By Tunde Olusunle
It was a Friday. The weekend was imminent and people, expectedly, were winding down after a busy week. The jum’mat service for Muslim faithful would also hold in the afternoon, that day. These, however, did not impact the zestful participation of guests at the 77th birthday public presentation of the biography of John Afolabi Fabiyi, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, (JSC) of the Federal Republic. Fabiyi had distinguished himself in service to fatherland, logging nearly five eventful decades as a jurist par excellence, at the highest levels. He retired from service upon the attainment of the mandatory retirement age of 70, November 2015. To date, he remains the only Okun person to rise to the highest heights of the nation’s judiciary, an attainment worth celebrating in its own right.
Seven long years after Fabiyi bowed out of the nation’s topmost temple of justice, a colourful bouquet of eminent members of the “Bar,” the “Bench,” the political class and non-partisan guests congregated in Afolabi’s honour. Abuja was the venue and the sheer quality and diversity of attendees, was indicative of the high esteem the legal luminary continues to be held. Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun, a distinguished Justice of the Supreme Court, (JSC), represented the Chief Justice of the Federation, (CJN), Olukayode Ariwoola, at the event. Yet another revered JSC, John Okoro Inyang, was also present. Nigeria’s former Attorney-General of the Federation, (AGF), and Minister for Justice, Bayo Ojo, SAN, CON, was on hand to receive his colleagues from both sides of the legal profession, to the programme. Morning as the old adage says, shows the day. The date was November 25, 2022.
Education Minister under the Olusegun Obasanjo regime, who was also Nigeria’s Ambassador to Germany, Professor Tunde Adeniran, OFR, set the tone for the event with the opening prayers. Chief Bayo Ojo who chaired the planning committee of the programme, welcomed guests to the event and traced the history of his acquaintance with Justice Fabiyi. Ojo who began his career as a “State Counsel” in the Ministry of Justice of the former Kwara State, first came across Fabiyi in Ilorin in 1979. Fabiyi was a Chief Magistrate, while Ojo prosecuted criminal cases on behalf of the State, in courts presently domiciled in Niger, Kwara and Kogi states. Ojo would subsequently encounter Fabiyi in the High Court of the Kwara State Judiciary, before the latter relocated to Kogi State, after the 1991 states’ creation exercise.
The former AGF wrote the “Foreword” to Fabiyi’s biography, titled Nurtured by Grace and Rectitude: Biography of Justice John Afolabi Fabiyi, JSC, CFR. The publication was authored by James Bankole Adedoyin, a communications specialist and former permanent secretary in the Kogi State civil service, and Rufus Bamigbaiye Aiyenigba, national publicity secretary of the Social Democratic Party, (SDP). Chief Ojo notes that: “I am filled with very fond and enchanting memories of His Lordship’s fecund mind and unparalleled deep grasp of jurisprudential technicalities. I have a great deal of respect for him for his calm disposition and professional demeanour at the Bench.” Ojo challenged public servants in Nigeria to capture their experiences for the benefit of upcoming generations, by writing books. “People should document and publish their memoirs and biographies. They will serve as reference points for succeeding generations. Such records will remain invaluable reference points for ages to come.”
Joash Ojo Amupitan, SAN, a decorated professor of law and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Jos, (Unijos), who is also from Okunland, reviewed the publication. Amupitan’s profound and rigorous, incisive and insightful, exhaustive, yet engaging performance-style review, could potentially pass for a university inaugural lecture. The 9000 word, 30-page document did thorough justice to the book, in its chapter by chapter dissection, and the general distillation of issues and spinoffs. Amupitan expressed delight at the privilege of reviewing a book on the revered Fabiyi, who he describes as a “High priest in the temple of justice.” Fabiyi’s ratio descedendi in several landmark cases, according to Amupitan, “remain as locus classicus in our courts even years after he retired from the Apex Court, the Supreme Court.”
Amupitan contends that “Nurtured by Grace and Rectitude: Biography of Justice John Afolabi Fabiyi, JSC, CFR, is a complete rendition of the life and accomplishments of a great jurist and a silent philosopher.” According to Amupitan, Fabiyi “has in his own way, contributed to jurisprudence in Nigeria and nation building.” The reviewer noted, that the biography highlights Fabiyi’s “consistent and unflinching commitment to the pursuit of justice, as against technicalities.” The retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Amupitan also avers, remained “uncompromising in protecting the constitutional principle of fair hearing.” Fabiyi is equally celebrated for his “astute defence of the rights of the oppressed.” Amupitan proffers that Fabiyi “courageously reprimanded the powers that be when they were found wanting in the treatment of those under authority, like the celebrated case of the “Unilorin 44.”
Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun conveyed the felicitations of the CJN who could not attend the event because of impromptu engagements. The CJN and indeed justices of the apex court, she said, holds Justice Fabiyi in the highest esteem because of the selflessness, forthrightness and courage which underlined his professionalism and service to the nation. Fabiyi’s precepts, the CJN noted, remain lampposts for his former colleagues and successor jurists. Justice Okoro Inyang noted that John Fabiyi has remained a patriarchal figure for many of his colleagues, in and out of service, and the minimum tribute to pay to him on the occasions of his birthday, was to endeavour to be physically present. He wished him many happy returns of the milestone.
Fabiyi the celebrant expressed gratitude to God, for creating him a human being in the first place, and for taking him through his life’s trajectory. His classmates at the Nigerian Law School, (NLS) in 1969, included: Justices Niki Tobi, JSC and Akanbi Oniyangi, (both of blessed memory). Justices Festus Tabai, JSC (Rtd); Victor Omage, Justice of the Appeal Court, (JCA, Rtd); Muri Okunola, JCA, and Ade Akanbi, retired Chief Judge, (CJ) of Lagos State. His heart was filled with happiness that biographers found his story worthy of serious documentation, apart from articulating a grand ceremony, the type that was staged on that day.
He thanked his colleagues in the Supreme Court, the judiciary and the legal profession at large for honouring him with such consideration and affection. A one-minute silence was observed in memory of Justice Fabiyi’s wife, Christiana Omowumi, who passed on, September 12, 2018, after being married to Fabiyi for 47 years. Coauthor of Nurtured by Grace and Rectitude, Adedoyin noted that he and his coauthor, Aiyenigba, set out to “write a book on a little known legal colossus.” In the course of data gathering, and at the book launch, however, Adedoyin said they “encountered other legal legends and luminaries.”
Dignitaries at the event included Yemi Akinseye-George, SAN, professor of law; Duro Adeyele, SAN; Wole Olanipekun, SAN, CON, (represented by Anthony Aikhunegbe Malik, SAN); Abdulwahab Mohammed, SAN, and I.S. Muhammad, SAN. From the Kogi State judiciary came: Justice Josiah Majebi, Chief Judge of Kogi State; his predecessor; Henry Olusiyi and Alaba Omolaiye-Ajileye of the Kogi State Judiciary. Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, (FCT) High Court, Husseini Baba Yusuf, was represented by Justice C.O. Agbaza. The informal “Kogi State contingent” to the event was understandably rich. Governor of the state, Yahaya Bello, was represented by his attorney general and commissioner for justice, Mohammed Sani Ibrahim, SAN. Royal personages who graced the ceremony included: Oba Solomon Dele Owoniyi, (Obaro of Kabba and Chairman, Okun Traditional Council) and Oba Segun Ayeni, (Olujumu of Ijumu). There were also Oba Anthony Bamigbaiye, (Olu-Adde of Ekinrin-Adde) and his wife, Olori Bridget Fehintola Bamigbaiye Idowu, with Olori Funmilayo Otitoju on the royal delegation from Ekinrin-Adde, Justice Fabiyi’s place of birth. Yeye Funmi Bodunde, Yeye Oba of Iyara was also in attendance.
Smart Adeyemi, CON, Senator representing Kogi West and Shaba Ibrahim, an attorney and Member representing Lokoja/Kotonkarfe federal constituency, headlined the political class. Gen Julius Oshanupin and his wife, Esther; Navy Commanders Lawrence Fabiyi, (younger sibling to the celebrant) and Jerry Omodara, (Rtd), Security Adviser to the Kogi State governor, were also present. Victor Adewale Omofaiye, Kogi State Commissioner for Environment; Bola Fabola, prominent Kogi-based attorney and his wife; Dr Femi Ajisafe, seasoned agricultural economist; Badaki Aliyu, President, Iyara Development Association, (IDA) and Dr Remi Odutola made it to the fete. Ayo Anjorin; prominent hospitality industry professional and his wife; Eric Fiki, a former state parliamentarian; Sadiq Ainoko, a former commissioner in Kogi State, and Fred Olutekunbi, businessman, equally featured at the event.
Justice John Afolabi Fabiyi, JSC (Rtd) was born November 25, 1945 in Ekinrin-Adde, Ijumu local government area, (LGA), Kogi State. He attended Baptist Primary School, Ekinrin-Adde, and Baptist High School, Igede-Ekiti, Ekiti State, for his foundational education. He proceeded to the Ahmadu Bello University, (ABU) to study law, graduating in 1969. The following year, 1970 he was called to the bar. He began his working life in Kano, at the famous E. Noel Grey and Co Legal Practitioners in the renowned commercial capital of northern Nigeria. He joined the Magisterial Bench of the old Kwara State in 1975. He rose to the position of Chief Registrar of the Kwara State High Court and was appointed Judge of the High Court in 1984. Following the creation of Kogi State in 1991, he moved to the new state as a High Court Judge.
In November 1998, Fabiyi was elevated to the Court of Appeal, becoming “Presiding Justice” of the Ibadan Division of the Court in 2006. He was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria March 4, 2009, and retired from service November 25, 2015, having attained the age of 70 stipulated by law. He is credited with the expansion of the “horizon of jurisprudence in Nigeria.” He was erudite, upright and uncompromising. It is to Justice Fabiyi’s credit, that he is one of select Nigerians who were decorated with three different national honours, under various governance dispensations: Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic, (OFR); Commander of the Order of the Niger, (CON) and Commander of the Federal Republic, (CFR).
Baba, as his more fondly and fittingly addressed these days, inspired two of his six children, including Adetutu, to study law, like him. Very well travelled across the world, he finds delight and pleasure having his children and their children, around and about him. As Bobagunwa (Adviser-at-Large and Adviser Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary) to the Olu-Adde-in-Council) of Ekinrin-Adde, he keeps an eye on developments in his home community and offers counsel. The colourful reception was co-mastered by Omoyemi Olumudi, also a diligent member of the legal profession.
Tunde Olusunle, poet, journalist, scholar and author, is a Member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, (NGE).