Justice Ovie-Whiskey:Exit of a jurist, gentleman, saintly servant…Headlines, Judiciary Friday, July 20th, 2012
IN 1997, when he was 73, the late Justice Victor Erereko Ovie-Whiskey spelt out to an interviewer what he would like as an epitaph. He had said: “One who counted it a privilege and honour to be called upon by his country to come and serve. One who did not ask what his country would do for him but what he would do for his country. One who did not shy away when he was called to serve and served to the best of his ability. I am at peace with myself because I played my part. Thanks be to God.”
Between 1945 and 1980, Ovie-Whiskey was a teacher, a clerk, councilor, magistrate, a commissioner, a chief registrar, a director of public prosecutions, judge, and a chief judge.
Despite all that, he took special pride of his service to the nation as the Chairman of the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO). It was a thing of pride for him to have been appointed to that post from the Bench. He had said: “I was the Chief Judge of Bendel State when President Shehu Shagari appointed me as the FEDECO chairman, which I think was an honour and an order. As a citizen of this country, I could not turn down the President’s offer.”
In 2004, he told an interviewer, “I do not know how I got the (FEDECO) job. The only person who can say how one came into the job will be the then president. It was a presidential appointment, obviously they must have discussed it in their own caucus, I was still sitting in court when the telephone rang and my secretary said I have a telephone call from the presidency. The security to the Federal Government delivered this message that the president wants me to take the appointment.
“It shocked me, I did not want to go into anything, I had not contemplated leaving the judiciary at that time. It became a public matter, my friends were talking, some for and some against but by and large, somebody has to do it and I just felt I should help out, that I could single handedly with my team, get elections to be free and fair in this country as best as we could. We did our best but like Nigeria, there were complaints.”
It was a job he once admitted that he would never wish to face again, because “it is a thankless job. You have no resting moment, particularly during elections.”
it was thankless because “there were a lot of complaints. In Nigeria when something is going wrong, you hear telephone calls here and there asking you what the problem is. And what you do is to listen to everyone as you can and listen to a crop of commissioners. The commissioners should be reasonable and honest, that is how the job is done.
“I nearly killed myself for the job. I toured all the states, wasn’t sleeping, my wife is my witness. What did I gain, insults and abuses?”
It is a job he won’t choose over that of a Chief Judge. “I had no problem being a lawyer and later a Chief Judge. I had no difficulty as a lawyer and as a judge. But the three years I was in FEDECO, well, no comments.”
But as the Chairman of FEDECO (1979 to 1983), Ovie-Whiskey was thrust to national limelight; he rose to prominence and enjoyed fame and vilification.
Ironically, Ovie-Whiskey lamented that the FEDECO job was a duty that he would never wish to face again. One of his reasons he gave then was his old age “I am too old for the job. It will be suicide. It is a thankless job. You have no resting moment, particularly during elections. I will not be able to withstand the stress.”
Unfortunately, the service for which Ovie-Whiskey had always been remembered was the Chairman of FEDECO. Indeed, that was the most controversial part in his lifetime and career “Few people would remember him as an accomplished lawyer, either in private practice or as a Chief Judge. As FEDECO boss, he rose to prominence. He enjoyed fame even as he was vilified. And fame and vilification turned to honour and admiration.”
He took accusations and attacks in his stride and said, “A public officer is in the eyes of the public all the time. He should take the heat. It hurts when people criticize without grounds, but that is the price of public office. I have no regrets.”
His reminiscences of that job and that era are sometimes filled with pains and regrets. His wife, Juliana would forever be a witness to the deprivations they suffered. Obviously, Ovie-Whiskey would have completely rejected another Presidential order if it had come and of course such order would never come his way again.
At 88, the legal icon passed on Tuesday at Agbarho, his hometown in Ughelli North Local Council of Delta State at Ekotor Clinic at Agharho.
Piqued by the accusations and criticisms that trailed his performance on the job, he was once told an interviewer: “Blessed are they who are abused and insulted because of the cause of righteousness. I was only trying to do my best, but people abused and insulted me. I feel I do not merit that honour. The unjustified insult is terrible.”
It was alleged sometimes ago that the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) bribed him with N1 million and the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) gave him some millions too. Ovie-Whiskey was relieved when the government set up the Justice Babalakin Commission of inquiry to look into FEDECO. Convinced that he had nothing to hide, he stressed that the inquiry was a good thing. He said: “But for the inquiry, no Nigerian would believe today that my hands are clean. They would not believe that I didn’t make the millions that the politicians were talking about in the process.”
When Ovie-Whiskey said that if he saw that kind of money, he would faint, the press made a joke of it. Nevertheless, at the Babalakin Commission, he was cleared.
After the Babalakin Commission, Ovie-Whiskey was filled with relief and concluded that the what the commission “did was good. Light is never hidden, it is seen. I knew I would be vindicated because my hands were clean. The finding of the probe is not surprising to me.”
As the accusations swirled, he challenged the government, everybody including all the politicians, “go, if you see any account in Ovie-Whsieky’s name in any country in the world and the account has even N10, 000, shoot me.
“My car’s silencer is spoilt, it is only N300 and I cannot repair it. My pension is N503 and people say nonsense all because I had to serve my country.”
It is for that service to the country that his name rings a bell and not for the millions that he was accused of having received from politicians. When Ovie-Whiskey is mentioned, it is always remembered easily in connection with elections. Even when the incident has nothing to do with the election he conducted.
He sometimes told an interviewer, “Once you mention FEDECO, people will immediately start talking of twelve two-third. It was usually very difficult explaining to anybody that I was not Michael Ani or what twelve two-third did not happen in my time. People will just be talking. Nobody cared to listen or believe your explanation. That was FEDECO.”
Despite a short spell with politics in the National Convention of Nigeria and the Cameroons, and although he was an umpire for an exercise involving politicians, Ovie-Whiskey avoids any discussion of politics. In retirement, he said, “I am not a politician. My only stint in politics was brief and it was after I qualified as a lawyer and returned from overseas in the 1950s… I was appointed to chair FEDECO from the Bench. The chairman of an electoral commission is not a politician, but an organizer of elections.
“I avoid politics like poison because I have seen a lot about politicians. I want progress and success for my country. I won’t bring controversy.”
However, on matters relating to elections, for which he became a ‘national figure,’ he expressed insights into problems that have trailed the nation’s political landscape.
Absolving electoral commissions from the blames that have shadowed their performance at elections, he said: “The greatest problem is the attitude of Nigerians to elections. Politicians want to win at all cost. Where people are this desperate, there will be general lack of high moral values… Rigging may not be as simple as people tend to see it, but as I said where morals are lacking, people will perpetuate electoral malpractices. Election is all about expression of free will. Let people be provided with the opportunity to vote as they truly feel. Let nothing be done by way of abuse to alter what has been expressed through voting.”
The controversies around elections, he said, have always been informed by malpractices that characterize the entire electoral process itself. He decried a situation where voters will demand bribe before they can vote and where politicians pay for votes. “And that is why the country finds it difficult to have a hitch-free electoral process… The politicians see politics as a game of life and death, which should not be so. The electorate needs more political education. If these are done, in future we will have less controversial electoral processes.”
Since FEDECO, the structure of successive electoral bodies has changed. On the structure of FEDECO in 1983, which the military government tried to discredit, he said the “structure of FEDECO in 1983 was very standard and I see no reason why we cannot carry on with it. There was nothing wrong with the structure of FEDECO. Nothing was wrong with the structure at all. You will discover that in spite of all pitfalls, for the first time, a civilian government was able to conduct an election despite criticisms here and there.”
While harping on the credibility of his FEDECO, he reminded people that when Muhammadu Buhari became Head of State, it was from the FEDECO purse that over N360 million or more was taken to offset overseas debt.
Ovie-Whiskey retired as a farmer and like every thing else that he does to show that he does not have the millions they said he has, he described his farming as subsistence.
“I am not one of the millionaire farmers we have these days. I am not into that type of farming. It is our family land which I hold in trust because I am the oldest child in the family,”
He ran his farm with his wife, and it was on a full time scale. At every point in time when he looked back, he usually said, “What else could I have asked for? I am ordinary, a modest person. My children have been wonderful. I am satisfied.”
Of all the great days in his life, he said that the greatest was “the day I got married to my wife, she is a gift to me from God and I have eight daughters and one boy and when I had a boy, I was very happy, feeling on top of the world. But I have equally come to realize that all children are children, whether male or female. Sometimes, you find out that the female is more useful than the male. It is good to have a male child no doubt and I was particularly happy when I had nine in August, some 38 years ago.
“Nothing is strange again, my life has just been straight; that is all. I met her like the way other men met their wives. I first saw here when she was at the Holy Christ College, Lagos. We were and are always together.”
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