After 40 years of marriage, Chief Harold Sodipo wrote to his wife, Flora, not to reassure her of his love but to say, as the letter was aptly titled, that “Time Was Up.” He meant to break the vow entered into on September 25, 1947. And on January 26, 1990, Justice Moronkeji Onalaja of Ikeja High Court finally helped in putting a legal wedge in-between the former sweethearts. The marriage, he held, had broken down irretrievably. But not before a celebrated legal battle, which dragged along with it, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, the late Ooni of Ife who Sodipo alleged was having an affair not only with his wife of 40 years, but also with his daughter, Ladun, born of the same woman. Ladun was later to marry the late Ooni.
Sodipo who had in 1983 separated from his wife, a mother of three, which included Ladun, petitioned the court, asking for a divorce while alleging desertion, cruelty and adultery on the part of his wife. Flora returned fire, she dispatched a cross-petition alleging adultery and cruelty against Sodipo, her husband. She claimed that her husband not only committed adultery by having a relationship with the housemaid (name withheld), he also had three children by her. It was mud for mud. And in the course of the case, Ladun, Chief Sodipo’s daughter, who is a lawyer, appeared as counsel against her father in the divorce case.
It was the duty of Justice Onalaja to look at the allegations within the law of the land and determine whether it was still possible for the two to continue to live together.
Presenting his case, Sodipo alleged that his wife was in a wild romance with the Ooni and this he said came to his knowledge when his daughter, Ladun, and his wife were reported to have passed a night at Sijuwade’s residence in Ile-Ife. His wife denied any relationship with the traditional ruler.
Sodipo went further to allege that his wife behaved cruelly towards him when in 1983 he had two major surgical operations in England and she neither communicated nor paid a visit to him during the course of illness. It was while he was ill, he told the court, that his wife in company of Ladun his daughter chose not to show their care, but to announce a marriage proposal between Ladun and Oba Sijuwade. He ignored the two visitors and their news of the marriage proposal.
In her cross-petition, Sodipo’s wife denied not caring for her husband when he was ill. Her absence from his bed side, she explained, was informed by the refusal of her husband to inform her about the illness, place and time of the surgical operation.
The judge held that since Sodipo did not say anything regarding his medical ordeal in his “Time was up” letter, which was written in 1983, he found it difficult accepting the testimony of lack of care to corroborate the allegation of cruelty against the wife.
To also justify allegation of cruelty against the wife, Sodipo told the court of his wife’s alleged fondness for charms and juju. He claimed his sister once retrieved the charms from their home.
Citing authorities, Justice Onalaja held that the practice of juju may not amount to cruelty but intolerable behavior. He, however refused to grant a divorce on this score because Sodipo did not call the sister who allegedly retrieved the juju to give evidence.
In holding this view, Justice Onalaja stated that the three requirements needed be met before separation could constitute desertion. These include a defacto separation of the spouses; absence of petitioners’ consent and absence of just cause.
Quoting Lord Merriuale in Pulward Vs Pulward 1923 to support his position, Justice Onalaja said: “Desertion is not the withdrawal from a place but from state of things.”
Sodipo lost out to his wife in the three allegations of adultery, cruelty and desertion brought against her and the judge had to turn to the wife’s cross-petition to find a justification for the dissolution of the 40 year marriage.
Mrs. Sodipo in her cross- petition alleged that her husband committed adultery with the housemaid who had three children for him. One of the children, the court was told, was born barely one month before Sodipo gave his testimony in court. Justice Onalaja held that Sodipo continuously committed adultery during the existence of the marriage but the wife had condoned it by accepting the first child from the relationship as that of the family.
The judge however held that he could not grant a divorce on the ground of adultery as it had not been shown that the marriage had broken down irretrievable on this ground. Mrs. Sodipo, the judge said, did not lead evidence to show her inability to live with her husband after discovering adultery.
“To succeed in petition based on the ground of adultery, the petitioner, apart from establishing the adultery, must also prove that as a result of the said adultery, she finds it intolerable to live with the respondent. This burden, respondent failed to establish,” the judge held.
The allegation that Sodipo’s behaviour had become intolerable struck a chord in the mind of the judge. Mrs. Sodipo had alleged that her estranged husband was fond of assaulting her. One of such incidents, she said, had brought about a charge of assault against Sodipo in a magistrate’s court.
Based on this, Justice Onalaja held that Mrs. Sodipo could not objectively be expected to continue to live with him. The marriage, he said, had therefore broken down irretrievable. He granted a divorce.
He did not stop at giving legal teeth to the dissolution of the marriage. He went further to grant Mrs. Sodipo a relief as provided in Sections 70 and 73 the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1970.
Earlier, Mrs. Sodipo had sought certificate of means of her husband from another high court. On August 5, 1989, Justice Hotonu under form 53 of the Matrimonial Causes Rules 1983 “issued a certificate of pecuniary resources” to the couple. In the course of their being together , Sodipo, the court found, had built three houses, possessed two plots of land in Badagry and Abeokuta and shares in Harold Sodipo and Co. Limited and other companies not named.
The wife had a shop where beer and various food items were sold, a plot of land at Orile Iganmu and a partly completed building at Ogudu Estate in Lagos.
An offer of N80, 000 made to Mrs. Sodipo by the husband’s counsel was adjudged inadequate by Justice Onalaja. He awarded N200,000 to Mrs. Sodipo as reasonable lump sum in the circumstance and to make a clean break between Sodipo and his wife .
Mr Richard Akinnola, foremost journalist wrote this in honour of the late Justice Morenikeji Onalaja who died recently and is being committed to mother earth today June 16, 2017.