Richard Akinjide, a lawyer who thought outside the box
I probably knew about Richard Akinjide, SAN, from the time I could recognize people’s faces. But I definitely knew him well vicariously. He was a contemporary of my father, Justice Bola Babalakin, at Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife. Both men shared very commendable academic records at Oduduwa College. Akinjide had passed out of Oduduwa College with flying colours in the 1948 set. My father passed out in the 1945 set and had spent four years rather than six years in secondary school.
The Principal of Oduduwa College had found my father too good for form 1 and sent him to form 2. My father was too good for form 2 and ended up starting Secondary School in form 3. Growing up in Ibadan was very exciting. It was a beehive of activities in academia, arts, culture and certainly a great place to bring up a child. It was a particularly exciting place for those of us growing up in the relatively small and distinguished community of legal practitioners. There were prominent members of the Bar who dominated practice between 1960 and about 1975. The obvious leader of the Bar was 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, Akinjide was also a leader of the Bar. He had been elected as the President of the Bar Association in 1970 and served till 1973. The Bar then was a vibrant organization and a center of activities. The Bar was 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 teetotaler and does not serve alcohol. This attribute was strange to the Bar. I recall observing that my father was confused because he had to serve very large volumes of alcohol to entertain members of the Bar. While my father was still deliberating about the issue, a very large truck arrived in our house. In the car in front of the truck was a bearded lawyer, KanmiIsola-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 KanmiIsola-Osobu)Kalakuta.”KanmiIsola-Osobu was Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s legal adviser whose 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. KanmiIshola-Osobu told my father that the Bar Association 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, 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” 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 6 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.
Akinjide, as counsel to Alhaji Shagari, submitted in Court that the popular position which is that 2/3 of 19 States was 13 States was wrong. Akinjide argued that the Court could not assume that 2/3 of the 19 States were 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 judgment led by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Atanda Fatai Williams upheld 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 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. Obafemi Awolowo’s supporters were livid. For the next couple of years, Akinjide was attacked and vilified in the media by supporters of Obafemi Awolowo. Akinjide had committed an unpardonable crime by preventing Awolowo from becoming the President of Nigeria. Interestingly, 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 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 judgment 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 Esho and the thought it was the final decision of the Court. The judge appeared very frightened. My father inquired to know what was bothering him. He said that the Supreme Court had ordered that Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Shehu Shagari should proceed to the electoral college to determine the actual winner of the general elections. My father could not fathom what business a Judge had with the dispute between Awolowo and Alhaji Shagari. His then proceeded to explain to my father that, 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 Awolowo’s candidate. There after 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 not still 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 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 Awolowo at your own peril”. Was sure that once Awolowo was sworn in as President of Nigeria, Awolowo would take him out of the Bench.
I could not believe what I heard. I could never understand the reasons for such bitterness in politics.