KESSINGTON J., JUDGE MOST UNUSUAL, PASSES ON
On 30th January 2008, the earth opened one of its uncountable months and swallowed up the remains of Abiodun Nuraini Kessington in far away London, United Kingdom. Kessington a retired judge of the Lagos State High Court was born on the 6th April 1932 in Lagos.
From all indications, it was a quiet burial for the late Judge in London. If the event had taken place in Lagos his home town, the burial certainly would have attracted quite a large turn out of friends, relatives and sympathisers, particularly from the legal profession.
Kessington I never became the Chief Judge of his state and spent only seven and a half years on the Lagos Judiciary, yet he lived and died a legend of sorts.
Born in Lagos, young Kessington, had his secondary education in Port-Harcourt from 1947-1950. He later had his legal training at the Holborn College of Law and Commerce, University of London and was called to the English Bar, Middle Temple, in December 1964. In 1966 he was enrolled as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
After working for six years as a Prosecutor in the Compliance Inspectorate of the defunct National Provident Fund (1967-1973) as a State Counsel, Kessington Esquire (as he then was) joined the Rivers State Ministry of Justice as State Counsel and remained there until 1982.
In 1982, Mr. A. N Kessington reported to the Lagos State Ministry of Justice as Assistant – Director Public Prosecutions. According to the man himself, he was frustrated out of the service of the Rivers State Government, when the authorities refused to appoint him Director Public Prosecutions, Rivers State because he was not an indigene of the State.
Intelligent, brash, extremely extroverted and industrious, it was not long before the Kessington persona become known at the Ministry of Justice Lagos. The Squib spoke with two of those who worked with the late judge in his time at the Ministry of Justice and both were full of superlative praises for “Baba Kess.”
According to Mrs. Tola Akinsanya now a director in the Ministry of Justice Lagos, Kessington was a model boss who knew how to get the very best from his subordinates. Said Akinsanya: “I was very sad to learn of his (Kessington) death. He was such a wonderful man. He was very plain, had no pretences and was very approachable. He was not like some bosses, subordinates could only relate with him formally and officially. Kessington was not like that. You could go to him with any problem at all and he would do his best for you. He was always encouraging us to continue working hard, despite our little pay.
He was also very hard-working and intelligent. He taught us how to work with dispatch. Under Kessington no case file can stay on your desk for a week. And one other thing; he loved to help the down-trodden, the under privileged. I remember a time when the police was in the habit of arresting people at bus-stops for no just cause and charging those who could not ‘settle’ them to court for ‘wandering.’ There is a name they used to have for it – “Roger” or something. One day Kessington went to town in disguise and stayed at a bus- stop. He was arrested by some policemen. It was at Pedro Police Station Somolu when they were negotiating his freedom with him, that somebody noticed that the victim was the DPP Lagos!”
Another director at the Ministry of Justice, Mrs. Efunbo Gbadebo, also a Former Director of Public Prosecutions, shared Akinsanya’s sentiments on Kessington J. According to Gbadebo “Kessington was a jolly good fellow, erratic though but lively and very willing to impart knowledge to younger people. He was a very good man but people misunderstood him because of his tomboyish nature. He would never allow younger counsel to be cheated or oppressed by anyone. Any time you greet Kessington he would answer thus, “Olorun wa O! (literally, Eh, God is watching you).
His friends cut across all levels - the mighty, the middle class and the lowly. As for brilliance, he had it. He had the Evidence Act on his finger tips and was a Master of Criminal Law. Very jovial, he was an “agbalagba Omo ta.”
Credible information has it that it was not easy for Kessington to cross from the bar to the bench - some V.I.Ps considered him too obnoxious a fellow to merit a place there. But Kessington, due to, some say, connections with the military (which was in power then) got elevated in October, 1989.
It was not long upon becoming a judge that counsel and litigants knew that a sharply different type of judge had come to the “Throne of Judgement.”
A loquacious, impetuous, brutally frank, even irreverent, albeit intelligent judge, Kessington became known as a “peculiar mess.” He appeared to detest the haughtiness and the urbane pretentiousness of many legal practitioners and took a special delight in tearing away at any pomposity in wig and gown.
On the Kessington style of adjudication, a very senior counsel at the Ministry of Justice, had this to say:
“Kessington did not like to waste time and wanted justice done. So he went straight to the heart of the matter at hand. If for example there was a case of indebtedness before him he would not have time for lawyers’ talk and legal finesse. He would just ask the defendant:
"Hen, hen Mr. man are you owing?" If the man answered in the positive, Kessington would now ask him, "when and how are you going to pay?"
There are very many stories about the antics, or do we say “performance” of Kessington as a sitting High Court Judge - how he could recite the whole of Evidence Act off hand, how he regularly poked fun at Senior Advocates of Nigeria, whom he used to dismiss as “San-San,” how he almost sent the revered legal colossus, the late Chief F.R.A Williams S.A.N to prison for contempt, his open love and admiration for Chief Fawehinmi, then a Junior Advocate of Nigeria, his rancorous quarrel with his Chief Judge, Ligali Ayorinde, whom he threatened to beat up, his contempt for lawyers that came to his court poorly prepared; but two of the numerous stories, adequately portray the true figure of Kessington as a judge.
It was in 1993 and Kessington J was hearing a divorce case. The husband was the petitioner and the wife, the respondent. The petitioner was asking for the custody of the only fruit of the union, a boy. The wife filed her reply, opposing the petitioner’s prayer for the custody of the boy, on the ground that he was not the child’s father. In her affidavit, the woman claimed that while still living with the petitioner, another man impregnated her, resulting in the boy.
Kessington J, called the parties and their counsel to his chambers. Waving the respondent’s affidavit, the judge accused her of being a wicked woman who wanted to destroy the future of her son by swearing to such an affidavit. Then in front of everybody the judge unabashedly started to weep! Amidst his tears, Kessington asked the woman.
“Why did you do this? God will punish you. Is the fu…g you were having that intoxicated you so much, that you put your stupid act down on paper in court? Don’t you know in the future, when your son wants to attain a lofty height, his opponents can get hold of this affidavit and ruin him?
After gaining a little control of himself, Kessington advised the woman to file a new affidavit to replace this “bad one which I will personally destroy.”
Despite Kessington’s urgings, the respondent refused to withdraw the counter-affidavit. Kessington J now sent the case file to the Chief Judge who sent it back to him and ordered him to continue with the hearing of the case.
But Kessington J would do no such thing. Before adjourning the matter sine die, he declared:
“I am an African man I will never be a party to the destruction of families. I am adjourning this matter till when Jesus comes back. Since it is about 2000 years now, they’ve been saying he will come back and he has not done so, you know what that means.”
On another occasion, Kessington himself disclosed to a group of lawyers thus:
“You see one day two brothers were fighting over a piece of land, and the case to my court. I know both of them from childhood. Then the elder approached me to grant an ex-parte injunction against his brother, I did but the younger brother did not obey my orders not to enter the land. He said Nuraini cannot send me to prison, we used to drink beer together. Then his brother came back to ask me to commit his brother to prison for contempt. I told the older brother, you are mad. So it is me that will send your brother to prison? And later his children will see my children and say it was your father who imprisoned our father? Please, if you want him in prison, better pack him there yourself! Get a wheel barrow and dump him there by yourself!”
Abiodun Nuraini Kessington is dead. He died an imperfect man. Nobody is perfect. He had his foibles. He made his mistakes. But essentially he was a justice-minded judge.
May his jovial and kind soul find peace with his Maker. Adieu, “Baba Kess.”