Just as the nation was yet to recover from the shock of the death of Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, a one-time Chief Justice of Nigeria, his immediate predecessor in office, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, has also gone the way of all mortals. He died in a London hospital on 21 October 2018 following a short period of illness. With their death, the nation has been robbed of the informed counsel enriched by experience these two learned and eminent jurists used to put at the disposal of the government. With their death also, the rank of this ranked class of public servants who served as a repository of knowledge and wisdom, is gradually being depleted.
Kutigi, going by the schools he attended and his career trajectory, came prepared for the highest judiciary job in the land. Born in Kutigi, in today’s Lavun Local Government Area of Niger State on December 31, 1939, he attended elementary school in that town and middle and secondary school in Bida, in his Nupe native land. Thereafter, the young Idris moved on to the famous Government College, Kaduna (now Barewa College). This school, in particular, which was like the furnace that glazed the mind of the leaders of Northern Nigeria, set Idris apart for the roles he played in the governance of the country, especially in the judiciary arm. He also studied at the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State. He left the country for England in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece and dropped his anchor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and Gibson and Weldon, before returning to attend the Nigerian Law School in Lagos. Kutigi was called to the bar in 1964. He served as the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Niger State before becoming a high court judge in 1976. He joined the Supreme Court in 1992 and rose to the position of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and assumed duty on 30 January after being confirmed by the Senate.
He served as Chief Justice from 30 January 2007 until 30 December 2009. Kutigi retired on that date having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 and had the rare privilege of swearing in his successor, Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu. The President of Nigeria usually swears in the Chief Justice, but President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was not available on this occasion due to ill health. After leaving public service, in 2014, and in recognition of the lot he still had to offer the nation, Kutigi was appointed chairman of the National Conference on constitutional matters by President Goodluck Jonathan. His appointment was widely welcomed by those on all sides of the Nigerian political spectrum, with praise coming for his impartiality and fairness.
That assessment of him as a bridge builder was put to the test on 12 June, 2014. He calmed frayed nerves at the conference when he stepped in to separate northern and southern politicians who almost came to blows during a meeting over a disagreement on holding a one-minute silence to honour those that died during the 1993 presidential election. Kutigi later described the conference as the “most arduous” to have been held in Nigeria’s history due to the short length of time – four and a half months – that had been allowed for it. By its conclusion, more than 600 resolutions had been addressed, covering points of law, public policy and the constitution. The findings were presented in a 22-volume, 10,335-page document.
Kutigi also continued to attend Council of State meetings in his capacity as a retired Chief Justice of Nigeria. His death, indeed, has denied the nation his wise counsel. However, even as Nigerians mourn his demise, they take solace in the legacy he left behind in public service in general and the judiciary in particular. A grateful nation bestowed on him the second highest honour in the country, the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON). Also, a street in the Federal Capital Territory was named after him, while his home state of Niger named the International Conference Centre in Minna after Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi. As a mark of honour following his death, the Nigerian flag was ordered to be flown at half-mast at the Supreme Court, the official residence of the Chief Justice, all judicial institutions and courts of record for seven days. Kutigi had 18 children and many grandchildren. May his soul rest in peace.
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