Dr. Olu Onagoruwa studied law at the University of London where he obtained his LL.B; LL.M and PhD degrees. Upon his return to the country he attended the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1971. After his pupilage he set up his law firm in Lagos with bias for popular causes. As a liberal scholar he combined his legal practice with regular commentary on socio-legal affairs. He wrote several books and has to his credit over 250 published articles.
At a period when human rights had been put in abeyance by martial law Dr. Onagoruwa handled many cases of constitutional significance which questioned the basis of continued military rule. He had cause to challenge the arrest of “political extremists” like Ken Saro-wiwa, Minere Amakiri, Tai Solarin et al. When Chief Fawehinmi, Beko-Ransome-kuti and I were detained at the Kuje prison in 1992 under the obnoxious State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No 2 of 1984 Dr. Onagoruwa was on hand to defend us. On account of his leading role in the defence of public interest cases he was subjected to crude intimidation by the military junta.
Instead of supporting progressive lawyers for leading the campaign for the restoration of democracy and rule of law in the country the reactionary forces who held sway in the legal profession at the material time teamed up with the military minions to harass them. Chief Gani Fawehinmi was almost had struck out of the list of legal practitioners for popularising law reporting when only a handful of lawyers had access to certified true copies of the judgments of the appellate courts. In order to preserve the conservative nature of the legal profession civil rights and radical lawyers were stigmatized for using the instrumentality of the law to question the status quo.
Notwithstanding their enormous contributions to legal development the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) resolved never to confer the title of SAN on Chief Fawehinmi and Dr. Onagoruwa. Hence, their applications for the rank were consistently rejected on the spurious ground that they were not “fit and proper persons” to be admitted to the inner bar. However, the legal establishment was exposed to self inflected embarrassment when Dr. Onagoruwa was appointed the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice in December 1993 by the Sani Abacha junta. Pursuant to the Guidelines which had been drawn up by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee since 1985 Dr. Onagoruwa ought to have been conferred with the rank by virtue of his new appointment.
But the Committee of senior judges and lawyers headed by the then Chief Justice of the country, the Late Justice Mohammed Bello, decided to breach the law and refused to confer the rank on the Justice Minister. In a bid to justify its unjust decision the Committee instigated the Lagos State Ministry of Justice to approach the Supreme Court to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeal which had dismissed the charge of stealing brought against Dr. Onagoruwa.
Upon being served with the hearing notice Chief Fawehinmi invited me for a meeting to discuss the frivolous appeal. Since the human rights community had vehemently opposed Dr. Onagoruwa’s appointment Chief Fawehinmi asked whether we should handle the appeal. Since our opposition to the Minister’s appointment was on solid principle I made it clear to him that if the appeal was allowed in the circumstance the State would appeal against all decisions in favour of the members of the pro-democracy movement.
As Chief Fawehinmi had parted ways with Dr. Onagoruwa over his controversial appointment I was given the task of informing him of the notice of the appeal and our decision to challenge the appeal on his behalf. I did and the Minister expressed dismay that his opponents were running from pillar to post in the bid to have him convicted. At the Court of Appeal where the motion for extension of time to file the appeal to the apex court was heard Chief Fawehinmi was in his element. In challenging the bona fides of the applicant in attempting to revive the lawyer urged the Justices of the Court of Appeal not to accede to the dangerous prayer of the cabal that had “hijacked the legal profession for dubious objectives”.
In a short ruling the Court indicted the applicant and dismissed with substantial costs. Notwithstanding that the application was dismissed Dr. Onagoruwa was denied the rank. In a move which smacks of institutionalize injustice lawyers who had been shortlisted for the award in 1994 had their hope dashed as the entire exercise was cancelled. Thus, they were collectively punished along with Dr. Onagoruwa!
About six months later, Dr. Onagoruwa decided to address a press conference wherein he dissociated himself from some draconian decrees which the junta had promulgated without his knowledge. Not unexpectedly, the Abacha junta fired him. As if that was not enough, his son, Toyin Onagoruwa, a young lawyer was assassinated by the State-sponsored killer squad. He has not fully recovered from the shock of the tragic incident. Indeed, it has seriously impaired his health.
Like Chief Fawehinmi who was conferred with the rank of SAN towards the tale end of his life Dr. Onagoruwa is being admitted, rather belatedly, when he can no longer take advantage of the title. Even though it is a mere psychological relief at this stage of his life he is likely to feel professionally fulfilled. All the same, the members of the LPPC led by the out-going Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Honourable Justice Maryam Aloma Muktar deserve commendation for ensuring that justice was done, at long last, with respect to the treatment meted out to Dr. Onagoruwa who is now over 77 years old.
The case of Dr. Onagoruwa ought to reopen the debate on the continued relevant of the rank of SAN. It is illegal to continue to refer to the award as a privilege as it has become discriminatory and illegal not to confer the rank of SAN on any lawyer who satisfies the laid down criteria. The deliberate exclusion of activist and radical lawyers from the inner bar is a painful reminder of the discriminatory treatment meted out to the first Nigerian lawyer, Christopher Sapara Williams by the colonial regime. Called to the English Bar in 1879 and the Nigerian Bar in 1898 Mr. Williams challenged obnoxious colonial laws and policies in court and organized rallies to campaign for the repeal of ordinances which violated the rights of the Nigerian people.
It was the belief of the pioneer legal practitioner that “a lawyer lives for the direction of his country”. For identifying with the oppressed people of Nigeria Mr. Williams nomination for the rank of King’s Counsel (K.C.) in 1913 was rejected by the British legal establishment. Other indigenous lawyers who were ahead of their colleagues in the entire British empire were not honoured with the title. In fact, not until 1958 was a Nigerian lawyer, Chief Rotimi William conferred with the rank of Queen’s Counsel.
The colonial legacy was abolished in 1964 in line with the republican status of the country. The rank was however restored in 1973 under a military dictatorship. With the restoration of democracy the rank ought to be abolished without any further delay. Ghana successfully abolished it while there is no such award in the United States of America. If it is going to be retained the LPPC should no longer be allowed to make it business as usual. Its attention ought to be drawn to the current practice in the United Kingdom where all lawyers who satisfy the laid down criteria are automatically conferred with the rank of Queen’s Counsel. This is also the practice in Canada and Jamaica. In those countries the award process has eliminated the exercise of discretion, political consideration and undue influence.
In strict compliance with section 42 of the Constitution which has abolished discriminatory practice the conferment of the rank of SAN should be democratized. This submission accords with the Guidelines for the Rank of SAN which have not pegged the annual award to any number of lawyers. In other words, there is no justification for picking 17 out of the multitude of lawyers that meet the prerequisites every year. After all, the LPPC approved the conferment of the rank on 25 legal practitioners in 2006. In the same vein, 25 legal practitioners were honoured with the rank in 2012.
Mr. Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria writes from Lagos.