Monday, November 19, 2007

Sir Louis Mbanefo


Following the initial publication of this article, I sought clarification of the facts herein from Mr Louis Nnamdi Mbanefo SAN- Sir Louis' son, who has very kindly offered substantial corrections, which I duly reflect and express my apologies for the inaccuracies which were completely inadvertent. I have highlighted the corrections in Italics below:

There are few personalities who have shaped the course of the Legal profession in Nigeria, as Louis Mbanefo, it is however interesting that there is very little information on his life on the web and my intention is to provide some kind of composite record.

Louis Mbanefo was born in Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria on the 13th of May 1911. He was educated at The Methodist Boys High School in Lagos and subsequently at the prestigious Kings College, also in Lagos, which was modelled on Eton and Harrow College's and where he ws a keen Cricketer and Footballer- all these between the years 1925-1932. He was then admitted to the University College London, where he studied Law, graduating Second Class Upper in 1935 and was called to the Bar at The Middle Temple later on in the same year. He was then admitted to Cambridge, where he obtained a further Degree in the Humanities in 1937.

H.O.Davies, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ernest Egbuna and Louis Mbanefo, 1938

He returned home to Nigeria and set up practice in his hometown of Onitsha and is on record as the first Lawyer from the East of Nigeria. By virtue of this status, he developed an incredibly successful practice, with clientele largely sourced from his kinsmen who were an extremely resourceful breed of wealthy traders and also as a result of the frequent Land disputes arising as a matter of course in the territory. It is reputed that whilst such disputes had previously been settled by Tribal Warfare, they were now being resolved in the arena of the Law Courts and an indigenous and competent Gladiator- as Mbanefo undoubtedly was, became an invaluable asset in the new dispensation. His practice covered a huge area, basically the East and North of the country. He made several notable appearances in landmark cases before the Regional Court, Supreme Court and West African Court of Appeal, reports of appearances before the Privy Council are as yet unconfirmed.

He then veered into politics and was elected into the Eastern Region Parliament in 1950, where he distinguished himself as an excellent Orator and Lawmaker. However the pull of the Legal profession was such that he returned after 2 years, but this time to the Bench, as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1952, with his first posting being to Warri in the Mid-West of Nigeria, where he sat as resident Judge.

Sir Louis, Dr Kofo Abayomi and Dr Alvan Ikoku at the opening of the University College Ibadan, 1952
He was later seconded back to the Eastern Region as Chief Justice in 1961 and in 1962, reached the peak of his Judicial career by appointment to the International Court of Justice, as an ad-hoc Judge, a position he occupied till 1966, when he returned to his post as Chief Justice of the Eastern Region. His appointment to the ICJ being to sit on South-Western Africa Cases i.e Liberia v South Africa and Ethiopia v South Africa ICJ Reports 1966 (click link for full report of Judgement - ICJ which spanned over four years.

This decision being on consideration by the ICJ, of applications by the Governments of Ethiopia and Liberia in respect of the Mandate held by the Union of South Africa over the peoples of South West Africa (The mandate system being a creature of the Charter of the League of Nations and upon which South Africa had exercised control of the territory and its people) and more specifically as to whether South Africa had properly exercised its mandate or whether it should be condemned for having failed to properly exercise this mandate -by its illegal treatment of the said people.

The split decision of the Court being that South Africa be condemned for failing to properly exercise the said mandate. Sir Louis' contributions were succinct, powerful and knowledgable- on the whole ethos, status and principle of the Mandate system- especially regarding the administrative and reporting obligations of Nations and his crucial finding being that whilst the Administrative reporting and monitoring duties ceased on the dissolution of the League of Nations, the moral obligations of the Mandate state continued beyond the dissolution of the League and such an obligation was essentially binding on the Union of South Africa. This in my view was the defining moment of his career and an indelible Legacy to International Law.

Sir Louis, in the Cameroons, 1966

In 1961, he received a Knighthood from the Queen and assumed the title which he proudly answered till his death- Sir Louis Mbanefo- Kt

Upon the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, he was appointed the Chief Justice of Biafra and Ambassador Plenipotentiary. He was actively involved in the Peace talks with the Nigerian Government and worked actively towards a diplomatic resolution of the Crisis. He remained in Biafra till the very end, after the Biafran Leader fled, leaving Sir Louis and Major-General Phillip Effiong to effectively take the noble step of ending the War, the surrender being effectively signed by Major-General Phillip Effiong. History will judge Sir Louis and Major-General Phillip Effiong as men of sterling courage and integrity who rather than prolong the suffering of Biafra effectively negotiated an end to hostilities, whilst those who preached a fight to the very end, fled they stayed in Biafra and took the necessary and dignified step of ending the unnecessary suffering of their people.

Sir Louis, during the civil war. 1968

Upon the cessation of the war, Sir Louis resigned his appointment to the Bench on grounds of principle, the same of which was not accepted by the Nigerian Government for a substantial period. The fact remains that beyond any shadow of a doubt, Nigeria had been robbed of the services of one of its most distinguished Jurists and Statesmen.

Sir Louis is welcomed back to Nigeria at the end of the war by General Gowon, 1970.

He dedicated his later years to Charity and Church work, serving variously as President of the Christian Council of Nigeria, Chancellor of the Niger Diocese- a position he had held since 1946, President of the Anglican Consultative Council from 1972 and a Fellow of the University of London.

Sir Louis sadly died in 1977, in many people's view without his country having had the full value of his knowledge and ability as a Jurist and Statesman, however his legacy was to open doors for several of his Kinsmen to pursue careers at the Bar as well as his sterling career as a Barrister and illustrious career on the Bench- especially at the International Court of Justice, this in my view is a worthy legacy.

Sir Louis was undoubtedly a Pioneer in his field and a man who broke down huge barriers, its not to be forgotten that he obtained his education in the United Kingdom at a time when it was extremely rare to have a person of his ethnic persuasion pursuing higher education, much less professional training at the Bar. He was an extremely intelligent, disciplined and diligent man who applied himself with single-minded dedication to his profession. A towering intellectual whose contribution to International Law via the South-Western African cases, showed that his professional intellect was at par with the best in the World and that he was not merely a local treasure but indeed a sterling icon of the Legal profession in the highest possible Index.

© Edward Keazor

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Hope this clarifies all trepidations?!?


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