For Mrs Mary Ukaego Odili, life has been a fairy tale in the manner of speaking. Considering the fact that her father Eze Bernard Nzenwa was a pre-independence Nigerian lawyer and given the privileges and societal standing of lawyers in those early days, she could rightly claim to have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Like Portia in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who claimed “I, so fathered and so husbanded” in reference to her nobility, Mary also has a claim to upper class affiliations. By virtue of the fact that she is the daughter of a distinguished lawyer and traditional ruler as well as wife of a prominent politician, if one were to call her a princess one would be right.
Mary took all these in her stride as she focused on the real issue that border on her determination to use her ascribed status to enhance her relevance to humanity. In doing this, she did not allow the glow of affluence to becloud her plans for herself.
With her background of royalty, she was raised to stand out in the community. From her vantage position today as a Justice of the Supreme Court, it is obvious that she did not disappoint. Despite her polished upbringing, Mary launched out applying her highly cerebral endownment in the pursuit of life goals.
She was born on 12 May 1952 in Amudi Obizi, Ezinihitte-Mbaise Local Government Area of Imo State. The second daughter of Eze Bernard Nzenwa and Ugoeze Benadette Nzenwa. Ukaego attended a number of primary schools as a child including St Benedict’s Primary School, Obizi Ezinitte, St Michael’s Primary School, Umuahia, St Agnes Primary School, Maryland and Our Lady of Apostles Primary School, Yaba. She briefly attended Our Lady of Apostles Secondary School, also in Yaba, Lagos. Following the outbreak of the civil war in 1967, Ukaego and her parents relocated to the southeast of the country. There, she continued her education at Owerri Girls High School until her family moved back to Mbaise. She then attended Mbaise Girls Secondary School and later enrolled at the Queen of the Rosary College in Onitsha. These were highbrow schools in those days most of them managed by the Catholic Church. Mary’s performance in the West African School certificate in 1972- aggregate six, grade one with distinction was an attestation to the worth of her intellect. The same year, she gained admission into the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus where she read law. In her second year in the university she earned a scholarship for maintaining the second class upper division league with higher scores.
As a young lady with a combination of brain and beauty she was highly sought after. In the race that ensued, Peter Odili won but not without a fight. For Mary, it was the beginning of a phase of her life that took a refreshing turn. When she met her prince charming, Peter Odili, a medical student, at a campus party the two began a romantic relationship that blossomed. The rest as the saying goes, is history as she is today, Mrs Peter Odili. Odili himself told the story of how his father- in- law let him get away so easily on the bride price issue but said that it was a trap as till date he has not finished paying the bride price.
In 1976, she graduated with an LLB (Hons) and was rated the best student of the department of commercial and property law. Shortly after, she attended the Nigerian Law School and received her B.L. certificate in 1977, before embarking on her youth service in Benin City and Abeokuta. Odili was serving as a house officer in Benin City at the time. Talk of fate.
Ukaego commenced her career in the judiciary as a Magistrate grade III in November 1978. She married Odili in 1979 and gave birth to a girl named Adaeze. Ukaego and her family moved to Port Harcourt city where her husband founded his medical centre, Pamo Clinics.. Between 1980 and 1988, Ukaego served as Chief Magistrate Grade I, Chairman of the Juvenile Court, President, Marine Board of Inquiry into the 1979 Buguma Boat disaster, Chairman, Constitution Drafting Committee of the University of Nigeria Alumni Associates, Inaugural Chairperson of the International Federal of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Rivers State and Secretary, Nigerian Horticultural Society. She became High Court Judge in the 1990’s. In 1992, while she was a High Court Judge, Odili was serving as the Deputy Governor of Rivers State. In 1999, following her husband’s election as governor, Ukaego became the First Lady of Rivers State, serving until 29 May 2007.
She had held the offices of Justice, Court of Appeal, Abuja Division and Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division. On 3 May 2011, President Jonathan nominated Ukaego with two other Appeal Court Justices to the Supreme Court. Ukaego was appointed an Associate justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (JSC) on 23 June, 2011. Today, Justice Mary Odili is a leading light in the highest echelon of the nation’s judiciary, a no mean feat. She was awarded the national honour of the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) by the federal government. As she marks her 65th birthday, Mary Ukaego Peter Odili, wife, mother and grandmother, has every right to look back and in an exhilarating sigh and exclaim, its being a long journey well worth it.
– Ume is a media consultant
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