Olu Onagoruwa: Stood tall… almost till the end
When his death was announced last Friday at the age of 80 years, the memory of human rights lawyer, Dr. Olu Onagoruwa that was rekindled in the public consciousness was that of a man who paid a big price for dining with the devil with a short spoon.
Before he was made the Attorney-general and Minister of Justice by the goggled general, Sanni Abacha during the darkest days of military dictatorship in Nigeria, Onagoruwa was at the forefront of the fight to entrench democracy and popular governance in the country.
Using the instrumentality of the law, an area where he was deeply versed and the platform of human rights advocacy, Onagoruwa, was a shield of protection in the hands of those being persecuted by the state for no reason other than ideological differences.
For years, he was the legal adviser of Daily Times Newspapers, which during its peak, was the biggest authority in Nigeria’s media industry and the loudest voice against pre-independence British colonialism, and post-independence high handedness of the country’s new rulers.
With other activists like the late Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Ransom-Kuti and others who were in the trenches for the protection of human rights and promotion of good governance and democracy, Onagoruwa aroused the rebellion in many Nigerians particularly in the ivory towers where he became a hero of sort among the student population and leftist lecturers.
He was a defender of the oppressed who came into limelight in 1973 with his handling of the case of Minere Amakiri, a Nigerian journalist whose head was shaved with a broken bottle on the orders of the Military Administrator of the old Rivers State, Alfred Diette-Spiff, for reporting a “distasteful news” on the latter’s birthday.
Because of his principled stand on issues that affect the downtrodden and promotion of the best form of jurisprudence, Onagoruwa was regarded, both in Nigeria and abroad, as one of those who represent the conscience of the nation and whose opinions on matters of law and human rights were eagerly sought.
A member of the country’s second generation of lawyers, Onagoruwa who studied law at the University of London to PhD level with specialties in Constitutional Law and legislative matters among other areas, identified early with the politics of the old Western region and one of the voices in the projection and protection of its welfarist policies especially that the leaders were known to promote.
His involvement in political and legal activities drew him to the centre stage of post-independence nationalism that was most vocal during the battle to enthrone democracy especially during the various military regimes when he had not a few brushes with the authorities.
When the June 12, 1993 election, won by billionaire businessman and politician, Chief M.K.O Abiola was annulled without any cogent reason by the Ibrahim Babangida military dictatorship, Onagoruwa was naturally in his elements when he picked the gauntlet, alongside other pro-democracy activists, for the restoration of the electoral wish of Nigerians.
Together they challenged squarely Babangida’s getaway ploy in the Interim National Government (ING) headed by Ernest Shonekan and succeeded in discrediting the contraption in the face of law and morality while insisting on the sanctity of the ballot in the election of Abiola who had by then fled abroad to garner international support for the course.
Onagoruwa however left his compatriots in the battle when he crossed to the other side, having been convinced by a fellow Odogbolu, Ogun State indigene, General Oladipo Diya who has just emerged as the Chief of General Staff (CGS) in the new power play that threw up Abacha as a replacement to Shenekan in November 1993, barely three months after the ING was put in place, to continue the battle for enthronement of democracy “from the inside.”
As the Chief Law Officer of the federation, Onagoruwa had to act in defence of the policies and actions of the military regime, which were mostly to suppress the civil society that was up in arms against continued dictatorship. He was caught between the devil and the blue sea.
Onagoruwa was not the only pro-democracy activists or those on the side of June 12 that was so lured into the Abacha government. Others were the running mate of Abiola, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and some members of the inner core of the politics of the Southwest like former Lagos State governor, Alhaji Lateeef Jakande and former Director of publicity of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Chief Ebenezer Babatope.
Also brought on board with the intention of securing the support of the critical mass media, was Chief Alex Ibru, Publisher of The Guardian newspapers. While they were assigned big portfolios, Jakande was Minister of Works and Housing, Babatope was Minister of Transport and Ibru headed the Internal Affairs Ministry, it is doubtful if the trio and others like them in government, achieved the potentials they had in mind.
Onagoruwa soon discovered that a dinner with the devil could give the guest stomachache but he had been caught in the web and all the attempts to challenge and change the system “from the inside” were fruitless. Even his contacts with his pro-democracy constituency were seen as treason in a military hierarchy that trembles at the order of the commander.
Having lost his voice and ostracized by his home constituency for what Fawehinmi described as a “disappointing appointment,” the fiery lawyer was caught in the web of intrigues, suspicions and conspiracy that were the hallmarks of the corridors of power especially in a military setting that faced the kind of opposition that Abacha faced locally and globally.
Although he left the Abacha junta barely a year after his appointment, Onagoruwa who became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in 1993 and participated in the drafting of the Ethiopian Constitution a year later, “due to irreconcilable differences,” lost his position as an advocate of the masses and still had to carry the cross of serving the most brutal regime in Nigerian history.
In what many suspected as the military taking its pound of flesh from a man who refused to be compromised after “being called to come and eat,” a terrible blow was dealt the fiery lawyer when his son, Toyin, an operative of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) was murdered right in his presence two years later in December 1996 by yet to be identified gunmen in suspicious circumstances.
The sudden and manner of death of the son was so devastating on the father that Onagoruwa suffered a stroke and had been nursing the ill-health, which was also compounded by the death of his wife, and staying in the background of national discuss till he breathed his last on Friday.
Confirming the character of Onagoruwa as a non-conformist even during the dinner with the devil, Babatope who traveled the same route to the Abacha cabinet told The Guardian yesterday that the late lawyer ran into a crisis with the junta because of fearlessness, honesty and doggedness.
According to Babatope, “During our meetings. He was always on the side of the masses and what was of benefit to the nation.”
He attested to the fact that one of the strongest factors that made Onagoruwa to serve under the regime was the assurance that Abacha would organise sovereign national conference that would enable Nigeria restructure to true federalism, which he (Onagoruwa) believed and stood for in his days.
Describing his as a dogged fighter Nigeria would miss, Babatope said the late legal luminary couldn’t overcome the shock, until his death when his first son was shot in his presence, “as a matter of fact that was what led to his stroke, which he nursed until he finally died.”
When asked at what actually led to Onagoruwa’s fallout with the regime, Babatope said, “I will tell you a story today, there was a meeting of Yoruba delegates in London to discuss the state of the nation and the Yoruba affairs. In that meeting Onagoruwa told them to go and prepare for war but it was unfortunate that somebody leaked the tape of the meeting to Abacha. Although, the former Attorney General was not perturbed, something led to another until he was kicked out of the government.”
HOWEVER a chieftain of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), the pro-democracy platform that galvanized Nigerians in the fight against dictatorship and actualization of the June 12 mandate, Chief Ayo Adebanjo only blamed Onagoruwa and those who were brought into the Abacha regime from the democratic fronts for “errors of judgment.”
Adebanjo, in an interview with The Guardian yesterday conformed that the bait used to lure Onagoruwa to the military junta was the promise that the country would be restructured.
“In his efforts to convince some of us to see the necessity of the intervention of Abacha, Diya who is also a Yoruba man, gave us the assurance that the government would organise a Sovereign National Conference as soon as the country stabilized then.
“I strongly believe that was what actually convinced Onagoruwa to be part of the regime based on his strong conviction that the country needed to be restructured to true federalism.
“The impression then was that Onagoruwa, being the Attorney-General, would used his bulk of constitutional experience to tailor the expected conference promised by the regime through Diya to us.”
Adebanjo said, “I think all the pro-democracy personalities that served under that regime committed very serious error of judgment by not resigning voluntarily when it was discovered that Abacha wasn’t favourably disposed to convening a Sovereign National Conference at that time.”
When asked whether NADECO made efforts to advise Onagoruwa and others to resign, Adebanjo said, “Whatever the story was as at then, Chief Onagoruwa was a dynamic lawyer and a strong advocate for the establishment of true federalism. He was always in the forefront for the agitation to restructure Nigeria, the position we hold till date.”
Making an apparent reference to the leadership of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in the Southwest, Adebajo added that “it was baffling that some of those who were part of us as we struggled for the restructuring of the country at that period, have suddenly changed by saying that they do not understand what restructuring or true federalism is all about.
“What Onagoruwa stood for in his days was that the word restructuring is just a way of saying let us go back to where we started, that is the First Republic Constitution.”
Although without the usual media mention deserved by his caliber of personality, Onagoruwa’s death elicited responses from many prominent Nigerians including Acting President Yemi Osinbajo who, because of the proximity of his Ikenne roots to Odogbolu, and their sharing the same profession, must have been influenced by the late legal icon.
Osinbajo described Onagoruwa as “an ardent advocate of the rule of law and constitutionalism whose life reflected a combination of profound scholarship, courage in the face of tyranny and admirable grace in conduct and manner.”
In his tweeter handle on Saturday night, Osinbajo also added, “Dr Olu Onagoruwa was an ardent advocate of the rule of law and constitutionalism and his life reflected a combination of profound scholarship, courage in the face of tyranny and admirable grace in conduct and manner, even in grave travails and trials.
“As a lawyer, Dr. Onagoruwa served the oppressed and gave voice to the voiceless, fearlessly and selflessly. He was a tireless proponent of the freedom of the press and a champion of fundamental human rights in Nigeria. He proved to be principled and forthright both in private practice and as Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice.
“The nation today mourns a true patriot who served his nation and its people with singular zeal and dedication. His legacy as a scholar, writer, human rights activist and strong voice for the less privileged in the Nigerian society, will long be remembered.”
In their tributes, Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organisation that was a core part of NADECO and the militia group, Oodua Peoples Congress, which was formed in the wake of the June 12 agitations, extolled the virtues of the late lawyer.
Afenifere’s spokesman, Yinka Odumakin said “Nigeria has lost a brilliant attorney and prolific legal mind. His death has robbed the country of one of its foremost jurisprudence giants” while the OPC, speaking through its founder, Dr. Fredrick Faseun said, “We were in the struggles together both in Nigeria’s military and post-military era. Onagoruwa laboured with us in the NADECO for the emancipation of Nigeria. He toiled to free Nigeria from captivity.”
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