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Finest Hour

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Did you remember the historic case, INSPECTOR OF POLICE VS. ADEGOKE ADELABU & L. ADE BELLO, in which two Nigerian politicians stood before justice in 1958? The first, Chief Gbadamosi Adegoke Adelabu, a.k.a “penkelemesi” (1915-1958), Ibadan's most colourful, and charismatic politician, was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to a term of two months imprisonment with hard labour? The second, L. Ade Bello, was convicted of common assault and bagged a term of six months imprisonment with hard labour. Expectedly, the two men appealed against conviction and the Appeal was heard by Chief Justice of Nigeria, Adetokunbo Ademola (1906-1993).

The intention here is not to narrate the lengthy grounds of appeal, nor the legal arguments adduced by British lawyer, politician and Labour government minister, Sir Dingle Mackintosh Foot, Q.C. (1905-1978), who was Leading Counsel for the appellants on that occasion. What is relevant to our purpose were the memorable remarks from the Bench in the course of the judgment on the appeal, remarks which were hard, blunt and drastic.

On that fateful morning, the bewigged and robed Chief Justice, upon entering the Court, made to deliver his judgment. Leaning forward, he calmly and solemnly reviewed the grounds of appeal in thirty minutes as the Court waited anxiously and motionlessly for his decision. The CJ uttered the following words:

“It is bad manners and the worst form of irresponsibility on the part of a Minister of State to attempt, in any way, to bring a court of law into disrepute or try in any way to scandalise it, merely because the Judge of that Court holds a different political view from his. Although in my view, a system which permits a Judge of the Native Court to take active part in politics to the extent of remaining a member of the Regional Legislature, as borne out by evidence in this case, leaves very much to be desired.

“There is one aspect of this case I feel it is my duty to touch as it concerns administration of justice generally. The learned trial Magistrate made no comments about it in his judgment. I refer to the proceedings before the learned Magistrate and the conduct of the case before him. It appears to me that counsel for the appellants in the court below overstepped the bounds of propriety in the conduct of the case. A witness for the defence, namely the Native Court Clerk, was led in evidence-in-chief to criticise unnecessarily and without restraint, the judicial acts of the Native Court Judge. It should be obvious to counsel that the witness bix is hardly a place to criticise judicial functions of Judge, from his own Registrar of Court at that.

“Ineptitudeness, bad manners, irresponsibility are all hidden under the cloak of politics; in this case, the defence sought to make the case an outcome of political differences. The evidence before the learned Magistrate does not, in my view, justify this. On the other hand, the evidence shows indiscretion, abuse of power, recklessness, and utter disregard of responsibility of office, particularly on the part of the first Appellant who happens to be a Minister of State.”

The remainder of the case will be omitted. Sufficient to say that with these remarks, Chief Justice Ademola proceeded to establish the grounds upon which the appeal of the first appealant, Adelabu, was to be allowed. In the end, Adelabu's conviction and sentence were set aside. In respect of Ade Bello, the second Defendant, the appeal was dismissed. His appeal to the Supreme Court was also dismissed. The verdict was instantly greeted by jubilation as Adelabu departed the court with both hands triumphantly raised high above his hand; he mounted a white horse, and accompanied by his political supporters, led a victorious procession to his house, amidst drumming, dancing and singing songs such as:

1. “Ina ori o le sunsu je,
Eda o le yi kadara pada o
Ina ori o le sunsu je.”
2. “Ori lo ma ja,
Ori lo ma ja ju,
Eni ori ba ti da
O se e fara we o,
Ori lo ma ja ju.”
3. “A je kun iya ni o je)2ce
Eni ti o tonii mu,
Ti ndena deni,
A je kun iya ni o je.”
4. “Adelabu wi fun won,
O ngeeyan)2ce
Kon ma fabe ifari sere,
O ngeeyan.”
5. “Adelabu, ara o gbodo ni o,
Iwo o gbodo rinira,
Iran ogede kii sunkun a ti ro,
Ara o gbodo ni o o.”

The political career of Adelabu, however, came to an abrupt end a few months later (precisely on 20th March, 1958) when he died in a car crash, shortly before Nigeria gained independence in 1960. However, for Chief Justice Ademola, it was more than an appeal against conviction for contempt, it was a supreme emergency, one of those events that shaped history. This deplorable case had two good results. In the first place, it provided an opportunity for an interpretation of a difficult point of law, namely, when was a Native or Customary Court constituted according to law?

In the second place, it was a unique occasion for an unequivocal declaration of the independence of the judiciary.

Before a crowded court, and in the one long and solemn hour, Chief Justice Ademola pronounced those valiant words which were uttered as a call and a spur to all Judges and other faithful servants of law and justice; words that will live for ever in our history as those of a man gifted with impregnable fortitude to defend his cause to the utmost, to the end. That, many analysts believe, was his finest hour.

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Articles by Ajiroba Yemi Kotun