Late Honourable Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Nigeria’s Socrates”

justice oputa


By Joshua Nwachukwu

When Hon. Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa died I was shocked, bitter and felt orphaned, because like some of my other role models I never got the chance to see him and express my admiration for him. While Oputa was alive, he eulogised a lot of persons, at his death, I thought who would be worthy of rendering a eulogy worthy of a man of such calibre. It is not an easy task because one cannot write about Justice Oputa without using superlatives.

In the judicial realm, where many people know Justice Oputa from, he was a judicial activist with no fear or favour, neither did he owe any one any apology. In the legal profession he excelled among his peers which earned him the title, Socrates a nickname first given to him by Justice Bello, former Chief Justice of the Federation or as some would prefer Lord Denning of Nigeria, his ratio decidendi and obita dictum were grand, grandiose and grandiloquent, that is why they are widely quoted, notable is in the case of Ojukwu v. Governor of Lagos State, where he observed that “the law is no respecter of persons, principalities and powers.”

The title of Socrates was for no reason, he was truly a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, he had an unquenchable hunger for knowledge that is why he studied several disciplines namely economics, history and law, he was nursed in and drank from the fountain of Achimota College, London University and Gray’s Inn, as expected of an intellectual he was a great lover and promoter of good education, this made him despite tight schedules to deliver several lectures  to law students, Catholic students, women, fellow knights, fellow jurists, Old Boys association, Bar Association and lost more.

He was also a great advocate of the return of the legal profession to its glorious days, where lawyers were gentlemen and really learned in history, literature, Latin and philosophy. To him, learning cannot be without literature, because literature is a compendium comprising the literary culture, literary production of the literary professions. As such for one to be truly learned, he/she must be deeply read, erudite, showing profound knowledge of men and events. This was the link with Lord Denning; their judgments always had that human touch of literary excellence and an eloquent display of the mastery of English language.

Also, like the English Master of Rolls, Lord Denning, he put his experience into writing for the use of posterity; his works include Modern Bar Advocacy (1973), The Law and the Twin Pillars of Justice (1981), Human Rights in the Political and Legal Culture of Nigeria (1998), etc.

He was also a personification of human virtues which he lived heroically, notably was his handwork, honesty, transparency and integrity, which enabled him to serve Nigeria in different commissions. He was the Chairman of the Commission of Enquiry into Revenue Collection in the East Central State, he was also Chairman of the Federal Government Enquiry into causes of scarcity of Petroleum Products in Nigeria, he was also a member of the Justice Coker Law Revision Committee, member of the Governing Council of University of Nigeria, Nsukka and obviously chairman of the popular Truth and Reconciliation Committee (Oputa Panel).

As a Catholic, he was not ashamed to practise his religion publicly. He understood perfectly like St. Thomas More the concept of unity of life. His life proved that harmony can exist and should exist between one’s professional, secular and religious duties.

Due to his literary prowess and great oratory he was always invited to give tributes or funeral orations at the grave side of his friends and colleagues. One striking thing in all his tributes I have read so far is his constant repetition that we are all actors, passing actors on an equally passing stage. We act and we fade away. But the important thing is that we should so act, and act so well that our live would be an inspiration, an echo and a light unto all; so that we leave foot prints on the sands of time, footprints that may serve as welcome beacons lights to guide the faltering footsteps of future generations.

Oputa was not Pecksniffian, he lived what he preached, and the tapestry of his life was woven neatly by the words he always repeated at graveside of his friends and colleagues. His corporeal frame is dead, but the example of his long, fruitful life and famous life will not die rather it will continue to echo and be a light of legal pre-eminence.

Oputa shared a special characteristic with God which is; the power to judge. We pray that as he stands in the witness box before the Almighty Judge he may enjoy the gift of Divine Mercy.


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