Since receiving the news of the death of Prof. Cyprian Okonkwo, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) after a protracted illness, I have careened between mourning and fighting to suppress my grief. That endeavour has proved challenging, perhaps even difficult. To imagine the loss of a legend, who shaped the landscape of the legal academy evokes unfathomable pain. It is as though a light has gone out of the world or a guiding star has fallen from the firmament. I have, however, found great comfort in the words of Henry Adam who remarked: “A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell when his influence stops.” Under the lambent flow of his wit and guidance, the next generation of law teachers latched onto the glorious flame of his genius. His memory summons our profound respect, love, and admiration. One of the most erudite and effusive scholars of his generation, he used his splendid mastery of the law to motivate and inspire us all. He had an admirable mix of brilliance and intelligence that is both rare and unique. It is doubtful that there will ever be another man to possess his wits, acumen, and sagacity. The light may have gone out but his legacy still illuminates our world and point us to that which is pure and transcendent.
Okonkwo was a towering eminence in the legal profession and not just because he was six feet five inches tall. A brilliant scholar and first-rate legal mind, Okonkwo was an accomplished author and a prodigious writer whose publications – from criminal law to company law – attest to his unequaled cerebral capacity. His publications gained the blue riband of a grateful profession and stand as powerful testaments to the power of ideas. As a law professor, he had few peers and no superiors. History and posterity will surely rank him as one of the greatest legal minds in Nigeria, if not Africa.
A mind bogglingly prolific scholar, he was especially gifted in making complex problems appear simple and easy. He remained till death at 88 indefatigably committed to the search for excellence. Early in his career, he distinguished himself from the gaggle by producing a vade mecum on criminal law in Nigeria. How many 27-year-olds can author a magisterial book that can stand the test of time and remains till date widely and enthusiastically applauded as the best criminal law textbook in the nation? This book, impressive as it is, represents only a tiny fraction of his legacy. He left behind a vast array of mentees – professors, legal practitioners, legislators, civil servants – who are what they are in part because of him. They were inspired by an academic ideal that he embodied, confirming the view of an American scholar: “A great professor lives after his death in his writings, to be sure, but as much and sometimes even more, in the lives he has touched, the values he has imparted, the examples he set.”
Intellectually restless, a curious and prodigiously inquiring mind, he examined issues with penetrating acuity and reached conclusions very few, if any, could question. His rigorous analysis, systematic explication of issues combined powerfully with his capacity for finely balanced judgment to make his scholarship a must read for all. His books and essays were lucidly written, passionately and persuasively argued, and made original contributions to the subject matter under review. A paradigm of simplicity and clarity, he tackled complex issues with conversational ease and fascinating thoroughness. He had the rare capacity to offer greater insights into issues which made it easy to appreciate the structure and thematic anatomy of his writings.
As a law teacher, his lectures were both illuminating and captivating. His proficiency in the law was absolute and his delivery captivating. His eloquence always held his audience spellbound. We always walked away saying to ourselves: what a mind! What a soul! What a genius! As a commissioner of the Nigerian Law Reform Commission, he served with a rare mix of grace and devotion that will be impossible to replace or replicate. He brought his lapidary brilliance and dignity to bear on complex issues that helped situate the commission as one of the most effective law reform agencies in the continent of Africa.
He was legendary not only for the brilliance of his ideas but for his intellectual acumen, integrity, implacable distaste for mediocrity, and utter loathing of hypocrisy. He was a man of supreme dignity powered from within by a heart of gold. The meaning of his life, at least for his students and mentees, is not so much his brilliance and academic laurels, extraordinary as both are, but rather his character and capacity to inspire and motivate others. An erudite and charming soul possessed of great warmth, immense spirituality and a vast capacity for doing good, he brought out the best in all of us. His generosity of spirit was remarkable, and I am most grateful for having been a major beneficiary. It has been a privilege to be Okonkwo’s student and mentee, and a rare honour to be his friend, a badge I will proudly wear till I draw my last breath. He was my inspiring teacher, solicitous mentor, friend, and uncle. My interactions with him were frequent, nuanced, varied, uplifting, and most importantly fun.
His writing and teaching were outstanding but using his fecund and fertile mind to improve the lives and careers of those around him remains a grand and amazing aspect of his life. Those of us who were privileged to know him can vouch for his integrity. His mordant advice shaped careers and redirected lives tethering on the brink. His words of wisdom will never be forgotten by anyone who had the delight of hearing it. At the primitive stages of our epistemic development, he challenged and inspired us by demonstrating enthusiasm for the law and giving us a sense of what a truly educated mind can achieve. He helped aspiring scholars to discover, cultivate and deepen the virtues they needed to be fine scholars. Most of us were inspired and changed by his words of wisdom. We learned from him what it means — and what it takes – to be a legal scholar.
For those who knew him best and loved him most –his family, friends, students, mentees and colleagues – he will be sorely missed. The most lasting memorial to Okonkwo is not at any location. It is in the hearts and minds of all those whose lives and careers have been enriched consciously or unconsciously by his legacy. He remained a monument to all that is good. I marvel at the absence of anger and bitterness in his life as he sought resolutely to find glimmers of hope even in the darkest hour. As long as there is a legal profession in Nigeria, his name will be etched in letters of gold
A model of integrity and grace, Okonkwo possessed a rare combination of humility and wisdom. His capacity to inspire and motivate remained unparalleled and unquestionable. He lived a life that can appropriately be described as a template of human excellence. He was that calm, sober, and reflective teacher to whom those in doubt turned and the confused sought clarification. Painful as his loss may be, there should be no tears for a man who lived his life to the fullest, filled with service to humanity. He is at peace; angels and citizens of heaven are pleased to receive him. We are glad that for a moment he belonged to us.
No one who is loved is ever forgotten. We love Okonkwo for his light and ideas that counteracted darkness and ignorance and unleashed resourcefulness and creativity in his students and mentees. He is immortal as long as memory lives.
He staked and gave so much to make the legal profession better. Now loaded with honour and enshrined in public esteem, Okonkwo returns to the warm embrace of the heavenly father. May he rest in peace assured that the legal academy he bequeathed to the next generation is superior in every way to the one he inherited. We are all better because he shared his life with us.
• Prof. Oko is a Dodson-Hooks distinguished Professor of Law, Southern University Law Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.