Nigeria’s Apex Court, the Supreme Court, yesterday, buried one of its finest jurists in a funeral befitting the status of the man, Justice Andrew Otutu Obaseki. In his days at the court, he was remarkable for his erudition, a quality that stood him out among his peers and attracted for him the respect of the lawyers who had the privilege of appearing before his court.
During this period, late Justice Obaseki was reputable for demonstrating a deep seated understanding of the law, which was attributed to and was a product of extensive reading and studies, painstaking research, deep reflections, brilliant writing and speaking skills.
One of his colleagues at the Court, Justice Kayode Eso, also of blessed memory, reportedly described him as a great man by any standard and any yardstick, indeed, by any in the world, one of the acknowledged jurists in contemporary common law jurisdiction, or without being immodest, certainly in the history of jurisprudence in this country.
The jurist commenced his outstanding judicial career in Benin City where in 1958, he was invited by the government to set up the legal department of the Nigerian Building Society, where he also became the staff solicitor. The same year, he was appointed President, Benin Divisional Grade A Customary Court, which was a court of first instance, and President, Customary Court of Appeal for Benin Division, which laid the foundation for his long association with the Bench.
In 1960, Obaseki was appointed the supervising authority for all customary courts in the then Benin Province – covering Benin, Esan, Afenmai and Asaba divisions at the time; and many other appointments to his credit. Ultimately, in 1975, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Justice and retired in 1991. His career at the Supreme Court of Nigeria where he was notable as the first Bini indigene to attain that height as a Justice of the Supreme Court was a culmination of a distinguished legal journey.
In that position, Obaseki recorded ground-breaking judicial precedents and epoch-making pronouncements in classical decisions. Some of the late Justice’s cases at the apex court which became locus classicus of sorts included but not limited to the case of Governor of Lagos State v. Ojukwu; Garba v. University of Maiduguri; Obeko v. Olowo and Awolowo v. Shagari. Justice Obaseki, certainly, made some giant strides in the dispensation of justice in Nigeria in an unprejudiced manner and without fear or favour. Available information reveals that he notably delivered about 658 judgements consisting of about 530 concurring judgments, two dissenting judgments and 126 lead judgements over a period of 16 years
These judgements point to an appreciation of the principles of fair hearing, natural justice, rule of law, and the protection of the citizens from extra-judicial acts of governments which have been laid down to this day and have formed the bedrock of the nation’s jurisprudence.
For his people back home in the present Edo State, his was a pioneering sojourn in the labyrinths of the judiciary at the topmost level for which they trooped out in their numbers to bid him a deserved farewell. As the patriarch of the Obaseki clan, he must also have been sufficiently rewarded to have lived to see his family continue its record of distinguished public service by producing the current governor of the state, Godwin Obaseki.
Indeed, the exit of this fine Jurist seem to be bringing to an end an era of exemplary Jurists in the likes of Justices Kayode Eso and Chukwudifu Oputa, who have also exited this world and who are known for their judicial integrity and astuteness.
Justice Obaseki was born on June 11, 1926 in Benin City, the capital of Edo State, southern Nigeria. He was educated at Edo College in that ancient city where he obtained the West Africa School Certificate in 1940 and later proceeded to Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar.
After he spent two years in the training institute, he proceeded to the School of Agriculture at Moor Plantation, Ibadan where he spent another two years after which in 1948 he left for the United Kingdom to enrol at the London School of Economics where he was trained as a legal practitioner.
In his reflection on the Nigerian Judiciary, he was quoted as saying that “Justice in the courts is the same whether in native courts, High Courts or Supreme Courts; the measure is the same and it is only when there is an error in the application of the substantive law that the different levels come in to make the necessary correction”. May his gentle soul rest in peace.
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