Dr. Olu Onagoruwa, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), human rights activist, author and Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice during the Gen. Sani Abacha administration, passed on recently at the age of 80. Although no details were provided of his last hours, he had been out of public life for many years on account of a stroke he suffered after witnessing the assassination of his son, Dr. Oluwatoyin Onagoruwa, in December 1996.
Dr. Olu Onagoruwa was one of the few respectable intellectuals who served the Abacha government on the extremely optimistic notion that they could moderate the junta from within. He, however, had to leave the government a few months later over a dispute with the military leader over disobedience to court orders. Dr. Onagoruwa was a triple victim of the Abacha dictatorship, losing the respect of his friends in the human rights community, his job as Attorney General, and his son.
Yet, it is impossible to take from him his numerous accomplishments. He not only obtained his doctorate from the famous University of London, he was a specialist in constitutional law. He was one of the most erudite lawyers of his generation and his views were very well sought after in public debates and in the resolution of cases. He had the nerve to defend, in 1973, Minere Amakiri, a journalist with the Nigeria Observer, a local daily published in Benin City, who had reported that teachers were on strike in Rivers State. A news report about teachers’ strike would ordinarily be considered routine, yet Nigeria’s military rulers at the time were so tyrannical that a broken bottle was used to shave his head.
Onagoruwa was a prolific writer. Among his books were Nigerian Civil War, Fundamental Human Rights and International Law (1969); The Amakiri Case: Press Freedom in Chains (1978), and Law and Contemporary Nigeria, Reflections (2004). In addition to his many books, he is credited with at least 250 learned articles. He was respected all over the world and was one of the eminent international lawyers who drafted the Constitution of the Republic of Ethiopia in 1994. He attended the Academy of American and International Law Centre, in the United States, on a Fulbright and Hays Scholarship. He also served as a law lecturer in various Nigerian universities.
Dr. Onagoruwa will be remembered for his many struggles against military dictatorship. He was also in the vanguard for liberty, press freedom and human rights. He was always ready to defend notable Nigerian human rights activists like Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Dr. Tai Solarin and Ken Saro-Wiwa, who are all now late.
His death has elicited tributes from many notable Nigerians because, as many have said, there is no one quite like him. Perhaps, the most poignant tribute to him came from the Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, who averred: “Dr. Onagoruwa served the oppressed and gave voice to the voiceless, fearlessly and selflessly. He was a tireless proponent of the freedom of the press and a champion of fundamental human rights in Nigeria. He proved to be principled and forthright both in private practice and as Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. The nation mourns a true patriot who served his nation and its people with singular zeal and dedication.”
We wholeheartedly agree with this summation and commend Onagoruwa’s exemplary life of service to the legal profession and the country at large to all Nigerians.