Eleven years after her appointment to the Supreme Court bench, Justice Mary Peter-Odili bowed out of service as the country’s second most senior judicial officer on Thursday, upon attaining the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Her retirement brought the curtains down on a nearly 44-year relationship with the judiciary, which began with an appointment as a Magistrate Grade III in November 1978.
Born Mary Ukaego Nzenwa, a princess and second daughter of United Kingdom-based lawyer and later monarch, Eze Bernard Nzenwa and Ugoeze Nzenwa, on May 12, 1952, in Amudi Obizi, Ezinihitte-Mbaise, Imo State, she graduated with an LLB (Hons) from the University of Nigeria (UNN) in 1976 as the best student of the department of commercial and property law.
That was where she met a young medical doctor from Rivers State, Peter Odili, who later became Rivers State Governor on the platform of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The duo got married in 1979.
Following her appointment as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (JSC) on June 23, 2011, by former President Goodluck Jonathan, Justice Peter-Odili made history as the third woman to ascend the revered apex court bench since 1963 when the Federal Republic of Nigeria was proclaimed. Before 1963, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) served as the highest court of the land and sat on appeal over any disputed judgment of the Federal Supreme Court, which existed at that time.
“This day is indeed significant because we have just witnessed the swearing-in of another female Justice of this honourable court, Hon. Justice Mary Peter-Odili. This brings to three the number of female justices in the Supreme Court of Nigeria,” then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, said at Justice Peter-Odili’s swearing-in.
Her previous appointments were as Judge of the Rivers State High Court in 1992, Court of Appeal Justice in 2004, and Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division.
But Justice Peter-Odili’s Supreme Court appointment was not without controversy.
Her nomination for the office followed the National Judicial Council (NJC)’s discovery that the slot of the southeast and the southwest on the apex court bench had become vacant, owing to the retirement of the justices that previously represented the zones.
But some legal pundits opposed her nomination to represent the southeast, insisting that despite being from the geopolitical zone, she had become a south-southerner by her marriage to Odili, and thus unqualified to take the southeast slot.
They also faulted her appointment on the ground that she was among the low-ranking judges at the appellate court.
Nevertheless, the CJN quelled the controversy by insisting that Justice Peter-Odili’s elevation met the 35 percent affirmative action promised to women by ex-President Jonathan.
That was just the beginning of a few notable controversies that directly or indirectly dogged her career. Her status as a judicial officer – perhaps the most conservative of all professions – married to a politically-exposed person – her doctor-turned-politician husband, made her a soft target in the intrigues of the political rivals of her husband and his party.
An example was the backlash from the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) following the Supreme Court judgment of February 13, 2020, that sacked the APC’s David Lyon as governor-elect of Bayelsa State, barely 24 hours to his inauguration.
The five-member panel of the apex court led by Justice Peter-Odili nullified Lyon’s election because his deputy, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo, presented false information to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in aid of his qualification for the November 16 governorship election in the state.
The Supreme Court agreed with an earlier ruling of the high court on the matter.
But the opposition criticised the judgment with some focusing on and unfairly describing Justice Peter-Odili as a “PDP Judge”, an allusion to her husband’s political affiliation, even though the judgment was unanimous.
They questioned why she sat on the case considering she was the first lady to a former governor who is a member of one of the two parties whose case was before her.
However, the criticisms were mostly seen as unfair and it was noted that Justice Peter-Odili was also part of the Justices that affirmed the 2011 victory of an APC candidate Rochas Okorocha over his PDP rival Ikedi Ohakim.
Without a doubt, one of the most controversial incidents in the country’s justice sector was the October 29, 2021 attempted siege to the Abuja residence of the Odilis.
A Chief Superintendent of Police, Lawrence Ajodo, obtained a search warrant from the Wuse Zone 6 Magistrate’s Court in Abuja, for execution at the residence.
Ajodo allegedly claimed he was acting on behalf of a certain Joint Asset Recovery Team allegedly being coordinated by the Federal Ministry of Justice.
He said the application was based on an ongoing investigation of a tip, by a whistle-blower, suggesting that “criminal activities” were taking place in the house.
Security operatives invaded the Odilis’ home on October 29 to execute the warrant but were stopped by vigilant security officials who found inconsistencies in the warrant.
The magistrate who issued the warrant reportedly revoked it later that day on the ground that he was misled to issue it.
The Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, who superintends over the Federal Ministry of Justice, distanced himself from the raid. So did the police, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Department of State Security (DSS).
There were several wrinkles on the face of the matter and the public was suspicious.
The incident, reminiscent of a similar raid on judicial officers’ homes in 2016, caused nationwide outrage with fingers immediately pointed at Federal Government security agencies.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the National Assembly, the Supreme Court management, and human rights groups among others all demanded action against the perpetrators.
In perhaps its strongest terms yet, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Tanko Muhammad-led Supreme Court blew hot over the raid.
So far, 15 suspects said to be involved in the raid are undergoing trial at the Federal High Court, Abuja.
Last November, an activist-lawyer, Timipa Jenkins Okponipere, petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari to sack Justice Peter-Odili, alleging that she sat as “Complainant, Prosecutor and Judge in Criminal Appeal No: SC 250/2010 (TIMIPA OKPONIPERE Vs. STATE) which came before the Supreme Court in 2013.”
He claimed that an earlier petition he wrote to the National Judicial Council (NJC) on the matter was not acted on.
Some of Justice Peter-Odili’s trials also arose over her other family ties, particularly concerning one of her four children, Njideka, Peter, Adaeze, and Chinelo, two of whom are judges.
On June 8, 2013, it was reported that long stretches of public roads in Abuja, were blocked due to a wedding involving the Odilis’ second daughter Njideka to Uzoma Iheme Nwosu, the son of a Judge of the Court of Appeal, Justice Chioma Iheme-Nwosu.
Both Madera Road and a stretch of Aguiyi Ironsi Road were blocked and manned by armed and fierce-looking soldiers and policemen, due to the wedding at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the Maitama District of the Federal Capital Territory.
A large portion of the Aguiyi Ironsi Road was also converted into a parking lot by the wedding guests.
As a result, motorists and Abuja residents going in that direction were made to park far away and walk to their various destinations.
On May 6, 2020, the conveners of the Open Bar Initiative, including Silas Onu and Prof Chidi Odinkalu, alleged that the relatives of at least eight judges were on the list of 22 new judges of the Federal Capital Territory sent to the President for confirmation.
Following Buhari’s approval, CJN Muhammad inaugurated the 22 judges last November.
Four of the newly-inaugurated judges are children of serving and retired judges in the country while one other is a sibling of a serving judge.
They include Njideka Nwosu-Iheme, daughter of Justice Peter-Odili; Fatima Abubakar Aliyu, daughter of the immediate past President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa; Mimi Katsina-Alu Apena, daughter of late CJN, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, and Ibrahim Mohammed, the son of a former Grand-Khadi of the FCT.
The Open Bar Initiative and many other Nigerians condemned the appointments as examples of nepotism.
However, a spokesman for the NJC, Soji Oye, said the appointments were made in line with NJC rules and full awareness of the president.
Oye said the 22 individuals were among the 33 candidates vetted for the positions last year, but out of which 11 were confirmed.
Nevertheless, Justice Peter-Odili’s more than a decade stay in office has been seen as having enriched the Supreme Court bench.
Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, stated this at the valedictory court session held in her honour on Thursday.
He poured encomium on the jurist for her “irrepressible voice in the temple of justice,” describing her as the “epitome of jurisprudential finesse.”
“We are honouring an amiable lady of alluring qualities and excellence that transcend the legal profession,” Justice Muhammad said.
The CJN emphasised that Justice Peter-Odili “offered the best of her intellect to the advancement of the legal profession through her several years of inimitable adjudications at different levels of courts in Nigeria.
“She is a specimen of hard work, industry, discipline and high moral rectitude”.
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