BAMIDELE Francis Aturu, who died, July 9, 2014, abandoned a career in the military to train as scientist. Precluded from public service by an audacious act of objection to military dictatorship, he discovered a vocation as arguably the foremost public interest advocate of his generation in Nigeria. A lawyer and a pastor, he was also former student leader and prisoner of conscience. He was 49.
The son of Felix Aturu, a Police Officer, ‘Dele or BF to his close associates, was born in October 1964, a mere four years after Nigeria’s Independence. In those days, the Police was a very respectable institution. Working in it also meant frequent postings around the country. As Felix Aturu moved around on transfer from one duty post to another, so did his wife, Felicia, and their young family. This opportunity to live in different parts of Nigeria would give BF a deeply rooted and informed sense of the country.
Pan Nigerian outlook
BF’s pan-Nigerian outlook would be deepened by his years of leadership in the student movement. At the Adeyemi College of Education, in Ondo, where he took his first degree in Physics education, BF was elected President of the Students Union and emerged as one of the leading young voices against military rule in Nigeria at a time when it was quite dangerous to do such things. Yet, in 1987, he graduated with a first class degree and as the best student from the college.
Armed with this qualification, BF undertook his compulsory National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, as a physics teacher at the Federal Government College, Minna, Niger State, where he earned a reputation as an exceptionally able, committed, and caring teacher. The management of the NYSC adjudged BF as the best member of the NYSC 1987/88 service cohort in Niger State. This assessment was considered worthy of recognition by the then military administration. Called upon to receive this recognition from the Military Governor at the passing out of his NYSC cohort in 1988, BF declined to shake the hands of the Governor as an act of conscientious objection to military rule.
The Military Governor in question was Lawan Gwadabe, a protégé of then Military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, who also came from Niger State. The unprecedented audacity of this act would put BF in the cross hairs of successive military regimes. For denouncing military rule, to begin with, the NYSC denied BF his “discharge certificate”. As one of the most qualified physic teachers in the country, BF was well qualified for the career he loved as a teacher. But, an NYSC discharge certificate is a requirement for employment in the public service which had the best schools in the country then. The only jobs available were dead-end teaching jobs in private schools.
With the onset of official persecution following his rejection of military rule, BF naturally gravitated towards an emerging community of protest in Lagos, which was dominated by some very charismatic lawyers, including then president of the Nigerian Bar, Alao Aka Basorun, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, and Kanmi Isola-Osobu, all now of blessed memory. They would be complemented by two emerging names, Olisa Agbakoba, himself a future president of the Nigerian Bar, and Ayo Obe. This period also gave birth to a young advocacy community for human rights pioneered by the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, in 1987, closely followed by the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, CDHR, in 1989, and the Constitutional Rights Project, CRP, in 1990.
BF worked hard to ensure that these groups maintained open channels of communication and worked together. Partly under impetus provided by him, they would coalesce in 1991 to form the Campaign for Democracy, CD. Even in those early years, the new human rights organizations included left leaning volunteers and workers from the labour and student movements but were mostly led by liberal professionals who were often derided for lacking the ideological purity. With wattage to spare, iron discipline and candour, BF was one of the few who managed to retain the confidence of the competing ideological camps.
Unable to undertake a fulfilled teaching vocation without the NYSC discharge certificate and under the influence of these leading cause lawyers, BF enrolled in 1989 as a law student at the University of Ife. Here, he became the leading spirit and guide behind the students’ movement in Nigeria. In 1991, a new leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, led by Abdul Mahmud (presently a delegate to the National Conference) under BF’s guidance would force issues with the military government by seeking an indefinite, nation-wide shutdown over two major policies of the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida: the structural adjustment programme, SAP, and their interminable programme of transition to civil rule.
Lawyer to the detained
To forestall this, the regime arrested the leadership of the NANS and detained them incommunicado and without charge at Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison under the much-feared State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree Number 2 of 1984. BF was one of the leaders arrested. At the CLO then, where I headed the Directorate for Legal Services, I became by default the lawyer to the detained NANS leadership. BF became my client.
Our application for Habeas Corpus on behalf of the detained students went before Justice Nureini Abiodun Kessington of the Lagos High Court, now also of blessed memory. In open court, Justice Kessington clearly declared his reluctance to hear the case because he did not “want to ridicule the judiciary by issuing an order that these boys will not obey.” Standing down the case, the judge invited me into his chambers and offered to explore whether he could persuade the detaining authorities to release the students in return for an adjournment at his instance. On the morning of the adjourned date, they were released and, with a smirk, he struck out the case. BF and the NANS leadership were free and the judge had not had to make an order against the military.
But there was another problem: the military wanted the university authorities to expel the student leaders. With legal assistance provided by the law offices of Chief Fawehinmi and Alao Aka Basorun, all of them were restored to school.
BF would graduate from the Law Faculty of the University of Ife in 1994 as the best student in international law, one of the best overall.
Admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 1995, BF did his tutelage under Professor Itsejuwa Sagay, himself a former Dean of Law at two leading law faculties in Benin and Ife. Simultaneously, he became one of the leaders of the United Action for Democracy, UAD, which led the resistance to the regime of General Sani Abacha. As law offices, opened in 1999, quickly became the rallying point for all persons with a serious cause who needed an excellent lawyer that they could not afford. I would later become one of the beneficiaries of his considerable acumen. BF didn’t object to rich clients. He had many of them. He readily explained that he needed their deep pockets to pay for his exertions for the have nots and for the country. He was also the author of five law books, including one on election petitions as well as the leading text on the law and practice of Nigeria’s National Industrial Court.
He was an unrelenting advocate for open government and against corruption, on which matters he advised various entities, including the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation. When the advocacy for a freedom of information (FoI) law in Nigeria was flagging in 2009, BF used the moment of his 45th birthday in 2009 to launch a unique public lecture and policy dialogue series on law and development which re-energised the advocacy. He invested his time, resources and considerable wattage in advancing it. The adoption of a FoI Act in 2011 owed a lot to his quiet investment of time, intellect and money.
For his nous in identifying legal solutions that serve the public good and earning the confidence of adversaries whom he did not have to like, BF was also the lawyer of choice of Nigeria’s organised labour unions and mediator of choice for governments wishing to earn credibility with communities of struggle.
He was part of the panel that investigated the revenues of the petroleum sector at the invitation of Nigeria’s federal government. At the request of the governments of Ogun, Osun and Rivers States, he participated in investigating cultures of violence and impunity at state level. When it sought credible people to guarantee the work of its Office of Public Defender, OPD, Lagos State Government invited BF as one of its advisers.
At the news of BF’s death, one writer lamented: “Nigeria has lost one of its genuine saints.” When the Department of State Service, DSS, branded the UAD, which he led, an enemy of the State for seeking to exercise the right to peaceful protest in 2003, BF responded with a public statement which, in hindsight, could well have been his epitaph: “We are not slaves. We are resolved to resist the undemocratic actions and practices of this regime no matter the degree of blackmail.” He died doing just that and is survived by his wife of 22 years, Bimpe, three children and aged parents.
•Dr. Odinkalu is Chairman of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission