Re: Juliana and Vincent Igwe: Poty 2023 -That The Truth May Set Us Free

By Chief Wole Olanipekun,  SAN

Just as the world was bidding the year 2023 farewell and gearing up to the uncertainties of the new year, my attention was drawn to a piece circulating on social media titled: “Juliana and Vincent Igwe: POTY 2023, by Chidi Anselm Odinkalu”, which was later published by various media, including ThisDay, Vanguard News, TheCable and Premium Times Nigeria.
While a peek through the piece gave a clue that Prof. Odinkalu’s acronymization: “POTY” implied “Persons of the Year”, it took an even briefer glance to decipher that the content of the commentary is largely belied by its title.
Ex facie, it took the appearance of a belated tribute to our late colleagues, Barnabas and Abigail Igwe, who, as a couple, were gruesomely murdered on 1st September, 2002, in the most callous manner, and an extolment of the virtues of Mr. and Mrs. Vincent and Juliana Igwe (the late Mr. Igwe’s elder brother and wife, respectively) who, according to Chidi, assumed parental responsibilities over the children of the deceased Igwes.
Had Prof. Odinkalu terminated his brief at that or made do with accurate facts available to him, his narration might, perhaps, have turned out as a bona fide intellectual contribution to the course of humanity.
However, the account was embellished with subtle suggestions of abandonment of the Igwes and an assortment of insinuations of a renege on the promises made by myself as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) at the material time.
The myriad of distortions contained in the article renders it a disservice to the sacred memories of the martyred duo and the fetus in the womb of Abigail.
Much as I would naturally have let it slide while taking it in my strides as I have done in time past, I am constrained, at this instance, to set the record straight for two principal reasons, amongst others.
First, because it touches on my humble stewardship at the NBA – an Association to which I devoted my all as its President between 2002-2004 (22 years ago).
Second, because I consider it a great deal of unfairness, not just to me, but also to the unsuspecting readers who fed on the treatise in the innocent belief that it is the truth and nothing but the truth.
If the propaganda cliché often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels (“repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”) is anything to go by, then, leaving Odinkalu’s skewed story again unattended, would cause the claims to be repeated, both by the innocent and mischievous consumers, such that it would one day usurp the status of the truth.
It is no longer news that the murder of the Igwes was the first major crisis that greeted my tenure as the President of the NBA, having been sworn in just two days before the unfortunate incident.
However, beyond this, I also inherited the controversy surrounding the equally gruesome murder of past Attorney-General of the Federation, Chief Bola Ige, SAN, who was murdered at his Bodija residence, Ibadan, about eight months before my assumption of office.
Immediately the news of the dastardly murder of the Igwes was brought to my attention on Sunday, 1st September, 2022, I summoned an Emergency Officers’ Meeting at the NBA Secretariat in Lagos and, at the same time, reached out to the Onitsha branch to obtain a first-hand briefing on the gory incident.
The report I got from Onitsha pointed accusing fingers at certain powerful characters at the helm of affairs in Anambra State.
The officers clinically examined all the facts presented and resolved that a World Press Conference was expedient, pursuant to which I addressed one at the premises of the NBA Secretariat, with all the National Officers present.
The Press Conference, not only did I point accusing fingers at the powerful elements in Anambra State Government, I also urged the Federal Government to declare a State of Emergency in the State.
If Odinkalu had gotten his facts right or even bothered to ask the right questions, he would not have sought to minify the countless statements that the NBA issued in reaction to the incident as “the obligatory and practiced statement”. Contrary to this very unkind phraseology, not only was I vociferous in my condemnation of the killings, but members of my Executive Council and I matched same with commensurate actions which we considered strategic and logical wards bringing the killers and their sponsors to book.
These actions include my visit to the then Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Tafa Balogun, on 11th September, 2002, where I made the unequivocal demand for an investigation into the heinous crime.
I reiterated this demand to the IGP in my letter to him on 20th September, 2002, where I also intimated him of NBA’s readiness and willingness to cooperate with and give the required support to the Nigeria Police for the investigation.
I seized the opportunity to inform the IGP that the NBA would be setting up its own private investigation committee to expose the killers of our worthy colleagues and that our report would be submitted to the government.
I announced 18th September, 2002 as a day of mourning to be observed by all branches of the NBA, and directed members of the Bar to take to the streets in protest of their heinous murder by suspected agents of the State in Anambra.
Unprecedentedly, all branches of the NBA heeded my directive and observed 18th September, 2002 as a day of mourning.
In my address to President Olusegun Obasanjo during our meeting with him on 11th November, 2002, I apprised him of how Barnabas and Abigail were brutally murdered, and I connected their killings to Barnabas’ consistent call for a responsive, responsible, just and fair governance in Anambra State, which even led to his issuance of an ultimatum to the State Government to pay the huge arrears of workers’ salaries.
I pleaded with President Olusegun Obasanjo to set up a Commission of Inquiry to unravel the several murders in the country (including the killing of Chief Bola Ige, SAN and the Igwes), while also stating that there was a frightening atmosphere of violence enveloping the country, as lives and properties were no longer held sacred.
For the burial of the Igwes, the NBA, under my humble leadership, took charge, working together with the Onitsha branch.
The burial ceremonies, including the Valedictory Court Session held on 4th and 5th October, 2002, were attended by over 2000 lawyers from across the country, led by me. We were all clad in black-customized T-shirts provided by the NBA, bearing the photographs of the deceased couple.
I recall the emotion-laden speech which I delivered at the funeral – It was a blend of eulogy and a frontal challenge to the sitting governments, both in Anambra State and the Federation. The Speech was contemporaneously rendered by all NBA branches in the country.
During our preparation for the funeral, the Governor of Anambra State expressed his willingness to attend the events, but we turned down his request, stating categorically that we could not guarantee his safety, as his presence could provoke lawyers. This was despite the fact that he was the Chief Executive and Chief Security Officer of the State.
I also remember, with mixed feelings, the remarks of Chief Chike Ofodile, SAN, (a former Attorney-General of the Federation) at the burial, to the effect that he had not witnessed any lawyer or set of lawyers accorded such a grand burial.
Despite our heavy hearts and the various and spontaneous activities we undertook in the pursuit of justice, we maintained the presence of mind to appreciate the fact that the Igwes were a young couple whose untimely demise had left behind, vulnerable children who needed support to face life without their loving parents.
This sensitivity informed our setting up of a Committee to raise funds for the welfare of the orphaned children and open an Endowment Fund Account for that purpose.
Without being immodest, I made my humble contribution to the Fund, and a handful of lawyers across the country followed suit.
The N25million Endowment Fund alluded to by Odinkalu was an ambitious projection, which, unfortunately, proved a tall order.
I recall that members of the Onitsha branch levied themselves N1,000 each, towards the Fund.
Without any fear of contradiction and contrary to Odinkalu’s unfair innuendos, for the two years that I held sway as the President of the NBA, we were responsible for the welfare and education of the children of the Igwes.
Successive disbursements were made from the meagre contributions to the Fund to the children, through Mr. Vincent Igwe, as occasions demanded and after proper scrutiny by the NBA.
Records do not lie.
For example, in the Minutes of the NBA-NEC Meeting held on 12th & 13th February, 2004, at the Confluence Beach Hotel, Lokoja, Kogi State, it was/is recorded that: “The General Secretary briefed the House on the recent payment by the Association of the sum of N480,980.00 to Mr. Vincent Igwe, the younger brother of late Barnabas Igwe, Esq. and the guardian of the deceased three children, through the Chairman of Onitsha Branch”.
At the said meeting, the General Secretary and Treasurer informed NEC that the total amount outstanding to the credit of the NBA/Igwe Endowment Fund Account (before the disbursement of the sum of N480,980.00) was N2,646,400.00 (Two Million Six Hundred and Forty-Six Thousand, Four Hundred Naira Only). In paragraph 3.1 of my Valedictory Speech as NBA President on 23rd August, 2004, during the Annual Conference, I again reported the establishment of the Endowment Fund Scheme for the children of the Igwes, and posited thus: “For now, the NBA has been responsible for the upkeep and education of the children of the deceased.”
The point must be made clear that accounts of all monies received were usually presented at every National Executive Council (NEC) meeting, including the mode and manner of disbursement to the family through Mr. Vincent Igwe.
I also recollect a particular incident whereby the late Abigail’s sister residing in the United Kingdom pleaded to take the children along with her.
The NBA encouraged the move, Senator N.N Anah, SAN volunteered to procure their air tickets, while I opted to personally make some funds available for their logistics.
However, Mr. Vincent Igwe, in his wisdom, objected to the move, citing some Igbo customary inhibitions.
At the same NBA-NEC meeting in Lokoja earlier referenced, NEC mandated the third National Vice-President, Blessing Ukiri Esq., to broker a truce between the duo of Vincent and Abigail’s sister.
In the disbursement of funds to the children, prominent members of the NBA within the locality were always consulted and carried along.
To the best of my recollection, one of such notable members is now a Justice of the Court of Appeal, another, a serving Judge of the Anambra State High Court, and one other, a Professor of Law at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State.
I must mention that these benevolent deeds and acts of responsibility were not lost on good-spirited, well-informed and active players at the time, as I/we received encouragement and commendations from various quarters.
One of such was a letter of appreciation from very respectable figures and leading lights of Onitsha extraction in the legal profession, including the Vice-Chairman and Secretary at the time, Chuka Obele-Chuka, Pete Chudi Obiorah, P.O. Balonwu, SAN, former Attorney-General of the Federation, Chike Ofodile, SAN, G.R.I. Egonu, SAN, P.G.E. Umeadi, SAN, Senator N.N. Anah, SAN, H.R.H. Eze Dr. Ejike Ume, SAN, G. E. Ezeuko, SAN, Chief Chidube Ezebilo, SAN, Nnamdi Ibeagu, SAN and Dr. Onyechi Ikpeazu, SAN.
For the records, the letter read in part: “Your initiative coupled with your admirable courageous and intelligent handling of the matter will remain indelible in our hearts.
Your indefatigable resolve to see that the perpetrators of this heinous crime are brought to justice has given our struggle a national focus, for which we remain eternally grateful.”
It is only a fibber whose witnesses are all domiciled in the empyrean domain. As for me, it is gratifying that some of these actors and personae are still alive to corroborate every point.
If Prof. Odinkalu had considered it worth the while to mine for empirical facts, he could have reached out to any of them, or even to my humble self, who is only but a phone call away.
It is unfortunate that mudslinging has become the order of the day in the same profession into which I was initiated about five decades ago.
In the good old days, we were marinated in the virtues and values of camaraderie and natural justice, such that, before suing or calling out a colleague, you had the obligation of first sounding him out to get an insight into his own side of the story.
I must confess that I have taken this creed as a sacred catechism throughout my career, till date.
If this precept was obligatory for us in the days of yore, when there were no mobile phones, no internet and no social media, one would have thought that it would be more compelling now with the availability of and easy access to these modern and high-tech facilities.
While I have restrained myself, as much as possible, from being personal in this rejoinder, which has been forced on me by Chidi, my thinking had always been that I had a chummy relationship with him, which, ordinarily, should have warranted him to, at least, put a call across to me to crosscheck, verify, ascertain or authenticate the veracity of his information or outcome of his conceived claim before reducing it to a winter fiction, saturated with very unfortunate insinuations.
That is not the practice nowadays, as in the words of Chief J.S. Okutepa, SAN – “Internet terrorism by lawyers against lawyers has become the order of the day”.
I hope our profession will not witness a dawn whereby some of our members, however learned they assume they are, will cling to the erroneous belief that what they do not know does not exist.
The latin maxim, audi alteram partem, literally meaning let the other side be heard, is a doctrine of fair hearing, instituted by God Himself in the Garden of Eden; and Fortescue, J. emphasized this much in the old case of R. v. Chancellor of University of Cambridge (1723) 1 Str 557 p.567; ditto for Oputa JSC in the celebrated case of Olatunbosun v. NISER Council (1988) 3 NWLR [Part 80] 25 p.49 par. C – F. Much harm and damage is done to individuals and the society at large when this sacred principle is threatened, how much more when it is mangled.
Fair-minded chroniclers of NBA history would never assert, even in their wildest imagination, that the NBA, under my leadership, abandoned any lawyer or cause.
The ebullient Minister of Aviation, Festus Keyamo Esq., SAN would attest to the truism that, as a leader, I stood with and by all lawyers, including him, through thick and thin.
The fiery Senator Adams Oshiomhole would corroborate my claim that the NBA, under my watch, did not abandon either him or the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), which he headed at the time, as I even went to court, leading the likes of J-K Gadzama, SAN and Femi Falana, SAN for the NLC against the Federal Government, to the consternation of the then ‘powers-that-be’, who, for the two years that I led the NBA, declared me a persona non grata.
For the Igwes, we did all that we could, to the extent of obtaining fiats to prosecute the cases against the suspected perpetrators of their murder.
A number of reputable legal practitioners were drafted into the private prosecution teams of the NBA, including (in no particular order) Dr. Onyechi Ikpeazu, SAN, Rob Iweka, SAN, G. E. Ezeuko, SAN, Dr. Ejike Umeh, SAN, Chike Ofodile, SAN, E.D Chukwuma, Osuigwe Oseloka, Chidi Obioha, Peter A. Afuba (now, SAN) and Obi R. Ulasi.
I wonder if my dearly beloved Chidi is aware of all these! If he is not aware, I urge him to revisit the archives, including inquiring from Vincent Igwe about who prompted the withdrawal of the cases from court.
He should also dig into the archives, perhaps, with the assistance of Mr. Vincent Igwe to clarify further issues surrounding the purported sum of N400,000.00 given to the Igwe family by the then Governor of Imo State, the payee of the cheque, how it was endorsed to the NBA account, which of the NBA accounts, etc.
Credible research work demands no less. While not holding brief for successive NBA regimes after mine, I can fairly posit that, like mine, they did not abandon the Igwes. In this wise, my dear Chidi still has a lot of work to do, such as asking questions, from the relevant sources, as to how much the Bayo Ojo/Odogiyan Executive presented to the Igwes and who received the money on behalf of the young lads. Ditto for the Olisa Agbakoba Executive.
He may also wish to conduct an investigation on the roles played by the late Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN, as President of the NBA, and in continuation of the NBA’s commitment to the welfare of the children of the Igwes, particularly, in respect to the educational advancement of the children.
Lastly, my dear brother, Chidi, should deploy his tentacles to unearthing the very unpalatable and sometimes threatening letters written to me by powerful and influential figures in the Anambra polity at the time, on this Igwe’s saga.
My stewardship to the NBA remains untainted, just as it is in the few public offices I have held in time past, whether as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the University of Ibadan, Pro-Chancellor of the Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo and Chancellor of the Bamidele Olumilua University of Education, Science and Technology, Ikere.
It is on record that, in all of these offices, I did not only decline the statutory emoluments legitimately accruing to me, but I also deployed my God-given resources to the course of humanity and the advancement of the institutions.
While I must not be misunderstood as suggesting that the Igwes got the justice that we all anticipated and assiduously worked towards, the point must be made that all of us, borrowing the words of John Pepper Clark, are “casualties” of the systemic inefficiencies that characterize every facet of our national polity – a polity to which Prof. Odinkalu, beyond mere rhetoric, is not a stranger.
After all, he sat atop the National Human Rights Commission as its Chairman, between 8th December, 2011 and 8th December, 2015.
In that position, he had the mandate of investigating all cases of human rights violation (including those of the Igwes) and assisting victims of such violations. With all respect to him, I am not aware of any effort that he made, while he held sway, to address this grievous violation to the most sacred of all rights meted on the Igwes.
Interestingly, on 6th May, 2022, he was appointed by the current Government of Anambra State to head the Truth, Justice and Peace Committee, whose charge includes, seeking a restorative justice approach for truth-telling or real facts for the healing of the victims of the violence in the State right from 1999.
Beyond coronating Juliana and Vincent Igwe as his ‘Persons of the Year’, I consider this a unique opportunity for Prof. Odinkalu to demonstrate his loyalty to the slain couple and their family, as well as to the course of justice, by stoically facing his present assignment, and ensuring, amongst others, a restorative justice for the Igwe family.
If we, as lawyers, cannot organize a requiem for the continuous repose of the souls of the deceased hero and heroine of the Bar, we should not, under any pretext, batter their tombstones.
May time and history expose and vilify the murderers of this heroic couple, and bring to the open, everyone who played ‘Brutus’.
May the Almighty God continue to repose the elegant souls of Barnabas and Abigail Igwe.
Chief Wole Olanipekun,  SAN,
President, Nigeria Bar Association (2002-2004).

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