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The life and politics of Richard Akinjide

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The death of the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Richard Osuolale Akinjide, closed another chapter in the politico-legal history of Nigeria.

As a major player in the Nigerian politics and one of the few elites that fought for the political independence of the country from Britain in 1960, his roles in the first and second republics, the formation of the Ibadan People’s Party (IPP), National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Ibadan, Oyo State-born chief deserved more than just a passing comment in the list of politicians who defined the political architecture of Nigeria.

Immediately he returned to Nigeria from the United Kingdom in the mid 1950s where he studied law, the young Akinjide joined the Ibadan People’s Party (IPP) founded by the late Chief Adisa Akinloye, who also later became the National Chairman of NPN in 1979.

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Many students of Nigerian politics would not forget the role of IPP that went into an alliance with the Action Group (AG) to ensure that the AG won elections in the Western Region thereby preventing the Dr. Nnamidi Azikwe’s National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun (NCNC) from forming the government in the Western Region. In that election, IPP won all the seats in Ibadan and none of the AG and NCNC won enough seats to form government, but IPP, after much persuasions from Yoruba monarchs and leaders, had alliance with AG that paved way for Chief Obafemi Awolowo to emerge as the Premier of the old Western Region. Although many critics fault IPP’s decision, describing it as the beginning of tribal politics in Nigeria.

But Akinjide, in an interview with The Guardian before his death, disagreed and described such critics as being ignorant of what transpired and how Zik failed to meet their conditions.

He said, “IPP won all the seats in Ibadan and our party was to determine, which party between AG and NCPC, would form the government. NCNC had clearly won the election in the Eastern Region, but we told Zik to allow Chief Bode Thomas to stand as the candidate of the party in the West but after our meeting, he later announced Chief Michael Okpara. This infuriated some of us and we opted for AG and Awolowo became the Premier”.

Being a maverick politician, Akinjide held onto IPP, though a seemingly unpopular political party with no influence outside Ibadan, but he used the few seats controlled by the party to gain national prominence as IPP alliance with Northern Congress Party (NPC) during the pre-independence election of December 12, 1959 later proved.

Akinjide won a seat and represented Ibadan in the Parliamentary System of Government headed by Sir Tafawa Balewa as the Prime Minister and Akinjide became a cabinet member and the first Minister of State for Education in Nigeria at the age of 29.

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He once said, “It was during my tenure as Education Minister that we established the University of Lagos. That university is an Act of Parliament unlike other universities in Nigeria. We also made some far-reaching political reforms for the country that just attained her independence”.

But the military coup of January 15, 1966 truncated the first republic and Akinjide went back to his legal practice. He was the National President of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) between 1970 and 1973 and Akinjide and Chief Obafemi Awolowo were appointed Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1978. Both of them feted their guests at Ikoyi Hotel, though they occupied different halls.

By 1979, Akinjide joined his former cabinet members in the first republic to form NPN. Unlike Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) that held sway in Ibadan and other Western Region, NPN was not popular in the region but widely accepted, especially in the North. The party won the first presidential election in Nigeria and the late Alhaji Sheu Shagari became the President while Akinjide, who as the National Legal Adviser of the party became the Minister of Justice and Attorney General.

Both the party and the government were attacked by the progressives that did not see anything good in that government. Its performance became controversial till another election was held in 1983. Although Chief MKO Abiola, Akinloye and Akinjide deployed a lot of resources and energy to make NPN popular in the South West but their efforts were futile. While Abiola could not make any impact as NPN chieftain in Ogun State, Akinjide and Akinloye won the controversial 1983 governorship election for the party in Oyo State and Dr. Omololu Olunloyo became the governor of the state.

The same controversy trailed the 1983 presidential election where Shagari was re-elected, defeating Awolowo for the second term. UPN rejected the result of the election and proceeded to the tribunal and doubted the credibility of the Federal Electoral Commission of Nigeria (FEDECO) headed by Anthony Ani.
 

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Chief GOK Ajayi led other 24 lawyers to defend UPN while Akinjide with other 12 lawyers stood for NPN and President Sheu Shagari. Though NPN had more votes than the UPN, the bone of contention was that UPN said NPN did not have sufficient votes as required by law to form government.

The winner must have one-quarter of votes in two-thirds of the 19 states of the federation. This was where Akinjide’s mathematical ingenuity played out against a team of seasoned mathematicians, including Professors Ayodele Awojobi of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Lagos, Chike Obi of Mathematics at the University of Ibadan, assembled by Awolowo who had gone to court to defend his claims.

Shagari had 25 per cent or one-quarter in 12 states but failed to have 25 per cent in Kano State where he had 243,423 votes — the equivalent of 19.4percent of the 1,220,763 votes cast in total in that state. The controversy on how to get the two-third of 19 led to a legal tussle between the two parties and their loyalists.

While defending Shagari in court, Akinjide argued that the two-thirds of 19 is 12 two-thirds and not 13. He came to his rationalisation by dividing the 13th state (Kano) into three and votes cast in two-thirds of the state constituting the figure from where two-thirds of votes were said to have been secured by Shagari, earning Shagari the constitutionally required votes, in other words, through fractionalising of Kano State and going for the two-thirds of the votes in the state.

The Supreme Court eventually upheld the verdict of the election tribunal and ruled in favour of Shagari. Akinjide had at an interview told The Guardian that what many did not know is that he was a better lawyer than Awolowo while he admitted that Awolowo was a better politician.

He said, “You know what many people did not know is that I am a better lawyer than Chief Awolowo, but I must admit that he was a better politician than me. I have proved that severally in court but the 12 two-thirds matter was known to the people”.

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Fielding questions on how he did not play politics with Awolowo, he said, “Let me admit that if I and Chief Awolowo were in the same party, Yoruba nation might be better than this. But I can’t kowtow to him; I am a better lawyer and he is very good in politics. I know what is good for me and how to achieve it”.

Although Akinjide won the case for Shagari but that victory did not last as the military struck again and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and General Tunde Idiagbon took over the reign of government. Akinjide escaped to London where he lived for many years.

To him Nigeria’s problems started when the military ventured into government. He said, “We got it wrong through military coups because the military, instead of staying in the army, interfered several times in politics and some of them became politicians. I think that is the biggest mistake we made in the history of this country and I hope we will never make that mistake again.”

He was an avid supporter of ‘One Nigeria,’ though he supported restructuring as a way to keep the country one.He said,  “We are one and we will remain one. It is total nonsense for anybody to talk about breakaway. And if anybody tries it, they will never succeed.”

Comparing Parliamentary System of government to the Presidential, he said, “The two forms of government (parliamentary and presidential) are excellent. What is bad is some politicians’ attitude to politics. Yes, we moved from parliamentary system to presidential system, and frankly, I don’t see anything wrong in that, and in fact, presidential system of government is even good for us, because to become president you must secure votes throughout the country, instead of the narrow and small exercise in your locality as a prime minister. Which is not good enough. There is no problem with the type of government that you are running, except for the people’s attitude to money, which is the difference. If people do the right thing, we should cut our coat according to our size and only spend money according to what we earn.

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“Of all the continents of the world today, Africa is the poorest, and African citizens are also the poorest and the least developed. Why should that be the case?”Arguing that legislature must be on part time basis, Akinjide said, “When I was in politics, it was on part time basis. I still practised my law when I was a member of parliament. The only time you do it full time is only when you become a minister. Which was a full time job. And as a minister at that time, the currency was in pound sterling and a minister earned 3,000 pounds a year, and your money was paid into your bank account; that is all. So, the bank and everybody in the parliament knows how much you earn.

“There is a big difference between what we went through in those days and now. At the time I went into politics, there was no money in politics, but today politicians have a lot of money, which was unthinkable in those days and I do sincerely hope that all the money being earned by these politicians be reduced drastically, so that we can face the development of the country.

“There were a lot of Nigerians who were good in politics in those days and people I looked up to were the late Aminu Kano, Adegoke Adelabu in Ibadan, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Chief S.F. Durosaro, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was number one politician in Nigeria in those days and one of the leading politicians in the whole of Africa. In fact, if I am to pick the most leading politician in Africa in those days, I would pick Nnamdi Azikiwe as number one. He was a very rich journalist and a very great politician. I joined his political party when I started off.”

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