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The rebel who paid the price


Olu Onagoruwa

Had Dr. Olu Onagoruwa died 25 years ago, his obituary would have been on the front page of the Daily Times. He would have made the front pages of many other national newspapers and the cover of several magazines. With profound pathos, I recall a quotation about Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia for 50 years until he was deposed in 1975. I cannot recollect the title of the book or the author now. The author stated about Selassie, who in his years on the throne was referred to as the King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Emperor of Ethiopia: “Had Haile Selassie ruled in the 19th Century, he would have been a great reforming monarch. In the 20th Century, he was an anachronism. He was born too late and he lived too long.”

Onagoruwa lived long and he was not born too late. He was 82 when he died last Friday. But he was born in the wrong country and that made all the difference. In the fight for the rights of the ordinary Nigerians, Onagoruwa was the twin brother of the legal titan, Chief Gani Fawehinmi. Both of them were inseparable in their bold confrontation with successive military regimes to secure the rights of Nigerians. But they were different in certain ways in terms of tactics and strategies. While Fawehinmi was a lone ranger, Onagoruwa occasionally joined one team or the other to realise his goals. Then he joined the Abacha team.


General Sani Abacha, who was General Ibrahim Babangida’s closest collaborator for many years, was Nigeria’s most successful coup maker. He was there in July 1966 during the bloody uprising against the regime of General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi. The victorious coupists installed 33-year old Lieutenant-colonel Yakubu Jack Gowon in power. He participated in the coup that toppled General Gowon in July 1975 when General Murtala Muhammed came to power. In 1983, Abacha was the man who announced the coup that ended the regime of President Shehu Shagari and brought Major-General Muhammadu Buhari to power. He again took to the air when Buhari was toppled and General Ibrahim Babangida proclaimed himself our President in 1985. Finally, he seized power for himself in November 1993 bringing to a sorry end the regime of Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan.

Onagoruwa forged a marriage with Abacha because the soldier promised that he would organise a Sovereign National Conference. Onagoruwa did not join on his own volition, he was carrying the mandate of the Awoist Vanguard, then meeting regularly in the Ikeja home of that redoubtable nationalist, Chief Alfred Rewane. After Shonekan was toppled, the Awoist Vanguard, later to be more famously known as Afenifere, took a decision at Rewane home to collaborate with Abacha. Their decision was helped by an earlier decision taken after a long meeting in the home of Chief Moshood Abiola that Chief Abiola and his supporters should collaborate with the new military government.

Chief Abiola was the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election on the platform of one of the two government-owned parties, the Social Democratic Party. Abiola’s victory was, however, voided by the dictator, General Babangida, who could not advance any tangible reason for his action. The Awoist Vanguad, under the leadership of Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, in one of its meetings in Owo, had endorsed the presidential ambition of Abiola. It did this after its own candidate, Chief Olu Falae, had been disqualified by the Babangida junta. With the annulment, the Awoists mobilised into the vanguard to ensure the actualisation of Chief Abiola’s mandate.

However, by agreeing to support Abacha’s government, Abiola fell into a strategic error. With that, the Vice-President presumptive, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, a smooth-talking former diplomat, became one of the nominees into the new Abacha cabinet. So also was Alhaji Lateef Jakande, the former governor of Lagos State who had fallen out with the Awoists when he would not support the candidature of Falae for President. The Afenifere group also made their own nominations: Onagoruwa, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, Mr Alex Ibru and Chief (Mrs) Mobolaji Osomo.


By agreeing that his supporters should participate in the Abacha regime, Abiola appeared to have given a lot away. The Afenifere group, taken its cue from Abiola, hinged its support on Abacha’s promise to organise a Constitutional Conference that would work on the restructuring of Nigerian. For Afenifere, under Papa Ajasin, restructuring meant at least three things:

To put the Yoruba people of Nigeria, including those in Kogi and Kwara, under one regional government to be elected through regular democratic contests based on universal adult suffrage.
To restore parliamentary system of government based on the Westminster model.
To institute fiscal federalism and allow each regional regime to control its own natural and human resources for effective social engineering including full employment and access to quality free education.

Therefore, when Onagoruwa was announced the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, his assignment were clear-cut: to ensure the success of the Constitutional Conference that Abacha had promised. When his erstwhile friends, including Fawehinmi criticised him for taking an appointment with the military, he defended himself with gusto. “I have been placed in a position where I can help return Nigeria to constitutional order and create a more stable constitutional polity,” he said. Then he made a promise that was to define the rest of his life. “If tomorrow the government says they are no longer interested in the constitutional conference, then my presence there becomes irrelevant.”

He was determined to achieve results and do the undoable. He believed, with stubborn persistence, that Abacha meant what he said. He was fatally wrong. He soon found himself at odd with Abacha and his shenanigans. When Abacha would not toe the path of the law, he wrote the dictator several memos asking for a change of direction. Abacha would not hold the Constitutional Conference with full powers that Onagoruwa and Afenifere had advocated. Besides, the dictator was determined to perpetuate himself in office and had no interest in democratic reforms. Onagoruwa was at pain, buffeted by old friends from the outside and sidelined by Abacha from the inside.


More dramas were in the offing for the attorney general. A high court ordered the release of Tuner Ogboru, the brother of Great Ogboru, the businessman who was accused of sponsoring the Gideon Orkar coup of 1990 when Abacha was Chief of Army Staff under Babangida. Tuner was accused of helping his brother to escape and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. Onagoruwa wrote to Alex Ibru, the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Ibrahim Coomasie, the Inspector-General of Police, that the court judgment must be obeyed. Tuner was released. When Abacha learnt about it, he ordered Tuner’s immediate re-arrest.
Abacha then hired a new Special Adviser on legal matters, Auwalu Yadudu, who bagged a doctorate degree in law from Harvard in 1985. When several draconian decrees were rolled out by the junta, it did not come out from the Attorney General’s office. The new law mill was presided over by Yadudu. Since that episode, Yadudu has remained within the power loop. Last year, he was appointed the new Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University, Birnin Kebbi, by President Muhammadu Buhari. But under Abacha, Yadudu was Onagoruwa’s nightmare.

Onagoruwa protested to the dictator and then resigned. He moved back to his law practice, but already he had taken a sip from the poison cup. He knew his life was in danger, but he defiantly stayed within the glare. He had dared the dictator from within and publicly criticised his draconian decrees. He knew his life was in danger but decided to resign to fate. The dictator’s killer squad was abroad. One by one, the squad was picking its targets: Rear Admiral Olu Omotehinwa, Admiral Tunde Elegbede, Mrs Suliat Adedeji and the incomparable Chief Rewane. But when the squad struck, Onagoruwa, it was the unkindest cut of all.

His foes knew Onagoruwa was not afraid of death. But he loved his son, the handsome lawyer, Toyin, who was planning to marry the daughter of a professor. Toyin’s best friend, Victor, was often accompanying Toyin to his fiancée’s house. His parents were impressed by Victor’s diligence and love for their son and they took him as one of their own. They paid part of his fees in school and when Victor was getting married, they stood in for his parents. On the night of December 18,1996, Toyin was shot in front of his father’s house by men who dragged him from his car. He was coming from his fiancée’s house. Victor, his beloved friend, was not with him. Victor did not show up until several days later.


Abacha sent Onagoruwa’s successor, Michael Agbamuche, to convey his condolences. On February 3, 1997, Onagoruwa wrote Abacha that he suspected that Victor was involved with his Toyin’s assassination. He alleged that he learnt later that Victor was an undercover agent of the SSS. He alleged further that the Mercedes-Benz car that brought the killer gang (brave neighbours wrote down the registration number) had a number that belonged to that to a serving colonel in the army. Abacha did not acknowledge the letter until the dictator died suddenly in 1998. Onagoruwa petitioned Abacha’s successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar with the same facts. He was ignored. He carried his case to the Oputa Panel. Silence.

He suffered stroke. His wife died. He has learnt that when you are a rebel with a cause, fighting to reform the society, you may also be the victim of the same society. Like the families of Chief Bola Ige and Dele Giwa, he may have learnt in his final days, that in Nigeria, justice is never a sure reward for the brave and the diligent. Finally, he carried his petition to God to ensure justice for Toyin. Now Onagoruwa is with God. The labourer’s task is finished.

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