By Nick Dazang
We were just putting finishing touches to a book project, entitled: “Democracy, Good Governance And Development: Documenting Progress For Posterity”, when I received an urgent summon from Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah (then Reverend Father). The book, commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Information, then led by Professor Jerry Gana, was to chronicle the accomplishments of the thirty six governors as witnessed by a team of journalists on a Media Tour. It was to underscore that there was a correlation between democracy and good governance and to encourage our governors, across the board, to continue to deliver dividends of democracy to Nigerians as an ingenuous and potent effort to keep the military at bay. Our brief was to do so in riveting and graceful prose.
Bishop Kukah’s summon coincided with a time when the Human Rights Investigation And Violations Commission (HRIVC), also known popularly as the Oputa Panel, had just finished its soap-opera-like Public Hearings and it was coming to the dreary brass stack of authoring and producing a report. When I came to the Commission, first as Editor, and then as Technical Resource Person, the Commission was at a crossroads. It was also riven into factions. One of the Editors, a senior colleague, who was earlier scheduled to edit the report of the Commission dithered and developed cold feet at the last minute. The lot of editing the corpus of the Panel thus fell on a troika of my humble self, the erudite but highly unassuming Professor Adele Jinadu and the bohemian intellectual, Dr. Sola Olorunyomi.
The secretariat which should have buoyed the Commission and supported its work was almost in a shambles. The official Secretary to the Commission was a serving Permanent Secretary. And the proxies he delegated to merely excelled in mischief and running circles around the ever busy Commissioners. As if that were not enough, the Commissioners were divided as to their approach to the task at hand. There were those who wanted the task of the Commission to continue interminably so long as the appurtunances of the office accrued to them; there were those who were simply indifferent; there were those who, claiming to represent certain powerful interests/sponsors, were ready to subvert the work of the Commission so that the report would not ultimately indict their principals; and there were those who wanted to get the job done over with so they could face other challenges. Bishop Kukah who had a Fellowship awaiting him at Oxford University and two others, belonged in the last, eager category.
When this writer arrived at the Commission, His Lordship, Chukwudifu Oputa, had by any benchmark conceivable, earned his dues. As a prolific and voluble Justice of the Supreme Court, he was noted for his wit and profundity. Brilliant and intrepid lawyers such as Chief Gani Fawehinmi stood in awe of him. And on account of his numerous judgements which brimmed with wisdom and lustre, he was deferentially referred to as “Socrates”. And but for the fact that he came of a long-lived stock, Justice Oputa, at eighty years plus, was at the twilight of his earthly existence.
Eventhough I was procured by Bishop Kukah to the Commission, Justice Oputa was to soon bring me under his wing. Two reasons were responsible: When he discovered to his pleasant surprise that I was the Secretary of the Committee that authored Plateau State’s submission to the HRIVC, he was overcome with joy. Of the thousands of submissions made to the Commission, he singled out that report and that of Ndi-Igbo, reportedly authored by Comrade (now Senator) Uche Chukwumerije, as the most acutely reasoned and seminal. And as a testament to the tribute he paid to these two submissions, he kept copies permanently on his writing table at his Top Rank Hotel Pent House where he worked feverishly. None of the submissions, he stated, addressed the issue of marginalisation and marginality as that of Ndi-Igbo and to reinforce his case, he gave me a copy to study.
Justice Oputa saw in anyone who was hard working as a son and kindred spirit. On account of the many man-hours and selflessness which some of us brought to the job, we were like his children, with Mama, his amiable wife, dotting on us. Dr. Haniel John Pongri (now Provost, College of Education, Hong, Adamawa State) who was always prepared to research topics for the Justice at no cost to the Commission, became one of his “sons” as well. Dr. Pongri wrote tomes at the behest of Justice Oputa and at one point, Bishop Kukah had to express bewilderment as to whether the Justice found time to read them.
If Justice Oputa was a voracious reader and a connoisseur of reasoned and elegantly authored treatises, his energy for his age, was simply stupendous. One of Bishop Kukah’s first motions at Oxford was to tease out hundreds of suggestions and recommendations arising from the Panel’s report which were e-mailed to me and subsequently forwarded to the Commissioners. And when it turned out that the government wanted the submission of the HRIVC report to coincide with its three years in office, President Olusegun Obasanjo directed my humble self to recall the Commissioners from their break so that the report would be prepared and submitted ahead of the anniversary.
Eventhough at first blush, Bishop Kukah’s submission appeared to be unblemished and cast in stone, when they were subjected to further rigorous scrutiny by the Commissioners, led by Justice Oputa, some were jettisoned outright while others were fortified and made more robust. It was my task, in the absence of the Secretary, to take down these amendments after a stretch of not less than twelve hours each day and to produce clean copies ahead of the next day’s session. At the end of the first ten days, I requested for a day’s break. But rather than giving in, Justice Oputa soldiered on, notching up even more hours than the previous twelve!
Because the tasks of Commissions that seek to reconcile aggrieved and hurt persons are strenuous, emotional and energy sapping, they tend to create tensions of their own. At a point, and as a consequence of the strain, some Commissioners of the South African Truth And Reconciliation Commission were reportedly not on speaking terms. But because of Justice Oputa’s forebearance and father figure stature, it was to his credit that tempers seldom rose, even if nerves frayed. His tolerance, fellow feeling, selflessness and occasional sense of humour were modulating. And they calmed nerves.
In addition to a moderating influence, Justice Oputa was blessed with an elephant’s memory. If he lent you a document or a book he would not bother to note it in a diary. But on the day the book or document was due, he would call and ask for it. So superlative was his memory that he would recall events going back decades with their dates and with clarity and detail. His capacity for recall was so graphic and near total that Professor Jinadu once querried: “Baba, don’t you ever forget anything?” Thankfully, he was not a vengeful person.
Eventhouhg Justice Oputa was a workaholic, he was not ascetic. After the day’s job had been done, he would retire to his pent house and find recourse to his Cognac. Usually, he would invite hard working and personable fellow devotees at the temple of Bacchus to partake at his generous offering. And as you savour the smooth offering, he would regale you with his youthful escapades. Out of deep respect for Mama, such yarns would always be rendered out her ear shot!
In the course of this writer’s strivings, he has been given several commendations. But the one I cherish most, and which you are likely to find in my file, is the one issued by Justice Oputa. And when he did so, he gave me two, remarking effusively: “My son, should one get missing, you should have a spare.”
Fare thee well, “Socrates”. For even as you taught us to embrace the values of our new national anthem, you insisted that we should not jettison the one bequeathed us by the Colonialists at Independence because of its resonance with, and its relevance to the Nigerian condition. So strongly did Justice Oputa feel about it that it ran through several of his discourses. Permit me to reproduce the second and third stanzas of “Nigeria We Hail Thee” (1960-1978) which he was fond of:
“Our flag shall be a symbol
That truth and justice reign,
In peace or battle honour’d
And this we count as gain,
To hand on to our children
A banner without stain.
O God of all creation,
Grant this our one request,
Help us to build a nation
Where no man is oppressed,
And so with peace and plenty
Nigeria may be blessed.”
Director and Head of Publicity, INEC.