BY ABDULWAHAB ABDULAH & Bartholomew Madukwe
LAGOS—EXACTLY 61 days to his 83rd birthday, legendary and iconic lawyer, Chief Godwin Olusegun Kolawole Ajayi, SAN, died weekend, after a brief illness.
Declaring that burial arrangements would be announced later by the family, Mrs. Yoloye, described her father’s death as shocking.
A family friend, Mrs. Ronke Giwa, said the family is in shock because “Baba was very kind hearted. He is like a father to many people and larger than life. He was a friend to my late father, F. O. Giwa, a foremost lawyer also.”
Born on May 29, 1931, Chief Ajayi left his large footprints on the sands of time trotting the legal and political landscape like a colossus.
Journey to stardom
The young GOK began his journey to stardom at Ijebu- Ode Nursery School (1936-37) and left for St Saviours School, Lagos (1938- 1940). He thereafter proceeded to the popular CMS Grammar School, Lagos (1941- 48). He later left the shores of Nigeria to the United Kingdom where he attended the London School of Economics and Political Science. Thereafter, at 24, he was called to the English Bar in 1955 and to the Nigerian Bar on November 29, 1957.
Famously known and called by his initials “GOK,” he had a tremendously successful legal practice about six decades. Ajayi was the second set of lawyers elevated to the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1978, 21 years after he was called to the Nigerian Bar. The first set had only two persons- late Chief Rotimi Williams and Dr Nebo Graham Douglas(1975).
The 1978 second set
With him in the 1978 second set were 12 others including late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Remi Femi-Kayode, T.A. Bankole-Oki, E.A. Molajo, Kehinde Sofola, Richard Akinjide, Olisa Chukwura, Nwakama Okoro, Mudiaga Odje, P.O.Balonwu, B.O. Nwabueze and Augustine Nnamani.
Of this set, only Richard Akinjide and B.O. Nwabueze are alive today.
Six years after his call to the Bar, G.O.K. became a part time lecturer at the Nigerian Law School, till 1971. From around the middle of the 1960s, G.O.K. Ajayi started earning fame as a legal luminary and his reputation waxed stronger in the following 40 years.
His landmark cases
As a progressive and competent lawyer, he appeared as one of the leading legal warrior in the Second Republic for the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN led by late Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
He was the lead counsel in the famous 12 2/3 case-Awolowo vs Shagari (presidential election dispute) in 1979 and was lead counsel in the equally famous 1983 political cases like Adekunle Ajasin vs Omoboriowo (Ondo State Gubernatorial Election Dispute), Bola Ige vs Victor Olunloyo (Oyo State Gubernatorial Election Dispute).
In 1981, he successfully handled the landmark case of AbduRahman Shugaba vs Minister of Internal Affairs.
This was a curious case in which Shugaba, the minority leader in the Borno State House of Assembly, was suddenly arrested and deported to Republic of Chad by the National Party Nigeria, NPN-controlled Federal Government on the grounds that the politician was not a Nigerian citizen.
Chief Ajayi defended the late human rights lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, at the peak of his troubles in 1989 with the military government. He was there for Fawehinmi before the Transition to Civil Rule and Miscellaneous Tribunal headed by the late Justice Anyaegbunam. G.O.K. led dozens of other famous lawyers including Mr. Alao Aka-Bashorun, Chief F.O. Akinrele SAN, Dr. Olu Onagoruwa, Chief Mike Ozekhome and Mr. Femi Falana to defend Fawehinmi.
On Zamani Lekwot
He was also available to defend retired General Zamani Lekwot and his people of Atyap community of Kaduna State who were charged with murder before a Special Military Tribunal headed by Justice Okadigbo over the Zango Kataf disturbances in 1990.
His fearless and brilliant advocacy led to the discharge and acquittal of the embattled Lekwot and his kinsmen. Thereafter a grateful Atyap Community unanimously and joyously conferred the honourary title “ACHOK ATYAP” on G.O.K. ‘Achok Atyap’ means “The Guardian of Atyap.”
In 1993, G.O.K. was on hand to lead a battery of seasoned lawyers to defend business mogul turned politician, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola against the charge of treason preferred against him by the General Sani Abacha regime for demanding the actualisation of his mandate to rule Nigeria as president after presumably winning the June 12, 1993 Presidential election which was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime.
Eminent Nigerians mourn
His death elicited lamentations from the lips of some eminent Nigerians and lawyers, yesterday.
We’ve lost an icon
– Yusuf Ali
Mallam Yusuf Ali, SAN, said: “The death of Chief Ajayi is the loss of an icon, he stood out like a colossus among his peers. His death has robbed Nigeria of the wise counsel of an elder statesman. It’s a big loss to the legal profession in our country. May his gentle soul rest in peace.”
He ‘ll be sorely missed
Mr. Lai Babatunde, SAN, said, “Chief Ajayi was a great legal practitioner totally committed to the ideals and best traditions of the Bar. He did not suffer fools gladly or lacked the courage of his conviction. He expressed his views on any subject of interest to him without disguise or deceit. As a law publisher and editor, I benefited immensely from his support and valuable counsel. He preferred Professional Law Reporting to mere commercial contraptions.
The Law Reports are replete with several cases he handled many of which were to drive home certain principles than pecuniary reward. He will be sorely missed and his contribution to the legal profession and justice delivery in Nigeria will serve his memory well. It is good night Baba. May the family be comforted by his legacy of a good name.”
We’ve lost a forensic
advocate of immense
Dele Adesina, SAN, said: “The news of Chief G.O.K. Ajayi’s death came to me as a rude shock. I never heard that he was sick. His exit from the world of legal profession marks a big loss indeed. Chief Ajayi was an outstanding lawyer, a forensic advocate of immense stature. He was all that a lawyer should represents. A man of great integrity and candor, full of self confidence and self pride. He was a solid advocate in the courtroom. He was my mentor. I don’t know if I succeeded in my attempt to copy some of the qualities I have mentioned in him. It is on record that I went to understudy him on how he addressed the court over and over again like I did to some other seniors I considered outstanding during my days of little beginning. Chief G.O.K. Ajayi was a very sound and knowledgeable legal practitioner. A gentleman per excellence. May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace.”
His knowledge of the law was unimpeachable
On his part, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, said: “Chief G.O.K. Ajayi SAN was a graceful bourgeois lawyer. Even though he was conservative he defended progressive causes with uncanny audacity and relentless commitment. His knowledge of the law was unimpeachable.
“He had total contempt for corrupt judges and incompetent lawyers. For over four decades his name featured prominently in the law reports and learned journals. In spite of the incipient rottenness in the legal system Chief Ajayi was never associated with corrupt practices.
“Through the instrumentality of the law Chief Ajayi fought against the deportation of a Nigeria legislator, illegal seizure of passports of social critics and fraudulent election results perpetrated by criminally minded politicians. He provided a robust defence for Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN and Chief MKO Abiola when they were charged with political sabotage and treason respectively. He was counsel to Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Adekunle Ajasin.
“For defending pro democracy and human right activists, Chief Ajayi’s passport was seized while he was subjected to untold harassment by security forces. But he was not deterred as he was as constant as the northern star in the defence of rule of law and social justice. We walked together when Comrade Alao-Aka Bashorun led the NBA from 1987 to 1989.
“In the last few years he was disturbed that the NBA had progressively compromised and lost its powerful voice. The greatest tribute that Nigerian lawyers can pay to Chief Ajayi is to resolve to liberate the NBA from the grip of reactionary and corrupt bar leaders.
One of the finest souls in the legal profession is gone
Mr. Monday Ubani, Chairman, NBA, Ikeja, said: “I am totally shocked. There goes to the maker and to the ancestors one of the finest souls in the legal profession. He was a titan and bestrode the legal profession like a colossus. His sudden death without any prior notice of any ailment is flabbergasting. Nigeria and the legal profession will surely mourn and miss him.
His vice Chairman, Mr Adesina Ogunlana whom he fought for at the NBA disciplinary committee said “he was more than a legal colossus. He was one of the finest of human creation. He worked for the poor and the downtrodden and not for the rich alone. He was well cultivated in spirit and manner.”