I had two brushes with the law many years ago and they taught me a lesson in circumspection, while leaving me with a strong impression of how the law works and how a careless action, or throw-away comment, can make the dif-ference between freedom and imprisonment.
First, I will tell the story of a dear colleague of mine, a Dutch man with the ‘difficult-to-pronounce name’ of Coo Grutueizen. Now, before I tell you of Grutueizen, let me tell you a little about a pesky little problem we used to have at Costain. It was called Vendors.
Vendors were owners of small businesses who executed small contracts for our company. We called them ‘small’ but the truth is that without the participation of the small Nige-rian businesses, we would have found it extremely difficult to execute our contracts effectively.
These small businesses could supply anything from build-ing materials to food at the construction sites. So as a Proj-ect and Contracts Manager, you had to always contend with a string of business-seeking vendors in your office. Most times if you were not careful, these vendors could take up your whole day. And they came in all forms, shapes, sizes, and genders.
Coo Grutueizen was a brilliant Dutch engineer, and one of my mentors and contemporaries in the office. He used to complain quite a lot about the persistent visits of these ven-dors to his office, ostensibly in the quest of supply contracts, but most times with no idea of what they even wanted to supply.He was particularly exasperated, especially with some of the women who, in answer to questions on what they wished to supply, would simply say, “anything you want” before fluttering their eye lashes seductively and leaving you un-comfortable.
Early in the 70’s, we were on a piling project in the Ikoyi area of Lagos, and due to a particularly wet season, we fell slightly behind schedule and so resorted to working longer hours on-site to make up for lost time. Being a residential neighbourhood, the residents were not at all pleased with this prolonged and noisy driving of piles and the whirring of machines.
One fine morning, a well-dressed gentleman who lived near the construction site decided to take his complaint about the noise pollution to our office, after repeated complaints to the Project Manager did not produce any respite for him. At the head office, he requested to see the Contracts Man-ager and was ushered into Grutueizen’s office where he met the secretary, who politely offered him a seat.
“Sir, Mr. Grutueizen will see you shortly. He has someone with him at the moment. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable,” the secretary said with a bright smile. “Thank you,” the gentleman replied as he took his seat.“Would you like to see the dailies?” the secretary asked as she handed over the office newspapers to the visitor.
Unknown to them, Grutueizen was just ending another tense encounter with a pretty lady seeking to supply some-thing he did not need. Within a few minutes of the gentle-man’s arrival, Grutueizen and the lady came out of the of-fice with Grutueizen obviously on his way out.His secretary blurted out, “Sir, I have Justice Taylor here to see you.”“I do not need any tailors this morning,” Grutueizen retort-ed angrily before storming out of his office and the building.
The secretary was shaking and proceeded to apologize pro-fusely to the gentleman, who calmly stood up, and left with-out saying a word.Now, this gentleman was not just an ordinary gentleman. He was a car enthusiast whom I met many years earlier, fol-lowing my expedition driving from London to Nigeria, and also the Chief Justice of Lagos state.
Now, Justice Taylor was a unique Lagosian, a wonderful hu-man being, and as I said earlier, a car enthusiast. He owned about 3 or 4 sports cars and he would polish and even ser-vice those cars himself. If you went to his garage, you would find him taking the cars apart, changing the oil, and fix-ing things. So, it was natural that he would hear about me through Segun Olusola and through stories written about my drive through the Sahara by Sad Sam, aka Sam Amuka. That Justice Taylor, motor enthusiast and lover of cars, was the very same gentleman in our office reception; the same one whom my colleague Coo Grutueizen, had dismissed so casually as a tailor seeking contracts.
Later that afternoon, a detachment of the Nigerian Police came to the office and arrested Grutueizen for insulting a Justice of the High Court, Justice J. I. C. Taylor, the Chief Justice of Lagos State.His residence was next to our piling site and he had just about had it with our extended working hours. His mission to the office was to ask for some flexibility in our working hours, only to be called a tailor by an expatriate who could not even acknowledge his presence in his office, and who seemed more intent on taking a lady out for lunch or what-ever.
I was away at a meeting outside Lagos while all this was happening, but on my way back to the office, the Manag-ing Director, Peter Farrington, called me on our VHF radio, narrated the events to me and requested me to intervene to free Grutueizen from jail.Luckily I had become very well-known to Justice Taylor and considered him a friend.
Segun had introduced us and we became friends, and it was also Segun that told me to get Justice Taylor to write the foreword to my first book, Alone Across the Sands of Sa-hara. He accepted, wrote it and came to the launch of the book at Kings College where he made a wonderful speech. Yet on that very day, he had put my colleague in jail for con-tempt. I drove straight to his house that evening and was ushered into his living room.
“Newton, where have you been? I came looking for you in the office, you were not there. Then your people sent me to one white man who called me a tailor and told me he was not interested in seeing me,” the Justice said as he came in to shake my hand.“I am so sorry, my Lord,” I began. “Grutueizen had no idea who you were. He was having a bad day. He was being ha-rassed by suppliers and women hawking all sorts of things, and was actually running out of the office to seek some peace on site.”“Yes indeed, with a lady in tow,” the Justice interjected.
I went on to explain the situation better and then we dis-cussed the noise pollution coming from our site. At the end we agreed on flexible working hours that would produce the least nuisance to the residents. Then with a quick phone call, he ordered the release of Grutueizen, to my eternal gratitude.Now, on the day I went to Justice Taylor’s house to plead for my colleague, nothing in the proceedings could have warned me that the day would come when I would also have an en-counter with a judge that would see me end up in jail. But it happened.
One day, while working on a site I decided to go to my head office because we were short of supplies for something. Back then, Western Avenue was just one lane, not the dual carriage we have today. Also, then we were driving on the wrong side of the road, like the British, and so when you are driving into Costain, the man with the red flag would come out and flag vehicles to a stop for you to go through, which was what the gateman did when he saw my car.
However, during rush hour traffic would usually go from two lanes to three to sometimes four. At the time I passed the first and second lanes, I was not expecting another lane, so there was this car that I almost collided with and the man in front shouted at me, and I said, “Go to hell!”So I drove into my office and about 30 minutes later, some police men came to my office and asked, who the owner of one of the cars was. I was promptly arrested when I said it was me.
They took me to Iponri police station. When I asked what my offence was, they said; “You abused a judge on his way to court, it is contempt and we are charging you immedi-ately to court.”And before I knew it, they had added three or four other charges – dangerous driving, resisting arrest and some other thing.They said, “Look, we are doing you a favour by charging you immediately to court, if not we would have locked you up here in the cell!”So I went to court, just me and a colleague who had accom-panied me from my office. When we got to the court, the magistrate treated it fast because the report came from a Judge. The name of the judge whom I was supposed to have offended was Justice Martins, by the way.
The magistrate called me to the bench and said, “Youngman, this report came from a Judge. The judge is the only witness so, in your own interest, when we read out the charges, plead guilty and when you do, I’ll give you a warn-ing and since you have no previous criminal record you will, maybe, pay a small fine and the matter will end but if you plead not guilty, we will charge you and since the Judge can-not come to a junior court, your case will drag on, however, if he does come, the consequences for you will be severe. Do you hear me?”I said, “Yes my Lord!”So he asked them to read out the charges and that was when I got to know that there were other charges along with abus-ing a Judge on his way to court.
When they finished, they asked, “Guilty or not guilty?
I said, “Not guilty, sir.”The Magistrate was speechless.When he recovered his composure, he gave me a withering look before consulting with his people. They were as upset as he was and advised that he should go ahead and lock me up with no bail, because the case had been adjourned and the judge would have to come to court.So, I was taken away from court but on our way back to the police station, I begged them to let me drive in my car because they were going to take me in a Black Maria. They agreed, and with one of the police officers riding with me, we drove back to the police station.
Mr. Farrington having been made aware of my ongoing legal travails called Grutueizen and sent him to Ike Nwachukwu.Ike was, by that time, Secretary to the Military Council and his office was where the Lagos state house is now, by the Nitel building.Farrington gave Grutueizen the same order he gave me months before, he said, “Don’t let Newton sleep in jail.”He went straight to Ike, and Ike in his full uniform, went straight to Justice Taylor who at that time was in court. Im-mediately Justice Taylor saw him, he adjourned sitting, re-tired to his chambers and asked for Ike Nwachukwu to join him.
Ike went in and told him the story. After he was done, the judge called the Magistrate, who in turn called the Police station and asked them to release me. Justice Taylor then asked me to come straight to Tafawa Balewa square, where his court was sitting. That was about 2 o’clock in the after-noon and by then they had done all the papers to release me.Meanwhile, before my release was effected, I had managed to make the acquaintance of two criminals in my cell. They showed me respect. They were very nice and kept trying to come to terms with me being in the cell with them when Grutueizen suddenly appeared and something funny hap-pened.He came to the cell where I was and announced loudly, “Newton, so you are here again!” The inmates then turned to look at me in a new light: “Look at this man we thought was innocent, apparently he’s a customer.”
So it was from him I heard that I was being released, and I went with him to Tafawa Balewa Square to see Justice Tay-lor. The Justice told me that he had spoken to the Magis-trate and the Police, and that I had been granted bail. He also said, he had told the District Judge that it was wrong of him, in the eyes of the Law, to ask me to plead guilty and for that reason, he had asked them to transfer my case from that court to another court.
He advised me to go to court for my hearing, but he also added that from that day, I should not make contact with him again because as the Chief Judge of Lagos State, he did not want to be seen as taking sides. That caveat hurt be-cause Justice Taylor was a good friend.I think they adjourned the case for about one month and on the day the case came up for hearing, Segun Olusola came with me. Ike Nwachukwu came along too, and so did Grutueizen.
Segun invited the press, and the Magistrate Court was filled with people, which was unusual for that kind of small court; and by then, I had engaged a lawyer. Everybody said, “Aha, the Judge will not come because it would be wrong for him as a judge of the High Court to appear in a magistrate court to give evidence.”Someone had said that if the judge didn’t appear, the case would be dismissed. In fact, that was what Justice Taylor also expected to happen.Behold, as we were debating, the judge appeared.
You should have seen my face when I saw him coming. My lawyer and the rest of us were all panting. That was the first case for the day and immediately he entered, the Magistrate got up and the judge was given a special seat next to the magistrate.The magistrate now launched into a very emotional speech, noting how unfortunate it was for a judge from a higher court to come to a magistrate court. He said it was unusual and unheard of, and all of this had been caused by a simple traffic incident.He apologized to his Lordship that nobody foresaw the whole thing blowing up and that there was no point go-ing on with it. He went on for a long time, and I wish I can remember all he said.
It was very emotional and very touching. He said he would like to use his position as the magistrate to dismiss the case so that his Lordship could go about his duties and I could go in peace.That was how my case with the judge ended and that was how I escaped being an ex-convict.Many years later, I still marvel at how everything worked out. Just imagine what would have happened if I didn’t know Justice Taylor and Ike Nwachukwu, and then see the connection; me saving Grutueizen and Grutueizen saving me.
Grutueizen passed away in 2013. He became sick after he retired. He had cancer and when they took him to the hos-pital, his family called me because I was in Europe at that time. When I got to the hospital in Holland, he opened his eyes and said, “Newton, they called you. What for? Am I going to die?”His people said I must not leave him because he wasn’t communicating until I arrived. So I stayed with him and we chatted about the old days.
I had a flight from Amsterdam to London and had to go back at 6 o’clock that evening.He asked what time my flight was for.When I said 6pm, he said you better start leaving now to avoid rush hour. That conversation took place at about 4pm. I said good bye and left so I could get to the airport before my flight.As I was getting back to London, his wife called me to say that he had passed. I later went for his funeral.