Niki Tobi (1940-2016)

Written by the Editorial board of The Guardian newspaper

onourable Justice Niki Tobi, the retired Supreme Court Justice, who died the other day, was one of the nation’s finest legal minds. As a scholar, he was one of the best and his stature on the Bench was so towering that there were few equals. His demise, therefore, has robbed Nigeria of one of the finest citizens to ever wear the robe or the wig. With an intellect so razor-sharp it cut through the thickest of legal labyrinth and a personal character so refined, Tobi was a blessing to both the Bar and the Bench.

A man of impeccable diligence, conduct and virtuous carriage, the late Justice Niki Tobi joined the Nigerian Bench from the academia, armed with intimidating credentials in research, teaching and learning.

It was no surprise, therefore, that every statement he made with the law, every judgment he delivered bore the imprint of the kind of rigour difficult to find in many like him.

Of Bayelsa State origin, he was born on July 14, 1940 in Esanma, Bomadi Local Council in what is now Delta State. He attended the University of Lagos and University of Nigeria, Nsukka to obtain his law degrees. He subsequently took up an academic career which climaxed in his becoming the Dean, Faculty of Law and, thereafter, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academics, of the University of Maiduguri from 1982 to 1985. In the university, he exhibited unparalleled brilliance and records have it that he mentored many scholars and left behind a gigantic legacy in research and the teaching of the Law.
A trail-blazer as a person and an icon in the theory and practice of law, Tobi was often praised for his logical expositions, brilliant and well-articulated propositions as well as magisterial decisions.

Nigerian law reports are replete with his landmark and authoritative judgments, the writings of which were renowned for intellectual depth and logical erudition. He was, indeed, a world class jurist.

Niki Tobi will forever be remembered for his critical roles in the constitutional and political development of Nigeria. He was the chairman of the Constitution Review Committee during the General Abdusalami Abubakar transition regime in 1998 which produced the political document that was signed into law and re-introduced democracy to Nigeria in 1999. He chaired the committee of inquiry into Plateau State Riots of September 2001.

Again, he was the chairman of the National Political Reforms Conference (NPRC) under President Olusegun Obasanjo. He also chaired the Presidential Election Tribunal in April 2007, to mention a few among many notable community and national engagements. He was a crusader for the reform of Nigeria’s legal system and was very vocal in his agitation for a home grown jurisprudence or an African philosophy of law.

He had become a world-renowned scholar in law when he joined the Bench in 1985 as a judge of the High Court of Rivers State. Soon after, he was elevated to the Court of Appeal, Lagos in 1990. This was followed by his appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court in 2002 upon the retirement of Justice Aldolphus Karibi-Whyte.

Niki Tobi retired from the Supreme Court on July 14, 2010 but his footprints as a man of impeccable character and as a jurist of uncommon brilliance is indelible in the sands of time. As an activist intellectual, he campaigned for radical reforms of Nigeria’s legal system and was highly intolerant of any form of impunity.

A courageous jurist and committed humanist, he was deep in his thoughts and very vocal in expressing his convictions. He was never afraid of speaking truth to power. Totally indifferent to wealth accumulation, he retired into a quiet life of contentment and remained till his death one of Nigeria’s most iconic jurists.

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