PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Rose Nonyem Ukeje, OFR
First Female Judge, Federal High Court of Nigeria.
By Gift Okpara
The Honourable Justice Rose Nonyem Ukeje, OFR, is a Nigerian lawyer and jurist. Born on the 5th of January 1943 to Christian parents in Zaria, Ukeje grew up in Kano state with her six siblings. Rose later married Airline Captain Elendu Ukeje (now deceased) and has four children and nine grandchildren.
Ukeje began her primary school education at the Ibo Union Primary School, Kano, and then proceeded to the famous Queen’s School, Enugu in 1957 for her secondary education. Later, Ukeje would study at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1962-1966 for her first degree in law. Ukeje then attended the Nigerian Law School in Lagos in September 1967, but that course was truncated at the onset of the Nigeria/Biafra Civil War earlier that year. Ukeje returned to Nigeria Law School at the end of the Civil War, graduated, and was called to the Nigerian Bar on 24th June 1971. After the war, her husband obtained a job as a pilot in the Republic of Zambia, where Ukeje was also employed by the Ministry of Legal Affairs as an Assistant Legal Draftsman from 1972-1973.
In 1973, she returned to Nigeria and obtained a job in the Federal Ministry of Justice as an assistant Legal Draftsman. Her department has sole responsibility for the drafting of all Legislation for the Federal Government of Nigeria. She spent thirteen years in that Department drafting Federal Acts, Laws, and Decrees proposed yearly by the Federal Government. Specifically, as the Acting Head of the Department in 1979, her team of only three members drafted 103 Acts (the most important of which was the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1979 – Act No 104 of 1979), the Bankruptcy Act (No 16 of 1979), and the Public Order Act 1979 (1979 No 5 – which prohibits the formation of quasi-military associations by any person or body).
In 1986, she was elevated to the Federal High Court as a Judge, pursuant to section 249 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. As a Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ukeje delivered acclaimed decisions on the Court’s jurisdiction stated in section 251 of the 1999 Constitution. Justice Ukeje served as the Chairperson of an Expert Group to Review and Revitalise the Commonwealth Plan of Action on Women and Development, 1994-1995. In a case at the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal, a female staff member was dismissed for “insubordination” before the end of her employment term. She insisted that her new boss who recommended her dismissal based the decision on racial discrimination and hatred for women, particularly women of color. Her earlier annual assessments showed she was a hardworking woman, even if she was not usually a “warm person”. After exhaustively considering the case, Justice Ukeje found the allegation not proved, and that the dismissal was not supported by evidence before the Tribunal. After a unanimous decision, the staff member was reinstated at her position and had her entitlements paid.
Justice Ukeje was also active at the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). After Nigeria signed the CEDAW treaty, Justice Ukeje was nominated to represent Nigeria at CEDAW’s Inaugural Committee. Soon after her membership, Nigeria’s initial periodic Report was due. CEDAW was new, and only a few people knew anything about it, so Ukeje single-handedly prepared and submitted Nigeria’s initial Periodic Report to CEDAW, which focused on the plight of the women and girls of Nigeria. The focus of CEDAW’s Annual Meetings is to consider and criticize Member Nation’s Reports.
Ukeje was known to actively participate in the discussions of Country Reports, and single-handedly prepared Nigeria’s Second Country Report. Due to her qualities of giving unbiased views of Country Reports, she was elected the Vice-President for the African Region for the 11th and 12th Sessions. She was also one of the representatives from three African countries to prepare the African Global Outlook on CEDAW and the regional group that produced a document well accepted by the CEDAW’s Committee of the Whole.
Her commitment increased awareness of CEDAW in Nigeria and several other women’s groups. While still a member of CEDAW, Ukeje joined other women’s groups and committees to encourage the Nigerian Government to adopt the “Affirmative Action to award 30% positions to women in all areas of life”. Even though Nigeria has still not domesticated the CEDAW treaty. Justice Ukeje (OFR) is also a member of the Body known as the Stakeholders’ Committee for the Reform of the Nigerian Judiciary. She was a member of each of the eight (8) Constitutional High Regulatory Judicial Bodies.
Justice Ukeje also holds a certificate of the Negotiation and Conflict Management Group (NCMG) – an organization for the Peace and Promotion of Alternative Dispute Resolution in Nigeria, awarded in 2005. Judge Ukeje has been a member of various women’s Organisations and Committees and represented in Nigeria. Apart from professional and civil service activities listed above, during her period as Chief Judge, the Federal High Court was expanded to many other States in Nigeria, such as, in Adamawa, Owerri, Umuahia, Bayelsa, Kano and, the iconic Federal High Court Headquarters Building in Abuja was constructed from start to finish.
As Deputy Legal Draftsman of the Federation at the Federal Ministry of Justice, Judge Ukeje has represented and advocated for Nigerian women in various capacities. Justice Ukeje served as Nigeria’s representative at the United Nations Committee on Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for two terms 1986-1990 and 1990-1994. She is the author of two highly acclaimed law books – The Nigerian Judicial Lexicon (2006) and the “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aids to the Interpretation of the Constitution, Statutes and other Legal Instruments” (published in 2018).
Ukeje has been inducted into the Nigerian Women’s Hall of Fame. She is also captured on page 565 of The Iconic Historical Book of Nigeria titled – “Nigeria 100: Lugard to Jonathan” – A Historical Perspective of the Formative Years of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1914-2014. Ukeje was appointed and remains a member of the National Peace Committee in Nigeria. Justice Ukeje has also been awarded the National Honour of the “Order of the Federal Republic (OFR).