Fallen Legal Heroes: Justice Mohammed Bello CON, GCON

Late Justice Mohammed Bello CON, GCON (1930- 2004)

Justice Mohammed Bello CON GCON (1930-2004) was the first Northern Chief Justice of Nigeria. He was an eminent jurist who tried to protect the court against the excess of military incursion in judicial matters.

Mohammed 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.

He attended Katsina Elementary School from 1938 to 1942. He was educated at Barewa College, Zaria. He wanted to become an engineer but the then Northern Government decided his career for him. 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.

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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.

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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 Mohammed Bello won an award by world Jurist Association in Montreal Canada.

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.

He died on the 4th day of November 2004 at the age of 74 years.

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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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