images (68)Every female Supreme Court Justice in Nigeria has faced the same question. Mary Odili made them three in all. Perhaps, if Mary Odili was a man, her elevation to the Supreme Court would have received far less attention. Who remembers the name of the other judge promoted along with her. One will probably have to be a lawyer, a government functionary, a journalist or in someway acquainted with the man in question to remember. But Justice Mary Odili’s elevation was noted by market women, students, the entire Rivers State, a good deal of the Niger Delta which may be extended to include Imo State plus a few more millions of other Nigerians at home and in the diaspora. Her thanksgiving service was watched all over Nigeria or atleast anywhere that AIT could reach. There were two governors in attendance, Rotimi Amaechi the son once lost but now found and the ubiquitous Adams Oshiomole, one former governor and probably the emergent leader of what might be referred to as the main political movement of the Yoruba in Nigerian politics today His Excellency Asiwaju Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu. An official of the church described him as ‘one Yoruba man I like so much’. The presence of Chief Tony Annenih in the second row could not be missed, as well as John Abebe, Stella Obasanjo’s brother. It has been said that if Stella had not died, Obasanjo could not have stopped Peter Odili from ruling Nigeria. Tom Ikimi, Odein Ajumogobia, Mike Ozekhome and many others turned out. Certainly, the church venue had never before hosted this number of heavyweights and the priests did not bother to hide their excitement. Was such a turn-out not a piece of evidence compelling enough to rest the question whether Mary Odili deserved to be on the bench of the Supreme Court ? Was her impact on the Nigerian society a factor in her elevation ? Was the impact being referred to hers or her husband’s ? Was it possible to isolate her husband’s achievement from hers ?
There are those who have said that Mary Odili does not deserve to be a Supreme Court justice. There are many who have wondered aloud if the Chief Justice of the Federation had been induced by any consideration yet unknown in his decision to appoint this outstanding woman to the apex court. Having a super capable networker, a husband in possession of great wealth, great clout and the readiness to use it to attain his desired goal has certainly been a blessing to Justice Mary Odili but it has also created the impression among many Nigerians that she has indeed enjoyed an easy ride to the apex court. Unfortunately, the Chief Justice of the Federation did not help matters with his comment that he had elevated Justice Mary Odili due to the need for gender balancing. Was this statement a disservice to Justice Mary Odili or was the chief justice contextually misunderstood by those in a hurry to bare their minds. Putting sentiments aside as judges are often required to do; the question begging an answer remains. Does Mary Odili deserve to be a Supreme Court justice ? Was she one of the judges who merited a promotion before the matter of gender balancing further recommended her ? To reach a conclusion, it would be necessary to know a bit more about the woman Mary Odili.
Mary Odili was born in 1952, May 11; the second daughter of Mbaise’s first lawyer, the late Chief Bernard Nzenwa and his wife Bernadette. Chief Nzenwa was qualified as a lawyer in the United Kingdom in 1959 and later that year took up a job as secretary of the Nigerian Airways under the ministerial supervision of Chief Mbazulike Amaechi who was the minister for Aviation in the first republic.
Mary Nzenwa lived in Yaba’s Carr Street with her family and attended school at St. Agnes, Maryland until the onset of the civil war when the family retreated eastwards, first to Owerri where she enrolled at Owerri Girls High School and finally to Mbaise where throughout the war she continued her education by special arrangement. At the end of the war, she enrolled at Queens Girls Secondary School Onitsha and from there passed the university entrance examination into the law faculty of the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus.
Mary Odili was a self confessed bookworm but the story goes that at one of the few campus parties she attended, she met an indefatigable medical student named Peter Odili, their friendship would blossom into a romantic partnership that would defy many limitations, inspire a great following and remain even today, a model of harmony in the turbulent waters of Nigerian public life.
Mary and Peter Odili began married life in 1976 in Benin where Peter was working as a house officer. Then Peter Odili’s hometown Ndoni was in Bendel State. The town would be brought into Rivers State by a boundary adjustment commission and by 1980, the young couple, already with an infant daughter ( now Mrs Adaeze Oreh) moved into Port Harcourt where Peter Odili soon started a private medical practice Pamo Clinics. One of the fresh graduates who came to work for him at Pamo Clinics was a young man called Rotimi Amaechi. Mary who had been working at the Rivers State Judiciary was already climbing up the magistracy at the time.
As she gained experience as a magistrate, her husband became more involved in Rivers politics and by 1986, six years after coming to Rivers Sate, he would be elected by councilors of the old Ahoada to represent the zone at Babangida’s Constituent Assembly and when that wound up, he would emerge as the deputy governor in Rivers State in the ensuing political dispensation on the platform of the Nigerian Republican Convention (NRC). That was in I99I. He had only spent eleven years of his life in Rivers State. It was an extraordinary record, a feat which he could not have achieved without two old Ahoada chiefs; G.U Ake and Ezebalike, Mary, the late Akeodi Oyaghiri who was the first Ahoada councilor to follow Peter Odili and ofcourse his protégé Rotimi Amaechi, the first Ikwerre man to buy into Mary and Peter Odili’s vision of greatness.
Mary Odili had become after more than eleven years in the Rivers State judiciary, not only a respected magistrate but also the wife of the deputy governor. It would be unrealistic to imagine that her stature and clout was not affected by her rise alongside her husband in the politics and government of Rivers State. She would be promoted to the bench of Rivers State judges during the period of her husband’s deputy governorship.
There are those who would wish to diminish that achievement because her promotion could not be unconnected to her being the wife of the deputy governor. That would be making light of what it took to be the wife of a deputy governor. It was certainly not a hand-out; the years of patient prayer and planning with her husband, mastering and blending the skills of being at once a law officer and a politician’s wife, shouldering the responsibilities of the second lady of the state, being in the know of sensitive Government secrets and the meekness that was required to keep the mix of magisterial and political power from becoming intoxicating and explosive. Was it not Hillary Clinton who told Americans that they got two for the price of one during her husband’s presidency ? Would Mary Odili have become a judge, if her husband was not deputy governor ? Would Peter Odili have become a deputy governor, if he was not married to Mary ? These are hypothetical questions that can not diminish the reality. Every one comes with assets and liabilities, advantages and disadvantages. The sum of all such details is what gives the full assessment of whoever is in question. Being the daughter of Mbaise’s pioneer lawyer and therefore a second generation lawyer, being the wife of the deputy governor of Rivers State; these experiences were no less relevant to her assessment for promotion as were her judgments and experience as a magistrate and there are still to be found in Port Harcourt, lawyers who remember her as a wise, compassionate and conservative operator.
A decade after her first promotion to the bench, Mary Odili was again elevated to the bench of the federal court of appeal. In ranking, she was only the fourteenth judge in the Rivers State judiciary when her promotion came and there were certainly those who felt that her place as the wife of the second term governor of Rivers State was largely responsible for her being catapulted over the heads of senior judges into the court of appeal especially as there would be many older judges who would retire at the state level without ever reaching the appeal court. But that would be analyzing destiny. That would also be trivializing the experience garnered by the arguably prodigious woman in a decade and more of sound judgments as a state judge, raising and managing a family and strengthening her husband’s backbone through the political wilderness of being sacked as deputy governor by the Abacha dictatorship, returning to Abuja again for the constitutional conference which midwifed the 1999 constitution, heroically sustaining the hopes of a poor and endangered party under Abacha’s grim agenda and finding the superhuman resolve to run and win against all odds, the governorship of Rivers State; becoming the only Rivers State governor to emerge from a marginalized community, and until his former protégé Amaechi completes his second tenure, the only governor who has ruled Rivers State for two terms. Mary Odili was involved. Peter and Mary Odili became one of the most influential couples in the politics of the Obasanjo era. She did not even need to stick to her legal career. Many others would have happily given up the demanding regime of being a judge for an easier and less demanding routine. Those who know Mary Odili, up close or from a distance are certainly not surprised that she should end up as a supreme court justice about five years after making the court of appeal. Besides, there’s hardly any judge at the court of appeal who is not qualified to sit at the Supreme Court. Many great Nigerian judges ended their illustrious careers at the court of appeal. Perhaps gender balancing has helped a male dominated society in stampede not to squash the glitter of this jewel of the judiciary. Perhaps the wisdom of Chief Justice Katsina-Alu is underestimated.


  1. Alli Olusola // March 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm // Reply

    I wish Nigerian men would stop raising their eyebrows anytime a woman is entrusted to a position of high responsibility. It is time men realised that women can do as well ( I just don’t want to say better) as they in every facet of life. Let’s stop thinking a woman must have ‘given something’ or ‘had help’ along the way when she achieves something great. The era of women getting assigned to the so-called ‘traditional’ roles is long over. Mrs Odili, this is an honour you truly deserve.

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