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Justice Tobi: Unfazed by controversy

By Sunny Ogefere and Seye Olumide
21 June 2016   |   1:08 am
Retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Niki Tobi who passed on at the weekend could easily be remembered for his roles in the National Political Reform Conference...
Supreme Court

Supreme Court

Retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Niki Tobi who passed on at the weekend could easily be remembered for his roles in the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) and the Presidential Election Petition panel of the Supreme Court that heard the appeal petition against the 2007 election victory of Late President Umaru Musa Ya’Adua.

He chaired the NPRC set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 as well as read the lead judgment of the presidential petition panel. Both assignments were trailed by controversies.

However Justice Tobi who was considered a no-nonsense judge was hardly perturbed by outside opinions on matters concerning his profession as a Justice of the law.

This was manifest in his membership of the panel of Justices of the Supreme Court that handled the 2007 presidential election petition case involving late President Umaru Musa Ya’Adua explicit. The case generated some controversy with some section of the media alleging that the Justices were under severe pressures from the presidency then.

Tobi who delivered the lead judgment on the matter decried the media commentary of the case particularly the role of the online media, noting that they amounted to a blackmail of the Justices of the apex court.

“It is sad that so much has been said in the newspapers of this country on the case. The new technology of Internet reporting has added to the comments, some of them doubting our integrity to do justice according to law. I regard them as blackmail and I will not succumb to blackmail. I swore on that eventful day as a High Court Judge to do justice to all manner of persons without fear or favor,” he stated while delivering the judgment.

Similarly, Justice Tobi, who chaired the NPRC which was considered to be the most controversial constitutional conference lamented over what he might have done wrong by heading the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC).

In an interview he granted in 2005 with one of the national dallies, the late judge was quoted to have complained he did not understand the basis of the view in the media that the 2005 conference ended in a deadlock.

While he (Tobi) neither agreed with the view that the 2005 NPRC ended in a deadlock, nor bothered by it, he seemed to have anticipated all the controversies and took steps to ensure a smooth conclusion of the exercise.

Before the inauguration of the conference on February 21, 2005, there were skepticisms about its value and after its inauguration there were fears it might break up even before it had commenced sitting.

However five months after, the skepticisms and fears about the exercise, particularly the pressure on Justice Tobi later turned out to be unjustified. As former President Obasanjo and the judge averred, the exercise was huge success.

After extensive deliberations and treating more than 700 memoranda submitted by Nigerians, it arrived at near unanimity on 187 recommendations out of 189 subjects decided upon. There was serious disagreement on only one subject, “Resource Control”, and a mild disagreement on another, tenure of the President and Governors.

One of the first challenges Tobi confronted as the chairman of the NPRC was the restrictions imposed on the conference by the “no-go areas” highlighted by the government, the 19 committees produced a vital document, which attempted to proffer solutions to the national question.

There were also disagreements over methodology, principles and procedures adopted in organising the 2005 NPRC conference, which culminated in the convocation of an alternative conference by a group of civil society organisations and ethnic nationalities, under the aegis of Pro-National Conference Organisation (PRONACO), led by Chief Anthony Enahoro and Professor Wole Soyinka. These two PRONACO organizers, Enahoro and Soyinka, declined official invitation to join the government’s political reform conference, in protest against the mode of selection of participants.

Their position was that any conference to be organised at this point in time in the history of Nigeria should be sovereign, while representation should be by election. The four major grievances of PRONACO against 2005 NPRC conference were: first, all the delegates were chosen either by the federal government or by the state governments, they were all seen therefore as hand-picked government appointees or supporters who could not be trusted to address the country’s political problems and come up with solutions that would be acceptable to the majority.

The second issue was the non- representation or incomplete representation of the ethnic nationalities. The third reason was gross under-representation of womenfolk who was seen as constituting more than 50 per cent of Nigerian population. The final issue was the fact that the Federal Government was not prepared to submit the outcome of the conference to a referendum. In other words, government was seen as intending to impose the conclusions of the conference and its own will on the people.

PRONACO posited that the 2005 NPRC conference was merely for constitutional amendment that would not lead to structural transformation of the country.
Although the members were not elected, many of the delegates were credible Nigerians from all walks of life. Apart from Tobi, other principal officers were the Deputy Chairman, Alhaji Sule Katagun, the Secretary, Dr. Mathew Kukah, the Joint Secretary, Prof. I-shaq Oloyede, the Deputy Secretary, (Administration and Finance), Nu’uman Dambatta, and the Deputy Secretary (Conference Proceedings), Mr. Akin Arikawe. But a pre-conference committee, which produced the blueprint, prepared the groundwork. Former Kaduna State Governor Mohammed Makarfi headed it.

The retired Justice of the Supreme Court, who died at the National Hospital, Abuja was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2002 and retired in July 2010 after attaining the age of 70.

Born July 14, 1940 in Esanma in Bomadi Local Government Area of Delta State, Tobi was an academic before his career on the bench. As an academic, he was variously the Dean, of Faculty of Law, University of Maiduguri and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Services) of the same institution.