A Tribute to Justice Aniagolu and other intellectual giants who influenced me
By Atty. Ken Okorie
Special to USAfricaonline.com
Indeed a mighty Iroko has fallen, a truly big one at that! Justice Anthony Aniogolu, a retired Supreme Court Justice of Nigeria, was one of the inspirations to my choice of law for a career. He died on Tuesday June 28, 2011.
As a young primary school pupil from my remote village in Mbaise holidaying in Enugu, I would sit for hours observing Justice Aniagolu maneuver legal nuances with brilliant craftsmanship few experts could dream. It was the Special Commission of Inquiry Into the Affairs of the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation (ENDC), which he chaired.
Dr. Michael I. Okpara wasPremier and Sir Akanu Ibiam Governor of Eastern Nigeria.When you heard Justice Aniagolu, you realized he was the master. Everyone else simply listened.
My other influence was the late Hon. Justice George Nkemena at the Owerri High Court. His stature was short, his skin so light that some mistook him for a Brit; but Justice Nkemena had the intimidating presence of a giant. I onceobserved him exit the courtroom into his chamber only to reappear few minutes later decked in red gown and a wig.The ground literally shook; you could hear a pin drop. It wasmy first time witnessing the death sentence pronounced on a living person. I was so scared I froze in my seat, unable to get up, too weakened to walk into the courtyard, much less down the street after the session was over. It felt like I had visited the far away land to which the condemned was headed!
I was awed by my own fascination with these men of knowledge. That was my first inkling about what it is to be learned. Even at that, there were learned men, and there were the Aniagolus and Nkemenas.
In each case, I very much wanted to ask the Judge how he did what he did, but fright kept me furthest from corner ofthe public buildings from where they operated. I settledfor wanting nothing more than to one day grow up and be someone as distinguished and as knowledgeable. I became convinced that a man of the law was all that was worth being.
Several years later I met another Justice after I went toBenin in search of life after a brutal war of genocide. This time I had the cherished privilege to get up close and personal. The Hon. Justice J. A. P. Oki (“JAP” – as his friends called him) was cousin to another man of knowledge thatbecame my mentor, but he was not a lawyer.
Stephen Adeyemi Amaran was the Principal Labor Officer atthe Benin office of the Federal Ministry of Labor. He placed applicants with local employers.
I called him Mr. Amaran, but he insisted he was just “Ade”. A certificate from St. Patrick’s Teacher Training College, Ibusa was Ade’s highest formal education. He was self-taught to fluency in several languages (including German, Spanish, Russian, French, Swahili, and others), and every little space in his house wasa cage crafted of books. Music and books were his life.
I soon concluded that Ade knew everything and, to date, remains easily one of the most educated Nigerians I haveever known. His Queen’s English was only matched in flairby his American slang all of which pleased the ear. Ade became a father away from home. Accompanying him toJAP’s or Don Partridge’s house remain tops on my cherishedmemories of Benin City. Partridge retired from the Queen’sCivil Servant of the colonial era, but saw no reason to returnto his native Britain. I learned from those evenings that, apart from Rex Lawson, Victor Uwaifo, and James Brown, the twang, twang chimes of Mozart and Tchaikovsky and other kings of the classics are actually beautiful works of art that can be appreciated and enjoyed.
It seems like yesterday, but I look back and realize how thatfavorite holiday pastime during my elementary school daysbecame invaluable; how seating at the back of a courtroom watching legal gymnasts (Aniagolu in Enugu and Nkemenaat Owerri) formed my aspiration in life; how hanging around brilliant Amaran juiced my thirst for knowledge! Whether it was Aniagolu admonishing on the legality of ENDC policies and management actions in Enugu, Nkemena lowering thelegal hammer on a killer in Owerri, or JAP and Partridge inBenin exchanging with Amaran on topics that I found mostly esoteric yet engaging at the time, these men of knowledgedid their unique choreography with a sophistication at which Imerely marveled. I certainly did not know much of the thingsthey talked about, nor understand much of what I observed,but they held my hopes and aspirations as I grew up. All I believed and wished was to some day grow up and be like those men of knowledge.
Not long ago, I watched the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) interview with JusticeAnthony Aniagolu in my living room in Houston. I wastransported back to my days of awe at the Commissionin Enugu. I vowed to seek him out the next time I am inNigeria. Now I am saddened that news of his passing wouldweigh down on me in this faraway land, and before I couldrealize that second aspiration, before I could ever talk to theJustice whom I respected so much in person.
There was never a doubt that education would be part of my future. My father resolved when I was yet an infant that the formal education he lacked would not also elude his children.In their different ways and settings, Mr. Amaran, Justices Aniagolu, Nkemena, and JAP, and Don Partridge contributed to the realization of my father’s dream. Which is my reason for believing that a child can never aspire for something to which he has not been exposed. That is the biggest handicap of children in underprivileged circumstances.
And so I say thank you to Justice Aniagolu. Without knowingit, you gave a young mind something to aspire for. Thank you Justice Nkemena. You carried yourself with the dignityand aura, many kings cannot acquire. Thank you Justice JAP and Don Partridge. Knowing both of you is one ofthe several treasures from hanging around Mr. Amaran,the ultimate man of brilliance himself. All of you are now memories. In exercising your intellect, you honorable men imparted knowledge to others, and especially to me.
•Okorie, an attorney and business adviser, is a member of the editorial board of USAfrica multimedia networks –and our columnist since 1994.
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