A Tribute To A Great Judge, Justice J.P. Oki
ON Sunday March 30, this year, I came across a newspaper report of the funeral service of the late Justice J.P. Oki who was called to eternity recently.
The funeral service took place in Patani, his hometown. He was a former Chief Judge of Bendel State before the state was divided into Edo and Delta.
The funeral service was attended by legal dignitaries from Edo and Delta states. According to the report, it was a most impressive ceremony befitting the legacy he left behind in jurisprudence and gentlemanly behaviour. After retirement, he lived in Benin City until his passing.
Reading the news item was the first indication I had of his demise. I am therefore using this opportunity to pay a well-deserved tribute to him.
The intention of this tribute is to draw attention to his days as an undergraduate in the newly established University College Ibadan. Justice J. P. Oki was a noble UITE.
He was not only a great UITE as all UITEs think of themselves, he was in the group of those referred to as noble and great UITE. It was therefore not a surprise that he was attracted to the noble profession of Law after graduating from UCI.
It must be remembered that the University College Ibadan did not have a Faculty of Law at that time. It is noteworthy that a large number of alumni of the University of Ibadan who read Art or Science in the early days of the University College also got attracted to the noble profession of Law.
Some names that readily come to mind are: (1) The late Chief Bola Ige, who read Classics and later became not only a distinguished lawyer, but also a former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the Federation of Nigeria.
His late wife, Justice Atinuke Ige also read Arts at Ibadan and followed in her husband’s footstep to become not jus an eminent lawyer but a member of he Bench; (2) the late Justice Dr. J. Orojo, who read Science and later became a distinguished lawyer, a Director General of the Nigerian Law School and a former Chief Judge of Ondo State;
(3) the late Abdul Razak, who read Arts and later became the first lawyer from Northern Nigeria Region as well as the first Legal Adviser to Northern People’s Congress in the late 1950s; (4) the late Mr. J. Osuji (of the Almighty DODO Fame!!), who read Arts and later became not only an eminent lawyer but also the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice of Imo State; (5) the late Justice Mohammed Bello, the former Chief Justice of the Federation of Nigeria.
He too read Latin at UCI preparatory to going to the United Kingdom (UK) to read Law.
In that profession, he had such a distinguished career that took him to the pinnacle of the Law profession in this country; (6) the late Justice Nasir, who also read Latin at UCI preparatory to going to the UK to read Law, also became Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the Northern Region of Nigeria before joining the Bench where he subsequently retired as the President of the Court of Appeal; and (7) the late Mr. Akinola who read Arts, got attracted to the honourable profession of Law and subsequently became Clerk of the House of Western Regional Assembly in Ibadan.
There were many others too numerous to be listed who studied Arts or Science and later got attracted to the noble profession of Law. I plead guilty to any error of omission or commission. I only attempted to name a few that readily came to mind.
The above digression was merely to point out that many other UITEs followed in the footsteps of the late Chief J. P. Oki and made indelible marks in the honourable profession of Law. He and Alhaji Abdul Razak blazed the trail.
The rest of this tribute will focus on what I remember of him as an Arts student in the four years we were together from 1948 to 1952 and also what I remember of him after we were appointed to the Board of Trustees of the University of Ibadan Alumni Association.
First, going down the memory lane within the period 1948-1952, I remember that the late Justice J. P. Oki was one of the students who came from the famous Dennis Memorial Grammar School (DMGS), Onitsha.
It is instructive to discuss the life and times of Justice J. Oki by examining the students’ academic and social environment then.
There were four academic faculties namely Arts, Science, Medicine and Agriculture. Pre-engineering students were accommodated in the Faculty of Science. The student population by 1952 was not much more than 500, most of them being male students.
As a result of the fewness of the faculties and the fact that all students were grouped into two Halls of residence except the ladies, who occupied a block of rooms called Block Zero, social interaction was easy and intense.
Social life within the halls of residence was exciting as many students interacted with not only those they had known in their previous secondary schools but also met at lectures and sports activities, those who came from other schools. Students exhibited a lot of youthful exuberance and played a lot of pranks including ‘gusting’ (telling rib-cracking humorous jokes). Discussing the life and times of Justice J.P. Oki would be incomplete without giving an account of a prank which Mr. J. Eneh, who was Oki’s schoolmate at DMGS, Onitsha, unleashed on another undergraduate mistakenly. Eneh knew that J.P Oki was a swot and was likely to be reading far into the night while preparing for final examination at the end of first session in 1949. So, Eneh decided to disguise himself as a ghost.
He wrapped himself all up in a white bed sheet head to toe and put white powder on his face. He left his room in the next block of rooms and tip toed to J.P. Oki’s room to frighten him. In his anxiety he knocked at the room next to J.P Oki’s mistakenly.
There were two students in that room, one was Mr. Osuji who was fast asleep; the other was Mr. Babalola who was wide awake swotting.
When he heard relentless taps on the door, he was annoyed and could not understand why anybody should be disturbing the peace of the room at that ungodly hour. So indignantly, he flung open the door to tell off the intruder. Eneh, still thinking it must be his friend J.P. Oki, floated towards Babalola like a ghost. Babalola, seeing a most unexpected figure looking every inch like a ghost, raised the biggest alarm that his voice and big physical frame could muster. He fled back into the room and tried to escape through the window, he forgot he already locked the window, he bounced back and fell on the floor and now crawled under his bed.
He shouted even more, he nearly brought down the roof of the house. Most students who were still reading trooped out of their various rooms only to find Eneh running back to his room with his white bed sheet hanging over his shoulders.
That timely discovery made it possible to convince Mr. Babalola after many attempts that it was not a ghost but Eneh playing a prank and so Eneh was nicknamed “Babalola Ghost” and that title stuck with him for the rest of his time in UCI. The story spread like wild fire and there was not a single student who could ever forget J. Eneh, J.P Oki and Babalola.
The irony of life was that J. Eneh later became a Professor of Zoology of the University of Ibadan. After J.P. Oki graduated in 1952, he became a school master for a while and then decided to go and read Law. He did that by going to the UK, registered as a Law student and also became enrolled in an Inn of Court.
After taking all his Bar exams and eating all the prescribed number of dinners, he came back to Nigeria and registered as a Barrister and Solicitor in the Supreme Court. I vaguely followed his progress in the Law profession until he was called to the Bench and later became the distinguished Chief Judge of Bendel State (Midwest Region in the First Republic).
In 1973, Justice J.P Oki, as Chief Judge of Bendel State, the late Prof. Ishaya Audu, former Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and my humble self were appointed as members of the Board of Trustees of the University of Ibadan Alumni Association (UIAA). The Association was nationally launched that year with Chief Bola Ige as the National President.
In the early years of UIAA, the Board of Trustees did not have much to do beyond standing as Trustees for the purpose of registering UIAA as a corporate entity. About 12 years ago, the Board of Trustees of UIAA was re-organised. I was still left on the Board.
By then, the late Justice J.P Oki had retired from the Bench and was living comfortably in Benin City. Since then, we have been frequently interacting through the telephone. On such occasions, I briefed him on the current events of UIAA.
He in turn would enquire about the well being and health of many of the undergraduates (in the pioneer group) with whom both of us were acquainted during the early years of the UCI.
In fact, we refer to ourselves in the pioneer group as “Ancients”. I came to know Justice Oki, a little more than some of the other “Ancients” because we were both connected deeply with the UIAA at least in our official capacity.
Some of the “Ancients” were very active in the Alumni movement; others only remembered anything about UI on special occasions.
Although Justice J.P Oki ceased to be a member of Board of Trustees of UIAA several years ago, he continued to show very keen interest in the affairs of UIAA. We frequently spoke about the fortunes of the university.
Whenever there was a crisis in the place such as prolonged strikes by the university trade unions, which affected the smooth running of academic sessions, he never failed to commiserate with the situation. He would pass his comment to the incumbent national officers of UIAA through my humble self as the current Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
I therefore consider it a duty and a privilege to write this tribute to a noble UITE, to a great scholar, a legal luminary and an erudite Judge.
His life and times epitomised the best in the high standards of education and achievements for which the products of the UCI in those early years were international acclaimed. Adieu to a Great Judge!!! Dr. Omolayode is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, University of Ibadan Alumni Association.
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