For Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta, who departed the earthly plains on Sunday, March 7, 2021, it was double farewell: from the high pedestal of jurist of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, as well as life and living itself, with its accoutrements of tragicomedies.
Already primed to take a final bow from the hallowed recesses of the nation’s apex court on March 30, 2021 – when he would have clocked the mandatory retirement age of 70 – Ngwuta certainly was oblivious that the very end was nigh.
Or, perhaps, he was. For as my boss and fiery columnist, Comfort Obi, succinctly put it, “Ngwuta had, gradually, died four times before his final death this March 7.”
Contending that the eminent jurist “died since 2015,” when operatives of the Directorate of State Services, DSS, on October 7 of that year broke into his home, hounded him out of bed like a common criminal, ransacked the entire apartment, and eventually took him into their custody, Obi chronicled the gradual descent of the man: from his erstwhile surefootedness, to the hubris of one merely marking time.
The woes came in torrents. First, he was arraigned before a Federal High Court, on charges of money laundering. Then, he was promptly suspended from work by the National Judicial Council, NJC.
While those subsisted, he was brought before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, on the allegation that he had ‘neglected’ to declare some of his assets, as required by law.
After an ordeal which lasted about three years, Justice Ngwuta was finally absolved of guilt, as both the Federal High Court and CCT acquitted him.
But if anyone thought that would be the end of what had clearly metamorphosed into a witch-hunt, his traducers seemed not to be in any hurry to dispel such notion. For, instead of an immediate recall, upon the clean bill given him by the judicial process he was subjected to, he was left untouched, like a leper, until one year after, on September 23, 2019 when he was allowed to resume sitting.
With his inexplicable death last Sunday, many of those, including family members, who followed the trajectory of his ordeal, would have probably heaved a sign of relief, in spite of the trauma of his physical absence.
But even that morbid luxury is seemingly being denied them, as there appears to be a rush to dance on the yet-to-be-dug grave of the deceased.
Pray, is it by mere coincidence that the first three eulogies for the departed man would come from persons who are vicariously liable for the ordeals which he endured in the twilight of his life?
In deed, was President Muhammadu Buhari being sarcastic when in a tribute signed by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, he stated that Ngwuta’s death had created a “gap” at the nation’s apex court?
I dare to reason otherwise. In deed, what possible gap would a man who was billed for retirement in 23 days time be creating by his exit from the Bench?
Perhaps, the president was considering extending the retiring jurist’s tour of duty, as he routinely did with the recently retired Service Chiefs, and the Inspector General of Police.
A very remote possibility, not likely to happen even in a malarial induced dream.
While we are yet pondering, Shehu went on to add that, “President Buhari believes Justice Ngwuta lived and served the country with his knowledge of the law.”
Now, if it were so, what in hell’s name was the essence of the whole sordid DSS drama of four light years ago? Put differently, is this realisation coming so soon after Ngwuta’s demise, or did the president hold him in such esteem while alive?
Like an orchestra, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, was to hum the same tune, proclaiming that the death of the jurist has created a huge vacuum in the Nigerian justice sector, especially the Supreme Court.
Eulogising Ngwuta for his contributions to the legal profession, Malami said, almost tongue-in-cheek, that “Our nation’s history will never forget him.” Whether for ill, or good, Malami didn’t say.
For the third leg of the troika, National Leader of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, stated, “Justice Ngwuta has been a magnificent ambassador of Nigeria. A great man, he will be missed by all who knew him…”
So, Tinubu knew Ngwuta up close, or in the very least, held him in such esteem, yet refused, neglected and failed to speak out when the hounds were baying for his blood.
In what reads like a testimonial, Tinubu, describing him as “one of Nigeria’s most eminent and erudite jurists,” further said: “Where others may have lost their way, Justice Ngwuta remained steadfast and calm in his analysis, producing a number of classical judgements, which will continue to be referred to in classrooms and courtrooms across the country long after his death and into the future.”
It is just as well, that the Lagos henchman, himself a great beneficiary of judicial interventions, joined in exhorting the fine attributes of the jurist, in death. Now, this does not equate with the African ethos of not speaking ill of the dead.
For, as Ginetta Sagan, the Italian-born American rights activist, once posited, “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.”
To hold this truth inapplicable, as it concerns his huge silence while Justice Ngwuta’s travails lasted, Tinubu must urge President Buhari and Justice Minister, Malami to offer public apology to Justice Ngwuta’s family, for allowing the system to brutally assail his reputation.
Then, and only then, will their silence at the time not be tantamount to betrayal…and their litany of eulogies worth the effort.
Hon. Afam Ogene is publisher 365 Daily and was one time member, Federal House of Representatives ,Ogbaru Federal Constituency.