A Legal Philosopher: Justice Chukwudifu Oputa—The Socrates of the Supreme Court

If you are a student of philosophy, you will no doubt have come across the name Socrates. He was one of the greatest minds of his generation. He was a Greek Philosopher whose thoughts and teachings have been of immense influenced to the legal profession. He taught Plato who as well taught Aristotle. That’s how I introduce my role model and mentor—The Honourable Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa, A retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, a man who has been aptly described as the Socrates of the Supreme Court.

Justice Oputa who is also referred to as “The Oputa of Oguta” was born on 22nd of September 1924 in Oputa, in the present Imo State. His father was Chief Oputa Izukwu and his mother Madam Nnawetu Oputa. He had his early education in Sacred Heart School, Oguta and Christ the king College, Onitcha.

He then proceeded to Yaba Higher College, but due to the exigencies of the Second World War, was sent to the famous Achimota College in Ghana, then Gold Coast.  There he graduated with B.SC(Hon)Economics in1945.  After this, he came back to Nigeria and took up appointment with Calabari National College. He later moved to Lagos where he worked as an  ADO (Assistant District Officer). It was where he achieved a remarkable feat; he studied at home and obtained his BA (Hon) History at home.

Justice Oputa then proceeded to London where he got his LLB (Hon) and was called to bar in Gray’s Inn, in London. Upon his return to Nigeria, then Barrister Oputa went into brilliant and successful and private practice. Handling such celebrated cases and special inquiries as Oguta Chieftaincy dispute 1958/59, the Amanyanabo Dispute 1956/60 and many others.

In 1966, Justice Oputa was appointed a Judge of the High Court of the then Eastern Nigeria and he moved on to   become to first Chief Judge of Imo State ten years later. His days both as judge and later as Chief Judge were remarkable because many successes were achieved during his period on the High Court bench.

In 1984, he was elevated to the exalted position of the Honourable Justice of the Supreme Court. To many who knew Oputa during his days at State High Court said it was well deserved elevation. It did not take long before he stamped his fit in the Supreme Court as a man profoundly moved by classical literature, history, divinity, and philosophy and who judgments possessed the temerity that is in the preserve of genius.  No wonder that the then Chief Justice of Nigeria Late Justice Mohammed Bello himself an outstanding judicial figure himself nicknamed him “Cicero”.

The clarity that later became the hallmark of Oputa’s judicial career is revealed early in his handling of the concept and effect of Estoppel in Okafor v Onuigbo & Ors:

“Estoppel is a rule of evidence. It is no other than a bar to testimony. Its sole aim is either to place an obstacle in the way of a case which might otherwise succeed, or to remove an impediment out of the way of a case which might otherwise fail. To use the language of naval warfare, estoppel must always be either a mine layer or a mine sweeper… not being a rule of substantial law, it cannot therefore declare on immediate right or claim, although when property used it can gravely affect substantive rights.”    

Oputa’s judicial craft in dealing with the all too human tragedies that unfold when Marriages end in divorce court was well illustrated in the case of Okafor v Okafor as follows:

“Both parties claim the custody of this child…and both are very anxious to have the custody. If the parties to a marriage give enough thought to the problems a broken marriage may do and or pose to the issues (children) of that marriage and are prepared to swallow some of their pride and thus become less selfish, then there will definitely be a marked decrease in the divorce rate and its consequents broken homes. But experience has shown that parties show more interest in the custody of their children, a custody which should never have been in issue had the marriage survived”.

In another judgment, Oputa JSC (as he then was) reveals a judge ill at ease with legal technicality and very much on guard against lawyers whose only reason for going to court is to induce litigation fatigue in the other side instead of seeking remedies. He illustrates this in his decision in Okpara v Obi as follows:

“Rather than helping to narrow the issues to be contested at the trial, counsel nowadays, use pleadings to becloud the issues. The defendant’s pleading put the plaintiff to the “strictest proof” of every allegation of fact made in his statement of claim. That may be permissible but the party who wants proof of the obvious, or proof of what should have admitted, must be prepared to pay for such proof.”

In Adegoke Motors v Adesanya(1983) 3 NWLR (Pt 109) 250 @ 274-275, the revered Jurist alluded to the finality of the decisions of the Supreme Court when he said that:

“We are final not because we are infallible, rather we are infallible because we are final. Justices of this Court are human beings capable of erring. It will be short sighted arrogance not to accept this obvious truth.”

In the locus classicus of Garba v University of Maiduguri which deals with the issue of Right to fair hearing, Oputa said: “God has given you two ears. Hear both sides”

Of the many things that define a judge, five are arguably most important: Courage and conviction; listening; analysis and synthesis; the instinct for the right call; and communication in accessible reasoning and language. Many would have at least one of these; some have many if these but once in a while, there comes along a judge who combines all these characteristics and more in one package, enabling that judge to leave indelible impression on the landscape of jurisprudence.

 In my humble view, Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa is one such judge. Even as he was proceeding on retirement in1989, it was quite clear that Justice Oputa still much more needed and still has much to offer.  Justice Oputa has published over 40 papers in lectures, conferences, and seminars. He continues to be given Federal Assignments ever after retirements. Most notably was The National Human Rights Violation Commission (Oputa Panel) which he chaired to ascertain or establish the causes, nature and extent of all gross violations of human rights in Nigeria between January 15, 1966 and May 28, 1999. As a young and inspiring member of this noble legal profession, Justice Oputa is one of my great inspirations. His life and voyage in this Profession is for all to study and emulate. To your lordship; I celebrate you and your sparkling achievements.

 

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