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Olorunfemi Owoyemi: Legacy of Hon. Justice Eni Esan (rtd) – President of the Customary Court of Appeal

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by Olorunfemi Owoyemi

In 2013 I received a phone call from a friend: someone needed to get something done and this friend considered putting in my name for the task. That ‘someone’ was Hon. Justice Eni Esan. I agreed and I was given her number. She called me, briefed me on what the task was about and she shared some thoughts about the direction she wanted the execution to follow. She was out of the country and so I sent progress reports via emails to her, till I was done. She returned to the country and I met her few days after. She loved what I had done.

In the years that followed she took an interest in me and opened her doors to me. To think that I was a stranger whom she only thought was brilliant and she gave me as much support as she could. Even when she didn’t have enough, she would give me something to take hold bodi. Many years after, she would rise through the ranks to become the President of the Customary Court of Appeal, Oyo State, making her the No. 5 citizen of the State. 

We talk about bad leaders all of the time and hardly do we celebrate the outstanding ones who we see and know in our midst. This piece is a testament to good leadership. In order to aptly show who the Hon. Justice Eni Esan is and to capture the qualities that she exuded while she was in authority, I’ll be using sub-heads. 

She Redefined Accessibility

Judges wield a great authority and are expected to be treated with so much respect. Except when sitting in open court, judges are not expected to be seen in the public. If you are not summoned by the judge himself, you can’t ask to see a judge in chamber (especially as a staff in the judiciary). Thus accessibility to judges is a big deal.

Hon. Justice Esan never barred anyone from seeing her, so long she was not in a meeting. Everyone had access to her without stress and she welcomed everyone warmly and cordially. This is not the usual practice with judges; usually they radiate an aura of fear that make anyone dread to ever court the idea of wanting to see them.

It wasn’t a surprise when many began to call her by the informal title “Mummy”. She always had this genial smile whenever she is called mummy and she’d just move on. But the truth remains that she was a mother to everyone. When she later became the President of the Customary Court of Appeal, she kept her doors open still.

Looking Out For the Young

As a soft spoken, easy going person that she is, her court room was a place one could come to without any fear of being unnecessarily dressed down. She paid particular attention to the new wigs and was always willing to give them hints whenever they were caught in a tight spot. A case in point was a young man who was appearing against a senior member of the bar. His applications were improperly put together. He was also out of time and had no application to regularize and properly put his application before the court. This very fresh wig was stuck and couldn’t wriggle his way out. 

The senior began to rattle him and his lordship could see right through the strategy. Confused and agitated, the new wig was sweating already. He tried to make a submission but he stammered all through. The senior counsel took no pity on the young man, he continued to take jabs at the newbie. 

The court asked why he was not well put together and for how long he had had the file before appearing before her. The counsel opened up that his principal was supposed to take the case but he had left the court room few minutes before the case was called. This was not unusual – many principals do such. It was upon further questioning that we found out that he had just been called to the bar for two months or thereabouts.

 My lord said to the new wig, “would you want the court to adjourn this matter so that you can put your house in order?”  When the senior objected, she calmly asked him, “this is my court, or do you want to take over from me and preside over proceedings?”The older man took his sit, grunting but not before asking for cost; the new wig had no defense as to cost, he was all covered in sweat now. Poor lad. My lord intervened and said, “there will be no cost as adjournment is at the instance of the court.”

I heard that on a later date, the new wig put his house in order, made brilliant submissions and earned a well-considered ruling against the same senior counsel that had bullied him earlier. 

Hon. Justice Esan once said to me, “I look out for the new wigs in my court and try to help them when they are stuck. They are new and they have merely begun to learn the ropes; guiding them is how I can assist them to learn better and want to come back again. My court shouldn’t be a place where anyone will be afraid to come to.”  

Empathy.

One of the distinct qualities of Hon. Justice Esan is her empathy. It was an evident trait in all that she did and how she carried herself as a judge and as an administrator. Examples of her empathy are boldly engraved in the exercise of her judicial and administrative discretion. Even when bound by law, as the case is in sentencing an accused to death for murder or armed robbery, she is sober and reflective. She’s firm and yet so considerate. She feels the hurt and the weight of all parties to a suit and it reflects in her composure. 

A counsel reflecting on her time on the bench recalled thus: “My lord convicted a security man who shot dead a resident, come and see analysis of the distance of the volley of shots, range, etc to the deceased…she took time to lambast the defence counsel and wept as she sentenced the security man to death and practically RAN out of the court room.”

One case which I witnessed was one about a petrol tanker that caught fire causing destruction of properties and the deaths of some people. The company believed to be carrying the petrol was sued by people who had lost loved ones and properties. The Claimants’ counsel did a shoddy job and barely established any elements to prove that the company being sued was the right company that owned the tanker and was freighting the petrol. This was why they lost the case. The Defendant on the hand got a fine, middle-aged brilliant counsel from Lagos who did a fantastic job. After the matter had been dismissed, the defendant counsel sought a cost of N1million (and justifiably so). 

In denying the application for cost, she emphasized that she acknowledged the validity of the application but that she could not close her eyes to the losses of the Claimant even though their counsel had done a shoddy job in showing on whom the burden lay and how that loss had come to be. She enjoined the defendant counsel to put himself in the shoes of any of the claimants who had just lost the case and had lost lives and properties without compensation. 

Yet another example is that of a woman who had a container within the premises of the Customary Court of Appeal. It is not out of place to find people sell things within the court premises – snacks, stationery, law books, bibs, wigs, gowns etc. The Head of Court often sets boundaries within which the approved traders can run their ventures. 

One morning, Hon. Justice Eni Esan noticed that one of the traders had set her container in a position that would deface the wall and wasn’t befitting of the Customary Court of Appeal. She sent a message through the Chief Registrar that the container be removed and repositioned within a specified number of days.

After the specified number of days, his lordship looked out to see if the container had been removed and repositioned. She was miffed when she found that it was still in the exact position. She could have issued a new directive that the security be mobilized to deal with the woman and throw out the container altogether but in her words, “I can’t just punish for her defying my directive, everyone is going through something and she could as well have a genuine reason for not being able to move the thing.”Once she got to her office, she summoned the woman to her office and asked her why she had defied the order to reposition her container.

The woman, visibly shaken to have been summoned, she fell on her knees and began to cry. She admitted that truly she had got the instruction but that she hadn’t had enough money to remove the container. She explained her predicament regarding her finances and that she needed money to pay the people that would take the container from its spot to the new place. She informed his lordship of the cost involved to remove the container and that she’d only been able to raise part of the sum. The Hon. Justice Eni Esan extended the time for her to remove and reposition her container and gave her some money to complete the sum she had already. The next day, the container was repositioned. 

Putting Others First.

I was visiting her in her office when the schedule for NJI trainings for 2019 was brought to her. As Head of Court, she had to pick the conference(s) she would love to attend first. She found a few international conferences with themes and sessions that piqued her interest. “I could go for this and this, and this” she had said to me; then she paused and reclined in her seat. “But I really want all my fellow Justices to go for trainings this year too”she said absentmindedly to me as perused. “I can have all these conferences to myself and no one will question me but I want my fellow justices to travel too.”

The next time we talked about it, months later, majority of the staff at the Customary Court of Appeal had been sent for trainings in Abuja according to their respective offices. From librarians to registrars to secretaries to researchers, name it; people were sent to Abuja for training. She recommended all the justices for international conferences in the US, UK, Caribbean; meanwhile she attended a conference that held in Accra, Ghana.

For the chance to undergo training and be paid the allowance many of the staff were excited and so grateful for the exposure. The perk of travelling is you get a traveling allowance which is a huge boost for your pay in the month you travel. For many to go on trainings and receive travel allowances, cut down on some of her own travels and stayed put, forfeiting the gargantuan traveling bonuses that would have come along with such trips.

In October 2019, I was visiting her in her office when a group of people who had gone to Abuja for training came to express their gratitude to her. They wanted to give her a gift for seeing to it that they travelled. “I really, didn’t do you a favour by sending you to Abuja,”she said to them while politely refusing the gift, “you ought to go on these trainings, they are for you to attend and let the things you have learnt show in the way you discharge your functions now that you’re back.”All through, she spoke, softly and with her signature smile.

From what I gathered from the conversation around the court complex, it what was the first time in the history of the Oyo State Judiciary, that a head of Court saw to it that such numbers of members of staff were sent to Abuja for the annual trainings organized by the National Judicial Institute. 

Her Heart of Gold

This is countless but here is where to start from – on many occasions, the Hon. Justice Eni Esan had staff in her court taken to her personal hospital for treatment and she footed the bill. If anyone who worked with her was ill and could not afford to go to the hospital, she would give instructions that the person be taken to her personal hospital for treatment. 

I was seriously ill some years ago and I went to the hospital, the administrator pulled out the Justice Esan (rtd)’s file and said to me, “mummy’s bill is always much and I don’t remember the last time she herself came to the hospital to be treated.”That was how much she cared about the people who worked with her and were around her. 

On many occasions, many would ask to see her to explain their plight and she would attend to them. Sometimes, she would part with the last sum of money but she always made sure that no one who came to her stranded and in dire need of help went without any assistance. One day, exhausted from work and the demands before her, she turned to me and said, “Santi, I am cash trapped. I have given everything I came with.”I asked why she didn’t just turn people away rather than keep helping. She replied, “I will always find a way and sort myself, some of these people have nowhere to turn to and it is a privilege to be the one to help them.”

I was told the story of a baliff who along with his wife had a bike accident. When the news got to his lordship, she donated a sum of N50,000 to the man’s family. It was about all the money they needed to salvage the leg of the ballif’s wife which had suffered the bigger impact as a result of the accident.

As for references and referrals, Hon. Justice Eni Esan was one judge that one could easily approach and get a reference. This was the one thing that always took me to her office; and even when she is tired and drained, she would still attend to the requests with such urgency. 

Adjudication.

Hon. Justice Eni Esan had a stellar career on the bench. She was one of the judges that you were certain would sit by 9am as expected. She was always compassionate yet thorough with her cases. She was so courageous and outstanding with her cases and so it is no surprise that most of the controversial cases in the last decade somehow always ended up on her desk and she always fearlessly did justice to them. 

The one which most people readily remember is the Auxiliary case. There was so much at stake in that case and the media coverage was overwhelming. All these came with so much pressure but she boldly rose to the task and deftly applied the law to the facts. In the end, she came up with such an irrefutable judgment that held everyone awestruck.

From 2001 to 2020 – a period of 19 years – none of her judgments was overturned either by the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court. However, there was one that was sent back from the Court of Appeal for a retrial and at the end of that retrial, the outcome was the same with the judgment she had delivered which was appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Conclusion

On the 28thJanuary 2020, his lordship, Hon. Justice Eni Esan retired upon clocking the age of 65. The valedictory session in her honour was something mind-blowing. January 28 was a Tuesday and it coincided with the State Executive Council meeting so no-one expected any member of the executive to be in attendance. It was a surprise when the convoy of the Secretary to the State Government drove in and not long after, the Deputy Governor of Oyo State arrived. It was as we thought that was it that the Executive Governor of Oyo State arrived. Almost the entire cabinet was present at the valedictory service. 

The Executive Governor of Ondo State sent a representative as he was out of the country. Hon. Justice Ariwoola JSC was in attendance and so were Justices of the Federal High Court. The President of the Osun State Customary Court of Appeal was also present. Twelve SANs were present and all the senior members of the bar were present. About 5 traditional rulers were present from different parts of the South West of Nigeria. It was such a befitting valedictory service.

The truth is this – everything you have read are just few things I have witnessed (or have heard people say) about her. There are plenty other examples. I paid a visit to a section of the Customary Court of Appeal a few days ago and people talked about how much they missed her and the ease and freedom she brought to the workplace as against fear. I smiled.

This is what it means to leave a legacy.

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Article written by Olorunfemi Owoyemi

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