And the Grim Reaper struck again!
On Tuesday the 21st of April, 2020, Chief Osuolale Abimbola Richard Akinjide SAN, QC, CON, took his last breath. His death was not a complete surprise – he was 88 years old, retired from active duties years ago, and had been nursing poor health for about three years. Yet, his passage is a great loss to the legal community and the country – the end of an illustrious life well lived.
Chief Richard Akinjide SAN (as he was popularly called) achieved such national fame that it seemed he lived his life in the public glare. A lot of his history is well-known: he was born on the 4th of November, 1931, to a family of ‘influential warriors’; attended Oduduwa College, Ile Ife and made Grade 1 Distinction Aggregate 6; left for the United Kingdom in 1951 for further studies, qualified for his LLB and BL and was called to the English Bar in 1955; and returned home to be called to the Nigerian Bar in 1956. He set up legal practice not long after as Akinjide & Co., and was one of the second set of legal practitioners elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1978.
It is also known that he was a member of the Federal Parliament and Minister for Education under the first Republic Balewa Government; that he was a member of the Judicial Systems sub-committee of the Constitutional Drafting Committee of 1975-1977 which birthed the 1979 Constitution; that he was appointed Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice from 1979 – 1983 (in the second Republic); and that he was lead counsel in a number of celebrated cases and notable international arbitrations.
Beyond a very lucrative professional career and active political life, Chief Richard Akinjide SAN had more than a passing interest in the legal profession. He served the Bar with merit and diligence: he was a former Chairman and Patron of the Nigerian Bar Association, Ibadan Branch; he was a three-term President of the Nigerian Bar Association from 1970-1973 and (until his passing) ‘the oldest member of the exclusive Former NBA Presidents Group’; he was Chairman of the Body of Benchers; and he was (until his death) the Chairman of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
The tributes that have followed his passing have played up all these roles and more. They have told of achievements under his watch as Attorney-General of the Federation. They have also celebrated his role as lead counsel in the 1983 election dispute between Chief Obafemi Awolowo (of the Unity Party of Nigeria) and Alhaji Shehu Shagari (of the National Party of Nigeria), and the ingenious ‘25% of two-thirds of 19 states’ argument.
Some aspects of his rich life have been retold with nostalgia: his joining the Ibadan People’s Party upon his return from England in 1956 and contributions to the agitations for Nigeria’s independence; his sojourn into self-exile in England following the military take over from President Shehu Shagari in December, 1983 – where he returned to the English Bar, excelled as a Barrister and acquired the enviable rank of Queen’s Counsel; and his venture into and exploits in international arbitration all over the world.
In the comments trailing his exit, he has been variously described as “an icon of the legal profession, … steeped in the ethics of the Bar, a brilliant advocate – one of the finest of the legal profession, a renowned leader of politics and thoughts” by the NBA President – Mr Paul Usoro SAN; and “a scholar of very high repute… (who) was prolific in his writings and highly cerebral in his submissions, in and out of court. (A) great mentor, leader and nationalist, …was very prodigious, forensic, profound, dynamic, courageous and seminal” by former NBA President – Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN. Indeed, he was all that and more.
Much can be gleaned from the condolence messages of people who knew him closely. It was recalled that he “was one of the youngest in the class (at St. Peter’s Anglican Primary School, Oja Igbo, Ibadan), one of the brightest and most intelligent. He recalled figures, dates and events with uncanny ease and precision. (He was) so deep and profound in knowledge, understanding and learning, not only in Law, but also in politics, international relations, diplomacy and world affairs in general.” [Olukayode A. Adeniyi (Chairman, NBA Ibadan Branch – 2004 – 2006)] It was also said of him that “in the court and outside the court… (he was) a genial and humble person who (was) sold to hard work… (and) was well known for his mastery of the English Language and his dexterity in court. (He) was a fervent believer in the Rule of Law.” [Chief Afe Babalola SAN]
He was larger than life, and in person could come across as arrogant and almost condescending – showing off his rich knowledge and reliving his professional successes unapologetically. I remember attending a particular meeting of the Intellectual Property Law Association of Nigeria hosted many years ago at his stately office at NCR Building, Broad Street, Lagos (his law firm hosted the meeting on two or three occasions) – and how he invited us to tour his impressive library and proceeded to hold us spell-bound the whole afternoon with stories of his legal exploits. I was entranced, and could not help but conjure up images of the dark-skinned, stocky gentleman with the well-defined tribal scarifications on his fleshy face, arresting an English courtroom with his impeccable command of Queens English and disarmingly slow, very courteous advocacy!
Some aspects of his rich life have almost been forgotten: that in addition to his LLB Degree from the University of London, he obtained a certificate in Journalism and was a contributor to both the West African Pilot and Daily Times newspapers; or the aftermath of the 1966 coup which ended the first Republic when he spent 18 months as a ‘guest’ in various ‘correctional facilities’ across the country; and that he was an academic who taught International Commercial Arbitration at the post-graduate level at the University of Ibadan.
In his later years, Chief Richard Akinjide SAN retreated to his early nationalistic streak (he never really left it), and became vocal in expressing his preference for a return to regional autonomy and parliamentary government. He shared his deep historical perspectives and views on the wrong ‘marriage of convenience’ that he considered the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria to be. He became an advocate of re-structuring, and was a leading member of ‘The Patriots’.
After a rich and fulfilling life lived in the public glare, Chief Richard Akinjide SAN retired to his country home in Idi-Ishin, Ibadan. Despite his English education and elocution, he had always remained an ‘Omo-Ibadan’ at heart. He was proud of his rich Yoruba heritage, and never passed up the opportunity to adorn native attire outside the courtroom. He was a founding member of the Yoruba Council of Elders, which was formed to protect and promote Yoruba interest in a united and progressive Nigeria. He was a revered Ibadan chief whose picture, in March, was among those etched on Ibadan’s Hall of Fame at Ibadan House, Oke Aremo by the Central Council of Ibadan Indigenes.
Chief Richard Akinjide SAN takes to his grave a rich history of governance and politics in Nigeria – having been a key player from pre-independence times. In his speech at the public presentation of Richard Akinnola’s book “Fellow Countrymen – The Story of Coup D’etats in Nigeria” in June, 2000, he said, “When you are in government, you know a lot of things, you see a lot of things. A lot of things you know or did or saw will die with you. This is the practice of the whole world. People have asked me to write my memoirs, I just laugh because there are certain things I can never reveal.” How I wish he had had a change of heart before his passing!
He leaves behind a worthy heritage, a rich pedigree, a revered name. I extend my deep condolences to Abayomi Akinjide (widower of Omonike nee Oladapo – my classmate in the University), Oloye Jumoke Akinjide (former Minister of the Federal Capital territory), the other children, grandchildren and the entire Akinjide family. I also commiserate with the Olubadan of Ibadan and Ibadan Council of Chiefs, the Nigerian Bar Association, the Body of Benchers, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria and, indeed, the entire legal community. We have lost a father, patriarch, nationalist, great mentor,… a lawyer’s lawyer.
May his soul rest in peace.
“It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives”
– Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1709-84
NBA Lagos Branch