Glorious Past: Justice Mohammed Bello—The Mufti’s Son by Muhammad Muntasir Adamu

This piece is an attempt to salute the memory of a great jurist, a leader, a statesman and to some fortunate ones a great mentor .Justice Mohammed Bello is not an “enigma wrapped in a paradox”. He is like more like a T-square on a drawing board: plain, straight, and simple. A  Jurist of international repute and patriot.

Justice Bello was born in Katsina in 1930. His heritage was a noble one. His father Muhammad Gidado was the son of Abdullahi, the son of Muhammad Bajjo, whose father is Mallam Isyaka Daura, a contemporary of the 18th century Islamic reformer Sheikh Danfodio. Bello’s  father was the Mufti(Attorney-General) of Katsina.

Bello attended Katsina Elementary school from 1938-1942. He was educated at Barewa College, Zaria. He wanted to become an Engineer. After leaving college, he joined UAC as a manager trainee in the engineering department. However,  on the advice  of Northern elders and the seemingly lack of professionals in judiciary and legal practice from this part of the country, the Colonial Governor wrote to the Principal of the college, requesting for three bright students to be selected for training as lawyers. The three were Justice Mohammed Bello along with Justice Mamman  Nasir  GCON(retired President of the Court of Appeal) and late Justice Buba Ardo (of the Supreme court). Bello’s Principal at Kaduna College, A.W.A Spice recommended the three of them for scholarship to study law in England. The result is that the indelible footprints they and others left for us to document to solve the nation’s legal system.

He then proceeded to the University College Ibadan to study Latin as a preparatory for a law degree. Between 1953- 1955, he was at Inn of court, London, earning his law degree. In February 1956, Mohammed Bello returned to Nigeria armed with his professional qualification.  He was engaged at Northern Nigeria legal department as Pupil Counsel. Bello was the only Nigerian counsel in the department of senior crown counsel and rests were all Europeans from the position of Director Public Prosecution, the solicitor General, to the Attorney-General.

In 1957, Bello was again off to England where he completed his Pupilage at Middle Temple in Fitzgerald Chambers under Barrister Gibbon who was one of the six Pupilage lawyers there. In his course of his study in London, he did his apprenticeship at London ‘Inn where there were good numbers of Nigerians. In 1958, upon the completion of his Pupilage, Bello was elevated to the status of Crown Counsel. The first case he prosecuted was Ngozi Obodo’s case which involves a community in Eastern Nigeria. They had formed a vigilante but which later graduated into holding a Kangaroo court and execution of victims.

In April 1961, Bello was posted to Ilorin where he became the first Nigerian Chief Magistrate in Northern Nigeria. He was afterward awarded a scholarship to take part in the international program at Harvard Law School.  By 1963, he returned to Nigeria to assume the post of Chief Magistrate in Kano and later as acting High Court judge. In 1964, he was elevated to the position of Director of Public Prosecution for Northern Nigeria. A giant fit as the first Nigerian to hold that position. In 1966, Bello was made a judge of the High court. Between 1969 and 1975, he was appointed the acting Chief Justice of the Northern State several times.

In 1975, when Murtala Mohammed took over as Head of State, he met with Justice Bello and others on the reorganization of the Judiciary. Bello was appointed as Chief Judge of Kaduna. By his acceptance, he became the first Nigerian to hold that position in Kaduna. After the retirement of Dr. T.O Elias and Sir Danly Alexander, Justice Bello was elevated to the Supreme Court. On March 9, 1987, after twelve years of judicial activism in the Supreme Court, Justice Mohammed Bello was sworn in as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. By October 1995, he had spent a record of twenty years in the Supreme Court bench, eight of which as the Chief Justice.

The Supreme Court under his great leadership established a remarkable status all over the world that the Court remains the hope for the hopeless and a pinnacle of justice regardless of the military dictatorship. Alongside Justice Chukwudifo Oputa, Justice Kayode Eso, Justice Ameachi, Justice Saidu Kawu,  Justice AbdulGaniyu Olatunji  Agbaje, Justice Nnamani, Justice A.G Kabiri-Whyte, Justice Buba Ardo, Justice Andrew  Otutu Obaseki, Justice Philip Nnaemeka-Agu, Justice Abubakar Bashir Wali to mention a few,  they took a firm stand that the judiciary is totally independent and cannot bow to principalities of powers.  In my sentiments, those years were the golden years of the Supreme Court.

Justice Bello has held numerous extra judicial appointments. He was Legal Secretary to the Cameroon under the British mandate in1961, Deputy Commissioner for Native Courts in 1965 – 1966,  Chairman, Electricity Corporation of Nigeria Commission of Inquiry , 1968-1970,; Chairman, North Central State Rehabilitation Commission, 1968-1970, Chairman Visitation Panels of the Universities of Lagos and Ibadan, 1971, Chairman, Kano Air Disaster Commission of Inquiry, 1973; Chairman, St. John Council of Nigeria, 1978; Chairman, Governing Council, Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 1980-1987; Chairman, Body of Benchers, 1981-1982; National Commissioner Sheriff Guards of Nigeria.

He has been honoured by four Nigeria Universities – University of Ibadan, University of Lagos, Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. A grateful Nation has twice honoured him, with two distinguished honours- Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), and Grand Commander   of the Order of the Niger (GCON).

Justice Bello lived an exemplary life that serves as beacon of hope for our generation. His achievements as a lawyer and later on the bench must be emulated by all and sundry. Bello was a courageous Jurist and administrator who dispensed justice without fear or favour especially under our military class. No wonder till date his judgments are still cited by Justices and scholars in making their submissions. Justice Bello was an embodiment of gentility, simplicity, and piety according to those who had the privileged of knowing him personally.

Alhaji Razak SAN, A former Minister of Justice, Attorney-General of the Federation and the first Lawyer from Northern Nigeria, have this to say on justice Bello “As his integrity and long and  honest legal and judicial service to Nigeria, There is no doubt about them. He was a good gentleman to the core”. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Former Head of State of Nigeria had this to say “Late Mohammed Bello could hardly be forgotten by so many of us who are gathered here today because of his character and simplicity that were his hallmark. Justice Bello had touched our lives in so many so much that we cannot be able to wipe him off our memories”.

Late Chief F.R.A. Williams SAN put it this way “He is a man whose entire professional life is untainted by any scandal or malpractice. I am confident that his record of public service is clean and unimpeachable. He has challenged those who dared to swear it by proving their accusations in the public arena of a court of law.”

Former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais GCON pointed that if Justice Bello was not forced to accept the Supreme Court appointment by late General Murtala Mohammed in 1975, “The nation would have been denied the erudition and wonderful service rendered by Justice Bello as a Justice of the Supreme Court and later as Chief Justice of Nigeria for eight years.”

Chief Kehinde Sofola SAN, described him as “A Jurist of distinction, an incorruptible judge, a great patriot, a devout Muslim, a worthy statesman and a shiny example to the young generation.”

When Justice Mohammed Bello won an award by world Jurist Association in Montreal Canada, Justice M.D. Saleh had this to say on the respected Jurist “It is a much deserved international acknowledgment of your personal ability, performance and leadership. Many were surprised but those of us who knew you better than the awardees knew that you had earned that several years back”. Justice Mamman Nasir GCON concluded it this way “…Justice Bello’s history is for youths to study and emulate”
its  9 years now since Nigeria lost one of its greatest men, The Honourable Justice Mohammed Bello CON, GCON , who  was the Chief Justice of Nigeria from 1987-1995. He passed away on November 4th 2004 at the age of 74. He was a great Jurist and an administrator.  Justice Bello was a realist par excellence, patriot and most particularly a mentor. Your name and contribution shall forever remain indelible in the history of our legal system.  Adieu My lord

mmuntasir4zee@yahoo.com

@muntaseeer (on twitter)