A Chief Justice and a Parable

Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha

Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha


By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha


It is not often that a legal mind, a jurist who had risen to the highest seat in a nation’s judicial system resorts to folktales. What has a folktale got to do with hard facts of the law? Chief Justice! In some climes, the title is even more awesome – Lord Chief Justice! Not head of a religious court. Not a Mullah or a Rabbi, for whom I have some respect too! Not a Chief Justice that the World Court in The Hague would never invite on matters of the law! But a rounded man. A man who can seat at table with Judges from other parts of the world discussing The Law. Not the laws guiding or misguiding bigots of any religion! But the Law as the Law. Wish I had read Law!  I had always looked at the hood (red or white) of judges with infinite awe, you know, dispassionate and incorruptible men who could whisk you off to gaol, if you were so unfortunate as to appear before them on the wrong side of the law. The Law is the Law. No embellishments. No unnecessary flourish when dispensing matters of law! Let me not veer into miscarriage of the law or influencing the law through Mammon of Unrighteousness in this outing. That should be for another day!

Story telling is for philosophers and pastors. For didactic parents. And for teachers! But a jurist is a teacher too. Just like a creative writer. He has the freedom to resort to stories, powerful anecdotes to reach the discerning mind. Tales, as we read from Aesop, are often more instructive than didactic lectures or pontificating sermons. The capacity to distil the essence of a story especially in a delicate situation, is to be cultivated. You see, I may have forgotten the lashes of the cane my dad inflicted on my backside when I broke some laws, written and unwritten some fifty-five years ago. But I have not, will never forget the stories mother told us about Tortoise or Bird or Lion. They were so impactful that the first time I saw a tortoise, that is, as a ten year old boy, I took time to examine it (Him) and wondered how it managed to acquire the wisdom with which he vanquished all other animals.

So, when I read that former Chief Justice of Nigeria, the distinguished and honourable Walter Onnoghen, addressed a gathering of lawyers in Calabar and belted out a parable, I took literary notice. Just as he would have taken legal notice had the reigning forces of national occupation not violated all codes of ethical conduct to hound him out of the way for a pliant and pliable body. Which is unfortunate. Not decent for the image of the occupants of that exalted body. Not good for the judiciary. Not good for Nigeria. Not good for the young ones growing up in the land! To be sure, that action has received all kinds of interpretation. And will remain so till the end of time. Sadly, I must say. Remediation will come someday, we hope, when the current cloud of imperial impudence is cleared from the land by the Chief Justice of the Universe. ‘And for that day,’ wrote George Orwell in Animal Farm, ‘we all must labour, though we die before it breaks!

Justice Onnoghen waxed eloquent when he narrated the tale. Let us quote him in full. “A lion, the king of the jungle one day was drinking water from the upstream when it noticed an antelope downstream that was also drinking water. The lion shouted at the antelope and accused it of ruffling the water. The antelope reminded the great lion that, he lion, is the one drinking from upstream and therefore the only one that can ruffle the waters. Not done, the lion went on and accused the antelope of abusing him, the king of the jungle during the burial of antelope’s grandfather sometimes in the past. The antelope replied that he couldn’t have insulted the king of the jungle at the burial since he was not yet born then. The lion roared back that I am going to eat you for lunch today to which the antelope replied: “That’s what you should have said in the first place”.  

Now, what does this tale mean? ‘I am not blind; I am only ignoring you,’ the philosopher once said. Is Onnoghen also among the Prophets of Tale Telling? Hardly so. But he has become a prophetic disciple as a result of the injustice unleashed on him and the callous lust for power of certain scoundrels in power. If the saying ‘giving a dog a bad name in order to hang him’ had no meaning to us before, it has come to settle fully in the land with biting fury and sorrow. A lion, the lion did not have to look for a reason, an excuse to eat up the antelope. In the view of Antelope, Lion ought to have proceeded to have its meal without the pretence of alleging or proving guilt. This itself, showed the inherent weakness and moral vacuity of Lion. The façade of deep corruption was clear to all, even to people with half an eye!

I have always been afraid and wary of smallminded people. You know, we encounter them in church, in the mosque, in families and in offices. They are often very dangerous. Especially so when they grab or placed in power. Smallminded persons drag institutions to their level. This is the danger of enthroning mediocrity in any guise, whether through filial or ethnic or religious loyalty. Such persons feel obliged to reciprocate the kind gesture. Not like Archbishop Thomas Beckett the hero in T.S. Eliot’s 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral who, after being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry II decided to be true to his calling as a man of God, discarding his previous extravagant lifestyle for the ascetic life required of priests. At the height of his frustration, King Henry is reported to have screamed: ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Too late. A man of honour had emerged from the ashes of debauchery!

Our institutions, willy nilly, will outlive us. May be in tatters. Reputation gone. Bruised. Humiliated. Self-confidence in doubt. A silhouette. A carcass. But a structure still in the public space. Perhaps in name only. Peopled by pusillanimous characters who revel in puerile ideas, if ideas they have at all. But a freefall, we must remember, is not a perpetual, not a forever thing. It has a timeframe. Known only to the Chief Justice of the Universe. He, who cannot be removed or bribed or cajoled. Our nation will outlive us too, hopefully. Foolishness is not forever. Wisdom is forever. In the end, wisdom from above will triumph. The tyranny of myopia is not wisdom. It is senile foolishness! Chief Justice Onnoghen, thank you for your cryptic folkloric reference and native wisdom! May those who have ears hear!

Eghagha, who writes from the University of Lagos, can be reached on 08023220393 and heghagha@yahoo.com

-The Guardian