Louis Nwachukwu Mbanefo was the first Igbo lawyer and judge in the nation. He was a former Supreme Court judge and Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria. During the nation’s pre-independence period, he could arguably be described as one of Ndi’Igbo’s leading leaders. He was also the Chief Justice of Biafra during the civil war.
Mbanefo, the fourth child of Mbanefo Odu I, a very senior traditional Chief in Onitsha, was born in Odojele, one of the cluster of villages that make up the commercial emporium of Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria, on 13 May, 1911.
Although his parents initially wanted him to attend Denis Memorial Grammar school Onitsha, it was not to be so as he had another option of schooling in Lagos. Young Louis was very ecstatic of attending school in Lagos, having heard so much about the city. He was looking forward to meeting new friends and playing more football. He was admitted into Wesleyan High School (Methodist Boys’ High School), Lagos in 1925 and subsequently that same year with a scholarship, he crossed to King’s College, also in Lagos, which was modelled after Eton and Harrow Colleges where he became the senior prefect, as well as a keen Cricketer and Footballer- all these between 1925 and 1932. He was then admitted to the University College, London, to study Law 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. As a Law student, he enjoyed the respect of his mates and contemporaries. Notable names in his class who were equally very successful were Lord Dunboyne, a barrister and Lord Anan, later a provost of King’s College, Cambridge. He obtained the London LL.B and graduated with Second Class Upper in 1935. Having done the professional course, he was called to the Bar at The Middle Temple later on in the same year. After being called to the Bar, he went further to Cambridge to study History and was awarded a Degree in the Humanities in 1937.
He returned to Nigeria and set up a practice in his hometown of Onitsha and it is on record that he was the first lawyer from the East of Nigeria. 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 by an indigenous and competent gladiator – as Mbanefo undoubtedly was. He became an invaluable asset in the new dispensation.
His practice covered a huge area, basically the East and North of the country. Some of the cases which Mbanefo handled at the bar were remarkable. They included Awgu v Nezianya (1949) xii WACA 450, a West African Court of Appeal case that pitted Mbanefo against the formidable J.I.C. Taylor; Ejidike v Obiora (1951) xiii WACA 270; Inyang v Udo (1943-45) WACA 9-11 p.41 and I.T. Palmer Nigeria Ltd. v Julio Fonseca (1946) NLR 49, among many others. He was not someone given to long speeches. In the courtroom, he spoke little, with a confident carriage bordering almost on the magical, but won most of his cases.
Mbanefo veered into politics, contested and won a seat as one of the first set of councilors, elected on the Onitsha Town Council, where he was able to lead a few notable projects in the city including the expansion and construction of the Onitsha Market.
In 1950, he was elected into the Eastern House of Assembly between 1950 and 1952 and as a representative of Onitsha Province. He later won a seat in 1950 to the Eastern House of Assembly.
However, the pull of the Legal profession was such that he returned after two years because he was not cut out for the grain of real politics. He was first and foremost a lawyer. In 1952, he accepted appointment as a federal judge, becoming the first lawyer to be appointed directly from the bar to the higher bench in Nigeria. He was called to the Bench, as 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.
He was later seconded to the Eastern Region as Chief Justice in 1961 and in 1962, he reached the peak of his judicial career when he was appointed 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 involved sitting on South-Western Africa cases i.e. Liberia v South Africa and Ethiopia v South Africa. His ICJ stint spanned over four years.
In the cases between South Africa and Liberia and Ethiopia, the decision under consideration by the ICJ, was the 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 feature 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.
In 1943, Louis, a very strong member of the Anglican communion, got married in the Christian way to his amiable heartthrob, Elizabeth (nee Bonaparte Coker), who was and remained an ardent Catholic. They were blessed with three male children, one of whom is Mr. Louis Nnamdi Mbanefo, born on 23 September, 1944 and who is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. A graduate of Queens’ College, Cambridge and ‘a Barrister of the Middle Temple, he is also a Notary Public.
But the church and humanitarian pursuits gained where the bench lost out in Sir Louis Mbanefo’s retirement, as he found more time to devote to the myriad problems of man. In 1961, he received a Knighthood from the Queen and assumed the title which he proudly answered till his death.
He was, since 1946, the Chancellor of the Diocese on the Niger, Anglican Communion, a position he held until his death. He committed a lot of his time and resources to the church, including the rehabilitation of Iyi Enu Hospital and some other projects destroyed in the east during the war; the building of the imposing All Saints Cathedral in Onitsha, the fight against abandoned property and many others.
As a result of the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war, he was appointed 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 him and Major-General Phillip Effiong to effectively take the noble step of ending the war.
History will judge Sir Louis and Major-General Phillip Effiong as men of sterling courage and integrity who rather than prolonging the suffering of Biafrans effectively negotiated and ended the hostilities. It was Sir Mbanefo and Major General Effiong who negotiated the surrender terms. After Ojukwu had fled, they stayed in Biafra and took the necessary and dignified step of ending the unnecessary suffering of their people and Gowon adopted a very conciliatory approach and instead of a victory parade, he asked for a national day of prayer.
Upon the cessation of the war, Sir Louis resigned his appointment to the bench on principle, but this was not accepted by the Nigerian government for some time. 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, Honorary Member.
In 1965, the American Society of International Law conferred on Sir Mbanefo honorary membership in the society. The honour is for distinguished persons who are not United States citizens, for rendering distinguished contributions or service in the field of international law.
Sir Louis 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.
A towering intellectual, whose contribution to International Law through the South-Western African cases, Sir Mbanefo demonstrated that his professional intellect was at par with the best in the World.
While paying tribute to the late sage in 1977, the inimitable wordsmith, Dr. K. O. Mbadiwe, said: “Mbanefo is not dead. He is physically absent. He is still alive, for a person who is not absent in the minds of his fellow men can never die.”
The ultimate repeat had felled Sir Louis on March 28, 1977, 36 years ago, bringing to an end a chapter of immense contributions to the law, the church and humanitarian pursuits. Nigeria and the international community mourned the exit, at 66, of a gentleman and a colossus.
At the silver jubilee remembrance of Sir Louis Mbanefo, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, represented by the then Minister of State for Defence, led many dignitaries and eminent citizens in the likes of former Commonwealth Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the late Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams, Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Achebe, Prof. Itse Sagay and Justice Philip Nnaemeka-Agu, eulogising the late Justice of the Supreme Court and the International Court, Sir Louis Mbanefo. Obasanjo said the great qualities the late Mbanefo exuded were important for the forthcoming elections in the country as a way of fulfilling the dreams of Nigeria’s founding fathers.
Anyaoku described the late jurist as an icon and urged public office holders “to reassert the worthy societal values that existed in the early years of our national independence; values that were embodied by Sir Louis Mbanefo and others of his ilk. I concede the point, but would still call on all our functionaries in both government and non-government institutions to show greater inclination to working for the public good, rather than exclusively for their personal interest.”