A giant among giants: Justice Kayode Eso – An erudite Jurist activist and Scholar

Justice Kayode Eso needs no introduction in the Nigeria Judicial circle. He was and still remains one of the best brains ever in our legal system. His contributions and impact in our legal system can never be overemphasized. Justice Eso has excelled as a lawyer and later as a judge.

Justice Kayode Eso was born on Friday 18th September, 1925 into the family of Pa Emmanuel and Mrs. Eso in Ilesa local government of what is known today as Osun state.

Justice Kayode Eso attended Holy trinity primary school Omofe, Illesa from 1933 to 1939 where he led throughout except on one occasion when he came second in class. From there, he proceeded to Ilesa Grammar school in 1940. He completed his secondary school education in 1944. He was the best graduating student and was giving the proficiency prize of Ilesa Grammar school.

In 1946, he took the London matriculation. Later on, he was admitted into Trinity College, Dublin to read Law from 1949 to 1953 where he performed very excellently. He won the Michealman prize in constitutional law(1946), Criminal law prize(1950), and Silver medal in legal composition (1952) which was the highest ever award by University of Dublin Law society. He was called to the bar in 1954 at Lincoln’s inn. He completed his masters in 1956 from the same institution.

On his return to Nigeria, he based in Jos, Northern Nigeria from 1954 to 1960 where he practised as a private attorney. Practically everywhere a Court sat in the old Northern region of Nigeria and in the West African Court of Appeal and the Federal Supreme Court as well. He represented the Ijaws-mien clan before the Willink Commission in 1956. He was retained as solicitor by National Bank, Jos local authority.

He was briefed several times by the Legal Department, Northern Nigeria to appear on its behalf in very intricate legal matters. He was later appointed as member of the Law Reporting Committee Northern Nigeria Law Reports.

He later joined the state and was a Senior Crown Counsel II from 1960 to 1961, Senior Crown Counsel I from 1961 to 1962, Principal State Counsel from 1962 to 1964, Principal legal draftsman and head of Legal Division from 1964 to 1965. He was on the team of lawyers that handled the case of Akintola v. Adegbenro (the biggest political case of that time) in Nigeria and the Privy Council, London.

On 8th, March 1965, Justice Eso was appointed as an Acting Judge, High Court of Western Nigeria and later the same year he became a substantive judge of High Court of Western Nigeria. He was given the assignment of trying the most important cases affecting politicians and highly placed government functionaries like Oba C.D Akpan, Prince Ademiliyu and S.B Onabamiro. Also the volatile and sensitive case against Nigeria’s foremost playwright and Nobel Laureate -Wole Soyinka –who was alleged to have held up the Television station, preventing political broadcast by the Premier of the state.

On 1st March 1967, upon the creation of the Western State Court of Appeal, Justice Eso was appointed a Justice of that Court. At that time, he was the most junior High Court judge to be elevated to the Court. Justice Eso later rose to the position of the Acting President of the Western State Court of Appeal.

After the Constitutional abolition of the Western State Court of Appeal, he was appointed the first Chief Judge of Oyo State High Court on 1st June, 1976. After two years of judicial activism in the State High Court, Justice Eso was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1978 until his retirement on the 18th September, 1990.    

Justice Eso was a fearless and courageous judge, some of Justice Eso’s celebrated landmark judgments speak for themselves, for example, the verdict of not guilty on Soynka and shortly after that judgment, he was transferred from Ibadan to Akure, then regarded as a rural station.

The celebrated case of Awolowo v. Shagari, in 1979 will forever remain green in Nigeria’s jurisprudence. The Apex Court in deciding the law relating to election cases had by majority of 6-1, affirmed the election of Alhaji Shagari as the duly elected President. However, Justice Eso’s courageous decision in this case remains legendary. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Eso held that at least two-third of 19 states could only be 13 and not 12 2/3.

In the case of Abaye Ofili.P.D. V. Ikem Uche (1986), speaking on the validity of an Act, Eso said; “If an act is void, then it is in law a nullity. It is not only bad but incurably bad. There is no need for an order of court to set it aside. It is automatically null and void without more ado, though it is sometimes convenient to have the court to declare it to be so.”

On the extensive and unfettered powers of the Attorney-General, Justice Eso in the case of State v. Ilori said; “The preeminent and incontestable position of the Attorney-General, under the common law, as the Chief law officer of the State, either generally as a legal adviser or specifically in all court proceeding to which the State in a party, and subject only to ultimate control by public opinion and that of Parliament or the legislature, the Attorney-General has, at common law, been a master unto him-self, law unto himself, and under no control whatsoever, judicial or otherwise, vis-à-vis his powers of instituting or discontinuing criminal proceedings.”

On his retirement, Justice Eugene JCA, described him as a strong protagonist of judicial activism and the Lord Denning of Nigeria who refuses to be tied to the apron string of bad statutes or bad decisions. Another Supreme Court Justice, Justice Pius Aderemi tendered Justice Eso as a “permanent exhibit”. He also added and I quote “Eso’s decisions as a judge is legendary and a delight to study”, “Full of erudite scholarship, well reasoned and replete with legal authorities, there are fine statements of law and veritable guides for all in the legal profession or concerned with law”. Justice Aderemi concluded.

Justice Kayode Eso passed away on 16th, November 2012 at the age of 87. The first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Chief Folake Solanke said “He was one of best on the bench. Nigeria has lost the upright judge. He lived his life as a God-fearing man. As a justice of the Supreme Court, he represented the golden age. His legal knowledge was awesome. He was always ready to help. The thought that he is no longer here is too painful to bear. He was always very vast in law and an intellectual delight to the legal profession. Anytime you had a case before him, he would read your file and ready to engage in banter with a lawyer. He was very very cerebral”.

Justice Adebajo said “that is, a chapter has closed in the history of the judiciary in Nigeria. Without doubt, he was a giant among giants. He is a man that I may say has done so well, such that he lived among kings”. Former NBA President, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, pointed out that the late justice was a great mentor to him, apart from being his father’s professional colleague, adding that Justice Eso played a great role in his life by getting him his first job in Lagos. He said
“Everyone knew he was a leading architect of judicial activism and participated in crucial decisions of the Supreme Court at the Zenith of glory. Justice Eso’s eternal contribution is contained in his epochal report on judicial corruption fittingly referred to as The Eso’s Report. His period at the Supreme Court was a golden moment with Justice Oputa, Justice Bello, justice Idigbe, among others. He was one of the best in the judiciary and he would be greatly missed. His was a life well spent.”

Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, lamented that the almighty iroko had fallen, saying “the legal titan and erudite jurist has gone the way of his ancestors. Nigeria has lost one of its greatest oracles of the bench. Eso was a man of great scholarly depth, wide jurisprudential knowledge and most courageous, fearless, incorruptible and patriotic jurist of our time, whose years at the Supreme Court with that of Cicero cannot be forgotten.”

On his part, Professor Itse Sagay, SAN, a Professor of Law and legal practitioner said “it is a big loss to the country. He epitomized integrity, honesty and uprightness. He was among the jurists that created standard in the Supreme Court. His era was golden in the Supreme Court. Some of his contemporaries are Oputa, Niki Tobi, Anyagholu, among others. They created standards that unfortunately has dropped and which may never be regained. In terms of moral, integrity, and character, he stood for uprightness. A very big tree had fallen. It is a colossal loss to Nigeria.”

During his lifetime, Justice Eso has received several Awards and university honours too numerous to mention them all here. Most notably are two National honours—Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) and Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON). He received two LL.D honoraries from University of Ibadan and University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

He has authored several books and has written articles on different aspects of law. He has delivered various papers at National and international seminars. After his retirement, Justice Eso chaired many committees but most notable was Chairman, National Commission for Reformation of judiciary, 1994.

Indeed, Justice Eso played and played well in the theatre of Nigeria judiciary for a quarter of century. Together with his other contemporaries, they structured and standardized the Apex Court and our judicial system. As aspirants to this noble profession, Justice Eso’s achievements and legacies, is for all of us to study and emulate. Adieu my lord and mentor.