Deep conviction of late Justice P.O.E. Bassey

THE Hon. Justice P.O.E. Bassey. “P.O.E.”, as his friends and admirers fondly called him, was well known amongst lawyers because of the unique life of integrity he lived.

At the beginning of the 80s as a Secondary School Student with a general reading interest, I stumbled on a small blue-coloured book, about the size of a novella. It was titled, ‘I Call for Justice’ with the subtitle of ‘A Judge who was sacked because he refused to do the executive bidding’. I was attracted, naturally, both by the title and the colour. I read through within a couple of days. That was my first contact, in form of print, with the Hon. Justice P.O.E. Bassey.

The sordid details, intrigues and power-play coupled with tribalism and personal pride and ego, which set the stage that eventually led to the sacking of this judge in that book, never left my impressionable mind. Little did I know then that in life’s uncanny ways, more than 20 years later, I would be delivering a speech in honour of the great, courageous Judge whose ordeal I had just shared.

It was at a special court session in Port Harcourt for one of our departed colleagues that I was able, for the first time, to behold the courageous Judge in flesh and blood. He walked in, with a staff in hand and a gait that was sure and confident even though old. No sooner had he sat down than hushed whisperings were heard round the hall to the effect that “the old man who just came in is the Justice P.O.E. Bassey.’ Instantly, he became the cynosure of all eyes.

At the commissioning, last year, of the Law Centre of the Port Harcourt Branch of the Bar which event took place simultaneously with the opening of that year’s Legal Year Ceremonies, his Lordship, now translated, was there. He kept in touch with the activities and events of the Branch despite the restrictions placed on him by age.

Our records show that his Lordship could appropriately be described as ‘a Port Harcourt Boy’ having spent his early professionally productive years at the Port Harcourt Bar where his unique personality catapulted him to the distinguished position of Secretary of the Port Harcourt Bar, a position he held for a record of six years making him one of the longest serving Secretaries of the Branch till date.

Justice P.O.E. Bassey’s story is one of resilience, character, deep conviction and consistency of purpose. In a country where citizens change the colour of their being and character to blend with economic environment, the late Justice Bassey stood out and even preferred death to the diluting of his character. One example: at the heat of his harassment on the bench by forces uncomfortable with his deep strength of character, a false charge was laid against him to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Hon. Justice Adetokunbo Ademola. In his written 71-paragraph response to the allegation dated October 29, 1971, he wrote, at paragraph 42 and I quote him in extensor:
“But it is wrong for the Southern Eastern Government to seek to destroy my character for the reason of seeing that I do not stand in the way of such appointment by bringing such odious charges as they have done against me. I am quite prepared to die in the process of preserving my good name.”

The bereaved family should be consoled by at least two fundamental facts: The late Judge lived an enviable and exemplary life, attracting to himself admiration of large friends and grudging respect from his avowed enemies and his loss is shared by many far beyond his ethnic nationality.

Justice P.O.E. Bassey worked unstintingly and very successfully in the legal profession refusing to do anything to lower its prestige and high public confidence. He was a much-respected man. None who spoke of him even there in Port Harcourt did so without expressing regard for his qualities. He was a man of great principle, endowed with deep humanity and a passion for justice, yet always remaining a modest man. We who live should concern ourselves with how well we live so that when the bell tolls, as it eventually will, our deeds would speak for us at that moment when we no longer can be heard, only seen.

I cannot conclude without sharing with you by quoting in extensor a statement of the 19th president of the Nigerian Bar Association at the Supreme Court on occasion of a similar session in honour of the Late Justice Ebenezer Babasanya Craig, a Justice of that court. The statement which is in form of an admonition has the ting of timelessness in its ringing of the truth. The 19th president on that occasion was, I believe, inspired to say:

“As we mourn with… [The family of the deceased], let the example of his life of honest and dedicated service excite our most serious thoughts and strengthen our resolutions to amend our lives, our conduct and our behaviours. As life is uncertain, and all earthly pursuits are vain, let us no longer postpone the all important concern of preparing for eternity, but embrace the happy moment which time and opportunity offer, to provide against the change, when all the pleasures of this world shall cease to delight, and the reflections of a virtuous and holy life will not be frustrated, nor will we be hurried, unprepared, into the presence of that all-wise and all-powerful judge, to whom the secret of all hearts are known.”

“Let us, who live, continue to support with propriety and dedication, the character of our learned and honourable profession, and let us continue to pursue with assiduity and zeal, our sacred duties as Ministers in the Temple of Justice. And then, with becoming reverence, let us continue to seek the favour of the Almighty and Eternal God, so that when the awful moment of death comes, be soon or late, we may be enabled to prosecute our journey, without dread or apprehension, to that far distant country form which no traveler ever returns”.
• Justice Worgu was Secretary to Port Harcourt Bar Association and later served as Attorney-General of Rivers State.

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