Olu Onagoruwa, the brave, finally leaves

Olu Onagoruwa

From today all roads lead to Odogbolu, the country home of Dr. Gabriel Olusoga Onagoruwa, more widely known as Olu Onagoruwa. Indeed, befittingly a farewell for him began yesterday with a valedictory service at the Lagos High Court by his colleagues of the Silk and members of the Nigerian Bar Association in general. A man of great learning, ever so warm, after his wife, Lillian Titi, (known to and fondly called by a close circle as LT) but addressed by a great many as Mama Dapo, Onagoruwa’s next love was law and law books were his permanent companion. He was always in his element reading and arguing law. He rejoiced in the beauty of law, writing, interpreting it and hitting you in the face with the fundamentals of law. Without law there can be no society; we would just be in a jungle, he was wont to say to me. I will come back to this presently. Later last night there was service of songs held at Christ Apostolic Church, Ebute Metta, a church for which the Odunaiyas of Obanlearo fame are renowned. Today his remains would be received by the Odogbolu Development Council (OCDC). The grand finale is tomorrow at the Christ Apostolic Church branch in the town.

For him although the law is to protect and advance a society, for Onagoruwa, it is a tool for the protection of the defenceless and the downtrodden. This was at the background of all his struggles. And struggles he fought aplenty. Onagoruwa did not need to know you. All it required was for him to just read anything in the papers that bordered on injustice. He would take it up. And hold it, free of charge. As is often the case, this brought him into collision with the authorities. All through the military era he was in the trenches with the human rights fighters, Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome Kuti and Femi Falana. Between him and Fawehinmi, one had to be outside so that either would be available to defend their clan. But often Fawehinmi would elect to go in while Onagoruwa should stay. Even then Onagoruwa was in several times as well. I remember his readiness to defend Okar for which he had to be locked up together with Tunji Braithwaite. He handled the Amakiri Case whose head was forcibly shaved for inconveniencing a governor on his birthday! Usually waiting as their second line of defence were Akinrinsola of blessed memory and Dr. Tunji Abayomi, both of whom admired Onagoruwa no end for his scholarship and courage as well as his nobility of spirit.

He was not one to forget his benefactor. He lived in Abraham Adesanya’s house in London where he had his degrees from the University of London. He was enrolled in the Inner Temple in England. It was an inexplicable gesture which he was to say he would never forget. He struggled but the bulk of the family income came through the wife who was his pillar of strength to the end. When he regaled the guests with his life story on the occasion of his 50th birthday 30 years ago, it was pin-drop silence. It was on the occasion Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his hero, pronounced him the Olu of the Onagoruwa dynasty. Not without cause or inside knowledge. His uncle the first managing director of Cooperative Bank had made Olu Onagoruwa the head of the entire Onagoruwa family and left so many things in his hand. Chief Onagoruwa, himself a lawyer brought up Olu. He lived with him in Enugu and Port Harcourt. In 1979, following an article he wrote in the Sunday Times some policemen were sent to arrest him and take him to the East. On the way, a sinister discussion in Igbo language ensued unknown to them that he understood the language and could speak it fluently. When they finished Onagoruwa reopened the discussion in Igbo! The rest is anybody’s guess. They almost had an accident from disbelief. Crestfallen, they calmed down and that prepared the ground for his release. While he was the Attorney General and Minister of Justice every attempt was made to bring him down. It was about the same time he faced a bitter family feud that ended in the Appeal Court in a lead judgment read by Justice Niki Tobi later of the Supreme Court. The appeal Court acquitted him. This column wrote extensively on his travail in The Guardian issue of February 3, 1994 and March 3, a month later. While in government, decrees were issued behind his back. Typical of him he disowned them publicly and resigned.

Olu Onagoruwa was beaten, he was jeered at, he was scorned; he was humiliated. Much as he went through exceptionally harrowing travails no blows devastated him as much as the murder of his second son, Toyin, a lawyer, right in his house by gunmen sent to him, and years later the death of his wife whom he would call “Mine” at every turn, at all times and on every subject. With the death of Toyin he had a stroke from which he was not going to recover in the first place. Then came the wife’s death. With the departure of the wife his health deteriorated, and what sustained him was the love of his children, Dapo, Seun and Yetunde who took remarkable care of him, giving him all the attention and providing all his needs. Chief Ayo Adebanjo was to remark this at his 80th birthday celebration.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday years back, his daughter-in-law, Eriye wife of Seun, said this much: “Doc as I have come to observe is firstly a father who is so passionate about his kids and his kids adore him a lot as well. I remember when his daughter got married last year, at the end of the ceremony he cried so much at the thought of her leaving him. Recently he told me, ‘Eriye, I did not want to frighten the young man (referring to his daughter’s husband) I would have told Yetty and him to move into my house’. His wife immediately quipped. Turning to him she said, ‘Mine (their pet name for each other) would you like Eriye and her husband to move to Port Harcourt?’ He pretended to be deeply engrossed in his book and refused to answer the question!”

There goes away from our midst the one all friends called Olu, but whom I called the lion. Fearless, brave, erudite and full of warmth, Olu Onagoruwa, SAN, OFR and pastor in the vineyard of his Lord, leaves with the love of not just of his children, but of the multitude, the high and the lowly, the love of all of us to whom he demonstrated love and at whose service he placed his immense talents and doggedness.



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