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Prof. Nwabueze, SAN: Exit of a Legal Colossus (1)

Prof Mike Ozekhome, SAN

Introduction

The death, on Sunday the 29th day of October, 2023, of Prof. Ben Nwabueze, SAN, brought to an end, arguably, the first generation of Senior Advocates of Nigeria. The first ever set SANs in Nigeria comprised of legal giants, Chief F.R.A. Williams and Dr N.B. Graham-Douglass (both now late), who took the Silk on 4th March, 1975. There was a three year period of inter- regnum between 1975 and 1st of December, 1978, when this academic and legal Colossus was silked with 12 other legal titans such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, Mr T.A.Bankole-Oki, Mr E.A.Molajo, Mr Kehinde Sofola, Chief Richard Akinjide, Mr G.O.K. Ajayi, Mr Olisa Chukwura, Dr Nwakanma Okoro, Dr Mudiga Odje, Mr P.O. Balonwu and Dr Augustin Nnamani.

Nwabueze was certainly the first from the academia, based strictly on his published works. His first love was the classroom and he bestrode it like the Colossus he was. He was thus justifiably called “the Professor of Professors.” He remained a teacher and mentor of many generations of legal academics both in Nigeria and beyond till his last breath. I am one of his beneficiaries who compared notes with him and drank from his inexhaustible well of knowledge and wisdom. But, let us go back to the beginning, for the morning tells the day.

In the beginning

Prof Ben Nwabueze was born in Nigeria, at a time when the country was under British colonial rule. He grew up in a society where opportunities for education were limited, especially for individuals from less privileged backgrounds. Despite these challenges, young Ben’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge and insatiable curiosity served as the driving forces that would propel him towards academic greatness. By his own account (“Ben Nwabueze: His Life, Works and Times: An Autobiography,”, published by Gold Press Ibadan, in 2013), Prof Nwabueze was born in Atani, in the present Ogbaru Local Government of Anambra State, on the 22nd day of December, 1932. With such humble beginnings, there was little indication of the shining star that he was to become in the legal profession.

Education

Prof Ben Nwabueze started his primary education at CMS Central School in his vil- lage of Atani, in Ogbaru LGA of Anambra State, between 1938 and 1945. Thereafter, he proceeded to CMS Central School, Onitsha, between 1947 and 1950. From 1956 to 1961, he attended the London School of Economics and Political Science, after which (between 1961 and 1962), he attended the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. It is important to point out that Prof. Nwabueze acquired most of his university qualifications on scholarships which were awarded to him by sheer dint of his academic excellence.

Working life

Between 1962 and 1965, Prof. Nwabueze lectured at the Holborn College of Law, London. Upon his return to Nigeria, he took up appointment as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (between 1967-1970), after which he once again left Nigeria – this time, to Zambia, first, as the Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Zambia, and subsequently, between 1973 and 1975, as the Director of that country’s Law Practice Institute (the equivalent of our Law School).

Academic recognition

Prof. Nwabueze’s recognition across the African continent gives the lie to the saying that a prophet has no honor in his homeland. This is because he was a member of the Governing bodies (“the Senate”) of the Universities of Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Haile Selassie (Ethiopia), Dares- Salam – not to mention Lagos, in his home country. In addition to this, he was also an assessor for Academic Appointments in the universities of Ghana, Jos, Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo), and Lagos. He was appointed to Professorial Chairs in the Universities of Nigeria, Nsukka, Zambia, Anambra State University of Technology, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He later served, meritoriously, as the General Counsel of a first-generation bank, the United for Africa (UBA).

Dedication to legal scholarship

Ben Nwabueze’s dedication to legal scholarship was unwavering. His contributions in the field of law were simply vast and varied. He authored numerous books and articles, each one a testament to his keen intellect and deep understanding of the subject matter he dealt with. His works on constitutional law, administrative law, and human rights law have become foundational texts for generations of law students, legal practitioners and members of the Bench. One of his most influential works, “The Presidential Constitution of Nigeria,” delved into the complexities of Nigeria’s constitutional structure, drawing attention to issues of federalism, decentralization, and the balance of power.

Nwabueze’s insights and recommendations have guided discussions on constitutional reforms in Nigeria for decades, serving as a blueprint for the country’s path towards a more just and equitable society and governance structure. In addition to his academic writings, Professor Nwabueze was an active participant in legal reform and advocacy. He served on numerous government committees and panels, providing his expert input on various legal and constitutional issues. His contributions to the development of Nigeria’s legal system were not only profound, but also instrumental in shaping the nation’s legal landscape.

Champion of constitutional reforms

Professor Nwabueze was a tireless champion of constitutional reforms in Nigeria. He recognized that the country’s constitutional framework needed to evolve to better address the changing needs and aspirations of its diverse peoples. His passion for a more inclusive, equitable, egalitarian and just society was evident in his unrelenting pursuit of constitutional reforms. Nwabueze’s advocacy for constitutional reforms often placed him in the role of a constitutional watchdog. He scrutinized proposed constitutional amendments and reforms, ensuring that the fundamental principles of justice, equity, and democracy were upheld.

He believed that a well-crafted Constitution was the cornerstone of a just society, and he worked tirelessly to help Nigeria achieve this ideal state. His role in the struggle for democracy in Nigeria during the military regimes of the 1980s and 1990s was instrumental to major changes. As an outspoken advocate for democratic governance and the rule of law, Nwabueze played a critical role in shaping the political landscape of the country. His unwavering commitment to democratic principles and his determination to see Nigeria transits to a democratic system were at the forefront of his endeavors.

In 1994, Nwabueze co-founded the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP), a non-governmental organization dedicated to the promotion of civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law. The CRP became a powerful voice for justice and democracy in Nigeria, and Professor Nwabueze’s leadership was a beacon of hope during some of the country’s darkest times.

Legacy in legal education

While Professor Nwabueze’s contributions to legal scholarship and constitutional reforms were immense and gargantuan, his impact on legal education was equally profound. He was not only a prolific writer, Philosopher and thinker, but also a dedicated educator who inspired a generation of countless students throughout his career. His teaching style was characterized by a commitment to intellectual rigor and a demand for excellence. Nwabueze believed in challenging his students to think critically and to develop a deep understanding of the law’s principles and applications. His teaching went beyond the classroom; it was a form of mentorship, instilling in his students a sense of responsibility to use their legal knowledge for the betterment of society.

Many of his former students have gone on to become accomplished lawyers, judges, academics, and leaders in various fields of human endeavor. His influence was not limited to the confines of the classroom, but extended to the very fabric of Nigerian society, where his students have played pivotal roles in shaping the legal, political, and social landscape. In recognition of his contributions to legal education, Nwabueze was honored with numerous awards and accolades. He served as a professor at various institutions, including the University of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. His impact on legal education was far-reaching, making him a pillar of the academic community.

Thought for the week

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”. William Shakespeare.


Last line

God bless my numerous global readers for always keeping faith with the Sunday Sermon on the Mount of the Nigerian Project, by humble me, Prof Mike Ozekhome, SAN, CON, OFR, FCIArb., LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D, D.Litt, D.Sc. Kindly, come with me to next week’s exciting dissertation.

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