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Onalaja: Reknowned retired Appeal Court Justice turns 80

By Gbolahan Gbadamosi

Just two weeks ago in the ancient city of Ibadan, Oyo State,  there was  a  bloody clash between the followers of the popular traditional masquerade, Oloolu and some  street boys. This incidence reminds  meof the same  clash between Alhaji Azeez Ajagbemo-keferi, an Islamic religious leader and  followers of Oloolu in the mid 60s.  The crisis led to the  arraignment of the  Islamic leader for assaulting the masquerade before a High Court in Ibadan. A  lawyer who was less than 10 years old at the bar then brilliantly and successfully defended Alhaji Ajagbemokeferi. Late Justice Ogunkeye  upheld the arguments of the lawyer.

Yesterday, the lawyer under reference turned 80. I hereby present Honourable Justice MoronkejiOmotayoOnalaja, JCA,OFR , immediate past   Chairman, Council of Legal Education and  the former Chancellor of Ibadan Diocese, Anglican Communion.

As a private legal practitioner, Onalaja  , a son of Daniel TekumoOnajaja who  served in the Army during the Second World War in Burma and Sierra Leone and Susannah SegilolaOnalaja  JP,  also defended successfully Professor Soyanwo, who was charged with obstructing Chief S.L Akintola former Premier of Western  Nigeria. The accused(Prof. Soyanwo) was discharged by reason that a moving vehicle could not constitute an obstruction.

Young Onalaja was also in the group of lawyers that successfully defended  now Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, for alleged robbery of a radio tape at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation(now FRCN), Ibadan. Other members of the defence team were : S.O Ige, Bola Ige, OlajideOlatawura, KayodeSomolu and MoronfoluOlakunrin.

The acquittal of Soyinka earned the judge, Justice KayodeEso of blessed memory, a transfer to Akure, a town then regarded as  ‘’ rural ‘’.This has been well documented by Soyinka himself in one of his numerous books-  The Mystery Gunman and  in  ‘KayodeEso: The Making of A Judge’, by J.F.Ade. Ajayi and Yemi Akinseye -George, pgs.144-150,362.

Onalajawas  an active member of the Nigerian Bar Association(NBA) from 1960 until his appointment as a judge on September 8 1980 by former Governor Lateef Jakande of Lagos State.

One of the cases he decided  while on the bench at the Lagos High Court and which I covered as a Judicial Reporter  was  the case  of the Registered Trustees of the Constitution of the Rights Project(CRP) (Applicant) against  the President of  the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Secretary of Justice(Respondents), with suit number M/102/93. This judgment  unveiled Onalaja as a member of the tribe of Judicial Activism popularized by  Lord Denning(MR) , Justice Eso, Justice Pats-Acholonu, and   Justice Emmanuel  Ayoola.

Briefly, the significance of the verdictsaved  Major General  ZamaniLekwot(rtd) and his Zango-Kataf kinsmen from the hangman’s noose.Following  the  communal disturbance that took place in Zango- Kataf between Katafs and the Hausa-Fulani in Kaduna State in 1992, the   Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida constituted the Judicial Tribunal on Civil and Communal Disturbance (Special Tribunal) Decree No.2 of 1987(Cap.53, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria)as amended by Civil Disturbance(Special Tribunal)Amendment )Decree .43 of 1992 to try those accused of having instigated/perpetrated the disturbances.

The Tribunal headed by Justice Benedict.O. Okadi-gbo(rtd), tried Lekwot and six others. They were sentenced to death . Under the Decree, there was no right of appeal to appellate court against the decision of the tribunal. Any person convicted by the Tribunal could only appeal to the Armed Forces Ruling Council(AFRC) for mitigation .

It was against this background that CRP under Clement Nwankwo filed the action before a  Lagos High Court. When the governmentreceived the originating summons  it raised  a preliminary objection asking for the dismissal of the suit  for lack of  locus standi of the applicants and that the court lacked jurisdiction, having been ousted by the Decree. Faced with this matter without precedent, Onalaja held that the African Charter which preserves jurisdiction  of our courts, overrides the ouster of jurisdiction clauses in our decree.  He knocked down the decree and Lekwot and his kinsmen were let off the hook.

According to the Profile of Justice Onalaja published by late Chief GaniFawehinmi(SAN)’s Nigerian Weekly Law Report(NWLR( (2005) 16 NWLR Part 951 of November 14, 2005,he continued to churn out ‘’monumental principles of law  while on the Bench of the Court of Appeal.For example in Military Administrator, Imo State V Nwauwa(1997)2 NWLR(Pt.490)675 the Supreme Court upheld his minority dissenting opinion. In Bronik Motors Ltd V Wema Bank Ltd, (Unreported)(LD/404/80)which went to the Supreme Court where Onalaja , J’s decision was upheld(1983)1 SCNLR 296).

The influential law report further described Onalajaas  ‘’ humane, pious and approachable, but firm and above board. Onalaja is well admired and  respected by all echelons of the legal profession and indeed everyone who have come into contact with or his work. At the valedictory session for his retirement  from the Court of Appeal Bench, not less than forty -six(46) Senior Advocates  of Nigeria were there to honour him, among other legal luminaries, the highest gathering yet at any single occasion. Such was the warmth, personality and magnetic pull of this icon.”

‘’He breathes Law. He writes Law. He espouses Law with passion. His seemingly quenchless thirst and love for the profession is legendary and hardly surpassable. He was an erudite, firm and a great judge. His place in history is assured as one of the great influences on the development of the legal profession and the administration of justice in Nigeria. His work will remain indelible and, certainly, long after he would have passed on will continue to address generations of lawyers, scholars and his enlightened fellow countrymen,” NWLR concluded.

He had his LL.B and LL.M there before he was called to the English Bar at Temple on June 16 1959, a year later he was called to the Nigerian Bar.

Justice Onalaja was elevated to the Court of Appeal  in 1993 from where he bowed out with honour and dignity on July 24 2003 upon attaining the mandatory retirement age of 70.  A Founding Editor, Nigerian Monthly Law Reports(1964-1980) and later its Consulting Editor  ; Consulting Editor, University of Ibadan Law Journal, Consulting Editor, Property Law Journal, Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan as well as University of Lagos.

Resource Person, Advanced Course in Practice and Procedure, Nigerian Advanced Legal Studies(NIALS), where he was also  made a Fellow. He was also a prolific writer . All his papers delivered in the course of his judicial career were  documented  in a book-  ‘ Commentaries from The Bench(1998-2003) Parts 1-4’.

He is the sponsor of the Judicial Reporting Category of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence(DAME).

Lord Denning after  receiving a copy of Onalaja’s  ‘Commentaries From the Bench’, on November 20th, 1992 wrote to express his gratitude in these words: ‘’ Iam afraid I may not have written to thank you for the  ‘Commentaries from the Bench’ which you sent to me as long as May.I have kept it by  me and have been reading it again. Iam  most interested in the profile of the author showing all you have done in and  for law in Africa, and I would like to thank you greatly for it.”


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