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A tribute to Justice Mustapha Akanbi

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Justices Mustapha Akanbi

The news of the death of Justice Muhammad Mustapha Adebayo Akanbi, the erudite jurist and the moral voice of Nigerian nation, on June 3, 2018 came as a shock to many in the country. Akanbi had distinguished himself as a lawyer of repute and had come to be associated with the efforts at eradicating the menace of corruption plaguing Nigeria. His judicial activism and humanity influence went beyond the shores of his native Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria, and even beyond the country.

To commemorate his eighty-second birthday in November 26, 2014, his family and associates had converged on Abuja with the public presentation of two of his books. Autobiography entitled: The story of My Two Worlds: Challenges, Experience and Achievements and A life of Service and Grace to celebrate with him. Towards the middle of year 2016, Akanbi against his personal will, had to travel to the United Kingdom to receive medical treatment and was there for some months. He was off and on in 2017 and he finally came home in 2017 to continue to receive medical attention in Abuja. Since his return home, he has been visiting his doctors regularly in Abuja and last Friday, June 1, 2018, I asked one of my colleagues in the office whom Baba himself used to call Alhaji, when last did he hear from Baba and he told me that Baba “is fine and doing well in Ilorin.” However, two days later, a friend woke me up around 4 a.m. that Justice Akanbi is dead. I was shocked and took solace in the firm belief that he lived a fulfilled life.

Akanbi was born in Accra, Ghana on September 11, 1932 and died on Sunday June 3, 2018 after a rich, accomplished, glorious and fulfilling 85 years on earth. Baba as popularly called was born to Muslim parents from Ilorin in North Central Nigeria and was a fervent believer in Almighty Allah till his last breath. The young Akanbi after completing secondary school, worked as an executive officer in the Ghana Civil Service. He was also active as a trade unionist. He later moved back to Nigeria and started work in the School Broadcasting Department of the Ministry of Education in the early 1960s

Akanbi obtained a scholarship to study law at the Institute of Administration, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He also studies in England, United Kingdom. He was called to the English Bar in 1963, and was called to the Nigerian Bar in January 1964. In 1969, he set up his private practice in Kano. His late father later persuaded him to abandon his private practice. In obedience to his father, he joined the Ministry of Justice and became a Senior State Counsel in 1974. He was later appointed a judge of the Federal Revenue Court, and in January 1977, he was elevated to the Court of Appeal Bench. In 1992 he was made president of the Nigerian Court of Appeal, a position he held until retiring in 1999. In 2000 Akanbi was appointed as the chairman of the newly established Independent Corrupt and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and retired in 2005 after the expiration of his first term in office despite pressure from the Presidency and his associates to continue in office.

Akanbi joined the board of the Justice and Law Enforcement Reformation Organization, a non-profit organisation that aims to eradicate corruption and poverty from the perspective of the Judiciary and Law Enforcement agencies. In 2006, Akanbi in the continuation of his service to humanity, established the Mustapha Akanbi Foundation in Ilorin, dedicated to strengthening civil society groups, governmental agencies and private business concerns and helping them imbibe a culture of transparency and accountability. His Foundation has been holding regular public seminars and workshops on core mandates of the organisation and such events have taken place in Ilorin, Abuja and Lagos in the past.

I encountered his name as did many journalists of my generation in early 1990s but my proper introduction to his reputation and cosmopolitan nature was however at ICPC Headquarters, Abuja on the day of our oral interview in October, 2005. He was the chairman of the panel that interviewed six of us selected for our category. At the age of 75 years, Akanbi sat throughout the interview sessions lasting to the wee hours of the next day. My set was invited to the ICPC Board room venue of the interview few minutes after 12 midnights. What first struck me about Justice Akanbi is his ability and mental capacity to do that kind of exercise at his age. At the end of the interview session, Akanbi told the six of us present that we all performed very well but the Commission had only a slot for our level and he asked with all sense of urgency; “May I know if any of you will like to take the lower level because we are just going to take one of you.” None of us-interviewees responded and he later dispersed us.

His highly cosmopolitan and incorruptible characters were revealed later when we the newly employed staff of the Commission heard how Akanbi stood his ground and insisted on following the laid down rules and regulations guiding recruitment in the anti-graft agency. The consensus of opinion among the staff of the Commission is that 2005 recruitment exercise was the best in term transparency in the history of the agency because it was devoid of political and external influences. Akanbi informed me that nobody could have insinuated that he influenced employment when he was in ICPC, “we employed people based on merits.”

The nationalist character of Justice Akanbi was further confirmed when he told Abiodun Fagbemi of The Guardian “in an interview published in The Guardian” on Saturday, November 5, 2011 at page 51. “To me you are a Nigerian, whether you are Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Idoma or whatever you are. That is why whenever I go to Abuja now all of them (ICPC Staff) will come to me. I heard people saying that they were shocked seeing their names on the list of those employed by the ICPC. They said they did not know anybody and least expect that their names would not be out.” I can confidently say that I am one of beneficiaries of this recruitment exercise. This is to Justice Akanbi’s integrity.

The integrity of the Commission was also high during his leadership at the Commission, though the salary was poor but the staff were happy and carried out their duties professionally. He told me when I was opportune to interview him in Ilorin for my PhD programme in 2011 that he did not experience any external influence when he was in charge of the commission. His words, “Obasanjo did not intervene in our work but I do not know whether any such happened when I left.” There are other acts of integrity and transparency attributed to Akanbi be it in Bar, the Bench and the Anti-Corruption sector, that space constraint, will not allow me to mention. But suffice to say, that Akanbi until his demise remained the only Nigerian that vacated high office even when he could have elected to stayed on, not once but thrice. His term as the President of Court of Appeal remained two years when he retired in 1999 and in 2005, he was approached by the Presidency led by Olusegun Obasanjo to do a second term as Chairman of ICPC but he declined on personal integrity, pleading with the President to appoint another person. There and then, Obasanjo tasked him to source for his successor which he did by nominating Justice Emmanuel Ayoola. He told me that he nominated Ayoola because the retired Supreme Court Justice was already familiar with the workings of ICPC and would continue from where he left. He also left NJC without prompting.

He lived a humble and almost spartan life style and he was able to survive the albatross of corruption with his high level of contentment which is lacking today in the public sector. The News Magazine in its Special edition dated June 25, 2001 described Justice Akanbi as, Nigeria’s Mr. Clean and was later dubbed as “The Ageless Fighter” in 2012 by the same Magazine. He relates well with all strata of society irrespective of your social class, religion, ethnicity and age. My two last visits to Akanbi in Ilorin was an eye opener to me. I met him in the midst of primary schools’ pupils and he said that he enjoyed doing it, describing his weekly interaction with the pupils, as a way of giving back to the community. He was the only one person that President Obasanjo used to call “Baba” due to the respect and honour he had for him. The late jurist had a healthy career in the Bar and on the Bench, before his foray into public service crowning it with an enviable achievement. His shoe will be difficult if not impossible for anybody to fit into.

He was the last man standing on what I will describe as the “Pillar of Moral and Integrity” in Nigeria. Like he said in one poetic thoughts:
Don’t ask too much in this world
Just act your part
And leave the rest to your creator
And He will see you through.

Akanbi has done his part. May his hard work and legacy endure.
Babasola is on the staff of ICPC, wrote from Abuja.


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