TRIBUTE: Bamidele Aturu: Painful Exit Of The People’s Lawyer, By Akintunde Akanni
Bamidele Aturu’s path first crossed mine at the Civil Liberties Organization, CLO, in the mid 1990s where I shared the same office with his bosom friend, Omolade Adunbi, now a teacher of anthropology at the University of Michigan. Such was his consistent warm disposition and large-heartedness to people that BF [as we fondly called him] referred to everyone whose path he crossed as “my brother” or “my sister”.
Way back in 1994 or thereabout, this writer, as the then spokesperson for the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, was just settling in at the CLO secretariat when BF sauntered in to my desk one morning. He had come to introduce to me a lawyer friend, Kunle Omotimirin. He wanted me to help with publicity for Kunle who had just started what he called Ireti Housing Agency. “Kunle is a reliable property consultant and a very reliable professional colleague,” I recalled him telling me. Not given to time wasting, as soon as his friend and I exchanged cards, Aturu hurried out of the CLO secretariat in the company of Kunle.
At that time, I had just gotten to know BF in person. Until then I only knew him from afar on account of his activism, the most celebrated being his rejection of the NYSC award. As an NCE-trained teacher, he had served his country meritoriously, and during the NYSC passing out ceremony, the then Military Governor of Niger State, Lawan Gwadabe, made to honour him publicly with a handshake. BF declined the same handshake many were dying to have! Perhaps, that was our brother’s way of publicly demonstrating his oft repeated mantra: “He who must go to equity, must do so with clean hands”.
This year, more than 30 years after he shamed the military administrator, Aturu offered the world a reminder that being comfortable and popular had not wiped away the trait he had as a poor jobless graduate who believed in fighting for justice and championing the cause of the downtrodden in his country. One of Nigeria’s most popular activist lawyers, he was nominated to the just concluded National Conference. He declined, as he said, because he did not want to be part of a charade that would further deplete his country’s national treasury. Not even the possibility of earning a cool N12m earmarked for each of the delegates was enough to convince the lawyer to accept the appointment. Aturu, his soul mate and friend of many years, Chima Ubani, and several of us in the human rights movement had clamoured for sovereign national conference to address the political directionlessness of this country for years to no avail. The best version of the said conference in the vision of the sitting government is the jamboree to which those who should be leaders of the country constitute the smallest fraction. Some of us have additional reservations, which will be discussed in another context in future.
After he introduced Kunle to me, Aturu and I chatted more often any time he visited the CLO secretariat. And he frequented the place. He was a leading member of the organization and was one of the lawyers most relied upon by CLO for pro bono legal services. Yours sincerely never foresaw the likelihood of soon becoming a client of BF. But this happened sooner than any one had envisaged.
In 1995, some seven days to the anniversary of the June 12 1993 election, I was arrested and detained after I, on behalf of CLO, condemned the arrest of the respected former Governor of the old Ondo State, Pa Adekunle Ajasin and 500 others at a NADECO meeting held at Pa Ajasin’s house. After first detaining me and the other arrested activists, including Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti, at Panti Police Station, the police charged us to court. The court granted us bail and adjourned the matter. But before the next adjourned date, a few police operatives who had been mandated to search my apartment had paid additional visits to extort bribes from my people at home.
As the adjourned date approached, rumour dribbled around that given the increasing tension generated by the activities of NADECO and other civil rights groups, I would be re-arrested and detained. It would not be wise for me to fall victim of an already sensed danger. Yet, I had debated within myself: would it not anger the court more If I didn’t show up? I later learnt from my lawyer wife that that would have earned me a warrant of arrest from the court. Although a lawyer in the regular employ of the organization was dedicated to my case, my concerns deepened by the day. The respectable lawyers in the house, including Eze Onyekpere, Ogaga Ifowodo and a couple of others had to be at some other courts on the next adjourned date for my case.
Somehow, BF got to know about my worries. He sent word to me that I should leave the matter to him. He promised to be in court even at the risk of being arrested too. BF promptly arrived the court as Alhaji Sina Ayekoti, veteran judicial correspondent, who was my colleague at National Concord, now with The Sun, later told me. The matter was called up and BF stood in to fight the legal battle. The police later abandoned the matter. So how can I get to thank this volunteer enough for the professional investment he made on my case without the slightest motivation or support from anyone, especially as there was a lawyer in the house on full pay dedicated to the matter? It was the beginning of some good bonding between us. On my recommendation for instance, the same car dealer, Wale Adeeyo, who sold my first car to me, sold to Omolade Adunbi and Aturu.
But I am not the only loser on account of Aturu’s death. Several Lagosians, at the very least, are, whether they know it or not. Although a Christian, he consistently demonstrated his belief in the Qur’anic injunction that everyone should be his brother’s keeper even as he strives for his own welfare in the face of challenges. To my surprise, he once mustered to me the highly recommended Islamic prayer “laila ila anta subhanaka ini kuntun mina solimeen”.
Need I remind Lagosians that he once sought to rule them as governor on the platform of his political party, Democratic Alternative, DA, which we all co-founded as CLO activists. Aturu, now recently emulated by Governor Kayode Fayemi as another gallant loser in Nigeria’s political history, moved on to some other challenges which needed his attention as a genuine leader.
Aturu’s leadership and life of service within the civil society movement was never in doubt. It was never about self-aggrandizement or ego massaging. After he lost the governorship election in 2007, the Lagos State Government did not fail to recognize the sincerity of this patriot. That government appointed him to serve as member of the Governing Board of the Office of the Public Defender, OPD. Aturu accepted the appointment and made sure he attended all meetings promptly. Lagos State’s OPD has since become an irresistible model in justice administration for other states. The OPD in Lagos State has since become an institution. A new building, which Lagos State might consider re-naming after this people’s lawyer, was recently commissioned at Surulere, near the National Stadium. I believe Aturu deserves it!
Aturu’s life of leadership and sacrifice is reflective of his concern for the welfare of others. He demonstrated this most conspicuously during the burial, two years ago, of my first cousin, Olaitan Oyerinde, at Ede, in Osun State. Mournful comrades had taken their turns to render funeral orations. When it was Aturu’s turn, he upped the ante. Aturu recalled how families of some comrades had suffered after the demise of their breadwinners. He there and then suggested a solution: He promptly announced the setting up of a foundation for Olaitan Oyerinde for the sake of his young family. No be say he just wan run mouth like that. He announced a personal donation of N100,000.
How much are the rest of us Aturu left behind ready to offer, not necessarily to support Aturu’s family but the teeming millions of the weaklings in our society? Ageless sage, Wole Soyinka, alerted us to this long ago: “The man died in him who keeps silent in the face of injustice”.
Tunde Akanni is a development activist and journalism teacher at the Lagos State University. Follow on twitter him via: @AkintundeAkanni