BY OUR EDITORS
It is customary to expect a flurry of tributes when an eminent personality goes the way of all mortals. For Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta, who died with his boots on, in a manner of speaking, as a Justice of the Supreme Court just about three weeks to his 70th birthday, the eulogies from people who knew, worked or interacted with him in his life time, attest to his status and character. Almost every lawyer aspires for an opportunity to sit on the Bench of the apex court. For some, it is a dream. For others like Justice Ngwuta, an Abakaliki man, it was not just an aspiration, it was also a dream come true. He overcame the disabilities of his background, the drawbacks of a debilitating civil war and attained to the pinnacle of legal success in the real sense of that term.
It is not for nothing that his death, announced on March 7, 2021 by the Supreme Court of Nigeria where he served for close to 10 years, came to many both as a rude shock and painful loss. If the dead were to come back to life, the late jurist would be amazed at what is being said about him by his compatriots.
It is, indeed, a mark of honour that President Muhammadu Buhari led the train of tributes for this man who served his country dispassionately and at great person risk as events towards the end of his career revealed.
Yet another political acquaintance of his noted in his tribute that in his time at the Bench, Justice Ngwuta earned a reputation as a first-class jurist with a keen eye for detail and a deep, peerless, knowledge of the law. Where others may have lost their way, Justice Ngwuta was said by those in a position to know, that he remained steadfast and calm in his analysis, producing a number of classical judgments, which will continue to be referred to in classrooms and courtrooms across the country long after his death and into the future.
Some attest to his humble beginnings from which Justice Ngwuta rose to the zenith of his profession, distinguishing himself at every juncture. His professional colleagues aver that his legacy as a judge will be celebrated by present and future generations of legal luminaries for many years to come. A classmate of his in the Nigerian Law School class of 1978 as well as the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) simply said: I knew him well and, in my view, he was a good man and of vibrant intellect, possessed of a calm mien. He will be missed greatly.
Another professional colleague of Justice Ngwuta, pained by his passing, alluded to the probability that he might have died in protest of the shock and trauma occasioned by the 2016 midnight invasion of his Abuja official residence, by operatives of the Department of State Security Service (DSS).
Many, even outside the precincts of the bar and bench, who know him closely, testify that in the course of his career, he was upright and dispensed justice without fear or favour and noted with regret that at the twilight of his career, his integrity was unfairly called to question and he had to pass through the challenges of being investigated and prosecuted and found innocent by the courts and appropriate judicial authorities.
Born in 1951 in Amofia-Ukawu, Onicha local government area of Ebonyi State, the late Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta had his basic education in the Eastern part of Nigeria and got his LLB from the University of Ife (Now Obafemi Awolowo University) lle-ife in 1977 and BL at the Nigerian Law School in 1978. He started his life as a public servant and a primary school teacher as far back as 1966. He later became a clerical officer (Accounts), Divisional School Board, Ministry of Education, Afikpo in August 1971.
As a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) lawyer in 1978-1979, he was deployed as the state counsel in charge, Ministry of Justice, Oturkpo, Benue State. Young Barrister Ngwuta started his private legal practice at Abakaliki in 1979 soon after his service from where he was appointed a judge of the High Court of Abia State in October 1995, was promoted to the Court of Appeal in 2003, and was finally sworn-in as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in May 2011.
Justice Ngwuta, in the course of his duties as a judicial officer, was the chairman of the judicial panel of inquiry into the Obegu Enyibichiri Ikwo Disturbance 1997-1998 and has been a member of several Election Petition Tribunals, Governorship and Legislative House Election Petition Tribunal and National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal among others. The late jurist had conferred on him the national honour of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) 2012. May his soul rest in peace.