Politicians of recent vintage delight in announcing their love for the “rule of law”. Citizens loudly proclaim their right to free speech and to hold Government to account. Democracy as the system of Government is now over 20 years with no interruption. All these and more are the results of decades of efforts by luminaries to entrench a system of laws in the land. There’s still so much more to do. But however shaky the journey has been, we remain steadfastly on the wagon.
For the above, we have many heroes to thank. And like other categories, this is going to be a contentious one. But a Top 10 we will select. These chosen men and woman made a difference, and it is to them and their tribe that we owe our freedom from the yoke of dictators.
1. GANI FAWEHINMI
Lawyer. Publisher. Civil Rights Activist. Prisoner of Conscience. Senior Advocate of the Masses. He used the instrumentality of the law to oppose just about every terrible government (of which Nigeria has been cursed with plenty). And through his efforts, many case laws developed that enriched Nigerian jurisprudence and increased the rights that Nigerians enjoy today. It is impossible to do justice to Gani The Great in a few sentences. He may well go down as the greatest Nigerian of the post colonial era.
2. ROTIMI WILLIAMS
Lawyer. “FRA” was widely recognized as the “Doyen of the Legal Profession”. Over 50 years of quality service at the Bar earned him that. His name can be found in many landmark cases and he was indisputably the finest lawyer around for so long. In Gani’s words, he is “one of the greatest legal minds in the world, not only in Nigeria”. FRA chaired the Constitution Drafting Committee that put together the 1979 Constitution. A Queen’s Counsel and the joint first Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) signposts his brilliance.
3. BENJAMIN NWABUEZE
Professor of Law. National Order of Merit (NNOM) winner. Author of over 30 law books. Arguably Nigeria’s greatest law academic and the first to get a SAN for his academic works. Key influence on several constitutional drafts since 1979. Secretary, later Chairman of “The Patriots”, an association of Statesmen and women advocating for good governance.
4. TASLIM OLAWALE ELIAS
Lawyer. Judge. Academic. Administrator. The one man who did it all. He was Attorney-General of Nigeria (1960-1972), Dean of Law Faculty of UNILAG (1966-1972, while concurrently serving as AG), Chief Justice of Nigeria (1972-1975), Judge, and first black President of the World Court (1976-1991). Elias was special, a rare breed. His contribution to the development of law in Nigeria, right from colonial times, is probably unmatched.
5. ALAO AKA-BASHORUN
Lawyer. Civil Rights Advocate. Labour Leader. The father of the modern Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). His tenure as NBA President was tumultuous, as he used the NBA’s considerable platform to oppose the several draconian policies and practices of the military government of Ibrahim Babangida. With him as head, the NBA did a 180 degree turn in its approach to rights advocacy, becoming a powerful pressure group that put fear into the hearts of Governments. He is now the yardstick with which every NBA President is measured. Unforgettable!!
6. OLISA AGBAKOBA
Lawyer. Civil Rights Advocate. One of the founders of the civil rights movement in Nigeria in its modern form. Co-Founder of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), he also founded Human Rights Law Services (Hurilaws) and United Action for Democracy. The story of June 12 and the campaign for it’s actualization will not be complete without mentioning the brave efforts of this great man, one of the few that stayed back as Sani Abacha’s murderous thugs went about killing, maiming and detaining opposition leaders. He is also a strong advocate for the abolition of capital punishment. Served as NBA President.
7. AYO OBE
Lawyer. Civil Rights Activist. President of the CIvil Liberties Organisation (CLO) at a time when women were not so “upfront” in the struggle. A supremely strong voice in the days when dictatorship sought to reign supreme in the land. As President of the CLO from 1995 to 2001, she helped to midwife the democracy that we now enjoy. She’s also held several roles including Chair of the Transition Monitoring Group, and remains an important member of the human rights community.
8. TAI SOLARIN
Educationist. Humanist. Public Commentator. His Mayflower School is arguably the most famous private school ever in Nigeria. And while word of his exploits as an iconoclastic Principal spread wide, it is as a social critic and crusader against despotic leadership that Solarin came to be nationally known. He regularly wrote damning articles about the government of the day and was known to personally distribute these on roadsides. For his troubles, he spent time in jail at various times. His modest life also endeared him to most and tales of his swashbuckling style remain a favourite folklore.
9. BEKO RANSOME-KUTI
Medical Doctor. Human Rights Activist. Labour Leader. A relatively quiet life in the shadows of his older brothers was brought to an end following the “Unknown Soldier” episode that took the life of their mum. From then on, Beko took off. First becoming Chairman of the Lagos Branch of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA). In this role, he railed against government’s neglect of the health sector. In 1984, the regime of Muhammadu Buhari tired of the NMA, banned it and sent Beko to jail. Released by the Babangida administration, he spent more time in jail under the Abacha govt. In between his time in jail, he chaired the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) and was a member of the group that founded the Campaign for Democracy. One of the heroes of our democratic struggle.
10. TIMOTHY AKINOLA AGUDA
Jurist. Academic. Dr Aguda served as the first African Chief Justice of Botswana, Chief Judge of Ondo State and was the first DG of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. Arguably the finest jurist to not make it to the Supreme Court, he was affectionately referred to as Nigeria’s Lord Denning. He was an “Activist Judge” who regularly gave judgements that favoured civil rights over government powers (including Military Decrees that sought to oust judicial review). Many of his judgements remain reference points in Nigeria case law. A National Order of Merit winner amongst numerous accolades, he is the father of Abuja as the Federal Capital.
THE SUPREME INTELLECTUALS
I could not separate them. And it would have been unfair to leave anyone of them out. But to put them in the top 10 would have closed the door to everyone else. These men were the Brain Boxes of the Supreme Court in its finest era (1970-90). So I put them together and recognize them collectively, for they all deserve accolades where the development of law in Nigeria is concerned. Kayode Esho, JSC; Chukwudifo Oputa, JSC; Egbert Udo Udoma, JSC; Adolphus Karibi-Whyte, JSC; Augustine Nnamani, JSC; and Anthony Aniagolu, JSC. None became Chief Justice (though Udo Udoma was Chief Justice of Uganda for some years). But in their intellectual outputs on and off the bench, they dwarf all the Chief Justices that we have had (with the exception of Elias). Great men!!!
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