Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN (1931-2020), Nigeria’s Political Story And Heritage Of Legal Statemanship

By Godknows Igali, PhD

The terse text message from former Nigerian Federal Capital Territory Minister of State, the affectionate, Oloye Jumoke Akinjide “Daddy has passed on” authoritatively announced the transition of Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN on 21st April, 2020. Though subdued by reportages about COVID-19 pandemic, for many older Nigerians, this news was clearly, the shutting of a major door in the annals of the country’s legal history and indeed, the politics of the country’s founding fathers. Born on 4th November, 1931, in the sprawling city of Ibadan, the megalopolis of the Yoruba ethnic nationality and once the most populous city in West Africa, he was given the personal names of “Osuolale”, “Abimbola” and at baptism, christened “Richard”. Akinjide passed on at the age of 89 years, accomplished as a politician, at the twilight of the country’s pre-colonial days, the First Republic (1960-1966) and Second Republic (1979-1983). But he attained fame, relative affluence and distinction from his legal practice, which, on occasions, was marked by outstanding melodrama, becoming his niche and imprimatur.

The highest point of Chief Akinjide’s political cum legal career was in September 1979 when he had to face his erstwhile political leader and professional mentor, Leader of the Yorubas, Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the court of law. Just as it is in the field of international politics, it was American politician and writer, William Clay, who served in Congress for a record 32 years that once said “This is quite a game, politics. There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” In the turns and twists of political life, such interests could be varied, ranging from personal to group and also to ideological and even institutional. For Akinjide, this was the second time that his political path and that of his “Oga” clashed almost inveterately within a period of 20 years, but he nonetheless had to do the needful. This time, he stood for the interests of his new political family, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), as against those of Awolowo and his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), over the rulership of Nigeria, as the military acquiesced to returning political power to democratic governance.

It is important at this point to have a panoramic view of the political underpinnings which prevailed in those cradling days of Nigeria’s nationhood and how Akinjide’s political feud with one of the men whom he respected throughout his life, crept in. It is easily recalled that much of the tipping points and astonishingly soured comedies which characterized the sunset of British colonial rule in Nigeria, were played by strongmen who were also fiercely ethno-nationalistic personalities. In the paraphrased words of Julius Caesar: “these men stood like colossus; they strode all others under them”. Obviously, these early political leaders did not love the emergent Nigeria state less, but were unabashed by their attachment with their cultural and sub-national identities and the need for self-preservation at that level. The three dominant figures who emerged as political masterminds, followed a pattern bellying the geo-demographic architecture of the country.

The master of them all was Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, who though an Igbo by birth, was raised in the North-Central town of Zungeru, in present day Niger State. It is recounted, that he spoke very few words in Igbo language until he was about 8 years old and rather communicated more freely in Hausa. Azikiwe’s political antecedent saw him initially adopt a more nationalistic approach as he spent his adolescent years in Calabar and Lagos, including attending the famous Methodist Boys High School, and quickly imbibed the Yoruba culture. It is after these that he finally moved to the melting pot, the United States of America to attend, Columbia, Pennsylvania and Howard Universities and several other institutions of learning. “Zik” as he was more easily called, was also a great sportsman and a journalist who practiced his profession more in Lagos. His approach to politics was therefore, open-minded. The political groups which he formed in 1944, that is, the “National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun” (NCNC), were therefore more broad-minded. In the course of time, the great “Zik of Africa” also became clobbered into becoming pan-regional as his political fortunes floundered in his western base and some of his own ethnic kin such as Michael Okpara, Osita Agwuna, Nwafor Orizu, M.C.K Ajuluchukwu were quick to pull him into their waiting embrace.

Next was Sir Ahmadu Bello, direct fourth generation descendant of the Muslim cleric and jihadist, Uthman Dan Fodio, and holder of the title of Sardauna of Sokoto. Though a recipient of the Knight of the British Empire (KBE), he was conservative, and head of the pan northern platform – Jamiyya Mutanen Arewa which metamorphosized into the political party “Northern People’s Congress” in 1951. Though he was apparently pro Hausa/Fulani and pan Islamic, interesting enough some of his closest aides, including the influential Secretary to the Executive Council of Northern Nigeria and Private Secretary, Chief Sunday Awoniyi was a Christian and of Yoruba ethnic nationality. The last of the personalistic leaders or what the South Americans would call “caudillos” was Chief Obafemi Awolowo. “Awo”, as he was called by admirers; young and old, was highly cerebral and nationalistic, a self-made man and a lawyer of highest distinction. Like his peers, his political outlook was strappingly “Yoruboid”. Unapologetic about his Yorubaness, Awo also had the title of “Asiwaju Omo Oduduwa” and formed his political movement “Egbe Omo Oduduwa” in 1945 which later transformed into the Action Group political Party in 1951.

Retraced backwards, Nigeria was, like several other British colonies, a testing ground for their senior civil servant as they took turns to rule over vast territories and peoples as Governors-General. The First Governor-General of Nigeria, who came from a military background, Lord Frederick Lugard recognized the inherent diversity in 1914 when he merged the composite units that now make up Nigeria. He further spelt this out amply in his handing over notes to Sir Hugh Clifford in 1919 who succeeded him. Clifford was fairly familiar with the complexities of ethnic based politics in Africa, having just served for seven years as Governor General of Gold Coast from where he was sent to Nigeria. In his Clifford’s Constitutions which came out in 1922, the dividing lines following ethnic and cultural antecedents were again drawn out. In 1925, Clifford was himself posted to Ceylon and succeeded in quick succession by three other British civil servants as Governors General; Graeme Thompson (1925-193), Donald Cameroon (1931-1935) and Bernard Bourdilllon (1935-1943), during whose periods, Nigerian nationalists began to advocate for the abrogation of the Clifford’s Constitution and installation of regionalism. In 1943, Sir Arthur Richard’s arrived Nigeria as Governor General, with robust experience both in Africa and other places. Five years after his arrival i.e. in 1946, he promulgated the Richards Constitution which clearly adumbrated that Nigeria was a tripod, which arguably still holds true till today. That is the Hausa-Fulani in the north, Yoruba to the west and finally the Igbos who were eastwards; all of these with several smaller groups interspersed in between. So, the Richards Constitution, which was short lived as the stay of its proponent, who piteously also retired from service shortly afterwards, clearly advocated for formalization of regionalism along the three fault lines. His own successor, Sir John Stuart Macpherson on taking over as Governor General in 1951, organized the Ibadan Conference of all political and ethnic leaders in Nigeria in 1950 to enable have a greater understanding of the political currents. He also came up with his own Constitution, further endorsing regionalism. It provided “limited self-autonomy” for Nigeria and helped to accelerate Africanization of governance but was replete with protestations, so by 1953, he arranged for all Nigerian political leaders to travel to participate in the August 1953 Nigeria (London) Constitutional Conference. This gave way to the 1953 Lyttleton Constitution, named after Secretary of the colonies, Sir Oliver Lyttleton. It was the last of these colonial constitutions which also gave a formal nod to federalism along the lines of regionalism.

Returning to the politics of Western Nigeria, Awolowo’s political hold over the region began to experience dismemberment as fissures and cleavages started to creep in from different directions. While “Zikism” took some sizeable part of his Yoruba intelligentsia in the Lagos area, the more hard-hitting were the feuds that came in between Awolowo and his next in command, Chief Samuel Akintola. As if rehashing the Yoruba wars of the 19th century it was, at a time, a fight of all against all others. Akintola fell off with him, taking along, most of his people from his Oyo group. Some of these included such strong politicians as leading legal minds such as Chief Remi Fani-Kayode and the Ibadan strongman and leader of Ibadan People’s Party, Chief Adisa Akinloye, founder of the Ibadan Peoples Party (IPP) and not the least, the younger, Akinjide himself. Akinjide therefore, along with these followers of Akintola, joined in forming a re-enacting Nigerian National Democratic Party which had long died before going into a partnership with the north. It was in this process that Akinjide became a Minister of Education in the First Republic until the first military coup in Nigeria of January 15, 1966 sent them all packing.

It needs be stated, that the sad event of January 15, 1966 was the third major military putsch in Africa. I had written in another paper that “By so doing, Nigeria had joined the infamy of its neighbour, Togo, where President Sylvanus Olympio, had on 13th January, 1963 been similarly assassinated and jolted out of power; being Africa’s first post-colonial military coup. Even closer home, in Benin Republic, then known as Dahomey, rebellious young military officers on 22nd October, 1964, overthrew the Government of President Hubert Maga. Almost like a zig-zag relay, on 24th February, 1966, in nearby Ghana followed suit, the sagely and intrepid Pan Africanist, Osagyefor (teacher), Kwame Nkrumah was humiliated out of office, even though, under less violent circumstances”. Thereafter, the Nigerian military initially held on power for 13 years; although they had pretexts to return over and again.

Since 1966, the road to democratic governance was tortuous. General Yakubu Gowon, who then became Head of State and ruled for 9 years failed on the promise of early return on no few occasions, thereby dampening popular trust. His military successor, General Murtala Mohammed, seemingly altruistic, having constituted a Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) in October 1975 and outlined a programme for exit from power was brutally killed in an unsuccessful military coup on February 13, 1976. So, when General Olusegun Obasanjo, the fourth military ruler, re-echoed the promise of his slain boss, Murtala and went on to constitute a Constituent Assembly (CA), it was with mixed excitements to accept the commitments. However, one thing that made many from the political class have some measure of confidence in Obasanjo and his erstwhile boss, was the calibre of persons who they choose to superintend the transition process. Chief Rotimi Williams, who was Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was visibly the most outstanding lawyer of his days having being called to the English Bar in 1943. He was the first Nigerian to be made Queens Counsel in 1958 and was one of two to be conferred Senior Advocates of Nigeria in 1976. As far back as 1959, he had also served as President of Nigerian Bar Association, and Minister of Local government and Justice in the Western Region. Similarly, the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly (CA), Dr Egbert Udo-Udoma was the first African to obtain a Doctorate Degree in Law in 1944 from St Catherine College, Oxford University. Afterwards, he had served in the House of representatives for 9 years, was Chief Justice of Uganda and a judge of the Nigerian Supreme Court. Hence the product of their efforts: the 1979 Constitution, though a major departure from the 1960 Constitution, remains a major grundnorm. In the same vein, Chief Michael Ani, an outstanding Civil Servant was appointed as Chairman, Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) in November 1976, along with 23 other very outstanding Nigerians to conduct the election. During the crisis after the January 15, 1966 military, as a top bureaucrat, he headed a panel on harmonization of conditions of service in the various regions.

In both the CDC and the CA, Akinjide served and was visibly one of the most prolific members. His singular role in drafting the 1979 Constitution is underscored by his detailed published speeches rendered at various sessions. These became, almost as a working document. In the subsequent setting up of political parties, he returned to his political cluster in the resurgence of the Northern Peoples Congress under the new name National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Admittedly however, it was the most national and wide spread of the six political parties which emerged in the Second Republic. In the subsequent election, he emerged Legal Adviser of the Party. This was deserving as he had served as President of the Nigeria Bar Association from 1970-1973 and became one of the first 13 lawyers to earn Senior Advocates of Nigeria in 1978.

In Section 34 of Decree 73 (Electoral Degree), and later contained as one of the main innovations of the 1979 Constitution which has become a major cohesive factor for national integration, is the provision that a candidate must obtain 25 percent of votes cast in two-third of states in the federation to be declared winner. Interestedly, the onus fell on Akinjide to test this provision in the court and was the gravamen of the legal battle against Awolowo. After the election, which held on August 11, 1979, the Chief Electoral Returning Officer, announced Shehu Shagari of NPN as the winner. According to the result, Shagari scored a total of 5,688,857 votes followed by Awolowo whose total votes was 4,916,651. Arising from this, FEDECO held the NPN had secured 25% of votes cast in two-thirds of the required number of states according to the extant law. On the other hand, conceding that Shagari had obtained the highest number of votes cast at the election, Awolowo contended that mathematically speaking, he did not meet the requirements as two-thirds of 19 states was not 13 states.

In the subsequent legal tussle, Awolowo secured the services of the greatest legal minds in the country such as G.O.K Ajayi, SAN, Abraham Adesanya, SAN as well as mathematical geniuses, including Ayodele Awojobi, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Lagos and Chike Obi, professor of mathematics at the University of Ibadan. At a point in the legal battle, Awolowo, appeared in court, adorned in his own 1946 Inner Temple, legal garbs. The real legal scrimmage, as technical as it was, was a kind of archetypal David and Goliath kind of legal bout. Apart from the fact that the NPN legal team did not near the renown of the UPN team, in actual professional experience, the latter was by far more highly rated.

It will remain to his eternal credit that Akinjide was totally unbaffled and self-confident to take on the legal and technical armada. This finds explanations on many fronts. First and foremost, is Akinjide’s known brilliance and sharpness of mind. In 1946, when Awolowo was called to the Bar, in the Honorable Society of the Inner temple, Akinjide was just a high-flying student at Oduduwa College in Ile Ife, where he later made a record distinction Grade One (Aggregate 6) in 1950 and emerged one of the best graduating students in the whole country. This was to repeat itself in the United Kingdom where he had gone to study law, as he far outpaced his peers in performance. Indeed, on completion of his legal studies in 1955, he returned to Nigeria and joined politics while practicing Law, under the flying seal of Awolowo’s existing structure; Action Group which was in alliance with his own home IPP. Although relatively junior to his opponents, all who were involved appreciated his sharp analytical skills, which saw him rise quite exponentially in the profession. In this case, Akinjide had to apply all known legal tools; i.e. dealing with the case from the foundations of law. Since law has often been defined as the science of the art of justice, he had to apply the best use of logic, arithmetical, philosophy and common sense. He had to adopt an Aquinian kind of approach, detailed in his book “Treatise on Law”, in seeing jurisprudence as a journey into a world of rationalization with an ultimate destination at the common good. He brought to bear a positivist legal reasoning which graphically demonstrated the natural imperative, that after several years lost to military rule, the kind of political and legal bickering which would give pretext for them to come back and take power again had to be avoided, so a fair solution had to be found.

On a personal level, it needs be remembered that Akinjide came from a long lineage of warriors. It is recalled that after the break-up of the Oyo Empire, the subsequent Yoruba Wars set a reign of confusion in the House of Oduduwa. His forebears were therefore amongst the original band of strongmen who joined in 1829 to found Ibadan. He had grown up reckoning the beauty and strength in honor, valor and bravery. His genealogy had been defined in not backing out from sturdy challenges but taking them head on.

Akinjide made his complex and somewhat mesmerizing arguments before the Supreme Court, stating thus “in order to get one-quarter of the total votes cast in the thirteenth state, the reckoning must not be the total votes but two-thirds of the total votes; meaning that once a candidate satisfied the requirement of obtaining one-quarter of the total votes cast in twelve states and in two-thirds of the thirteenth state, then he should be accepted as having satisfied the requirement of scoring at least one-quarter of the total votes cast in each of at least two-thirds of the nineteen states of the federation.”

On September 26, 1979, four days to swearing-in, the majority judges of the Nigerian Supreme Court, comprised of some of the most celebrated jurists, upheld Akinjide’s argument except one who dissented, so he was able to defeat the great legal team of the opponent and the lineup of mathematical prodigy.

Besides staving off a major constitutional crisis which could have arisen from a hung election at the time, Akinjide’s ability to apply law and reason to resolve lacunas in the electoral laws at the time, also brought out some doctrines which are today been applied by electoral tribunals. One of these is the doctrine of “substantial compliance”. Some other legal writers also suggest that it established the need of ensuring adequate political expediency if there is “substantial compliance” looking at all the activities pertaining to the particular election in question.

In the subsequent Shagari administration, Akinjide was made the Attorney General of the Federation (1979-1983) and was renowned for a number of law reforms. Most prominent amongst them was the removal of firing squad for armed robbers from the penal system. As it pertains to law practice, he was also one of the first lawyers of his ilk to start the regular publication of law journals which has continued as helpful tool to lawyers and researchers. During the Nigeria and Cameroon border dispute, he was brought onboard as an adviser to the Federal Ministry of Justice, as the main case was under the retainership of a British Law firm, Friedman and Co. Akinjide was also the founding Chartered Editor of the Nigerian Monthly Law Report (NMLR). He was a fellow of the Institute of Arbitrators and a Past Chairman and Life Member of the Body of Benchers, of which he was the most senior member for many years. As a lawyer, his contributions to the corpus of jurisprudence was gargantuan, surpassed by only the likes of Chief Rotimi Williams.

Outside practice of law and politics, Akinjide was a founding member of Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE) in 1975. He was also Pro Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the University of Jos (1976-1979). He also remained a voice for the people of the South West in the plethora of consultations and bridge building interplay between leaders across the country. He also served in the 2005 Political Conference and in 2014 National Conference and as one of the oldest delegates at the age of 82 years. He was also a major moderating factor in the very peculiar politics of Ibadan.

increasingly, the play of politics in Nigeria, like much of Africa is a far departure from the foundational ethos of ideology, soundness of principles, deployment of intellect and wit, great patriotism, sacrifice and hard work. Indeed, a centric cause which most of the founding fathers held dearly, that is from the days of the Ibadan Conference of 1951 through the series of the Constitutional Conferences, the First Republic, the shock and pains of the Civil War, the series of military coups till the end of the Third Republic had been the need to keep the house together. Sadly, like the metaphor of stars of the morning, that generation of leaders, continues to fade away with each passing day, eclipsing with them great moments and landmarks which have brought the nation thus far. As it is the way of men, the days of the founding father are thinning out, eclipsing with them great moments and landmarks which have brought the nation thus far.

Unfortunately, the exit of Akinjide in particular, marks a major point of departure and only a recommitment to the ideals which the likes of him stood for are needed even at times like this in our journey into nationhood and state-building. The code of life was etched in solid character at the personal level and driven by the quest for the common good as the object of political participation.

Dr Igali, a former Ambassador and Administrator is also an award-winning author.

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