he towering figure saunters toward the law lecture room. Always impeccably dressed in his somewhat dark-bluish suit with black shoes and multi-coloured neck tie to match. The expressions on his face, his loud voice, the fires sparkling from his eyes, lucidity of his thought, fecundity of his mind and his stoic steady steps are evocative of his great learning and his brilliance in expounding and expanding Criminal law and Company Law for decades. Among his numerous achievements, he is the first and oldest law teacher in Nigeria teaching law in the oldest law faculty in Nigeria. As he enters the lecture room, he stands momentarily at the door like a fine firmament ostensibly trying to recollect and reassure himself that he is the teachers’ teacher. Then almost instinctively, everybody in the class turns and looks at him in awe. Then silence descends and envelopes the room. No noise. No murmuring. No whispers. No shuffling of feet. Stepping forward and clearing his throat, he opens his mouth and delivers his lecture ex-tempore without occasionally glancing at any law book or law handout. All could hear him. He is the embodiment of the law, the law drops behind his fingers. He is a moving encyclopedia, a repository of Criminal Law and Company Law.
The foregoing could fit into the reflections, reminiscences, imaginations or tributes of thousands and upon thousands of lawyers, judges, political leaders, politicians and different people from different walks of life who were former students of Emeritus Professor Cyprian Okechukwu Okonkwo, law teacher extra-ordinnaire, law author, legal icon, doyen of legal education in Nigeria and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria who quietly slipped away on 8th October 2022 aged 88. Prof. Okonkwo’s death is profoundly a sad one for the faculty of law, University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus (UNEC). Prof. Okonkwo unarguably was one of the finest first pillars of law teachers of UNEC. The faculty will mourn Prof. Okonkwo by recalling his works over so many years at UNEC, first as a diligent law teacher, a Dean of the faculty of law and a mentor to his brother lecturers. Already a beautiful bust has been strategically erected in the Rotunda of the Law Faculty main building, UNEC. When the sad news of the demise of Prof. Okonkwo first broke. I remember sharing the news with a former Dean of the faculty of law, UNEC, Prof. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo OON, SAN. On receiving my WhatsAPP message, she wasted no time in sending to me a historical photograph of herself together with Prof. Benjamin Chukwuma Ozumba, former UNN Deputy Vice-Chancellor and one other posing beside the bust. He was very celebral. He was brilliance personified. He knew how to deconstruct any complex legal problem and how to effectively impart it to his students. He was the greatest teacher of all times”, she wrote in her WhatsAPP message.
I was a student of the faculty of Law, UNEC at the time Prof. Okonkwo together with taciturn Prof. Gaius Ezejiofor (SAN), Prof. E. I. Nwogwugwu, Prof. D. I. O. Ewelukwa (SAN), Prof. B. O. Okere, Prof C.U. Ilegbune SAN, Prof (Justice) Okay Achike, Prof. G. O. S. Amadi, Prof. M.C Okany, Retired Court of Appeal Justice Chinwe Iyizoba, Sampson Owusu and others ruled the law faculty. That era could be dubbed the golden age of the Faculty of Law, UNEC. That was when students were really students, and lecturers were lecturers. “Study or perish.” was our unofficial motto. Prof Okonkwo taught us Criminal Law and Company Law. He prided himself as having been taught by Professor Laurence Cecil Bartlett Gower MBE, the renowned UK Company law expert. Prof Okonkwo was a simple man. He was approachable albeit he was very strict and demanding on students. He was in love with section 24 of the Criminal Code. Hardly would he utter two phrases in his Criminal Law class without mentioning section 24. At that time I thought Criminal law was section 24 and section 24 was Criminal law. Woe to you if Prof. Okonkwo’s roving eyes descended on you in his class. First, he would ask you a seemingly simple law question. And if you fail to answer it correctly, he would pause momentarily, take a contemptuous studied look at you, and thereafter query: “So, what have you been doing in this University?” ostensibly to remind you that you were not measuring up to the motto of the University of Nigeria (UNN): “To restore the dignity of man”.
Prof (Justice) Okay Achike was the professors’ professor. Listening to his 30-minute Contract law or Commercial Law lecture was tantamount to listening to a Princeton University Law Professor for three hours. He was erudite. He was cerebral. He stood out for his exceptional intellectual versatility. Small wonder he rose from the classroom to the Bench. He later became a Justice of the Court of Appeal from whence he was elevated to the Supreme Court. Prof. G. O. S. Amadi taught Industrial Law. Justice Chinwe Iyizoba taught Evidence. Prof. Ewelukwa taught Constitutional law. Prof. Nwogwugwu taught International Law and Family law. Prof Okany taught Commercial law, and, if I am not mistaken, law of property. Prof Ezejiofor taught Land Law. Prof. Ilegbune taught Contract law and introduction to legal system. He was an amiable man. He was kind. He was patient with students. He dressed impeccably in his black suit and black neck tie to match. Prof. B. O. Okere taught Jurisprudence. He was a tall, elegant-looking man. He wore a disheveled grey hair ostensibly as a sign of his legal wisdom and legal scholarship. He was a grammarian. You could attend a Prof. Okere’s one-hour-Jurisprudence lecture without assimilating anything at all because his deliveries were woven with high-flown admixture of English and Latin grammar that was difficult to untangle.
Owusu, the Ghanaian, taught Equity. He was diminutive in size. He was always flying his shirt as if he were a protesting student. A very unassuming man, he dressed scantily. He walked like someone who would never hurt a fly. He religiously wore slippers or flapping sandals. But law students dreaded him. He was notorious for his frugality in scoring students high marks in Equity. His students hardly scored an “A” in Equity. Once upon a time a student demystified him and scored an “A” in Equity. In his reaction, Owusu almost wept in an open class room before his students because it was a feat no student had achieved for decades. I don’t know why all sorts of apocryphal stories were woven around Owusu at that time. One of such apocryphal stories was how Owusu stopped the wife of a UNEC lecturer from graduating from the law faculty and eventually attending the Law School. This lady was a final year law student at UNEC. She had passed all of her law courses except Equity. She needed to score just a pass in Equity to enable her to graduate from the faculty of law and proceed to the Law School. But unfortunately she scored only 49% in Equity, that is, I% short of the pass mark of 50%. All entreaties and pleadings to sway the mind of Owusu to score this lady the 50% pass mark in Equity so that she could join her colleagues and graduate from the law faculty and head for the Law School were unsuccessful. Owusu simply refused to score the lady 50% notwithstanding that the lady’s husband was also a lecturer at UNEC at that time. In his defence, Owusu stated that he had retrieved the lady’s answer script and after re-marking and re-marking it he was unable get the additional 1% which could have given the lady the requisite 50% pass mark. To cut the long story short, I think the lady eventually re-sited the Equity exam, and, of course, lost the chance of going to the Law School that session. Another apocryphal story was how Pastor Chris Okotie encountered Owusu in the Equity exam. Pastor Okotie was not our class mate but he our contemporary at the law faculty. He was graduating in law when we were barely being admitted into the law faculty. At that time he owed a sportish-looking red car. He was a rich student. He dressed well. Above all, he was a talented musician. He sang and sang. I can’t remember now, but I think it was in his days at UNEC that he released the number: “Carolina in mind” or “I need someone” or “Fine Mama”. But he failed Owusu’s Equity exam. Ostensibly trying to make Owusu happy, he approached one day and I offered to buy him a pair of shoes ex gratis so that he could start wearing shoes to class instead of his worn-out slippers or sandals. Infuriated by Okogie’s imprudent offer, Owusu swore that Okotie would never pass his Equity exam again.
Anyway, back to Prof. Okonkwo. As strict as he was, he inculcated in us a sense of hard work and mission in life. I last met Prof Okonkwo in 2012 or so at a Conference at Sheraton Hotels, Abuja. He was still his old self. No sooner had I introduced myself as his former student than he immediately extended out his right hand to give me a warm handshake. I noticed that even though he was still the same stern man, his sternness was commingled with charity. Our memories of Prof. Okonkwo will never fade. His death has indeed robbed the Nigerian legal system and even the world legal systems the edifice of legal wisdom. In his death we have lost a fine gentleman, a passionate law teacher, a legal icon and a friend. Supreme Court Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (of the blessed memory) was of the view that a proper university education transcends mere academic education and instead entails the education of the whole man. To Justice Oputa, a proper university education is such that informs characters, inspires good behavior, balanced judgment and trains the body, the mind, the intellect and the will.
This, arguably, was the quality of education that we received under the tutelage of Prof. Okonkwo. Within the faculty of law precinct we were granted a vision of the ends of life that surpassed our expectations. I stand in awe at the designs of providence which gave Prof. C. O Okonkwo to our generation.
On Friday, 25th November 2022 when the casket containing the remains of Prof Okonkwo is being be wheeled out for committal to mother earth, tears of joy and sorrow shall roll down the cheeks of many upon remembering that he was a diligent and consumate law teacher. But let those tears not roll down in vain, rather let the tears give rise to a resolution to live the ideals which Prof. Okonkwo lived for and died for.