Eminent Nigerian jurist and one of the finest Supreme Court judges, Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta, died on March 7, 2021 at the National Hospital, Abuja, after a brief illness. The brilliant judge died a few weeks to his retirement from the Bench. Since his demise many Nigerians have eulogised his sterling qualities and his erudition at the Supreme Court. With the passage of Justice Ngwuta, Nigeria has undoubtedly lost one of its erudite judges.
Born on March 30, 1951 in Amofia, Ukawu, Onicha Local Government of Ebonyi State, he had his basic education in the locality. After a stint as a teacher in 1966, he became a clerical officer at the Divisional School Board, Afikpo in August 1971. He got his LLB degree from the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife in 1977. He was called to the Bar after attending the Nigerian Law School in 1978.
He began his legal career as a state counsel in Oturkpo, Benue State Ministry of Justice in 1978 during his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme. Later, he established and ran his private law firm in Abakaliki from 1978 to 1995. Ngwuta was appointed a judge of Abia State High Court in 1995 and later ascended to the Court of Appeal on May 22, 2003. He was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court on March 22, 2011.
His commitment to duty, and his detailed approach to arriving at decisions has eloquently been attested to by his colleagues and other legal minds. It is unfortunate that Justice Ngwuta died only three weeks to his retirement on March 30, 2020. Some of the landmark judgments he delivered while serving as a justice of the Supreme Court will be hard to forget.
Although he was arraigned for corruption charges following the sting operation by the Department of State Services (DSS) in 2016, he was later discharged by the trial judge. However, the effect of the midnight invasion of his residence by hooded security agents might have taken a great toll on his health.
He was the chairman of the Judicial Panel of Inquiry into the Obegu Enyibichirikwo Disturbances from 1997-1998 and a member of several Election Petition Tribunals, and Governorship and Legislative House Election Petition Tribunals.
He also presented seminal papers at seminars/conferences within and outside Nigeria. Some of them include; “Elements of Good Brief Writing” delivered on November 9, 2005 on prosecution of appeals for legal officers in Delta State Ministry of Justice; “The Importance of Locus Standi and Jurisdiction to the dispensation of Justice in Nigeria and Effect of same where absent,” delivered at the law dinner organised by Law Students’ Association of Nigeria, Ebonyi State University Chapter, Abakiliki on August 17, 2007. He also received many awards, such as Human Rights Award by National Human Rights Commission, Ebonyi State, on the World Human Rights Day December 2000, Kwame Nkrumah Leadership Award, 2011/2012 by West African Students Union Parliament on April 25, 2012. In his lifetime, the late jurist delivered a number of landmark rulings at the Supreme Court. He read the lead judgment in the declaration of Governor Kayode Fayemi as the Governor-Elect of Ekiti State in the June 2013 governorship election and the upholding of Ayo Fayose as Governor of Ekiti State after his impeachment.
He was the third in hierarchy at the Supreme Court before his death. His contributions towards the enrichment of the nation’s jurisprudence will always be referenced. Ngwuta was a dedicated jurist, a role model and mentor. He will be remembered for his incisive and classical judgements.
We urge the government to immortalise him considering his numerous sterling contributions to the development of the nation’s jurisprudence and adjudication of justice system. There is no doubt that Justice Ngwuta will be missed by his colleagues, friends and numerous admirers. We mourn his death and commiserate with the judiciary, his family and the people and government of Ebonyi State. May God grant his soul eternal repose.