Olu Onagoruwa (1936 – 2017)
With the passing of former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Dr. Gabriel Olusoga Onagoruwa, on Friday, July 21, death has once again dealt the circle of legal luminaries and Nigeria’s depleting human rights community a painful blow. Renowned as a prolific legal mind and a courageous man in the face of tyranny, Onagoruwa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and frontline human rights activist, was a leading figure in the assembly of civil society’s critical mass. Nigeria had the benefit of his advocacy and activism for decades till he died, aged 80.
Like the late Gani Fawehinmi, his long-time friend and kindred in activism, Onagoruwa was a steadfast revolutionary, who lived an illustrious life of passionate social crusading at a time it was very dangerous to genuinely express personal grouses against the establishment. Despite his privileged position and undaunted by the consequences of his convictions, he fought many battles, amidst debilitating health, in the interest of the masses.
Dr. Onagoruwa was shot into limelight, when, at the instance of the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, under the leadership of Lateef Jakande, urged him to join the late Gani in defence of the brutally assaulted Nigerian Observer journalist, Minere Amakiri. Amakiri had had his head shaved and detained by aides of the then military governor of Rivers State, Alfred Diete-Spiff, for reporting teachers’ strike on the governor’s birthday. A celebrated case reputed for its courageous encounter with naked military power, it added another feather to Onagoruwa’s cap as a distinguished human rights lawyer.
Born Gabriel Olusoga Onagoruwa in 1936, in his native town, Odogbolu, Ogun State, the late lawyer studied law at the University of London, where he graduated with an LL.B in 1964. He thereafter went on to obtain an LL.M and then completed his Ph.D in Constitutional Law from the same university in 1968. A member of the Inner Temple of the English Bar, he later attended the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Nigerian bar in 1971.
In a fulfilling experience and practice spanning over five decades, Onagoruwa traversed many professional landmarks with remarkable success. For many years he was the legal adviser and company secretary of the Daily Times, the flagship of Nigerian journalism at the time. Whilst he managed the Dr. Oluonagoruwa Chambers as its principal partner for over 35 years, he was also a prolific writer and newspaper contributor of informed analyses on constitutional matters and socio-political issues, and had in his kitty over 250 articles in various journals and media.
He was also a distinguished scholar and university lecturer, whose insightful publications attested to the robustness of his intellect on legal and constitutional discourses. As a researcher and intellectual, Onagoruwa was a Fulbright scholar as well as a recipient of the Hays Scholarship, on the platform of which he attended the Academy of American and International Law Centre, USA. Amongst his publications are The Nigerian Civil War, Fundamental Human Rights and International Law (1969), The Amakiri Case: Press Freedom In Crisis (1978), Law and Contemporary Nigeria: Reflections (2004).
In the heydays of military dictatorship, Onagoruwa maintained engaging comradeship with activists like Eskor Toyo, Gani Fawehinmi and Beko Ramsome-Kuti. Although like them he was a crusader in the trenches protecting human rights, good governance and democracy, he cultivated a style of his own using the elevated instrument of the law, jurisprudence and intellectual advocacy to engage unpopular policies of state. This was especially evident when the June 12, 1993 election, won by businessman and politician, Chief M. K. O. Abiola, was unjustifiably annulled by the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida. Just as he protested the blatant injustice, he, together with other activists, challenged the emergent contraption termed the Interim National Government headed by Ernest Shonekan, as an aberration contrived to perpetuate military dictatorship.
The effervescent clamour for justice was a short-lived battle because, upon the truncation of Shonekan’s tenure, Onagoruwa was appointed the Attorney-general and Minister of Justice in November 1993 by the brutal Sani Abacha regime, and was later selected as the African representative to the team that drafted Ethiopia’s constitution in 1994. According to him and others who had championed Abiola’s cause, they accepted Abacha’s offer in order to help actualise the electoral mandate of the business mogul.
Reputed to be a thoroughbred professional and man of enviable character, who believed in his personal dignity, Onagoruwa surprised many when he accepted to serve in that government. Not only was his appointment assumed to have given legitimacy to the Abacha government, it created tension between him and his human rights comrades outside government.
Unfortunately again, tried as he did to carry out his duties diligently, his positions were often undermined by the regime. Such was the precarious situation in which he found himself that, whilst he served in the government headed by an enemy of human rights, he managed to maintain a dignified and positive outlook about the supremacy of the law over arbitrary power. By so doing, he stirred Abacha’s hornet’s nest, since his principled position was inconsistent with the absolute subservience demanded by the maximum ruler. When his differences with Abacha became irreconcilable, Onagoruwa had to leave the government.
Before long, Onagoruwa’s son, Oluwatoyin, a young lawyer who worked with the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), was murdered in suspicious circumstances by people believed to be Abacha’s thugs. Onagoruwa was so devastated by this blow that he was struck by devastating ill-health and he retired into despair and pain.
When upcoming social critics interrogate the present political setting as well as the effect of past events on it, some are likely to throw up perplexing questions about how it was that a principled character, refined personality and activist-lawyer like Olu Onagoruwa came to fraternise with a brutal junta. But it can be argued that the brief sojourn of men like Onagoruwa in the government of Gen. Abacha was not only well-intentioned towards retrieving the popular mandate given to Abiola, it had moderating influences on the brutality and perfidy that characterised the Abacha rule.
As history has shown, the regime was better for it, because the constructive policies thrown at the government by the few progressives like Onagoruwa and Alex Uruemu Ibru as well as conscientious soldiers like Chief of Army Staff, Mohammed Christopher Alli, Allison Madueke and some others created room for the Nigerian people to frontally engage the administration and prepared the ground for the neonatal democracy.
With Onagoruwa’s death, certainly Nigeria has lost a genuine patriot.