Fallen Legal Heroes: Honourable Justice Kayode Eso, JSC CON CFR

Late Justice Kayode

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Justice Kayode Eso (September 18, 1925 – November 16, 2012) was born on September 18, 1925 at Ilesa, a city in Osun State, southwestern Nigeria. He attended the Holy Trinity School, Omofe, Ilesa and Ilesa Grammar School, before proceeding to the Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, where he obtained the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree and a moderatorship in Legal Science with a B.A (honours) degree in October 1953. In 1956, he was awarded a Master of Arts degree. A consistent prize winner, he won the Michaelmas Prize in Constitutional Law in 1949, the Criminal Law Prize in 1950 and the Silver Medal in Legal Composition in 1952. He was called to the English Bar, Lincoln’s Inn in 1954 and to the Nigerian Bar in December of the same year.

 Almost immediately, he returned to Nigeria to set up a private legal practice not in Lagos or Ibadan, but Jos in the Northern part of Nigeria. With his partner, Mr Abdul Dabiri, Kayode Eso Esq as he was then known, handled a number of cases, including defending black miners in Jos who were protesting against the discriminatory practices of the British colonial authorities.

In 1960, lawyer Eso returned to Lagos and took up a job with the Department of Foreign Affairs as a protocol officer, but he soon abandoned this job to join the Western Nigeria Ministry of Justice in Ibadan as a Senior Crown Counsel Grade II. He became in 1961, a Senior State Counsel, in 1962, Principal Crown Counsel, in 1965, Legal Draftsman, and the same year, he was appointed a High Court Judge. Two years later, he became a judge of the Western Region Court of Appeal; in 1967, he became the acting President of the Court, and in 1976, following the establishment of Oyo state, he was appointed the first Chief Justice of the new state. In 1979, he was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He retired from active service in September 1990, upon his attainment of the mandatory retirement age of 65 years for judges. Thus, the distinguished jurist spent a total of 36 years in active practice as a legal practitioner and judge – twelve of those years on the Bench of the Supreme Court.

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 Justice Eso as a Justice of the Supreme Court delivered a total of 463 judgments, 390 of which were concurring judgments, 69 lead judgments and 4 dissenting judgements.

His oeuvre as a judge is rich and varied, covering a broad range of legal issues. It includes the mystery gunman case, which is the trial of Wole Soyinka over his role in a broadcast which the government of the defunct western region of Nigeria termed offensive. Justice Eso returned a verdict of not guilty on Soyinka, Fawehinmi vs Akilu (1987), Senator Abraham Adesanya v The President, and Attorney General of Bendel State v. Attorney General of the Federation (1981), in each of these cases, he pronounced on the subject of locus standi and access to justice. In Government of Lagos state v. Ojukwu (1986) he addressed the issue of executive recklessness, in Ariori v Elemo (1983) – the importance of speedy trial as an important aspect of fair hearing. In Garba v. Federal Civil Service Commission (1988) – the need for the military to respect due process. In Nwobodo v Onoh (1983) – the standard of proof in civil cases and in Adigun v Attorney General of Oyo state – the test of the ordinary man for determining whether or not, justice has been seen to have been done.

But perhaps his most celebrated case is the much-quoted Shagari v. Awolowo concerning the 1979 Presidential election where he was the only dissenting judge out of seven. Eso had disagreed with the Presidential election tribunal and his brother Judges on the interpretation of what constitutes twelve two thirds of the then 19 states of Nigeria. Dissenting judgments sometimes prove to be of far greater import and juristic weight than the concurrence of the majority, and so it was in this particular instance. In Governor of Lagos State v. Ojukwu, (op cit), he had declared that “the essence of the rule of law is that it should never operate under the rule of force or fear. To use force to effect and act and while under the marshall of that force to seek the court’s equity is an attempt to infuse timidity into court and operate a sabotage of the cherished rule of law. It must never be.”

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Justice Eso’s engagement with the public space off the Bench, includes his chairmanship of various Commissions of Inquiry, the acceptance of responsibilities in the Church, and the support of educational projects and causes.

 In 1989, he was appointed by the Obasanjo administration, Head of the National Committee on Corruption and Other Economic Crimes in Nigeria which was set up by the Babangida administration which could not summon the courage to act on the Report of the Committee. But a decade later, that same report provided the material for the establishment of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Offences Commission (ICPC) by the Obasanjo administration.

In 1993, the Abacha government had also appointed Eso to head a panel that was saddled with the responsibility of making recommendations on judicial reform. The committee’s findings and recommendations were so radical that the government of the day simply ignored the report. However, one of the panel’s submissions was that a National Judicial Council should be set up and this was reflected six years later in the 1999 Constitution.

Justice Eso was a former Pro-Chancellor of the University of Benin (1991 – 1998), Justice he also served as President, Association of Arbitrators of Nigeria, Chancellor, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, chair of a panel on students cultism and secret societies at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (1999), Patron, Nigerian Conflict and Management Group (NCMG) and life member, Body of Benchers. He was also the chairman of the Rivers State Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was set up by the Rotimi Amaechi-led administration in Rivers State to among others, investigate the sources of dissension within the state, forge reconciliation and make recommendations to the state government. The panel met with hundreds of witnesses, sat in Port Harcourt and Abuja.

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He has received several Awards and University honours too numerous to mention.  He is Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON): 1979; He received LL.D honoris Causa, University of Ibadan: 1990, and University of Nigeria, Nsukka: 2001, respectively. He is an author of several books, articles and he has delivered various papers at National and International Seminars.

Justice Kayode Eso died at the age 87 of on Friday November 16, 2012 at Hammersmith Hospital London United Kingdom.


Adenike Adesanya is a Brilliant young wig who is passionate about preserving the legacy of the legal profession. Nike wishes to bring back to our memories our heroes past. Email to Nike: nikey06@yahoo.com

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