In Praise of Dr. Mudiaga Odje, SAN, OFR

By Amos Agbe Utuama, SAN

Attorney-General & Commissioner For Justice, Delta State, Nigeria

 

 

Being Text of a Speech Delivered at A Special Court Session in Honour of the Late Dr. Mudiaga Odje, SAN, OFR at the Nigerian Bar Association Law Centre, Warri, on Friday, the 27th Day of January 2006

 

 

PROTOCOL:

My Lords,

The Chief judge of Delta State, the Hon. justice R. P. I. Bozimo (Mrs.); The President of the Customary Court of Appeal, the Hon. justice Stella Ogene (Mrs.); Serving and retired judges of the State High Court and of the Customary Court of Appeal; Members of the Body of Benchers; The Hon Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for justice: Learned Senior Advocates of Nigeria; The President of the NBA, Chairmen of the various branches and members in and outside the State The Magistry; Gentlemen of the Press; Ladies and Gentlemen.

Introduction:

We are honoured to be invited by the Hon. the Chief Judge of Delta State, Hon. Justice Roseline P. I. Bozimo to deliver a speech at today's Special Court Session in honour of the late Dr. Mudiaga Odje SAN, OFR. The man we have all gathered to honour was larger than life, indeed a legend. One therefore feels inadequate to find words strong enough to express one's grief on the death of this great all rounder of rare distinction. But for the duty imposed on me by the office of Attorney General, which I hold, I would just have asked to be led by an older Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Be that as it may, permit me to seek leave to deliver this speech entitled The Book of Life of the Legendary Dr. Mudiaga Odje SAN, OFR.

The Book of Life of the Legendary Dr. Mudiaga Odje. SAN. OFR, Fellow, International Academy of Trial Lawyers, Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

Member. Hon. Society of the Inner Temple, former President Nigerian Bar Association. Nationalist. Philanthropist, loving husband and father In our country, I believe the year 2005 could, from the viewpoint of human calamity, be called the Year of the Flight of the Great Ones.

The Law family was not spared. The first quarter of the year saw Chief F.R.A. Williams SAN, CFR bowing out gracefully from this terrestrial world for the greater beyond. In the second quarter, Chief Phillip Umeadi SAN, followed. In the last quarter, we received the breaking news that our own Dr. Mudiaga Odje SAN, OFR, on 9th December 2005 also took his glorious exit from the terrestrial to the extraterrestrial, from the temporary to the eternal, from the finite to the infinite.

As humans and for the love we shared together with him, his demise has painful afflictions on us. Nonetheless, we ought to be saying "Glory be to God," given all his great achievements and values as an outstanding family man, legal scholar and practitioner and a patriot. Dr. Odje, like the Pharaohs of Egypt, impressed his years of four scores and two. With bold and indellible pyramids in his passage through the earth. That however is as far as the semblance goes. Whilst the Pharoahs had their pyramids and edifices built with the forced labour of slaves who toiled day and night in their sweat and blood, Dr. Mudiaga Odje's edifices, on the other hand, were rewards for his legitimate self-endeavours, sacrifices, diligence, commitment, brilliance, integrity, erudition and perfectionism. Yet, he was very humane and a person of good humour who was easily acknowledged as a legal icon and a role model par excellence.

As A Legal Icon:

3.         Dr. Odje's career in the legal profession is an extraordinary one. Indeed, it is a legal odyssey. The journey started from his humble beginning as a classroom teacher at the Native Authority Schools in Uzere and Ughelli between 1946 and 1947. By dint of hard work and brilliance, he rose to the position of headmaster and was posted to Salvation Army School, Sapele where he remained from 1950 to 1952. Not done with, Dr, Odje became a tutor at Urhobo College, Effurun between 1953 and 1954. Thereafter, he proceeded to the University of London to pursue the Golden Fleece, the Bachelor of Laws degree that he obtained in 1958. He took time off to return to Nigeria to attend the Nigeria Law School and after being called to the Bar, returned to University of London and obtained his Masters of Law in 1960.

4.         As a scholar, Dr. Odje was not satisfied with obtaining the Masters degree, he enrolled for the third degree programme in which he researched into the customary law of succession of Mid-Western region. His work was adjudged by the University of London as a scholarly contribution and accordingly confered on him the Ph.D degree, the crown of scholarship.

5.         With this scholarly accomplishment, Dr. Odje was eminently qualified to pursue a career in academics. However, his greater love for advocacy made him to channel his outstanding intellectual energy into private legal practice. He easily distinguished and proved himself an oracle. Dr. Odje mesmerized opposing counsel and even judges with his brilliant submissions on the issue at hand, remarkable power to recall and cite offhand relevant authorities to demolish opposing arguments. He was an advocate of rare distinction.

6.         Dr. Odje's doctrinal scholarship was deep and diverse. It was not enough for a judge to have awarded him judgment in any case. He would still complain if the judgment were not based on the right reasons. In this regard, Dr. Odje made no exception to the Court. Dr. Odje would appeal to his power of doctrinal research and writing by way of an article addressing the knotty issue with a view of identifying the basic legal principle and providing exposition of the relevant legal rules. In this Regard, his doctrinal scholarship was of great value in serving the practical needs of the legal profession such as judges, lawyers and also Students who will need to learn the relevant "black letter law" in most of the courses they take.

Such was Dr. Odje's reaction to the Supreme Court judgment in Oke vs Oke {19747}NSCC Vol 9 in his contribution entitled "Making a Will, Testamentary Capacity and Reform  to the book, Law of Wills in Nigeria eds Prof. A. A. Utuama and Mr. G. M. Ibru. 200 I where Dr. Odje reproduced the ratio decidendi as reflected in the reported judgment of Hon. Justice Obaseki (as he then was) as follows:­

'”The customary law I have accepted makes it unlawful to deprive the eldest son of the house where his father lived and died and as such, tbe devise of that house to any other person or child and in this case to the 1st Defendant Thompson Oke by will cannot stand. The provision in the Will of the deceased dated 11th April, 1957 devising the house No. 53 Warri/Sapele Road, Warri to Thompson Oke, the 1st Defendant, is contrary to Urhobo and Itsekiri customary laws and as such invalid and of no effect."

Against this background, Dr. Odje thought that the Supreme Court went too far when he said of the Supreme Court that:­ "From the portion of judgment of the learned trial judge reproduced above, the issue of the devise of unpartitioned family land was, strictly speaking, not necessary for the decision of both the trial and the appellate courts. With profound respect, it was absolutely unnecessary for the Supreme Court to rely on the cases of Taylor vs. Williams & anor, Page 5 of 14 Ogumefun vs. Ogumefun and Davies vs. Davies which were decided with reference to the rule bearing on the indispensability of unpartitioned family Property by will. In other words, the gloss of family property put on the facts of the case by the Supreme Court was, with respect obiter dictum.

7.         Dr. Odje was both a national and international legal icon. Through his dint of hard work and dedication to practice, he was easily one of the best Senior Advocates this nation ever produced in my reckoning. From the reported cases, it is easily seen that where a party to a case had engaged Chief FRA Williams, SAN, CFR, Dr. Odje was one of the obvious choices for the other party for the legal duel. Dr. Odje was at home with any subject or discipline of law in his practice, ranging from constitutional law to law of succession. Instructive in this regard are the following cases of Sam Obi v Mbakwe [1984] I NMLR 132 or [1984] NSCC Vol 15 at 127, NPA v Panalpina [1973] NSCC Vol 5 at 77, Idehen v Idehen [1991] 6 NWLR Part 198 382; Abiegbe vs.Ugbodome & Ors [1973] NSCC Vol 8;

8.         In Sam Obi vs. Mbakwe, the issue was whether an incumbent Governor is immune from election petition proceedings by virtue of section 267 of the 1979 Constitution. Acting for the Appellant in the case, Dr. Odje submitted that an election petition was not a 'civil proceeding' and a Governor whose election into office was being questioned was not covered by the immunity accorded to a governor under the Constitution while Chief Williams argued otherwise. The Supreme Court found for the appellant and Dr. Odje had the day. In Idehen vs. Idehen, the issue was whether the phrase "subject to any customary law relating thereto" in section 3(1) of the Wills Law of Bendel State is a qualification of the testator's testamentary capacity or of the subject matter of the devise or bequest under the Will.

Dr. Odje submitted that the phrase qualified the testamentary capacity whilst Chief Williams submitted that the phrase was limited to the subject matter of the devise or bequest. The Court held that the qualification was limited to the subject matter of the devise or bequest and Chief Williams also had his day. In Abiegbe vs. Ogbodome, the issue was whether it was justifiable to dismiss an action for want of diligent prosecution when there was an application for extension of time to take steps that would save it. Dr. Odje argued that it was not judicious to dismiss the Plaintiff's case in this circumstance. At the Supreme Court, Chief Williams did not contest the justness of Dr. Odje's submissions and they both had the day.

9          It was also not uncommon to find both Chief Williams and Dr. Odje on the same side. This was the situation in Tidex (Nig) Ltd vs. Maskew [1998] 3 NWLR Part 542 and Opia vs. Ibru [1992] 3 NWLR Part 321 in which they represented the respective appellants in the cases. It would therefore appear that they both had mutual respect for each other. Little wonder that they departed in the same year.                                                              

10.        Dr. Mudiaga Odje was a man of great diversity in strength and excellence in his chosen career. Dr. Odje was a super active bar man whose integrity and brilliance earned him the respect of his peers throughout the length and breadth of the country for he was not only the Chairman of the NBA Warri Branch but later led the entire NBA as President from 1974 to 1976. Expectedly, in 1978, Dr. Odje was conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in recognition of his contribution to the development of law. From the records available to us at the Supreme Court, he was in the second batch of legal practitioners appointed to the prestigious rank of SANs and occupied the 12th position on the list. This is no mean achievement. He was the third Ph.D holder ever elevated to the rank and interestingly, the first in the then Bendel State.

11.       Dr. Odje's contributions, as a member of the Body of Benchers, the highest decision-making organ regulating the legal profession in Nigeria, were enormous; thus becoming a life bencher in 1989; Chairman of the Body in 1996 and had the duty to call the new wigs that year.

As A Role Model:

12.       Dr, Odje was a role model as a person and as a family man. Whatever mode of dressing he wore, he appeared elegant. Dr. Odje took Chief Mrs. Paulina o. Odje JP for his wife with whom he shared the rest of his life. They were very close and loving. In public functions, they were often together and complemented one another in every way. Demonstrably, they were named the Best Couple of the Year by the Delta State Government in 1997. Inspite of his busy legal schedules, he found time to spend with Mama and with whom he went abroad for hisUsual annual vacations.

13.       Dr. Odje is survived by seven male children. Biologically speaking, he had reproduced himself directly in seven different varieties. The first son, Professor Omokere M. Odje, has a Ph.D like the father. Four of Dr. Odje's children, Okiemute, Eretare, Emuobo and Akpo Odje, took after their father as qualified legal practitioners; two of these four have in addition a B.Sc degree. The third son, Nyerhovwo is a Chartered Accountant and the last born, Ofuoma, obtained a I st class Bachelor's degree in Information Technology, USA. As can be seen from the above, Dr. Odje gave attention to the education and training of his children, which prepared them for a successful life.

Dr. Odje used to say with pride to me that while others invested their time and resources in building property estates, he expended his resources on developing his seven human estates. That is Dr. Odje in his elements. He also believed that a life that is fulfilled goes beyond his immediate family to impact upon others. Driven by this philosophy, he was a philanthropist and extended his hand beyond his immediate family to the larger family and even non-members.

14.        He had great regard for the family institution and its values such that he raised a family nurtured in love and care. He believed that the duty of maintenance of the family should continue even after death. He therefore frowned at the provisions of the Wills Law that enabled parents to disinherit their children. He was of the firm view that there is no reason why a fixed portion of a person's estate should not be left to the members of the family, especially the immediate or biological family, towards whom the person had the duty of maintenance while he or she was alive and kicking. Dr. Odje's reasons were that:

“the increasing mobility of the population, sometimes resulting in the virtual break-up of the family as known to the African; the rising standard of education and general enlightenment of the people, together with the effects that these have on the process of the 'individualisation' of property, are factors likely to encourage rather than discourage the tendency on the part of a testator to dispose of their estates to the detriment of their families. Secondly, the injustice and hardship that may be caused to disabled and yet disinherited dependants may well be imagined, when it is realized that there is at present an almost complete lack of social and welfare service catering for such luckless and less privileged members of the society." Thus Dr. Odje was a very consistent person and this he exhibited both in his writings and family life.

Personal Interactions:

15.       My first interraction with Dr. Odje's family was about 34 years ago when Okiemute Odje and I were classmates at the University of Lagos from 1974 to 1977. Dr. Odje was then the President of the Nigerian Bar Association. Most of the times he was in Lagos for either NBA meetings or attending to matters in the Supreme Court, he would find time to visit Okiemute in the University. On one such occasion, I was with Okiemute who introduced me to him. From then on, anytime Okiemute had notice that the father was visiting, I would always try and be around for a joint reception in the course of which Dr. Odje would give us encouragement and advice. This was the beginning of what turned out to be my invaluable relationship with the Odje family.

16.       In 1989 when my first book, Nigerian Law of Real Property, was to be launched, I came to Warri to invite Dr. Odje to the event and pleaded with him to grace the occasion because I considered that his presence would give me robust home support I badly needed. He put everything aside and to my amazement, appeared at the venue, the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, where he commended my effort and bought 10 copies of the book. Each time we met thereafter, he would refer to the book as a sweet handbook in the Law of Property.

17.       In the 1990s, our relationship became even closer. Whenever I had important cases in Delta State, I requested him to lead me, which he graciously did. One of such cases was Union Commercial Company Ltd vs. Pan Ocean in the High Court, Oghara and Asaba before Hon. Justice M. Umukoro.

18.       I gained a lot from his advocacy skills as he taught me several unforgettable lessons, one of which has particularly guided me in practice, that is - cases are won or lost in chambers and not in court. A corollary to this was his lessons in brief writing that briefs are not written in vacuum, the authorities being the matrix of a good brief. Dr. Odje was one of the best brief writers in terms of clarity and brevity. Thus, he was appointed visiting guest lecturer by the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies for their annual training programmes for judges and legal practitioners. In recognition of his brilliant lectures and skills in brief writing, he was subsequently appointed a Fellow of the Institute.

19.       At the social level, I was always welcome anytime anyway by the Odjes not as a visitor but as a child of the family, so also my wife and children. Whenever I indicated interest in eating, before my arrival, Papa would always wait for me so I could eat with him. If he had taken his meal, he would still find time to sit at table with me. In health or sickness, his warmness towards me was unchanged. It is on record that in his state of ill-health, it was only once that Papa did not come down to receive me and I had to go to the bedroom to see him. Permit me to recall that on 18th November, 2005 when I last saw Papa alive, he managed to come down to receive me and we took photographs together. Thus, the death of Dr. Mudiaga Odje is a personal loss to me and my immediate family.

As A National Figure:

20.        Dr. Odje, a man of humble beginning and background, like a mustard seed, rose skywards through his exploits in the field of law to become a national legal celebrity, a man who set the highest standard in everything to which he put his hand, a man of intellectual acclaim. He soon caught the attention of the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which conferred on him the enviable national honour of Order of the Federal Republic, OFR in 1982.

He was Chairman of the Federal Government Commission for In-Depth Study of the Nigeria-Benin International Boundary, Including the Maritime Sector from 1989 to 1990, member of the Mid-Western Region Delegation to the Ad-Hoc Constitutional Conference of 1966/67, elected representative of the Ughelli and Isoko Local Government Areas in the 1977/78 Constituent Assembly which drafted the 1979 Constitution and member of the Human Rights Violation and Conciliation Commission, otherwise known as the Oputa Panel. He had deep concerns for Nigeria and believed in the equitable distribution of her resources. He continually expressed the view that "There is enough in Nigeria to take care of the needs of all her peoples but not enough for the greed of one person."

Conclusion:

21.        In conclusion, we thank God for the gift of the life of Dr. Mudiaga Odje, SAN, OFR, Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, member of the Hon. Society of the Inner Temple, former President Nigerian Bar Association, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Nationalist, philanthropist, loving husband and father. All we can do is pray the Almighty God in His infinite mercy to admit Dr. Mudiaga Odje into life eternal and shine His perpetual light upon his soul and send His Comforter to comfort Mama, the children my brothers, the Nigerian Bar Association, the Government and people of Delta State and of the Federation. Amen. Thank you and God bless.

PROF. AMOS AGBE UTUAMA, SAN

Attorney-General & Commissioner For Justice

 

Friday 27th January. 2006

 

 

 


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