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Hon. Justice Innocent Azubike Umezulike: A memorial (1953-2018)

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Justice Professor Innocent Azubike Umezulike

• In The Minds Of Law
Law, they say, is no respecter of any man, no matter his status, influence, affluence, or authority. The law itself is a delicate authority that does not prevaricate nor undaunted when it sledges its hammer. Its custodian is in a trance, and most often in a macabre of great expectation.

Honourable Justice Professor Innocent Azubike Umezulike, OFR, FCIArb, FIIAN understood the demands of the authority bestowed on such a custodian; was prepared for it and upheld the virtues of Justice administration until the nature call, which when it came, he swallowed his poison like a Man.

From testimonies of the living, whom he crossed paths with in his 64 years sojourn, Justice Umezulike was not only a good man but an intellectual giant and probably Africa’s most prolific writer on land law, comparable only to another colossus, Prof Ben Nwabueze.

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Umezulike was the best, masterly in his knowledge of the law, a good and an honest man, whose brain is not lost but dwells in his 23 books. He is, however, irreplaceable in physic and stature. He was incorruptible despite the glitter of lucre and bobby traps, and although he was hounded by the forces, he stood for justice and vehemently resisted their brandish.

At the valedictory court session in his honour on September 27, 2018, the crème la crème of both the Bar and the Bench in the Enugu state High Court Auditorium, named after Umezulike, was a testimony of his endearing legacies and his value.

Apart from his successor, Chief Justice Ngozi Emehelu that presided, the Supreme Court was represented by Justice C.C Nweze, just as other Chief Justices- Alloy Nwankwo of Ebonyi, former Chief Judge of Delta State and current Administrator of the Nigerian Judicial Institute, Bozimo and Chief Judge of Anambra State, Peter Umeadi, were also there to pay their last respects.

Other legal luminaries present included Justices Chukwuma Emeh, M.B Dumba-Benson, Ralph Agbo, Abdul Aboki, Igwe Agube among others. There were also Justices Iyizoba; the Attorney General of Enugu State, Mellitus Eze; former governor and deputy governor of Anambra State, Dame Virgie Etiaba; President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo; Businessman, Prince Arthur Eze; Chief Emeka Etiaba (SAN); Chief Enechi Onyia (SAN); Chief Prince Eze Ozogbu; Prof Agu Gab Agu and numerous chapters of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA).

His successor as Enugu CJ, Justice Emehelu, described Umezulike as a judicial octopus and a legal colossus that occupied the Enugu judiciary centre chair for 12 years and remained the longest serving Chief Judge in the South East and South South of the Niger before he retired in 2016.

Justice Emehelu recalled how as a practitioner in the bar, she appeared before Justice Umezulike at a Nsukka High Court over a divorce case but failed to present any marriage certificate to argue her matter. She said she lost the matter which Umezulike after she (Emehelu) became a judge continued to make jokes of her attempt to mesmerize him with her advocacy to find in favour when she had not proved the essential ingredients that will cloth his jurisdiction to entertain the matter.

On the Bench Umezulike valiantly censored lawyers and litigants without compromising decorum. He believed that lawyers must be impeccable in their dressing and lived by such example. His judgment style was quite incisive, practical and pragmatic. His judgments reflected him as a thorough Judge whose thoughts were well processed.

One of the landmark judgments he delivered in 2013 was in the case of Basil Offor vs. Institute of Management and Technology (IMT) Enugu, suit No E/70m/2012. The issue for determination, among others in the said suit was whether the respondents, the Institute and the Registrar of the Institute could legally and validly run parallel panels of inquiry into the finances of the Institute in view of the fact that the Governor of Enugu state as the visitor to the Institute had, in line with Section 41 of the Institute of Management and Technology law, Cap 97, laws of Enugu State, 2004, given special or general direction to IMT Judicial panel of Inquiry led by Hon. Justice A.R. Ozoemena to inquire into the finances in the past 4 (four) years, retrospective from December 2011.

The 1st and 2nd respondents within the same period set up an in-house panel to investigate alleged withdrawal on Thirty Million Naira (N30, 000,000.00) only from the Institute’s account. The applicant who was invited by the 2nd respondent to appear at the panel challenged the propriety and validity of the in-house panel. His Lordship in his considered judgment delivered on February 8, 2013, held thus:

. That the Governor of Enugu State and, or the Government of Enugu State having inaugurated a judiciary panel of inquiry to determine the level of compliance to financial regulations of the Institute in the past four years, which includes the period of October, 2011, the respondents cannot legally and validly conduct parallel inquiry in the usurpation of powers of Institute of Management and Technology Judicial panel led by Hon. Justice A.R. Ozoemena.

. That the respondents be and are hereby prohibited from further inviting the applicant for purposes of inquisition over finances of the Institute of Management and Technology in October 2011 or any other time within the past four years retrospective from December 2011 until the proceedings of the said judicial panel of inquiry headed by Justice A. R. Ozoemena has concluded its work and its recommendation presented to the Governor of Enugu State and the white paper on the said recommendation published.

On the contention of the respondent’s counsel that the subject matter of the claim in the suit is a matter arising from workplace or condition of service, thus falling within the jurisdiction of National Industrial Court, His Lordship opined as follows:

“This seems to be purely an argument of desperation. I do not see any bearing whatsoever between the two inquiries set up in the defendants’ institution and the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court. The two panels in my view are fact-finding in nature, and their recommendations have no finality relative to the civil rights and obligations of the workers.

“As I said above, this is an argument of despair. I do not see how an inquiry into the defendants’ level of compliance with financial regulations of the defendant in the past four years has any bearing on the master-servant relationship or in the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court.”

As a legal practitioner, Hon. Justice Umezulike was a brilliant lawyer who was a partner in the law firm of Fred Agbeyegbe and Co in Lagos, yet he practiced across the country in the 80s before joining the academia as a lecturer in the law faculty, University of Ibadan. He joined Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka in 1987 as a Senior Lecturer and rose to become an Associate Professor of Property Law and after that a visiting Professor of Property Law in the Enugu State University of Science and Technology.

Umezulike bestrode the legal world like a colossus; his cerebral prowess evident in his many leading literary works and incisive judgments, depicts a man at home with the essence of justice administration. His quest for excellence remained the driving force that even after his retirement he had outstanding researches in progress, which includes Trends in Trust Concept; The Chief Judge of a State- My Experience; Contemporary Study of Rights of Occupancy Systems in Nigeria and Tanzania. Justice Umezulike was by every inch, a renowned scholar.

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As a teacher of the law, his students found his authority in Conveyancing and Adverse Possession as a stamp of knowledge. As a Professor in Land and Property Law, Umezulike dotted his footprints with 23 books. He is remembered for receiving over 100 distinguished Legal Honours and Awards for excellence in service as a distinguished Judge of Enugu State High Court for over 23 years. He was appointed by the Federal Government of Nigeria to serve at the Supreme Court of The Gambia in 1997, just as he was also found credible enough to be the Chairman of Failed Banks Tribunal Zone 6 Nigeria in 1998.

As a father, the Quintessential Jurisperitus is being missed by his family, which he stood robust, gallant and unshakable like an Iroko tree. He lived for the family, unapologetically, unwavering in his convictions, determined in his chosen path and enjoyed life to the fullest. He loved beyond words that his children pray to fill the wide vacuum his exit has created.

Justice Professor Innocent Umezulike passed on in a London hospital and took a final bow on September 28, 2018, at his country home, Mgbidi, Enugu State with funeral rites presided over by His Grace Archbishop Chukwuma, after a night of tributes at the Enugu sports club; Service of Songs, Commendation Service and a Valedictory Court session on September 27.

In memorial, his family has established the Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation and Justice Innocent Umezulike Law Library and Legal Research Centre in his honour and will also publish all his unpublished works before his exit.

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