By BRUCE MALOGO
The appointment kept shifting for over a year. Once, I missed my flight and I had to hit the road – at night. Destination: Port Harcourt. But I couldn’t go beyond Ore in Ondo State. It was those times when the devil chose to celebrate and the famous Benin-Ore axis was forbidden. We got to Ore at 11pm and we couldn’t go further. Nine, the following morning, I picked my bag and came back to Lagos. I called the man and I told him I could not make it. I gave him some reasons other than the real reason. He didn’t make a fuss about it. Last week, that’s months after, I called to tell him I was coming. “Incidentally, I am in Abuja,” he told me. “I will return to Port Harcourt on Wednesday.” That was all right by me; any day could have been. Thursday morning I headed to Port Harcourt. This time by air.
Delay here and there, I arrived at 1.30pm. I called the man and the response was: “But I have been at home all morning. I am on my way to Abonnema.” My head reeled and beads of sweat coursed down from my armpits. “I’m sorry about that, sir. But if you can give me just 30 minutes,” I pleaded in utter confusion. “I’m already inside the car,” he told me. “From where you are, you can’t even get to this place in 30 minutes,” he nailed it. To salvage the situation, I called him again and offered: “Ok, sir, let me meet you in Abonnema, if you don’t mind.” And he said: “All right, when you get there, ask for New Site, that is where my house is.”
I got a taxi from the airport and headed for Abonnema, a place I had never been before and didn’t know how far it was. The consolation was that the man agreed that I meet him there. So my mission would be accomplished after all. So let the devil eat his guts.
After going through the tedium of the construction yard that Port Harcourt has become, I arrived at the old town Abonnema. It was tranquil, even sedate, but for the suffusing presence of men of the Joint Task Force. It wasn’t much trouble accessing the man’s house. It stands majestically in a sprawling compound. It has some Gothic features with the inscription: Opus Dei (Work of God, in Latin). In fact, I arrived his house before him. He was still in Degema when I arrived, so he told me when I called to let him know I had arrived his gate. I had to wait for him.
About 15 minutes later he came in a black Toyota Land Cruiser. I leaped from where I sat and went to him. I was so taken by him that I did not notice that he arrived with his wife. He was to tell me during the interview that he came in the same car with her. However, after the initial pleasantries, he led the way and I dogged after him into the bowel of his large sitting-room. For ice-breaker, he gave me the history of his town, Abonnema an old, civilised commune now struggling to keep up with the civilization of the 21st Century. Justice Adolphus Godwin Karibi-Whyte speaks gently with modulating tone. Within the two hours, he had told the story of his life. What made such an iconic personality?
You are now in retirement; how has it been with you?
It has been a lovely retirement. Not that the money is enough, but we still keep body and soul together. Fortunately, about 18 months after I retired, the River State government of Peter Odili made me chairman of advisory committee. I continued with that till the end of 2007. When that ended, I told the governor that that was my last effort with government. It was like that until Rotimi Amaechi came. He appointed me Pro-Chancellor of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. So it’s okay. I like that because I started my career as an academic. I thought the place was sliding and I thought that one should do something to bring some sanity into the situation. So I accepted and I told him that I had to be given a free hand to deal with it. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been so. Civil servants and politicians have their way. But it is all right, we are still coping with it because not that they are doing it intentionally, they think they have a duty to direct things, but they did not appreciate that even in carrying out those duties, they must carry them out within the provisions of the statutes creating that institution. So you can help, but as long as you do it within those statutes.
You mentioned something quite profound there – about official interferences. I ask you, sir, is that not one of the things undermining effective public administration in this country, when politicians and government officials cannot leave technocrats and professionals to do their work?
Not actually, there are some meaningful interferences, if they are done within the provisions enabling one to do so. It would be ideal, because they always say two heads are better than one. When two people reason together with the same objective, within the same scope, then you get good results.
We’ll come back to all that, but meanwhile, let’s go back to you. You didn’t set out to go into practice, as a lawyer, that is. You were lecturing at the University of Lagos. How did the transition come?
Thank you very much. Actually, that was not it. You know, my career started first when I left secondary school in 1951. I joined the Judicial Service as a 3rd Class Clerk. It was there, as a private person, I did my higher school eighteen months after. I had my GCE A-level in 1955 and then I went to study law.
But as a clerk, of course, I got fascinated with the lawyers and their practice. I graduated in 1960 from the University of Hull. I was not on scholarship; it was my father who paid my fees until I did my Masters in 1962. A week before my Master’s Degree result was out – that was in October 13, 1962, my supervisor, Professor Allot hinted me that he would appoint me as a research officer, in the School of Oriental and African Studies. That’s how I got appointed ever before the results were announced. So, I was satisfied. I would have done very well for him to offer me the job. So by the 19th of October, he wrote me an appointment letter. So that was how I started.
You made an attempt at PhD?
Yes. I was to have submitted my PhD thesis in 1964 but I don’t know what happened; Professor Allot got a little disenchanted with certain things. So, after correcting my manuscript, approving that I should go and get it printed and all those things, he started dragging his feet.
Why was that?
Well, a few of my colleagues felt that he wanted me to continue in the research scheme because I told him that I was returning to Nigeria. My father was here and I couldn’t have stayed away for so long. I still did not mind then, I gave it up and left. I should have finished it in 1964. But it did not stop my relationship with him. When I came to UNILAG, Professor Anderson, who was the Dean of Law in School of Oriental and African Studies was one of my supervisors; he recommended me very highly, that’s how I got appointed (at UNILAG) and I didn’t have any problems at all.
Incidentally, my Masters result was excellent. I had distinctions in three of the four courses. Normally, I would have been satisfied with that; I wouldn’t have gone further for a PhD. I thought that was enough. That was why I didn’t bother to pursue it because again, another of my professors there had only Masters Degree but was one of the best that you could think of. And there were many of them like that. But it was only when we came home to Nigeria that they started bandying this PhD thing. You know, academics and education, is what you can produce yourself, not necessarily what PhD has written. If you can write good articles or good books then it is okay. Like our doyen, my good friend, Ben Nwabueze, he didn’t do a PhD. But he later did an LLD. But that was after he had presented the books he had written. So he didn’t have to rush to do a PhD. So that’s how I came back in 1965 August to join the UNILAG. Actually, I should have gone to (University of) Ife. My good friend, Professor Kasunmu, we did Masters degree together…
At University of Hull?
No. That was in London. I did my first degree in Hull but I did the Masters in Hull. So, it was there we met and we were to come together to Ife. The dean there, Professor Marshall, interviewed us and said we should come and at the last minute, I changed my mind and went to Lagos.
So you pursued your PhD in Lagos?
Yes, under Professor (Taslim) Elias.
I read somewhere that your father insisted that you become a doctor?
Yes, he preferred my being a medical doctor.
You resisted it?
Well, I explained to him that I didn’t like it.
And there was no pressure on you?
No. My father doesn’t behave like that towards me; he leaves me to my judgments.
You said you, what about your other siblings?
Well, I think I have what I will call some preference. He treated me in a different way.
Why was that?
I don’t know.
And you never bothered to find out?
No I didn’t. He obviously allowed me to do what I liked. If I said, this is what I liked, he would say, ‘okay, if that is what you like’. If not, he would have preferred my being a medical doctor.
But at the end of the day, he liked what you became?
Yes. He was very proud of me. When I came back, he had to travel to Lagos to receive me and come home with me. He was at the airport to receive me.
You spent barely eight years in practice and you were appointed to the Supreme Court. That was extraordinary; don’t you think so?
Well, it is a funny thing. I also was surprised. You know, most people don’t know that I had no particular ambition about how far I could go. I didn’t bother.
So you didn’t plan it; you had no career plan?
No, there wasn’t. Frankly, I am being sincere; not one. All I wanted to be was to be a good judge…
A good judge!
Just that. In fact, I used to tell my colleagues that I wouldn’t mind if I retired just as a high court judge provided I made my mark as a judge. I gave examples of English judges who are referred to in all judgments, in all writings as excellent judges. They never got to the Court of Appeal. They did not even go to the House of Lords. If you can make your mark as a good judge and your judgments are cited and referred to, whether somebody is a Chief Justice or not, it doesn’t mean anything. It is only a title; an appointment. The more permanent image you create is what you’ve left behind and not the official position that you held. So that was my idea.
What do you consider as the high points of your Supreme Court days?
I was fairly lucky in the Supreme Court, I will say. You see, when I got there, Justice (Sodeinde) Sowemimo was the CJ. He was the magistrate when I first worked as a clerk. He was now the CJ and I a Justice of the court. At the same time, Justice (Chukwudifu) Oputa, who was my teacher, was also my colleague in the Supreme Court and I was senior to him in the Supreme Court. So I was so lucky with all these people, that even when I was making mistakes they corrected me. They took me as a small boy.
They took you as a small boy, even when you were colleagues!
Yes. Whenever Justice Sowemimo wanted to write a judgment, he would first point to me and I would first go and write the thing.
And you were not one of the most senior at the time?
At that time, no. I was third to the last actually, but Justice Sowemimo would always ask me to go and write each time. Or even when I was with Oputa, he would tell me: ‘Adolphus, go and get it out.’
Oputa was your principal at the secondary school and here you were, his senior at the Supreme Court. How did it feel?
I felt small. Oputa is fantastic. You know, of all the people I have met, he is a very brilliant man, not only in law, but also in classics, in literature, in history; he is not comparable. I keep telling people, even when we were there, I said, ‘look, forget all what we are doing here o, Oputa is in his class. He is a different character.’ Although, in the interpretation of law, he can defer to me sometimes, because he agrees with my interpretation, but his language is superb, you know, the way he coins and uses words and his literature; and his Latin is impeccable. Oh no! He is a rare breed.
But I was happy with them. But apart from him, all the others, (Justice Kayode) Esho… all of them, they liked me.
So your period at the Supreme Court was very memorable?
Yes, very. I enjoyed it very much.
In your valedictory speech, you said: “My career as a Judge has given me immense pleasure and satisfaction. To a large extent, advancement in the Judiciary comes through reputation.” What do you mean by that?
Well, established reputation of integrity, excellence and ability. Those are the things that set you apart as a good judge.
Do you see so much of those credentials today?
Well, there must be one or two; a few of them.
And are you impressed by the much you see?
Frankly I have not followed their career that much. I haven’t bothered to follow their career.
Again, this is what you said at the valedictory session: “Culpable ignorance and conceit, which are the bane of Nigerian public officers have also affected the generality of the judiciary.” You want to explain that?
Well you know, when a judge is ignorant of the law, he should not be forgiven. He should not be seen as not knowing what he should know. How can anybody accept such a person within the ranks of the judiciary? And that is the problem with the civil service as a whole – many ignorant people are there, punishing more excellent people for their ability. And that has never been any good for us and this is what I am talking about.
Just as you said, it couldn’t have happened in your time. This is a personal question: Tell me sir, as justice, what were the temptations you had that could have made you to compromise your position?
My dear, I never had one. I keep telling people and they get surprised. I haven’t been faced with such a problem throughout my so many years in the judiciary.
Why? Were people afraid of you?
I suppose so. I would have rebuffed them. I would have made it clear that I won’t have any part in that but I won’t tell anybody.
But such thing existed at that time, even though not as brazen as we have it today?
I don’t think anybody ever came out to confront me about such a thing.
Not even to your colleagues?
Even them. Not one. Throughout. Nobody has dared to mention anything to me. It is possible that they might have come to try but they never voiced it. There were some funny moves; they come to you but they never said it. I know certain people tried to, we had several discussions on other matters but they never mentioned why they came. I don’t see how they will suggest it.
It is said that the judiciary has become too politically exposed. Is this right?
Well, in certain respects, political parties or the big wigs of political parties sponsor certain persons to appointment as judges. They sponsor people to be promoted judges. These are the exposures. When you sponsor someone, he is beholden to you. This is the exposure we are talking about and that is the problem.
But is it right?
No, it is not right. You see, in England, the moment, a person is appointed judge, he becomes apolitical. He belongs to no party. Even if he is a party man, he ceases to be a party man. He is now a judge between two contending parties. Nigeria should look at it that way. They should realise that he is now a judge and he is here to decide issues between two people.
Your work at the Supreme Court was interrupted several times by commission, tribunals and others. How was that?
They were wonderful experiences. In fact, I had so many commissions. The Civil Disturbances Tribunal was one of the most agonising.
Tell me about it, sir.
It is still the same thing that is happening now, the disturbances in Kaduna, Kafanchan and all those areas. There were riots.
That was during Babangida’s period?
Yes. It was him who appointed me.
Why was it agonising for you?
Because of the risk. It was terrible. It was what I will call dangerous. They wanted to start it in Kaduna but because of the security reasons they could not set up the tribunal there. When they got to Abuja, they could not in the city because of the security situation. So we went to Lower Osuma Dam, which is right off Abuja where they had army barracks. So it was in the barracks. We were protected by a platoon.
To inaugurate it or to sit?
To sit. It was so dangerous. We were going from Abuja everyday in an armoured car with soldiers guarding us to the place because the Muslims were hell bent that it would not happen.
But you sat through it?
We tried them, all the same.
You committed how many?
As many as I could (laughs). Some of them were threatening that they were in touch with Babangida. I said, ‘and so what? Let Babangida tell me why you shouldn’t be tried.’ (Justice Bola) Ajibola was the Attorney General then, Lateef Adegbite, all of them were Muslims there. I had known Lateef very well.
And they didn’t try to interfere?
How can? They did not. They know me personally. They won’t interfere. They came as counsel.
So what lessons did you come out with?
God’s guidance and fairness. If you are fair, even the man you are trying will sympathise with you. Even there, I made friends with some of the boys I was trying. One of them, a History major student in Zaria, a 19-year-old-boy… I invited him to the chambers and I looked at his profile, I said this boy must have to go and do his exams. So we just discharged him, let him go and do his exams with a warning not to get into this kind of trouble again. The other El Zak-Zaky was making trouble. He was one of the leaders. He will now shout this their Muslim cry. I told the members that whenever he cried, Allah is the greatest; we followed him to say so.
We all agreed. God is the greatest. After that, read the charges to him. He was disturbing and then I warned him. “Look, we have followed you to say that Allah is the greatest. If you disturb any longer, I will deal with you properly.” He continued. I said okay, try him. We sent him to prison for six months. When he came back, he became sober.
Let me make an observation. When I walked in here, I saw this big house, I now thought this man is close to 80 and Madam is 70-something, just the two of them and the children are all gone. What will the two of them do with all this?
The children come whenever they are free. They come to spend their holidays with us. Others come too.
It never occurred to you that you should have built a smaller structure for times like this?
If they come with four boys, where will they stay, if it is small structure? Then two daughters with their husbands. So it’s a family house. That is the idea.
On the fascia of your house, you have the inscription: Opus Dei.
Yes, it is Latin, meaning, The work of God
What inspires that?
I went to The Hague in 1993 as a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal. By the time I went there, I was a Justice of the Supreme Court earning not more than N65,000 a year. But when I got there, in November 1993, the salary was 12,000 dollars per month. That was what helped me build this house.
I could never have, with Supreme Court pay. How could I have built a house? That is why it is a work of God.
And you had strap to the inscription: To God be the Glory.
Yes. That was how I was able to do this.
So how was your experience at The Hague?
Fantastic, very good experience. You know, ideal working conditions. Although when they pay you the 12,000 a month, it means you get your house, do all the services, Mrs. was with me so she could manage everything. So we decided within a few months to do this (build the house).
You said within a few months?
Yes. Well, we started planning towards that. There, things were easy. You paid your insurance for your health and everything was all right.
Let’s talk about you. What moves you?
I trust in God and I do what I think that I should do. I just believe in God. Do what is right, do nothing against my fellow man.
What, in your childhood experiences, may have informed this?
I suppose my humble bringing.
How was it?
It was a very pleasurable one. You know, I used to tell people, why I don’t hate or dislike anybody is that I have no cause to. From childhood, my parents brought me up properly. I used to tease people. I say, do you know I never suffered. When I mean suffering, not for one day. I can’t remember.
Your parents must have been rich then?
My father was all right. My father was rich, yes. Even for the six years while I worked, I was not caring for anybody but myself. If I needed anything he would give me, so I had no problem.
People often say there is no cure for old age; you can only manage it. My mother, you are about her age and it is either arthritis today or, cataract tomorrow. What about you?
No health challenges?
Nothing. Except that I am slightly diabetic.
So how do you manage it?
I take my drugs.
Religiously, I purpose, that is, knowing of course, what happened to your father?
Yes. I am quite fit. Fortunately, my wife is the main strength. She was a nurse. She even went as far as doing a teacher’s diploma in Midwifery. She knows what to do.
So she manages you.
Very well. And incidentally, when I was appointed a judge in 1976, she had to retire from nursing to stay fully as a housewife. Since then, she has never worked again.
Was it so that she could manage you well?
Yes, so she could be with me; to stay at home and look after the children.
The children are all grow up now?
They are grownup and married too.
The men are with their wives and the women are with their husbands and you are now left all alone with your wife. How does it feel?
O! fine. We have just come back from Abuja to see one of the children. We almost always travel together.
You must have loved each other.
Yes, we do. We are meant for each other. Rarely do we travel separately. Especially when we travel overseas, we travel together.
When you have misunderstanding, which you must, how do you resolve it?
I don’t think we have had any misunderstanding which we needed any other person.
Even between the two of you?
Just small things like any other human being. It doesn’t last for 24 hours.
And you never had to raise your voice at each other?
It is not necessary. Well from my nature, I seldom raise my voice. If I get angry all I do is to keep quiet and say nothing.
What was the constant and consistent advice you gave to your children?
What I normally tell them is, I say, look, this life is one simple thing. You know, in 1954 – and that is a story I tell all of them – I was walking through All Saints Church in Yaba, a very sunny day. One man just saw me, I didn’t know what he was talking. Then he just babbled in Yoruba and said, the advice he will give me is to open my eyes, open my ears but not my mouth.
And you didn’t know the man from anywhere?
Till today he just disappeared. I didn’t see him again. I gave him three pence or so. So, I tell my children, the interpretation I give this is, you must see, you must hear, talk very little. And it means you have to be patient. You will conquer everything.
If you had opportunity to live your life all over again, what would you like to go through the same route?
Yes, but it would be a little faster (laughter).
How faster would you have it, when you were appointed to the Supreme Court at 52?
Yes, but I should have graduated earlier and married earlier – I married at about 30, I should have married some five years earlier.
In all you have seen and all you have heard and all you have done, what has life taught you?
Well, trusting God and do nothing wrong to other people. Do your best, not caring what happens.
• This abridged interview was first published on May 1st 2011.