Fallen Legal Heroes: Sir Louis Mbanefo (the Lord Chief Justice of Biafra)

Sir Louis Mbanefo


Sir Louis Nwachukwu Mbanefo in 1968 (1911-1977).

Sir Louis Nwachukwu Mbanefo (13 May 1911 – 28 March 1977) is the first lawyer from the East of Nigeria. He was born in Odojele Village in the larger Onitsha district. His father, Odu Mbanefo was a traditional chief. Between 1925 and 1932 he attended the Methodist Boys High School in Lagos and subsequently the prestigious Kings College, also in Lagos, which was modelled on Eton and Harrow Colleges and where he was a keen cricketer and footballer.

He was later admitted to the University College London, where he studied Law, graduating with Upper Second Class Honours in 1935. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, shortly after graduating from university. He was then admitted to King’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained a further degree in the Humanities in 1937.  His education in the United Kingdom was at a time when it was extremely rare to have a person of his ethnic persuasion pursuing higher education, much less professional training at the bar. He was an extremely intelligent, disciplined and diligent man who applied himself with single-minded dedication to his profession.

Sir Louis returned home to Nigeria and set up practice in his hometown of Onitsha, the first recorded lawyer in the area. By virtue of this status, he developed an incredibly successful practice, with clientele largely sourced from his kinsmen who were an extremely resourceful breed of wealthy traders and also as a result of the frequent land disputes arising as a matter of course in the territory. It is reputed that such disputes which had previously been settled by Tribal warfare, were now being resolved in the arena of the Law Courts by an indigenous and competent gladiator. He became an invaluable asset in the new dispensation. His practice covered a huge area, basically the East and North of the country. He made several notable appearances in landmark cases before the Regional Court, Supreme Court and West African Court of Appeal.

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Sir Louis later entered politics; he contested and won a seat on the Onitsha Town Council where he was able to lead a few notable projects like the expansion and construction of the Onitsha market. He teamed up with Alvan Ikoku to form the United National party in 1950. He won the election and was elected into the Eastern Region Parliament in 1950, where he distinguished himself as an excellent orator and lawmaker.

The pull of the legal profession was strong and Sir Louis returned after only a two-year stint in politics. This time he was called to the Bench, as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1952, with his first posting being to Warri in the Mid-West of Nigeria, where he sat as Resident judge.

He was later seconded back to the Eastern Region as Chief Justice in 1961 and in 1962. He reached the peak of his judicial career when he was appointed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as an ad hoc Judge, a position he occupied till 1966, when he returned to his post as Chief Justice of the Eastern Region. His appointment to the ICJ involved sitting on South-Western Africa Cases i.e. Liberia v South Africa and Ethiopia v South Africa. His ICJ stint spanned over four years.

In the cases between South Africa and Liberia and Ethiopia the decision under consideration by the ICJ, was the applications by the governments of Ethiopia and Liberia in respect of the Mandate held by the Union of South Africa over the peoples of South West Africa (the mandate system being a feature of the Charter of the League of Nations and upon which South Africa had exercised control of the territory and its people) and more specifically as to whether South Africa had properly exercised its mandate or whether it should be condemned for having failed to properly exercise this mandate – by its illegal treatment of the said people.

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The decision of the Court was that South Africa be condemned for failing to properly exercise the said mandate. Sir Louis Mbanefo’s contributions were succinct, powerful and knowledgeable – on the whole ethos, status and principle of the Mandate system- especially regarding the administrative and reporting obligations of nations and his crucial finding was that, whilst the Administrative reporting and monitoring duties ceased on the dissolution of the League of Nations, the moral obligations of the Mandate state continued beyond the dissolution of the League and such an obligation was essentially binding on the Union of South Africa. This was the defining moment of his career and an indelible legacy to International law.

In 1961 he was Knighted by the Queen and assumed the title which he proudly answered until his death – Sir Louis Mbanefo – Kt.

Upon the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, he was appointed Chief Justice of Biafra and Ambassador Plenipotentiary. He was actively involved in the peace talks with the Nigerian Government and worked actively towards a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. He remained in Biafra till the very end, after the Biafran leader fled, leaving Sir Louis and Major-General Phillip Effiong to effectively take the noble step of ending the war, the surrender being effectively signed by Major-General Phillip Effiong. History will judge Sir Louis and Major-General Phillip Effiong as men of sterling courage and integrity who rather than prolong the suffering of Biafra effectively negotiated an end to hostilities; while those who preached a fight to the very end fled, they stayed in Biafra and took the necessary and dignified step of ending the unnecessary suffering of their people.

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Upon the cessation of the war, Sir Louis resigned his appointment to the bench on principle, but this was not accepted by the Nigerian Government for some time. He dedicated his later years to charity and church work, serving variously as president of the Christian Council of Nigeria, Chancellor of the Niger Diocese – a position he had held since 1946, President of the Anglican Consultative Council from 1972 and a Fellow of the University of London.

Sir Louis died on 28th March, 1977 at 65 years old.


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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