by Victor Ndoma-Egba
The day man unravels the mystery of life and death that day man becomes Divinity. That day will certainly not come as matters of life and death will forever remain in God’s province exclusively because He is the owner and giver of life and He takes it as He pleases. As mortals we can only ponder on the subjects in the firm knowledge that once there is life in our corporeal world there must be death. Death in essence, though terminating life, is a consequence of life.
Today, we mournfully and tearfully assemble to ponder on the death, and life, of the Honourable Justice Okoi Ikpi Itam, Chief Judge of Cross River State who died in office on the 19th of March 2017 at the age of 62 years, the second Chief Judge of Cross River State to die in office after the Honourable Justice Emmanuel E.E. Effanga. Death is like rain that must drop on every roof.
The Holy Writ says “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die….” Ecclesiastes 3.1 For Justice Itam he has had his time to be born, and now his time to die. We will celebrate his worthy life, a life of love, service, sacrifice to family, humanity, community and the Almighty, his service to his profession, the Law, a profession he was passionate about and which gave him definition, and his service to the Judiciary. We also mourn his loss, a huge loss to his family, his friends, his community, State, profession, the Judiciary, the country and humanity at large. The death of a loved one, or someone we know is a sober opportunity to reflect on our own lives, and indeed our own deaths, an immutable certainty, the futility, vanity, emptiness or meaninglessness of life. This reflection should lead us to reconciliation with God and fellow man and woman .What is the meaning of life?
Again let me resort to the Bible.
“What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set for eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better than for men to do good while they live.” Ecclesiastes 3. 9-12.
As faithful mortals we can only but accept Justice Itam’s death as God’s will.
Jusice Itam was not just a friend, he was a brother. I recall our undergraduate years and his visits to me in the University of Lagos and mine to him at the Enugu Campus of the University of Nigeria. In 1975, he represented Nigeria in the Philip Jesuit International Law Competition in New York, USA, a competition that attracts the best undergraduate students of international law worldwide and participants would have won their national contests. On his way to New York he had spent the night with me in my hostel room. Winning the national competition was a feat and he had become a celebrity. He inspired my friends to take part in subsequent national competitions.
I remember our years as young lawyers, the mutual visits, sharing our dreams of the future, trying to define our professional personae and our roles in society. He was a role model to the younger ones to whom he was “Lobito”. He was colourful. He understood the Law deeply as he did the culture and traditions of his Yakurr people and became an adviser to the Obol Lopon of Ugep at a very early age. His understanding of mechanical devises was even more remarkable. I recall how he spent his weekends dismantling car engines and building them back up. He single handedly converted his Volkswagen Beetle car into a sensational sports car.
He had a remarkable career on the Bench both in Nigeria and the Gambia where he acted as Chief Justice.
On occasions like this I ask the question, ’’ when is the best time for someone to die”? Before I attempt an answer let me invite us to reflect on the state of our judges and the judiciary in Nigeria today. Though I was not born in the judiciary I grew up in it. It is for this reason that I was christened “Judiciary pickin”.
I grew up in a judiciary where our judges were considered the best in Africa .Our State’s Judiciary was so good that our Chief Justice as Chief Judges were then called, Justice Darnley Alexander was appointed Chief Justice of Nigeria. Nigeria exported Judges (including Justice Itam) to other African countries and beyond. Judges lived in well maintained and well furnished homes with standby generators. They had well stocked libraries at home and in the chambers. They had brand new official vehicles with backups. They were entitled to medical check-ups and treatment where necessary abroad. Judges were well looked after by the State and were dignified and incorruptible. Can we say the same today? Certainly not. Today Judges live in ramshackles called homes, move around in contraptions called vehicles, are left to their fate regarding their health, and a collection of a few ancient texts for libraries at home and in their Chambers. The Judiciary also has been in the news for reasons that are not edifying. While the Judiciary must do some introspection and self cleansing to regain public confidence and trust, Government, at all levels, must live up to its responsibility to the Judiciary. Funding of the Judiciary is a constitutional matter and the constitutional provisions should be strictly adhered to. Our Judges should be well looked after. Government must use Justice Itam’s death to reflect on whether it did all it could have done for him. If it did, so be it, if it did not let no other Judge die where he or she could have been helped.
My Lords, learned colleagues, the best time to die is when one dies. For Justice Itam it was his time to die. The appointment with death does not admit of adjournment or postponement and so it shall be for each one of us. It is an appointment that must be promptly kept. For Justice Itam like St. Paul, “he has fought a good fight, he has finished his course, he has kept the faith, now there is a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to him on that day – not only to him, but also to all who have longed for his appearing ”
Goodnight My Lord, farewell and rest in perfect peace in the bosom of your Maker, a rest you have earned eternally.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, SAN, is the Chairman, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC)