On this day which marks the 9th year anniversary of the demise of this legal colossus, we thought you would love to read these awesome stories culled from the sides of Abiodun Nuraini Kessington J (aka “Baba Kess”) as told by those who had the opportunity of being here when he was around.
Born on the 6th April 1932 in Lagos, young Kessington, had his secondary education in Port-Harcourt from 1947-1950. He later had his legal training at the Holborn College of Law and Commerce, University of London and was called to the English Bar, Middle Temple, in December 1964. In 1966 he was enrolled as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
In 1967, Kessington began his legal practice as a Prosecutor in the Compliance Inspectorate of the defunct National Provident Fund. He spent six years as a prosecutor before joining the Rivers State Ministry of Justice as State Counsel in 1973 where he remained until 1982.
In 1982, Kessington joined the Lagos State Ministry of Justice as the Assistant Director Public Prosecutions. (Kessington later explained that he was frustrated out of the service of the Rivers State Government, when the authorities refused to appoint him Director Public Prosecutions, Rivers State because he was not an indigene of the State.)
In October, 1989 Kessington was elevated to the bench. It was not easy for Justice Kessington to cross from the bar to the bench. Opinions were divided about his suitability for the high and somber calling of a judge. As a matter of fact, some V.I.Ps considered him too obnoxious a fellow to merit a place there. But Kessington, due to his connections with the military (which was in power then) got elevated. He would later boast openly that he became a judge by a combination of providence and his closeness to the then head of state General Ibrahim Babangida.
Intelligent, brash, extremely extroverted and industrious, Justice Abiodun Nuraini Kessington was no doubt unusual and unorthodox, even highly misunderstood but to those who knew him, he was an enigma, even a legend of some sort. Two things his fiercest critics cannot deny him even in death are his keen sense of justice and his forthrightness.
It was not long upon becoming a judge that counsel and litigants knew that a sharply different type of judge had come to the “Throne of Judgment.” A loquacious, impetuous, brutally frank, even irreverent, albeit intelligent judge, Kessington became known as a “peculiar mess.” He appeared to detest the haughtiness and the urbane pretentiousness of many legal practitioners and took a special delight in tearing away at any pomposity in wig and gown.
He disliked technicalities with a passion particularly those aimed at preventing justice or using the law as a vehicle of fraud. He conveniently put aside all the fanciful technicalities of the law particularly in civil matters to do what he termed “Kessington Law or Kessington Justice” his own equivalent of substantial justice. He was a complete master of his domestic procedure which was a curious mix of the seriousness of a Court of Records, an ‘Icheoku’ or ‘Kotu Ashipa’ Session (old native/colonial court setup) and ‘Awada KeriKeri’ (local drama episode).
On the Kessington style of adjudication, a very senior counsel at the Ministry of Justice, had this to say:
“Kessington did not like to waste time and wanted justice done. So he went straight to the heart of the matter at hand. If for example there was a case of indebtedness before him he would not have time for lawyers’ talk and legal finesse. He would just ask the defendant:”Hen, hen Mr. man are you owing?” If the man answered in the positive, Kessington would now ask him, “when and how are you going to pay?”
Some of the stories set out below adequately portray the true figure of Kessington style of adjudication:
In 1993, Kessington J was hearing a divorce case. The husband was the petitioner and the wife, the respondent. The petitioner was asking for the custody of the only fruit of the union, a boy. The wife filed her reply, opposing the petitioner’s prayer for the custody of the boy, on the ground that he was not the child’s father. In her affidavit, the woman claimed that while still living with the petitioner, another man impregnated her, resulting in the boy.
Kessington J, called the parties and their counsel to his chambers. Waving the respondent’s affidavit, the judge accused her of being a wicked woman who wanted to destroy the future of her son by swearing to such an affidavit. Then in front of everybody the judge unabashedly started to weep! Amidst his tears, Kessington asked the woman.
“Why did you do this? God will punish you. Is the fu…g you were having that intoxicated you so much, that you put your stupid act down on paper in court? Don’t you know in the future, when your son wants to attain a lofty height, his opponents can get hold of this affidavit and ruin him?
After gaining a little control of himself, Kessington advised the woman to file a new affidavit to replace this “bad one which I will personally destroy.” Despite Kessington’s urgings, the respondent refused to withdraw the counter-affidavit. Kessington J now sent the case file to the Chief Judge who sent it back to him and ordered him to continue with the hearing of the case.
But Kessington J would do no such thing. Before adjourning the matter sine die, he declared:
“I am an African man I will never be a party to the destruction of families. I am adjourning this matter till when Jesus comes back. Since it is about 2000 years now, they’ve been saying he will come back and he has not done so, you know what that means.”
On another session, the fact of the case summarily was that a certain merchant/trader from the ‘Omu Aran /Oro’ axis of the defunct Kwara State had taken a loan from a commercial bank. The bank not only wanted its principal back but with interest at rates which were ruinous to even the most hard working and sincere of borrowers. Both parties had expectedly prepared to engage in the usual legal acrobatics. When the case was called, counsel to both parties announced appearance. The Defendant’s (trader’s) counsel stood up to flag off the usual legal brickbats stating that he was having a preliminary objection to the Plaintiff’s i.e. Bank’s case.
Justice Kessington completely ignoring lawyers introductory remarks asked “Baba Oro, Kilo de ti e ko fe san owo tie je? E ti wa si Eko, lati wo won laata! Ah, E beru Olorun Ooo!”
“You Oro town indigene, Why don’t you want to repay your debt? You came to Lagos to cream them off? You need to fear God oo”
Counsel for Baba Oro tried severally to interject and urge his client’s case through the processes filed, but made little headway until his client conceded to owing a particular reasonable sum as principal debt. All through, the bank and its lawyers were sitting pretty not believing their good fortune at seeing the learned judge pressured their recalcitrant debtor into admission, a feat they had not been able to achieve in spite of their best efforts. Alas, the triumph was short lived as Justice Kessington soon turned his attention on the bank’s representative in court ignoring all the pleas and protestations of the bank’s lawyer about having a clear cut case with no defence and an application to enter summary judgment.
Justice Kessington went on; “Mr. Bank Manager, “Olowo ele se efe pa KeteKete ni?” Tell me which business in Nigeria can yield the 18% you people (banks) are demanding. “Ika le yin won yi.” translated into English.
“Mr. Bank Manager, Shylock. Must you burden the donkey to death. Tell me which business in Nigeria can yield 18% in profit and still be able to repay your loan. You Banks are so mean and wicked.”
Just as he was with the other party Justice Kessington was unrelenting with the bank in spite of the best efforts of its counsel to get the court to steer the course of strict legalism. The court eventually got the Bank to accept a reasonable interest rate of 10% per annum. At this stage, his lordship quickly wrapped up proceedings by writing out his Kessington Judgment as consented to by both parties daring any aggrieved party to proceed on appeal against the consent judgment. This done, he promptly beckoned on his Registrar; “Willy Call the next Case.”
However, for counsel trained in the best tradition of legal brinkmanship, this short route to judgment was completely unacceptable, hence, his lordship had a few enemies.
There are very many stories about the activities of Kessington as a sitting High Court Judge; how he could recite the whole of Evidence Act off hand, how he regularly poked fun at Senior Advocates of Nigeria, whom he used to dismiss as “San-San,” how he almost sent the revered legal colossus, the late Chief F.R.A Williams S.A.N to prison for contempt, his open love and admiration for Chief Fawehinmi, then a Junior Advocate of Nigeria, his rancorous quarrel with his Chief Judge, Ligali Ayorinde, whom he threatened to beat up, his contempt for lawyers that came to his court poorly prepared;
In the area of criminal law and the law of evidence as it relates to criminal trial, Justice A.N. Kessington was in a class of his own both as a prosecutor and as a judge.
What Justice Kessington did not know about criminal law and procedure is not worth knowing. Among several leaders of the Bar today, it was customary for them to stock Sankay on Evidence; an Indian encyclopedia on the Law of Evidence. Justice Kessington freely advertised the book by boasting that he neither read Aguda on Evidence nor Phipson Manual on Evidence but he crammed and regurgitated Sankay on Evidence from India.
At all times, he left no one in doubt about his preference for criminal cases by openly lamenting that; “I don’t like all these your civil matters and your technicalities, give me criminal cases and you will see Kessy in action.”
Justice Kessington was forthright to a fault. Based on certain personal experiences, he would not readily accept being addressed with the appellation: “My Lord” outside his court room. If you were to see him in a corridor, function or any place outside his court room and you were to greet him thus; “Good Afternoon, My Lord.” He would promptly respond, mid-way between jest and seriousness. “Don’t Lord me Oh! That is how Peter called Jesus Lord and denied him 3 times.”
Like the rest of us, he had his failings and weaknesses and was inclined to deal harshly if not ruthlessly with those who took advantage of his generosity of spirit or tried to scandalize his person. On one occasion, he lamented openly in court after being scandalized by a baseless petition against him. He retorted: “Wallahi Tallahi, if not that Mr. …….. were Ligali’s (Ayorinde C. J) brother, I would have sent him off to KiriKiri for at least 2 weeks to eat beans at Government’s expense.” While yet after another petition against him, he would lace his every side comment which were a regular feature of his court with sarcasm, such as; “95% of Nigerian Lawyers have no conscience” – stressing his every word.
Ironically, for a man who held Justice Kayode Eso in the highest regard, citing and quoting copiously from his lordships words with relish both as a Prosecutor and as a Judge with words such as; “The court is not a Robot”, his strange and unusual style of adjudication did not go down well with the Kayode Eso Panel on Judicial Administration who cited him for conducting his court in a manner unbefitting and unbecoming of a high court Judge or a Superior Court of Records.
According to those who worked closely with Kessington J, he was a jolly good fellow, erratic though but lively and very willing to impart knowledge to younger people. His friends cut across all levels – the mighty, the middle class and the lowly. As for brilliance, he had it. He had the Evidence Act on his finger tips and was a Master of Criminal Law.
On this day, nine years ago, precisely, 30th January 2008, Retired Justice Abiodun Nuraini Kessington passed away in far away London, United Kingdom.
Kessington J: Tribute to a highly misunderstood legend’ By Ademola Adewale
Death of Baba Kess”
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