Justice Obaseki Through His Cases – A Tribute by Davidson Edieya

Late Rtrd. Justice Obaseki JSC


Tanto Nomini Nullum Par Elogium – Of this great man, no praise is adequate. The headstone of Niccolò Machiavelli’s tomb, in Florence, Italy, had this alluring epitaph etched into it only years after his demise. Niccolò is not alone in the tribe of beings marked for distinction only after their death.Justice Obaseki is also a man of such community.

Very rarely in history have people got together because of a common interest in a judge. Justice Andrews Otutu Obaseki is an exception. Justice Obaseki is known to have made countless memorable pronouncements that have greatly contributed to our legal jurisprudence.

Obaseki JSC was a man of monumental influence over the development of law, both in its substance and style. Born on the 11th day of June, 1926 in Benin City, he attended Edo College, Benin City as a foundation student between 1937 and 1940, Hopee Wadde II Training Institute, Calabar 1942, school of Agriculture at Moor Plantation, Ibadan 1943-1945; University of Reading  England, 1945-1948.

While at Reading University, he developed interest in legal studies and on leaving reading, he obtained admission to read law at the London School of Economics, University of London, October 1948. He completed his Bachelor of Laws in 1951. He enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four inns of court in London.

On arrival from London, he was enrolled as Legal Practitioner, Barrister at Law and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. In his private legal practice spanning 1952 to 1958, Andrews Obaseki became a powerful advocate and brilliant solicitor. Observing his sterling qualities, Government invited him in 1958 to set up the legal department of the Nigerian  Building society where he also became a staff solicitor.

In September 1975 he was elevated from Chief Judge of Bendel State to the position of a justice of the Supreme Court (JSC) of Nigeria. Obaseki had a substantial impact across many areas of law as he established unambiguous traits. He became renowned in his judgments and writing. He fought his wars and he wrote volumes, he philosophized, pontificated, laid down his rules and bestowed the Supreme Court like a colossus. Justice Obaseki was in Supreme Court from 1975-1991 with 658 judgment comprising 530 concurring judgments, 2 dissenting judgments and 126 lead judgments given over a period of 16 years.

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Justice Obaseki famously often took the side of the weaker party, battling the government over disregard for rule of law and laying during rules for easy interpretation of legislation.

One common held assessment of Justice Obaseki’s jurisprudence is that he was more concerned to do justice according to the parties in a case than slavishly to follow precedent. His tendency, or to make new legal principles, or to apply old ones in novel way. During his remarkable time in the Supreme Court, he stampled his authority in many landmark cases which have established fundamental precedents.

He bequeathed us in his usual characteristics clarity with 12 interpretative principles of constitutional commandments in the famous case of

Attorney General of Bendel State v. Attorney General of the Federation & 22 Ors (1982)3 NCLR 1 at pages 77-78; he scolded the military government for resorting to the rule of force instead of that of law in settling a dispute already in court in the case of the Government of Lagos State. Ojukwu (1986)1 NWLR (pt. 18)621 at 636 where he stated;

In the area where rule of law operates; the rule of self help by force is abandoned. Nigeria being one of the countries in the world even in the Third World which proclaim wordly to follow the rule of law, there is no room for the rule of self help by force to operate, the action the Lagos State Government took can have no other interpretation than the show of the intention to pre-empt the decision of the court. The court expect the utmost respect of the law from the government itself which rules by law.

In a similar vein in the case of

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Obeya Memorial hospital v. Attorney General of the Federation (1987)3 NWLR (pt. 50) 325 at 343 he warned the military government that;

The rule of force of wearing the kid glore of an Edict can never usher in social justice. It only wears the condemned face of the law. Let the Benue State Government return to the rule of law.

As a compassionate patriot who sees beyond the veil of legalism, he opined in the celebrated case of Garba v. University of Maiduguri (1986)1 NWLR (pt 18)550 at 577;

A university student is a priceless asset and as he is on the threshold of a world of useful service to the nation, we cannot afford to destroy him by stigmatizing him with guilt of offences unless proved guilty before a court”

On the area of Custody of a child and what amount to the interest of the child he advised in Williams v. Williams (1987)2 NWLR (P 54) 66 at 75;

Education or the opportunity for education is in the best interest of a child if it is in a proper environment. For a child of tender years, education outside the proper environment i.e country of origin is bound to give a distorted view of life  and cannot in the final analysis, be in the interest of the child.

Obaseki abhors the importation of sympathy into decision making process; in Osadebey v. Attorney General of Bendel State (1991)1 NWLR (pt. 167)525 at 563, he said;

If sympathy is to dominate our judicial task, that will be fatal and we will be unable to discharge our paramount duty of  preserving the rule of law.

Neither does he agreed that sentiments should inter-play with justice or the rule of law. For he pointed out in Ezeugo v. Ohanyere (1978) 6-7 SC. 171 at 184 that;

Sentiments command no place in judicial liberations for if it did, our task would be infinitely more difficult and less beneficial to the society.

Obaseki retired from the Supreme Court having attained the compulsory retirement age of 65 officially on Tuesday, the 11th of June, 1991 (with a valedictory ceremony in the Supreme Court on Monday, the 10th of June, 1991).The learned Justice died 13 July, 2017 at the age of 93

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Obaseki  strive to underpin the due process of law and to give the hope that in a nation of lack of enthusiastic direction, unnecessary economic and financial crises, aching national corruption, and endemic social malaise, all is not lost if Law (and not brutal force of whims and caprices) is allowed to rule. Such is the acknowledged and unforgettable consultation of this great liberal judicial sage – OBASEKI

 It is my hope and believe that the present day Bench will consolidate on Obaseki’s legal illuminations.

Davidson Edieya Esq. LL.B Hons, B.L ( Attorney at Omoike Law Firm, Benin City)can be contacted at Edieyadavidson@gmail.com (08055241970)


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