Home Opinion ROA Akinjide: What Legacy? | Olatunji Dare

ROA Akinjide: What Legacy? | Olatunji Dare

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FROM time to time, this page offers a retrospective (“Where are they now?”) on persons who were once prominent and frequent newsmakers, but about whom one now scours the news media almost in vain.

The last instalment (October 8, 2019) featured, among other lapsed newsmakers, the legal titan, Chief Richard Osuolale Abimbola Akinjide.  He belonged in the second set of attorneys conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and was one of a dozen or so who held the prestigious rank of QC (Queen’s Counsel), a colonial-era preferment that the indigenous distinction of SAN supplanted.

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In the colonial and postcolonial policy dialogue, Akinjide’s contribution was unfailingly informed and incisive, a product of his fecund mind and omnivorous reading.   Even when you disagreed with his point of view, you could not but admire his eloquence, his mastery of the material, and the cut and thrust of his argumentation.  You always learned something new from his submissions.

Shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan’s misbegotten National Conference in which Akinjide was a delegate, his interventions in debates on national issues became few and far between, then ceased altogether.

Nothing called attention to his withdrawal from the public sphere more poignantly than his daughter-politician Jumoke Akinjide’s misfortunes.  A former Minister for the Abuja Federal Capital Territory during the Jonathan Administration, she had been having a running battle with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission over an alleged misappropriation of some N650 million, little more than pocket change to minor functionaries in some federal establishments.

She paid back the sum at issue, but the prosecutors would not drop the charge.  And yet, when it seemed to matter most, her father, the legal colossus, did not come up with some recondite forensic doctrine to put an end to all that nonsense.  Where was he, I had asked in the column under reference?

A relation of his by marriage told me on reading the piece that Akinjide was too frail to engage in such theatrics anymore.  Akinjide died last week, aged 88 years.

A lawyer’s lawyer, Akinjide was perhaps best known for the disingenuous formula which moved the Federal Electoral Commission to hold that by, winning the most votes in 12 of the 19 states and in one-half of two-thirds of a 13th State, the NPN candidate, Shehu Shagari, had won a majority “in each of at least two-thirds of the states of the federation” as stipulated by the Constitution, and thus the 1979 presidential election outright.

The Supreme Court affirmed, and the joke was on those who had dismissed Akinjide’s formula as crack-brained.   In the legal battles that pitted the Federal Government against the states controlled by the Opposition in the Second Republic, Akinjide was a constant figure as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, smirking as the courts did the government’s bidding in case after case.

The calculus that a faction of the Oyo State legislature employed to impeach Governor Rasheed Ladoja in January 2006 called to mind Akinjide’s “Twelve two-thirds” formula that had clinched the Presidency for Shehu Shagari in 1979.  Like that formula, the Oyo calculus was so contrived that one was almost certain that the courts would dismiss it as a brazen assault not merely on the law but on common sense.

The most senior judge in Oyo thought nothing of playing major enabler in a so-called  impeachment produced by, among sundry illegalities, disobeying a court injunction, and gratuitously stripping elected members of the State Assembly of their rights and privileges.
Akinjide nevertheless endorsed the arrangement stoutly and gibed that it was a fait accompli the courts would be loath to reverse if precedent and the “doctrine of efficacy” still counted for anything.  The courts were not impressed.

Some commentators went so far as to insist that the Oyo calculus, represented Akinjide’s investment in a scheme that would have seen his son installed deputy governor of Oyo State after the purported impeachment, with the blessing of the area godfather himself, Lamidi Adedibu.

I prefer to believe that Akinjide was just being Akinjide, and would have gladly served, if asked, as a legal strategist for Christopher Alao-Akala, the new governor thrown up by the impeachment, or entered an amicus curiae brief.  It was all so troubling in a figure who should by right be numbered unequivocally among Nigeria’s pre-eminent statesmen.

Akinjide was elected into the House of Representative during the First Republic at the relatively tender age of 28, on the platform of the NCNC and quickly attracted notice as
one of its ablest parliamentary debaters.

When the ruling federal coalition partners, the NPC and the NCNC, took advantage of a rift in the Opposition Action Group to smash it and take over Western Nigeria where it was firmly entrenched, Akinjide was in the vanguard.
The union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Chief S. L.Akintola’s UPP morphed into the NNDP with none other than Akinjide as its general secretary, kicked out the NCNC, appropriated the spoils unto itself, and nailed its sail to the NPC’s mast.

This arrangement redounded mightily to Akinjide’s benefit.  He was appointed Federal Minister of Education. But it ended all too soon.  Within a year, the military struck and toppled the government.

Akinjide returned to his law practice and was doing so well that when military governor Adeyinka Adebayo named him commissioner of finance for the former Western Nigeria, apparently without first consulting him, he declined on the threshold, to the admiration of  Nigerians already chafing at the brusque ways of the military, this writer included.

They thought that he was in effect saying a farewell to all the self-inflicted injuries that were part and parcel of politics and governance.  That, alas, was a misreading of the man and the moment.  Akinjide re-entered the fray as soon as the ban on party politics was lifted in 1978 and ran for governor of Oyo State the following year on the platform of the NPN, now home to his former NNDP associates.

In a desultory and ill-tempered campaign, he berated the “free education” policy of the Action Group that had transformed Western Nigeria, village for village, into perhaps the most literate territory in Africa south of the Sahara.  That policy, he snickered in a television debate with his UPN opponent Chief Bola Ige, had produced only “letter writers” and armed robbers.

Ige, a master or repartee, thereupon challenged Akinjide to identify for the public benefit those members of the Akinjide family who, having profited from the “free education” policy of the Action Group, subsequently became armed robbers.

Enraged, Akinjide demanded that Ige withdraw the imputation. Ever so sedately, Ige repeated the challenge.

Akinjide stomped out of the studio, knowing that he had done lasting damage to his person and to his chances of winning the election, which were never more than slim. He would take his revenge several months later when, as chief legal strategist for the NPN, he deployed the deus ex machina that clinched the presidential election for Shehu Shagari on the first ballot.

That contrivance, I have it on good authority, was not fashioned from a sudden flash of inspiration, nor from a serendipitous moment. Akinjide, as was his wont, had for months x-rayed the electoral laws, probed their interstices for any weak spots, and detected every lacuna.  His labours were rewarded by the discovery of what he called “a joker,” an ace that he kept up his sleeve until the right moment, and then used it to stunning effect.

Akinjide’s accustomed forensic legerdemain failed him in the Shugaba case, however.  The case centred on the kidnapping and deportation to Chad, in the dead of night, of the Majority Leader in the Borno House of Assembly, Shugaba Abdurahman Darman, based on a claim that he was Chadian, as was his father.  They produced as their star witness a woman who claimed that she was Shugaba’s mother and was, like Shugaba’s father, Chadian.

For the Federal Government, Akinjide cited to no avail a dazzling array of foreign authorities, leaving out, as Shugaba’s leading counsel, the sedate GOK Ajayi (SAN) reminded the court again and again, the only document that really mattered in the case: the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In a lawyer concerned merely to win cases, such conduct is unexceptionable, admirable even.  But law is not just about winning cases. Nor is it principally about manipulating technicalities to gain forensic advantage.  When the letter of the law is wrenched from its spirit, when the desire to win cases supplants the need to do justice, the law becomes a mere tool, bereft of any redeeming social purpose.

That is the context in which Akinjide’s 1979 “joker,” his advocacy in Shugaba’s case, his intervention in the Oyo debacle and in other contentious issues of Nigeria’s political history must be weighed. And the question that follows is this: What is the legacy?

I suspect that, by and large, it will be judged as a legacy of artfulness; that Akinjide will be remembered more for being clever for brief, shining, opportunistic moments than for seeking to make his society wiser and more just.

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