Im Memoriam: Anthony Oye Cukwurah, 1934-2013, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu & Soni Ajala

As Nigeria prepared to finally cede control of the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula in August 2013, one of the principal actors in the protracted legal dispute over the territory passed on.

Anthony Oye Cukwurah, a law professor who died on July 12, 2013 at the age of 79 was a distinguished university administrator, public servant, a pioneering African scholar of international law, and Africa’s foremost expert in the arcane area of the law of international boundaries. Long before the word became a title or conferment, Ben Wortley, the famous Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Manchester who supervised his Doctoral research described Oye Cukwurah in 1966 as a “distinguished” Nigerian.

One of the co-counsel in the Bakassi case, Professor Cukwurah’s unique expertise was in the study of international boundaries. His book on The Settlement of Boundary Disputes in International Law was copiously relied on as authority by both sides in the Bakassi case. At the time of his death, he was working on a book on the Bakassi case.

Born on 30 April 1934, in Abatete, Idemili Local Government Area of Anambra State, young Oye Cukwurah attended the African College, Onitsha and the famous Christ the King College, (CKC) Onitsha, between 1949 – 1953.Thereafter, he studied Law at the prestigious University College, Dublin Eire obtaining B.C.L and LL.B degree and University of Manchester, England, where he obtained a Ph.D.

Inspired by the challenges of post-colonial settlements in Africa, his path-breaking Ph.D. thesis on the Settlement of Boundary Disputes in International Law published by the Manchester University Press in 1967, remains unquestionably the leading authority on the international law of boundary settlements, nearly half a century after it was issued. In 1991, he complemented this with another book on The Management of Inter-State Boundaries and Borderlands in Nigeria.

Oye Cukwurah had to his credit over 50 published works in law, jurisprudence, international boundary adjudication, peace and conflict resolution, theology, human rights and international relations. He was the author of The International Status of the South-West African (1962) and The Law and the Nursing Profession (1991). Nigeria’s present leaders and their aspiring successors would do well to read his Anarchism and Anarchist Tendencies in Nigeria (2004).

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Oye Cukwurah graduated as the best student at the Bar examinations, and was duly called and enrolled as Barrister of the Kings Inn, Dublin, Republic of Ireland in 1961 and the Supreme Court of Nigeria, in 1962 respectively. He later proceeded to The Hague Academy of International Law for a post-doctoral research where he was tutored by Bhoutros-Bhoutros Ghali, who later became Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Back in Nigeria, Oye Cukwurah taught several generations of lawyers over more than five decades of teaching and research in various universities and institutions, thirty-two years of which he spent as a professor of law. Some of the institutions in which he taught included: the University of Lagos, University of Nigeria, Imo State University, University of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State, and the University of Abuja. In 1981, he pioneered the establishment of the College of Business Administration and Legal Studies at the Imo State University as Professor and Dean. From 1990-1992 he was the Third Ime Umanah Professor of Law at the University of Uyo. At his death, Oye Cukwurah was also Professor and Dean of law at the University of Abuja.

Oye Cukwurah arrived at Imo State University in 1981 from an already storied career in international law. Following his Doctoral work at Manchester, Oye Cukwurah was head-hunted by the legendary Professor LCB Gower to join the pioneer staff of the Faculty of Law at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), where he was part of the foundation staff until 1965, when he transferred his services to the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus (UNEC).

At UNEC, Oye Cukwurah was the staff adviser to the University of Nigeria Law Students team that represented Nigeria and won first prize in 1974 Phillip Jessup Moot Court competition in Washington DC, United States. He rose to the position of Reader and Associate Professor in Law. His students included former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).

At the Imo State University, Oye Cukwurah showed brilliance and exceptional acumen in pioneering a law faculty with very limited resources. The genius of his success was in assembling an outstanding faculty of excellent teachers and minds, including former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Professor Osita Eze, now of blessed memory. Other members of the faculty whom he mentored into outstanding academics included Awa U. Kalu, SAN; Dr. Max Nduaguibe; Professor Enyinnaya Nwauche; Professor Emeka Chianu; Professor Ernest Ojukwu; Eze Duruiheoma, SAN; and Obidi Umeh.

As Dean of Law of the young University, Oye Cukwurah pioneered new experiments in legal teaching. He introduced the Legal Clinic in 1981 for the first time into legal education in Nigeria. Across the university, he secured Senate approval for a university-wide general studies course on “Law and Society” to provide functional basic knowledge of law for future leaders of the society. Unlike many members of his generation of teachers, Professor Cukwurah supervised many research students to completion of their Ph.D. work.

From 1974 to 1981, Oye Cukwurah served as United Nations International Boundary Law Adviser/Consultant to the Kingdom of Lesotho, Southern Africa. He was also at various times visiting faculty at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Nigeria; Command and Staff College Jaji, Nigeria; Nigerian Institute for International Affairs, Lagos, Nigeria; and the International Boundary Research Unit (IBRU)- University of Durham, England.

Oye Cukwurah also played a prominent role as a member of the National Committee Against Apartheid (NACAP) (1982-1986), which coordinated Nigeria’s strategy that culminated to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. His biographical entries appeared in Biographical references including Men of Achievement (1980), Africa Who is Who (1981), and Dictionary of International Biography (1984), among others.

In 1994, Oye Cukwurah was appointed Co-counsel to represent Nigeria in the Case Concerning Land and Maritime Boundary Between Nigeria and Cameroun with Equatorial Guinea Intervening (Bakassi case) at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague.

Professor Cukwurah was Commissioner Inter-State Boundaries at the National Boundaries Commission during his tenure as a member of the Commission (1992-1998). Thereafter, in the 15 years until his death he was a Consultant to the National Boundary Commission. He was similarly appointed and served as member of the sub-Commission on Affected Populations, one of the Sub-Commissions set up by the Nigeria-Cameroun Mixed Commission for the implementation of the Greentree Agreement pursuant to judgment of the International Court of Justice.

An outstanding teacher and mentor, Oye Cukwurah has been influential in the lives of many of Nigeria’s leading lawyers, advocates and public servants. His students include former President of the NBA, Olisa Agbakoba SAN; Paul Erokoro, SAN; Solomon Umoh, SAN; Paul Ananaba, SAN; J.U.K. Igwe, SAN; Anyim Pius Anyim, Secretary to the Government of the Federation; Emeka Wogu, Minister of Labour and Productivity; former FCT Minister, Chuka Odom; Umeh Kalu, Abia State Attorney-General; and the present writers.

Back home in Anambra State, Oye Cukwurah promoted access to education through the award of several scholarships to children in his Abatete Community. In 1997, he received the Anambra State Honours for exemplary contributions in the development of the State. He also received the award of Distinguished Boundary Expert in 1998. He supported numerous philanthropic initiatives in his immediate community and through the Catholic Church where he was Grand Knight of the Order of Knights of St Mulumba (KSM) Nigeria, Gwagwalada Sub-Council, and since 2005 Supreme Advocate of the Order of Knights of St. Mulumba in Nigeria.

Professor Oye Cukwurah is survived by his wife, Louisa Akuekwuoha,  a son, Anthony Jr., and five grand children.

Dr. Odinkalu,  Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, and Dr. Ajala Managing Consultant, Deeplaw Consulting, in Abuja, were both students and later intellectual collaborators of Professor Cukwurah, a pioneering expert in the law of international boundaries. 

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