PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Modupe Oladunni Omo-Eboh (née Akingbein)
First woman High Court judge (Nigeria)
By Enibokun Uzebu-Imarhiagbe, Ph.D.
Some judges have distinguished themselves as outstanding individuals through their lives, careers, and achievements and have contributed to the development of the judiciary in Nigeria. The annals of the judiciary in Nigeria have encountered a number of humane, disciplined, and incorruptible judges who through their skilful use of legal knowledge unwittingly commanded the attention and respect of the Bench, the Bar, and the general public. One such judge, Honourable Justice Modupe Omo-Eboh from Ondo State has contributed to the growth and development of the judiciary in Nigeria and distinguished herself throughout her career.
Born to Mr. and Mrs. Akingbein in 1922 in Lagos, Nigeria, Omo-Eboh’s family was among the educated elites in colonial Nigeria. She is a great grand-daughter of Bishop Ajayi Crowther, the first African Anglican Bishop in Nigeria and great-grand-niece to Herbert Macaulay, the renowned Nigerian Nationalist and Politician in colonial Nigeria. She was from a family of four (two boys and two girls), and one of her brothers pursued a career as a medical doctor. Omo-Eboh attended secondary school at the prestigious Queens College, Yaba in Lagos before proceeding to the United Kingdom to study law. She was called to the English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn on March 14, 1952. She returned to Nigeria and was the 8th woman lawyer called to the Nigerian Bar in 1953. She married fellow legal practitioner Justice Omo-Eboh and raised a family in Lagos, where she continued her career as a lawyer before taking up appointment on the Bench as a Magistrate in 1956, where she rose through the ranks to the position of a Chief Magistrate in the judiciary of Western Nigeria before moving to Mid-Western Nigeria.
Before being appointed as the first female High Court judge in Nigeria in 1969, she served in the then Mid-Western Nigeria Ministry of Justice and rose to head the public trustee division as the Administrator General and Public Trustee. When she was the Director of Public Prosecutions at the Ministry of Justice, she was appointed to act as Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary for the period the substantive holder of the post, Mr. S. I. O. Giwa-Amu, went on a leave of absence. She was the most senior lawyer in the Ministry of Justice, and as a result, the Military Governor Sam Ogbemudia elevated her to the Higher Bench. Around this time her husband retired to Benin City, Nigeria, and Mrs Omo-Eboh and their children moved with him. She continued her legal career and was appointed as a judge on November 13, 1969 with sixteen years of post-call experience under her belt. She eventually moved back to Lagos with her children, after experiencing marital difficulties during her time in Benin City. According to her junior colleague, Honourable Justice Oni-Okpaku, her appointment as a judge was met with stiff opposition, pushing her to transfer her service to the Lagos State High Court in 1976.
When she transferred to Lagos, she took up appointment as a judge of the Lagos State High Court and became the first woman to be appointed a judge of the Lagos State High Court. While Omo-Eboh was the first woman judge of the Lagos State High Court, Justice Dulci Oguntoye served as the first woman Chief Magistrate, whose elevation to judge was deliberately delayed by the state government who did not want the position to go to a white woman. As a judge, Justice Omo-Eboh paved the way for the appointment of more women judges across Nigeria. Her elevation and her successful career as an honourable justice demonstrated women’s capability in decision-making and leadership positions in the judiciary. She continued her career as a judge until her retirement. While in Lagos, she was very active in her church, First Baptist Church, and was a staunch member of the Women's Friendly church group. She was generally known as a kind, petite, and smartly dressed, no nonsense woman who was dedicated to upholding justice in her courtroom.
She is distinguished as a pioneer woman judge, not only in the Mid-West, but in Nigeria as a whole. After her death on February 25, 2002, the Lagos State government named the road, formally known as Reeve Road, Ikoyi, Eti Osa, Lagos, Nigeria to Justice Modupe Omo-Eboh road, to honour her legacy and immortalise her.