James Ogebe did not become a titan among judges by some remote accident. He went through the furnace. Since his enrolment into the Nigerian Bar in 1968, his career trajectory has followed a tortuous route with the occasional hiccups here and there, but always unrelenting and finally clinching the final prize of a seat in the Supreme Court.
There was no promotion that was easy or straight forward for him. At every stage, there was some human blockage, yet he managed to get along, upwards. No wonder that he tagged his autobiography, “Justice under the Shadow of the Almighty”, alluding to some supernatural interventions in his travails and ultimate success.
Judges, like all other workmen, are known by their judgements not because their careers have been predestined. Looking back at a thirty-five year long career, filled with over 4000 judgements and 100,000 rulings, Justice Ogebe can proudly say he had paid his dues to the unseen hands that determined his destiny.
A few days after enrolment into the Bar, James Ogebe reported to Jos, the capital of his home state, then Benue-Plateau, as the only one to be employed that year as a Pupil State Counsel by the Ministry of Justice. That was where he cut his teeth working under the only three senior lawyers in the Ministry; Morgan Ogbole, the Solicitor-General, Mustapha Akanbi and Emmanuel Isa Odoma. As one of the few legal officers in the Ministry, he was tasked, at that early stage of his career, to prosecute cases, some of them quite daunting. One of the first cases he prosecuted was one that involved his uncle who was accused of murder.
He was also in the team that was involved in the famous 1969 case of Obeya v Abashe, a David and Goliath kind of case which was made famous by the New Nigerian Newspaper of the time that gave it sufficient coverage. We were in secondary school then and we followed every bit of the salacious saga involving the Secretary of Benue-Plateau Government accused of adultery by a factory worker. It was the case that further defined the courage of Adamu Ciroma as editor of a government newspaper that was willing to allow what could have been perceived as hostile reportage against a high military government official. It was also the first case that brought out to fame, then little known, Gani Fawehinmi who was counsel to Abashe, on a pro bono basis.
Despite James Ogebe’s relative youth at the time, he acquitted himself very well in all the cases he was involved. That was also where he established a reputation of incorruptibility. It was those pre-Udoji days when the salary of civil servants was rather meagre, but words soon got around that Ogebe didn’t take bribes. Rather, he would master the Financial Instructions to know his entitlements and how to apply for salary advance to tidy up to the end of each month. He even took a loan of forty pounds from Mustapha Akanbi to perform his marriage rites. He said: “I made up my mind not to take a bribe in the course of my duties . . . I was not interested in taking bribes in order to do my work. I preferred to do my work as I see it in the Law and my understanding of the situation on the ground.”
Perhaps that could explain Justice Ogebe’s judgements, particularly at the Appeal Court, that seemed to have largely gone against the grain and at odds with the wishes of a powerful sitting President. The travails of Governors Peter Obi of Anambra State, Joshua Dariye of Plateau State and Rasheed Ladoja of Oyo State are too well known and documented. Readers would recall that these Governors were impeached by a few members of their State Houses of Assembly either at a strange venue or at an unholy hour of the night or both.
The long and short of it was that it was the courage of Justice Ogebe as the Presiding Chairman of the Court of Appeal Panel, and his strong conviction to adhering to the rule of law and the Nigerian Constitution, that saved the tenures of those beleaguered governors and returned them to their seats. These landmark judgements would become a beacon for the survival of our democracy and would also pave the way for other judges when faced with similar conundrums to decide in a similar fashion without any encumbrances.
Justice Ogebe had many tumbles in the course of his illustrious career which with the benefit of hindsight now became blessings. The first was in 1974 when he was in line to become the Solicitor-General in Benue-Plateau State but due to a purported reorganisation in the Ministry of Justice, he found himself pushed sideways to the High Court of Justice as a Senior Magistrate and Acting Chief Registrar. A few months later, his junior colleague was appointed as Acting Solicitor-General. He said: “This was to be a recurring decimal throughout my career that due to intrigues, my juniors were constantly elevated over me”.
In 1976 when Benue State was created, James Ogebe was deployed there as Chief Registrar, though in due course he was sworn in as one of the two indigenous High Court Judges. Surprisingly, it was in Benue State that he had the most challenging and humiliating experiences. He was twice shoved aside when the post of Chief Judge was within his grasp. In the first instance, Justice Ogebe was even acting as Chief Judge in 1985, when the number three in the hierarchy was appointed to the post. To rub salt to the injury, the number two in the hierarchy was elevated to the Court of Appeal. He said: ‘It was the most humiliating experience for me in the Benue Judiciary. Nobody has ever explained to me what I did wrong, for my juniors to be elevated over me’.
In 1990, Justice Ogebe was finally recommended to the Court of Appeal and was sworn in in December 1991 along with four other colleagues; S. Oduwale, S. Akintan, E Ubaezeonu and R. D. Mohammed. It was at the Court of Appeal that Justice Ogebe truly blossomed, enjoyed working relationships, worked in almost all the divisions spread across the country, dispensing justice without fear or favour. Besides the gubernatorial land mark cases he handled, Justice Ogebe was also the lead judge in the 2008 Appeal session that finally decided on the Yar’Adua presidency. Peter Obi, a beneficiary of Justice Ogebe’s courageous judgement was at the launching of the book where he spoke glowingly of his integrity and courage.
In a typical fashion, Justice Ogebe’s elevation to the Supreme Court was to follow the pattern. In 2007, a vacancy occurred in the Supreme Court and it was the turn of the North-Central Zone to fill it. Justice Salami, the President of the Appeal Court and Ogebe’s ’68 set mate, was asked to occupy the seat but he demurred, preferring to stay put where he was. The next in line was James Ogebe who would have been President of the Court of Appeal had Justice Salami left but was then asked, and he picked up the gauntlet and proceeded to the Supreme Court.
Somewhere in the book, Justice Ogebe relates how a judge usually loses his voice while on the bench. He said: ‘Even his words in the courtroom must be measured and decorous. He must let his judgements speak for themselves to history and posterity, but he may not defend himself when the maelstrom of public debate and mendacious mischief is stirred against him. In retirement, he regains his voice – – ‘. The book certainly testifies that His Lordship has found his voice.