bar in 1964 has an enviable history of legal practice. He worked many years as a State Counsel in the defunct Eastern region and then tended his private law firm based in Ogoja, before serving as Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice of the then South Eastern State of Nigeria between 1975 to 1976 , and later became a State judge in 1976.
Today Justice Etowa Eyong Arikpo who passed away peacefully on July
4, 2007 is no more with us, but as a figure that shaped Cross River State
and indeed the Nigerian judicial system, some of his judicial
pronouncements and decisions have remained the subject of our legal precedence
to this day. And whether you agreed or disagreed with his verdicts
which abound in our law reports, there is no gainsaying that Late Justice
Etowa Eyong Arikpo’s integrity, respect to the rule of law and
intellectual influence on our legal development will be felt for a long time
to come as a tribute to his public life.
By Eric O Ifere.
Photo Above: Ken Wiwa, son of executed Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa displaying a placard that reads "I oppose the death penalty".
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