Udo Udoma: In The Shelter Of The Elephant Rock

By Reuben Abati  

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The Eagle In Its Flight: Being The Memoir of the Hon. Sir Udo Udoma, CFR. USA. Nigeria. UK: Grace & Son, 2008, 326 pp + xiv.

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The Hon. Justice Sir Egbert Udo Udoma was one of the most important Nigerians of the 20th century, he rose to become an iconic figure, not just in Nigeria and Africa but in the entire Commonwealth through the distinction of his achievements in every field in which he was engaged: education, politics, law, community service, Christianity, statesmanship and scholarship. His personal example defined by his prodigious output, his versatility, his capacity for self-reinvention, his professionalism in legal practice, legal science and administration, his commitment to values and his sheer, divine anointing, even at the family level, has become the stuff of legend.

 He died on February 2, 1998, a few months shy of his 81st birthday. Even in the 21st century, his influence and legacy continue to endure. In Ibibioland, among his people, he remains a living symbol. The headquarters of the Mboho Mkparawa Ibibio is named after him, and the story of the Ibibio Union, which he served as President and helped to re-organise is incomplete without a special chapter on this first Ibibio man to obtain a doctorate degree in law. 

 In Uganda, where he served as Chief Justice for six years, and as Acting Governor-General in 1963, he continues to be remembered through the annual Udo Udoma Symposium organised by the Law Society and the judiciary of Uganda. In Nigeria, his contributions as a legal practitioner, as an orator on the floor of the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly, and the Federal House of Representatives, as founder of the Calabar Ogoja Rivers (COR) state creation movement, as a jurist, and as a public administrator remain indelible. He was a nationalist, a patriot, one of Nigeria's early gifts to Africa, who helped to establish Nigeria's worth as a leading country in the continent. The Udo Udoma story has been told, but it is a story that is worth retelling in a society that is so desperately in search of models. Before now, two biographies had been written on this eminent jurist, Dennis Udo-Inyang's The Man: Sir Justice Udo Udoma; and Ekong Sampson's more detailed Law and Statesmanship: The Legacy of Sir Udo Udoma. In his lifetime, he also devoted his energies to authorship, publishing over time,  The Lion and the Oil Palm and Another Essay (1943), containing two seminal lectures he delivered at the Philosophical Society of Trinity College Dublin, the other essay titled "A Clash of Lectures" won the Silver Medal of the Philosophical Society in 1943. He was also the author of The Story of the Ibibio Union (1987), and History and the Law of the Constitution of Nigeria (1994). Through these, and his lectures and speeches and the various cases in which he was involved either as counsel or jurist or causes in which he served as arrow-head, Sir Egbert Udo Udoma carved a special niche for himself in the public sphere.

 About eleven years after his death, his son, Ayanti Udo Udoma, and his siblings, under the imprint of Grace & Son Publishers and the auspices of the Estate of Sir Udo Udoma, have now released in print a book titled The Eagle In Flight: Being The Memoir of the Hon. Sir Udo Udoma, CFR. Apart from a preface and two additional chapters (Chapters 28 and 29) contributed by Ayanti Udoma, the late jurist is the author of the book's twenty seven chapters and three appendices. It is his most definitive biography, offering details and personal thoughts which can be found perhaps only in an autobiography. The Hon Justice Udo Udoma's style of writing is sparse and precise, extremely disciplined, with every word weighty in its import and deliberate construction. It is a book in which the author tells the story of his life, as he lived it, it is also a book in which he pays tribute to friends, and leaves parting shots for those he thought wronged him, and perhaps in this latter respect, the memoir of the Hon. Sir Udo Udoma may end up stirring a little controversy in due course.

 The book's more important value however lies in its inspirational value, in the values and lessons that the author projects, the history that it contains, as well as details about the evolution of the Nigerian state and the complexities of human nature and relationships. The mode of narration is chronological.

 Sir Egbert Udo Udoma was born on June 21, 1917 in the course of a masquerade display in a neighbouring community. His great grand father was the founder of Ikot Abasi in what was then the Opobo Division in the South Eastern part of Nigeria. One of his uncles was the President of a native Qua court established in Ikot Abasi province by the British. His father was the distinguished leader of the Abakpa Masquerade Club and a highly respected man in the community, who was a traditionalist to the core. Shortly after his birth, the young Udoma was initiated by his father into the Attat and the Ekpo Nyoho and Ekong titled societies. His mother was a successful entrepreneur and a women leader, who was famous among Ogoni and Opobo Town's women. Unlike her husband, she became a converted Christian, and in due course she sought divorce from her traditionalist husband, on the grounds of religious incompatibility. 

 Readers of this book cannot fail to notice how the major character trait of the subject was the product of a genetic coding. Throughout his life, he seemed to have constantly attempted to strike a balance between tradition and modernity. Like his father, he was actively involved in the traditions of his people, he was totally committed to the land of his birth, cosmopolitan as he was, he remained tied to his natal roots. He would in later life get initiated into other Ibibio titled societies and become a champion of his people's culture and customs. But like his mother, he was also a devoted Christian. He was brought up in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. He served as choir boy and even at the Trinity College Dublin, he was a church chorister. He would in later life become a Knight of John Wesley and serve as Vice President of the Methodist Church in Nigeria. But the key thing about his background was the values he inherited from his parents. His father was illiterate, but he was focused, honest, sincere and proud. He wanted his son to go abroad for further studies and to become a "qualified lawyer of distinction".

 When the young Udoma was awarded a scholarship by the Methodist Mission which would make him end up as a school teacher, his father rejected the scholarship. He had a bigger dream for his son. Udoma fulfilled the dreams of his father, although the senior Udoma died suddenly in 1936. His mother was also a resolute woman. In 1929, she had led a group of women to a meeting with the colonial authorities to object to the imposition of poll tax. The women were mowed down by soldiers, and she was killed in what is now famously recorded as the Aba women's riot of 1929. Udoma was then in Standard Four. In later life, this same aversion to injustice, the same forthrightness and capacity for self-denial would characterise Udoma's engagement with society. Thus, one major sub-text in this book is the subject of family values, and the importance of one's background, a point that is further amplified in Chapter 25 where the author tells the story of his family life, his marriages and his children, in much greater detail.

 His brilliance and capacity for hardwork became obvious during his primary school days. Although his parents were comfortable, and could easily provide for his needs, he worked for a while as a golf caddy and house keeper for two expatriates, the Collector of Customs, N. H. Cox and his successor in that position. From primary school to the Methodist College, Uzuakoli, he distinguished himself as an exceptional student. After obtaining his Class IV Middle certificate, he took up employment with Messrs G. B. Ollivant in Port Harcourt as a book-keeper, he later moved on to the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria as a bookkeeper and time keeper in the Accounts Department, and in June 1936, he joined the Customs Department. It was around this period that Udoma became a member of the Ibibio Union, the pan-Ibibio cultural union, that would define his future.

 The turning point came in 1938 when he applied for scholarship from the Ibibio Union, and was selected as one of six recipients of scholarships awarded by the Union to send Ibibio sons abroad for further studies. Sir Udo tells the story of the Ibibio Union in which he would later play a historical role with affectionate relish. At the time, there was across Nigeria such cultural unions, which promoted the interests of ethnic nationalities and which through communal contributions and other schemes encouraged the education of the younger generation and planned for the future. There was the Ibo Union, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Urhobo Progree Union and others. In his No Longer At Ease, Chinua Achebe has already told the story of the Ibo Union along similar lines.

 The Ibibio Union in particular was a major platform for mobilising the Ibib io, young and old. It was a disciplined, well-organised organisation. It is a measure of how low Nigeria has fallen that such organisations where they still exist in today's Nigeria have become machineries for sheer political opportunism. When Udo Udoma and his colleagues set sail in search of the golden fleece in 1938, they were given a set of conditions by the Ibibio Union and more importantly, an envelope each which contained the soil of Ibibio land. Each scholar was required to return home with the envelope upon the completion of his studies. Sir Udo Udoma's destination was the Trinity College, Dublin to which he was admitted in 1938, and where he distinguished himself as a scholar of the first rank.

 He was a chorister at the Centenary Methodist Church, St. Stephen's Green, and an active member of both the Students' Christian Movement and the University Philosophical Society. He rose to become President of the latter and his inauguration speech, The Oil and the Palm, as well as his prize-winning essay, "The Clash of Cultures" received rave reviews. In 1942, he obtained his LLB degree in the First Class Honours Division. He immediately registered for post-graduate studies, which included a period of study in Oxford. By 1945, Udoma had obtained his Ph. D in law and had been called to the Bar at Gray's Inn, London. He was at the same time actively involved in the activities of the West African Students Union (WASU) and was one of the most outspoken critics of British imperialism. Some of his friends at the time included Kwame Nkrumah of the then Gold Coast (Ghana), Chief Solanke of Nigeria, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Hastings Banda of Nyasaland (Malawi). 

 In 1945, upon the completion of his studies, Udoma kept his word to the Ibibio Union and returned home. He was received with much ceremony. He had become something of a folk hero, an Ibibio man who had done the community proud. Sir Udo's gratitude to his people was heart-felt, his commitment to their cause was life-long; he reciprocated the love that his own people had shown him by giving back to the community throughout his lifetime in every way he could. His engagements in this regard are well-documented in the book, it includes facilitating the approval by the authorities of the establishment of the Ibibio State College, his emergence as President of the Ibibio Union in 1947, his leadership of the COR state movement, his reorganisation of the Ibibio Union, and his sterling achievements which inspired generations of young persons in that part of the country and beyond. In 1946, he set up a law practice in Aba, and soon became known as a diligent and skilful lawyer, emerging in the process the principal lawyer for the Kalabari people.

 He also took interest in other activities: politics and newspapering. In 1951, he won election into the Eastern Region House of Assembly as an Independent candidate. He would later join and leave the NCNC, and along with others, establish the United National Independent Party (UNIP). He was also a member of the Federal House of Representatives. His account of the politics of the First Republic and his commentary especially on the politics of late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe is instructive. He took part in Constitutional Conferences and made a case for state creation and the dredging of the Ikot Abasi port. In 1959, he again contested for election into the House of Representatives but lost. Despite Zik's misgivings, Sir Udo Udoma had set up in 1951, the Eastern States Express newspaper, published by Ikemesit Company and with Abiodun Aloba as its first editor. Zik had predicted that the newspaper would not survive for six months, it did for 17 years and was a successful publication. In 1960, the late Udoma whose reputation as a skilful lawyer had preceded him, was offered the post of a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, but following pressures from the various organisations to which he belonged, he had to decline the offer.

 In 1961, however, he was appointed a Judge of the High Court of Lagos Territory. He was no less distinguished in his career on the Bench. In 1963, he was seconded to Uganda as the Chief Justice of Uganda, the first African to serve in that position. In his six-year period in that office, Sir Udoma helped to reform the Uganda justice administration system. As President of the Constitutional Court, he also helped to deepen constitutionalism and jurisprudence in that African country. In 1969, he was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, a position from which he retired in 1982.

 His departure from both Uganda and the Nigerian Supreme Court bench were both under inauspicious circumstances. But Hon. Justice Udo Udoma's contributions to jurisprudence, the seminal character of his rulings, and the breadth of his legal scholarship have been celebrated at home and abroad. He is one of the eminent jurists who have helped to deepen the cause of Constitutionalism, and showed courage on the Bench as evidenced in such cases as Uganda v. Commissioner of Prisons ex parte Matovu, Awolowo vs. Minister of Internal Affairs, Tumuhiere vs. Uganda, Attorney General of Uganda vs. The Kabaka Government, and his later repudiation of the decision in Lakanmi Vs Attorney General of the Western Region. He refers in this book to some of the landmark cases in which he was involved as legal practitioner and as jurist, but perhaps a more detailed appraisal and documentation of His Lordship's rulings, as seen through the cases, is the subject of a follow-up book which the administrators of his estate should consider. 

 Hon Justice Udo Udoma served his beloved country in many other capacities. He was Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Chairman of the Constituent Assembly which prepared the blueprint for the 1979 Constitution, Chairman of various panels of inquiry and Chairman of the Cross River State/Akwa Ibom State Law Reform Commission. Given his stature, he was a subject of much mythification, but his successes were not easily secured, and in his later life, there was much that made him unhappy. He writes about the intrigues in the Ibibio Union and the man-leopard incident which led to some of his former colleagues conspiring to tarnish his image. On page 107, he writes gleefully about how all the conspirators died within six months, "one after another in quick succession." One other friend who became an enemy who opposed the publication of the Eastern State Express newspaper died violently, we are told. Hon Justice Sir Udo Udoma was a Federalist who opposed the declaration of Biafra, and refused all attempts by the then Col Odumegwu Ojukwu to secure his support and services.

 He reports that Biafran forces, acting under instructions, vandalised his properties in Ikot Abasi during the civil war. He also blames Biafran agents for lying to Dr Milton Obote, the Ugandan President about him and thus causing his unceremonious removal as Chief Justice of Uganda in 1969. But the more remarkable aspect of the book would be his undisguised bitterness about how he was by-passed twice for the position of Chief Justice of Nigeria. He accuses Hon. Justice T.O. S. Elias, CJN of having bribed his way to the position, and Hon. Justice Fatayi Williams, of having schemed his way with ethnic blackmail and treachery to become CJN. There is also the matter of Sir Udo's medical problems which he reports resulted from the negligence and malpractice of a certain Dr Duncan of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). This is a source of much anger in the closing pages of the book as father and son refer to the doctor who applied too much radium to treat varicose veins, in a manner that suggested wilful orchestration and which led to double amputation and malicious blockage of the Hon. Justice's chances of becoming Chief Justice of Nigeria. The descendants or relatives of all such identified villains cannot be too pleased with this publication.

 On page 204, the Hon Justice asks, reflecting on his many contributions to Nigeria: "All these and more, what was my reward?" Having retired from service, he returned to Ikot Abasi, but made himself available to serve the state and the people. Unfortunately, the Military administrators in Cross River and Akwa Ibom states treated the eminent jurist shabbily. He lived long enough to see Nigeria descend into a season of anomie, with the erosion of values and the collapse of public infrastructure, leaving him in darkness and unbearable heat, and having to worry about damaged power generating sets. In his last days, he was opposed to any further state creation. He was impatient with the failure of the Nigerian state. But all of these do not in any way diminish the man's significance or the great historical value of this richly illustrated book, rather it is a comment on the beginnings of Nigeria's misdirection.

 Students of history and law will find the book useful, Udoma paints a picture of an early Nigeria that has since disappeared, but he also offers much cultural anthropology that should interest the younger generation who need information about genealogy and Ibibio cultural norms. He tells the story of Nigeria's First Republic, of military incursion into Nigerian politics, the civil war, Uganda's slide into dictatorship. He comments liberally on major figures in Nigerian history, the men and women of his time, and there are many memorable passages here about a Nigeria that once had an active port in Ikot Abasi and that once made use of water transportation, and marketing boards, and once upon a time when the best way to travel abroad was by sea. The publishers of the book have done well to preserve the legacy of a real Eagle who soared high in the firmament, a legacy of hardwork, passion and integrity, the life and times of a most worthy citizen and statesman who lives on "in the shelter of the elephant rock".


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