Learned Senior Advocate, Dr Olawale Babalakin, pays tribute to Chief Richard Osuolale Abimbola Akinjide CON, CFR, SAN, former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, who was translated to eternal glory on April 20, 2020. May his soul rest in peace. Amen
‘An Outstanding Lawyer, who could think outside the box’
Dr Olawale Babalakin, SAN
I probably knew about Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN, from the time I could recognise people’s faces. But, I definitely knew him well vicariously. He was a contemporary of my father, Hon. Justice Bola Babalakin at Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife. Both men shared very commendable academic records, at Oduduwa College. Chief Akinjide had passed out of Oduduwa College with flying colours, in the 1948 set. My father passed out in 1945, having spent only four years instead of six in secondary school. He had been adjudged too good for Forms 1 and 2 by the College Principal, and started secondary school in Form 3!
Outstanding Lawyers who started in Ibadan
There were prominent members of the Bar who dominated practice, between 1960 and about 1975. The obvious leader of the Bar was Chief Rotimi Williams who was in Ibadan till 1973, before he relocated to Lagos. He was followed by outstanding practitioners like Olufemi Ayoola, Richard Akinjide, Olisa Chukwura, Abdul Ganiyu Agbaje,Yinka Ayoola and Bola Babalakin. I may have missed out a few names, largely due to my very young age then.
In addition to being an outstanding legal practitioner, Chief Akinjide was also a leader of the Bar. He had been elected as the President of the NBA in 1970, and served till 1973. The Bar then was a vibrant organisation, a beehive of activities and an extremely strong voice in national affairs. It carried itself with remarkable distinction, and the society acknowledged its leadership role.
In 1974, the National Conference of the Bar Association was held in Ibadan. Dr. Mudiaga Odje was the National President. My father, Bola Babalakin, was one of the two Vice-Chairmen. Being the highest ranking member of the Executive Council of the NBA residing in Ibadan, my father had to host the Bar dinner. This was a challenge for my father, considering that he is a teetotaller and does not serve alcohol. This attribute was strange to the Bar.
While my father was still deliberating about the issue, a very large truck arrived at our house. In the car in front of the truck was a bearded Lawyer, Kanmi Isola-Osobu. I believe he was then the Publicity Secretary of the Bar. The truck was full of assorted alcoholic drinks. He hailed my father and my father responded by calling him “de Kanmi Isola-Osobu Kalakuta”. Kanmi Isola-Osobu was Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s legal adviser; Fela’s residence was known as Kalakuta Republic. I was confounded. I never knew my father knew about Kalakuta Republic, and I did not believe anybody could bring alcohol into our house without my father’s consent. Kanmi Ishola-Osobu told my father that NBA was not going to allow my father to slow down the party, with his attitude towards alcohol.
It was the first time in my life, that I had seen my father in an environment that he could not control. My father was overwhelmed by the gang of “Bar Men”. Of course, Chief Akinjide was at the ceremony and he was bantering particularly with my father. He called him “Senior Babs” in reference to their days at Oduduwa College where my father had been his senior in school. My father responded, “ROA, the great”. Chief Akinjide was a delight to watch. His dinner speech was so well delivered, and in impeccable English.
Awolowo v Shagari
In 1979, Nigeria returned to constitutional democracy. It also adopted a Presidential system of government. The President required a majority of votes to win, and in addition, 25% of the votes cast in 2/3 of the 19 States in Nigeria. Alhaji Shehu Shagari won clearly, in 12 States. Chief Obafemi Awolowo won in six States. The position of a lot of Nigerians was that, 2/3 of 19 States was 13 States. There was no way one could approximate, or divide a State. A State was a defined geographical space. Alhaji Shagari needed to win in 13 States, and he had not succeeded in doing so. He was thus, not qualified to be declared the winner.
Chief Akinjide, as counsel to Alhaji Shagari submitted in court that, the popular position which was that 2/3 of 19 States was 13 States, was wrong. Chief Akinjide argued that, the court could not assume that 2/3 of the 19 States was 13 States. In the 13th State, the right thing to do (according to Chief Akinjide) was to determine the number of votes. If Alhaji Shagari had 25% of 2/3 of the votes in that State, then he ought to be declared winner.
The Supreme Court in a majority judgement led by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Atanda Fatai Williams, upheld Chief Akinjide’s submission. Justice Andrew Otutu Obaseki did not agree with the majority decision, but upheld Alhaji Shagari’s victory on the ground that Alhaji Shagari had substantially complied with the provisions of the Constitution. Justice Kayode Eso, delivered a very powerful dissenting opinion.
I find it difficult to agree with the position of the Supreme Court, in that case. However, I found it very easy to admire the sheer brilliance of Chief Richard Akinjide, and his enormous courage in advancing the arguments that he made before the court.
The declaration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari as President, nearly led to a breakdown of law and order in some parts of Nigeria. Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s supporters, were livid. For the next couple of years, Chief Akinjide was attacked and vilified in the media by supporters of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Chief Akinjide had committed an unpardonable crime, by preventing Chief Awolowo from becoming the President of Nigeria.
Interestingly, Chief Akinjide was totally unperturbed. As soon as the military took over governance, he fled to England and escaped the years of incarceration that the military imposed on the politicians of the ruling party, as well as the opposition.
I took a liking to Chief Akinjide, since then. I wanted to be a Lawyer that could take a position and pursue it boldly, as long I was convinced that I was doing the right thing.
The Deep Political Divisions in Western Nigeria
One issue that created an impression on me as a very young man, was the seriously divisive politics of Western Nigeria. In particular, I was taken aback by the reaction of a certain friend and colleague of my father on the Bench of Western State of Nigeria, on the day the judgement was delivered. He had come to visit my father and had just left the house, when he turned back to see my father. Apparently, he had heard the dissenting opinion of Justice Kayode Eso, and thought it was the final decision of the Court. The Judge appeared very frightened. My father enquired to know what was bothering him. He said that the Supreme Court had ordered that Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Shehu Shagari should proceed to the electoral college, to determine the actual winner of the election. My father could not fathom what business a Judge had, with the dispute between Chief Awolowo and Alhaji Shagari. His then proceeded to explain to my father that, Chief Awolowo had approached him to contest an election on the platform of the Action group in 1959. He had opted for the NCNC, and had defeated Chief Awolowo’s candidate. Thereafter, he quit partisan politics in 1962 and set up a very successful legal practice, before being appointed a Judge of Western State in 1975.
Despite the above explanation, my father could still not understand his friend’s anxiety. To my father, his colleague and friend was no longer a politician, and had no business with politics or with Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He was very surprised at my father’s attitude and concluded that having never participated in party politics, my father did not understand politics or political power. The gentleman then told my father that: “you underestimate Chief Awolowo at your own peril”. He was sure that once Chief Awolowo was sworn in as President of Nigeria, Chief Awolowo would remove him from the Bench.
I could not believe what I heard. I could never understand the reasons for such bitterness, in politics.
The Return of Chief Akinjide to England
I met Chief Akinjide vicariously, at the University of Cambridge. His son, Yomi, was pursuing his first degree in law at Sidney Swussex College, Cambridge University, while I was pursuing my doctorate program at Corpus Christi College. Yomi was a particularly focused undergraduate student. He was quite disciplined. I later learnt that, he did not have a choice. Chief Akinjide gave Yomi no breathing space. The story that filtered out was that, while Yomi was at the University, Chief Akinjide was on voluntary exile in England. Yomi had to write a paper every week and send the paper to Chief Akinjide in London, to assess for him. Chief Akinjide would assess the papers, and send them back to Yomi. That was a great commitment of a father to his child. Yomi graduated with flying colours, from Cambridge. Today, Yomi is a Partner in one of the leading law firms in England.
Akinjide had a very active life in exile
While on voluntary exile in England, Chief Akinjide’s brilliant mind could not tolerate indolence. He was too intellectually active, to be stagnant.
In 1983, Chief Akinjide was 53 years old. He had left the English Bar since 1956, 27 years earlier. It would have been convenient for him to play an idle rich man in England, as he was a very wealthy man. However, Chief Akinjide was too intellectually vibrant to take this route. He went back to the English Bar, and started practicing law in England. Practicing in England is a totally different system, from practicing in Nigeria. Even though we inherited the English legal system, we have not been able to maintain the courts as a theatre for the display of intellectual capacity and brilliance, as they have done.
From England, Chief Akinjide was invited to practice law in The Gambia, where he shone like a star.
Chief Akinjide gave me copies of judgements of cases he handled, in England. In one of the cases, the Judge stated that Chief Akinjide had made the life of the opponent so miserable, that he (i.e. the Judge) was appealing to Chief Akinjide, having killed the man in court, not to bury him in court! This was the level of skill and intelligence, of a man who was returning to an environment 27 years after he had left.
Visit to Mr Justice Yinka Ayoola
I once went to visit the Honourable Justice Yinka Ayoola, retired Justice of the Supreme Court and former Chief Justice of The Gambia (whom I consider to be a genius). During the visit, Justice Ayoola and myself discussed many issues. When Chief Akinjide’s name came up, Justice Ayoola went into superlatives, about the brilliance of Chief Akinjide. Chief Akinjide had appeared before Justice Ayoola on several occasions in court in The Gambia. Justice Ayoola commended the quality of Chief Akinjide’s submissions in court, and expressed the opinion that Nigeria did not exploit Chief Akinjide’s intellect significantly for Nigeria’s benefit.
I am Detained by Abacha
In 1995, I was detained by the Military Government of General Sani Abacha. It was alleged that I, as the owner of a bank, was owing the bank money. I only owned a bank, for 18 months. I did not understand the allegation of indebtedness. The bank examiners could not define it accurately, to me.
My father called on his schoolmate Chief Akinjide, to sort me out. Chief Akinjide visited me in detention, to take my instructions. I think on one of the occasions, he came with his daughter, Jumoke who later became a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and Stephen Kola Balogun. He suggested that before we make any statement in court, we should have a highly rated accountant who was also a banker to examine my accounts in the bank. We zeroed in on Otunba Olutola Senbore and Co. Otunba Senbore’s records, were unbelievable. His curriculum vitae was a catalogue of distinctions.
Otunba Senbore embarked on the assignment, with great professionalism. He analysed the accounts of all the companies that I had interest in. At the end of the day, Otunba Senbore found that I was not in debt at all; I was in considerable credit. He discovered that the bank examiners had accumulated all my debits, but ignored my credits. I had a government instrument that was paying me a specific amount of money, every month. All the bank examiners ought to have done was to discount that instrument with the Central Bank of Nigeria, and credit the money to my account. This would have made me a net creditor. On the contrary, they were more concerned about destroying my businesses, than finding a solution to the issues.
I am still bewildered that Government could have set up the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation whose mandate was to provide insurance for bank depositors’ money, and amended its law to give it both prosecutorial and judicial powers without any checks and balances. I was kept in detention for 23 months, for doing nothing. To worsen this situation, the investigators and the examiners had never built anything themselves in their careers, not even a shoe shine company. They did not have any idea of how to turn 10 kobo to 20 kobo. Yet, they were sitting in judgement over the transactions of businessmen and entrepreneurs, some of whom had created great wealth for the society and employed a lot of Nigerians.
The document prepared by Otunba Senbore was a life saver for me. It gave those willing to support me, the confidence to do so. With the document and all the efforts of my well-wishers, including a particularly young and vibrant Lawyer, I was released soon after. I remain grateful to Chief Akinjide, for his capacity to think outside the box. It is my belief that a society will grow rapidly, when it identifies those who can think outside the box, and utilise their talent appropriately.
Working with Chief Akinjide as a Colleague
In later life, Chief Akinjide and our firm worked jointly and extensively, for a multinational oil company. It was great fun to work with Chief Akinjide. He treated us as his contemporaries. I learnt that, he was very proud of the working relationship. I imagine that it was a good feeling for Chief Akinjide seeing his “son” work with him as his colleague, and having interesting and enduring arguments with him, while trying to prepare a joint position on an issue.
Long after the passing away of his beloved wife, Chief Akinjide married Mrs Bola Williams. Mrs Bola Williams was our senior at Chief Rotimi Williams Chambers, and always looked at least twenty years younger than her age. She was also an epitome of elegance, class and grace, with a clear manifestation of a very good upbringing. I was very happy, with the choice Chief Akinjide made.
Chief Akinjide was a truly outstanding legal practitioner, who successfully practiced in three different jurisdictions. He was exceptionally brilliant and resourceful, and could easily think outside the box. He was a great family head, and a committed father to his children. Adieu, Chief Richard Osuolale Akinjide, SAN.
Dr Bolanle Olawale Babalakin, LLM, Ph.D (Cantab), SAN
Culled – Thisday