By Dele Sobowale
“Lives of great men remind us that we can make our lives sublime. And departing, leave behind us; footprints on the sands of time” – HW Longfellow, 1807-1882, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS.
For me, this is already a happy year. Most newspapers now have annual awards for various individuals for different reasons. I have been opposed to the idea when it first started. To some extent, I am still very much in doubt regarding whether we are doing the right thing. Mainly, I object because the criteria, just like those of the National Awards, are not often clear. Individuals with absolutely atrocious or questionable records of achievement have been honoured. Governors are the most notorious in this regard. Some of the ex-governors who made the list in the past are now in jail for embezzling public funds. Easily debunked ‘Unusual Transformation’ in a particular state has not stopped a propagandist from receiving encomiums as a great achiever. Certainly, annual awards have been abused and the history of Nigeria distorted. We have given honour to several who are not due.
“Heroism is a special quality reserved only for a few” – Ken Jones, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, P 90.
Heroes are always very few in any country. Politicians come ten naira a dozen – and most are bloody nuisances. Great wars are fought infrequently now. So, conquerors seldom emerge as often as they once did. The heroes of the 20th century and the new millennium – Ghandi, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Mandela and our own trio of Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo and Azikiwe (in alphabetical order) – were not warriors. Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo and Azikiwe are not celebrated today for their political acumen – because the First Republic disintegrated on account of their mismanagement of events. Millions of Nigerians lost their lives. Judged strictly on the outcome of their politics, our fathers would be regarded as failures. But, they got us independence. That made them heroes. It is now up to us what we do with the Republic. James Madison, 1751-1836, one of the fathers of the US, was asked after the Constitution of America was completed, “Sir, what have your wise men recommended for us?” His answer was “a republic if you can keep it.” We did not keep the First and Second Republics in Nigeria. We are on the Third and in mortal danger of losing that one also. We are deficit in heroes.
That said, there are some recipients of awards who in any society will qualify to receive the esteem due to all those who have served well. This year VANGUARD served up two of such individuals who, if only Nigerians have not lost the reading habit, would be accepted as genuine heroes when they read about their contributions. I have written so many times about Attah; it is only fair for me to start with the other authentic legal hero. Whenever somebody undertakes to write a history of Nigeria’s Ministers of Justice and Attorney Generals of the Federation, AGF, it is unlikely that he will find any other appointee in that role whose record of achievements come close to those of Prince (Justice) Alhaji Bola Ajibola, CFR. In fact, it was Prince Ajibola who got me to start taking a second and deep look at the President (General) Ibrahim B Babangida, IBB, regime. I was on my way to the Ministry of Justice Library at Marina, Lagos in search of the Company and Allied Matters Act, CAMA, Decree 20 of 1990, when I read a statement by Vice President Osinbajo to the effect that no government, including Babangida’s own, had done as much as Buhari had done for Nigeria in the first two and a half years. I knew Osinbajo, like just about everybody in Buhari’s government, was not telling the truth.
Divinely, an avalanche of evidence tumbled in less than one hour after reading the VP’s declaration. I asked the attendant for 1990 Decrees, but, she brought 1989 Decrees. I was going to send it back when it occurred to me to read the 1989 decrees and the institutions that were created that year. Despite being an adult who prided himself on reading widely, I was surprised about my ignorance regarding the achievements of IBB’s regime and the key role played by Ajibola in crafting those decrees. I asked for a photocopy of the list of 1989 Decrees. Shortly after, 1990 Decrees were brought and I suddenly realised that most of us had been most unfair to IBB. Time did not permit me to go through other decrees passed from 1985 to 1992. I later spent several weeks in the libraries in Abuja and Lagos. I began to shortlist those needing special attention. Nearly 50 pages of my book, IBRAHIN B BABANGIDA 1985-1992: LETTING A THOUSAND FLOWERS BLOOM, were already written, and I had gathered sufficient materials for a book 1000 pages long, based on the decrees passed and the institutions created by the time I met Babangida for the first time. Unlike most other books written on the subject, this one was completed without seeking an interview with Babangida. The facts will speak for themselves.
In the book under reference on pages 39 to 41, the following was written on Ajibola. Space did not permit me to write more. Perhaps, one of these days, I will, at my own expense, write an entire book on Justice Ajibola. For now please accept this summary and you can understand why this honour is deserved. I need to add that till today, I have never met the man. I hope to see him on the award night and “prostrate” before one of my own heroes.
“PRINCE BOLA AJIBOLA, SAN, – Minister for Justice and AttorneyGeneral.
If anybody deserves a Medal of Honour for almost working himself to death during the Babangida years, it must be the Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
“Omoba Bolasodun Adesumbo Ajibola, CFR, SAN, Justice of the International Court at the Hague, was born into a Royal family in Abeokuta, Ogun State on 22nd March, 1934. lt would not have occurred to his parents that their son was going to play a major role in transforming Nigeria and helping the entire world as well.
“He attended Owu Baptist Day School for his primary education and naturally proceeded to Baptist Boys’ High School for his secondary school education.
“Baptist Boys High School will rank high among the secondary schools whose alumni played significant roles in shaping Nigerian history in the twentieth century. Among its alumni were: General/President Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, etc. [ Abami Eda Fela Ransome Kuti or Anikulapo too].
“He went abroad and received his law degree at Holborn College of Law, University of London and was called to the English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1962. He returned to Nigeria to practice law, specialising in Commercial Law and International Arbitration.
“Once again, with the benefit of hindsight, it was not surprising that Babangida appointed someone highly experienced in commercial law and arbitration to head the Ministry of Justice. The changes IBB had in mind called for a great deal of mediation between various contending stakeholders in the “Nigerian Project” at home and abroad which the Military President envisaged at the time. Ajibola was a tested hand at forging compromises when competing interests were at stake and none having absolute right on its side. How Babangida got to know about him remains a mystery till today. But it was akin to searching for a lost coin on a sandy beach.
“Only a lawyer who understood that the customary adversary situation which occurs in most legal disputes could not operate at that point in time in order to move the country forward and that mediation was paramount could help us. This was not the conflict between right and wrong, which is easily settled. Most policy changes being considered involved deciding between various claims to “rights” – however defined. Some of those “rights” had for historical reasons been accepted almost as justified. The change being proposed by the economic technocrats and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, were calling into question stakeholders’ entitlements to those rights which, in any case, were no longer affordable for a nation in financial distress.
“The legal aspects of Babangida’s social and economic transformation called for a law-giver with the sagacity of Solomon or Suleiman. Nigeria had only Bola Ajibola to turn to.
“Listed below are some of the accomplishments which this one personality packed into a lifetime. Most people would have regarded themselves accomplished if they achieved only ten percent of them.
• Arbitrator International Court of Arbitration of ICC, Paris
• Legal Consultant, Masons Solicitors & Co., London.
• Exxon Houston, Texas, USA
• Association of Arbitrators of Nigeria.
• President, Nigerian Bar Association.
• Judge, Constitutional Court of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo.
• Judge, World Bank, Administrative Tribunal.
• Member, Governing Board, International Maritime Law Institute of the International Maritime Organisation, United Nations.
“Granted, some of these appointments were made after he left Babangida’s government. But, they confirm the extra-ordinary qualities of the man who drafted the decrees to back up the numerous measures taken during the years under consideration in this book. No Minister of Justice and Attorney General had come close in terms of achievements at home and abroad.”
“On no account should anyone go away with the idea that everything about Justice Ajibola had been summarised. I was under time and space constraint at the time of writing the book. That was all I could tuck in. I apologise for that”.
FOR OBONG VICTOR ATTAH, THE LAURELS JUST KEEP COMING
“What are millions of men, who all their lives have not had a single hour like his compared to this one man” – Wilhelm Heinse, 1749-1803, German Philosopher, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, p 2.
Obong Attah has had several days in life; the VANGUARD Award Day on March 20, 2020 is one of them. He deserved all the accolades he had received and more. I have reasons to believe he will get more. Real cream rises effortlessly to the top. The recognition this year by VANGUARD is just like pouring more on a cup running over. So, now, I have another mission. It is to invite all the well-wishers of Obong (Dr) Victor Attah to the Award Night. At the same time, I must stress that since he is not the only recipient of the awards, the invitations will be limited. Therefore, those wanting to be present at the occasion are requested to get in touch with me as soon as possible. Seats will be allocated strictly on a first come and first served basis. There is no need to bother Obong about this matter. We are on the same page. I thank you all.