Richard Osuolale Abimbola Akinjide died a few days ago at the age of 88 years, much loathed, much liked. I have no scale with which to measure the specific tonnage of the loathing and the liking but this is an indication that the courageous lawyer and politician was a great political gladiator who stirred up the hornet’s nest here and there and didn’t give a damn. He was a combative, belligerent and audacious man who didn’t care very much whose ox was gored. He simply did what he wanted to do and moved on, believing in the certainty of his actions. He did not ask for validation from anyone.
This Ibadan man went to the famous Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife, and the University of London, where he studied law. He was called to the Nigerian Bar and the Inner Temple in London. In Nigeria, he was called to the Inner Bar as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria on the same day with Professor Ben Nwabueze and Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1978. He had been president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), chairman of the Body of Senior Advocates, Attorney-General of the Federation, member of the constitution drafting committee that produced the 1979 Constitution. Let us just say that he was ex-this and ex-that in the legal profession and that, at the young age of 33, he was the man in charge of Nigeria’s educational compass as Minister of Education in the First Republic. This is an indication that the youths in the First Republic were allowed to eat with elders because they had washed their hands well. That was why M.T. Mbu was able to be appointed Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister at the age of 23.
A lot has changed today, not necessarily for the better. Akinjide was a member of the Governing Council of the University of Ife, now named Obafemi Awolowo University. There is a twist of irony here. This university was founded by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Akinjide’s implacable foe. The two men were on opposite sides of the political and ideological divide. Awo had socialist, populist credentials with free education as his signature tune, while Akinjide was a conservative ideologue who thought that in education quality was better than quantity.
Akinjide was consistently conservative, belonging at various times to the NNDP/NPC, NPN, NRC and PDP. He employed his vast intellect, oratorical skills and a soldier’s courage to the pursuit of his political agenda in the South-West and Nigeria, winning some and losing some. His attempt to become the governor of Oyo State as the NPN gubernatorial candidate was rebuffed by his people in 1979, because of the dominance of Awo in the region and the groundswell of support and affection that Awo’s free education mantra had fetched him. Akinjide was beaten but he was waiting patiently at the corner for Awolowo, who had contested the presidential election on the platform of the UPN. Awo ran a fabulous campaign vigorously pushing his transformation agenda for Nigeria and the hope of many was that, if he became the President of Nigeria, he would have the opportunity to put his enticing programmes to work.
But that was not to be because he did not win the election. His opponent, Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the NPN, did in circumstances that became very controversial. Under the election rules, a presidential candidate had to win in at least two-thirds of the then 19 states. The Electoral Act stipulated 13 states to be two-thirds of 19 states. Shagari won the election in 12 states and had problems with the 13th state, Kano. He won two-thirds of the votes cast there, which meant that he did not win the election on the first ballot. This meant that, in accordance with the Electoral Act, those who won the two highest votes would have to go for a run-off election to decide the winner. Chief Akinjide a chieftain of the NPN, quickly put on his legal thinking cap. He came up with the view that two-thirds of 19 is not 13 states but 12 states and two-thirds of the votes cast in the 13th state. By this forensic mathematics, Shagari had met the electoral requirement and should be declared the winner on the first ballot. The Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) bought the Akinjide argument and declared Shagari the President-Elect. The UPN decalred Shagari’s victory a stolen mandate. Awo challenged the FEDECO decision at the Election Tribunal and the Supreme Court and lost. However, the Supreme Court stated that the judgement should not be cited as a precedent.
Since we now have 36 states, a figure easily and neatly divisible by three, there has been no two-thirds palaver. There might be some states where this kind of problem may arise in the governorship election but so far it hasn’t reared its horrid head. Since then, Akinjide came to be called Mr-Twelve-and-two-thirds and many people in the South-West do not think he deserves kisses from them for his “mischief.” On the other hand, the NPN people and Shagari’s supporters considered him a hero. But let’s face it, right or wrong, he showed jurisprudential brilliance even if his traducers would accuse him of a lack of political affection for or political affinity with the political oracle of the South-West, Awo.
Akinjide was brilliant not only in the court room but also outside of it. A voracious reader, he delivered many well-researched lectures at various fora where the intelligentsia gathered. At a lecture he delivered on Democracy and the Challenges of Succession in Nigeria, in 2001, he said: “The crisis and problems of political succession in Nigeria today cannot be divorced from Major Lugard who came here as an employee of the Royal Niger Company. Lord Harcourt, a ruthless imperialist, was the colonial secretary at that crucial period in our history. Lugard and Harcourt imprimatur remain with us till today. In fact, the problems of democracy and political succession we have in Nigeria in recent times and today have their genesis in the Lugard and Harcourt policies. Our June 12 crisis must be traced back to Major Lugard and Lord Harcourt. Lord Harcourt saw the South as the lady of means who must marry the North, a poor indigent bachelor.
“Lord Harcourt stated the purpose of the amalgamation as follows: ‘We have released Northern Nigeria from the leading strings of the treasury. The promising and well conducted youth is now on an allowance on his own and is about to affect the alliance with a southern lady of means. I have issued the special licence and Sir Frederick Lugard will perform the ceremony. May the union be fruitful and the couple constant.’
“The benefits and burdens of the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates will continue to be a subject of intriguing debate and its contribution to our greatness or lack of it will remain an eternal subject for forensic interrogation. Many people have posited that Nigeria is by all indices made up of two different countries that should never have been one – and can never be one – but the fact remains that since we stay as one, we must make it work for all. That is the challenge that our leaders face, a challenge that their actions or inactions can curb or cure or consolidate. Nigeria remains an uncompleted assignment, an unfinished task, which some Nigerians, both civilian and military, have sunk their teeth into trying to find a solution to its problems that seem intractable.
One of the men who has written a seminal book on the fault lines of our federation is a retired Major General Chris Alli, whose book The Siege of a Nation: The Federal Republic of Nigerian Army, Akinjide was in love with. In the lecture earlier referred to, Akinjide quoted Alli as saying: “The Nigerian federal system is a colossal deception of the highest order, a colonial, political construction inherited by the elite in 1960.”
Alli said further: “The struggle among the contending interests for the control of the central government is the major source and cause of Nigeria’s cut-throat politics and recurring instability. There is also a very strong linkage between the military barracks, oil resources and coups d’etat as soldiers ravage the nation to assuage personal and group appetite for power and wealth.”
The search for that country where the whole and the parts work seamlessly has been an enduring problem. That is why even today “true federalism” and “restructuring” are exciting buzz words in the ears of Nigerians. The political elite hear these words and laugh, knowing that those who utter them have no powers to change things from what they are now to what they should be. And they who hold the levers of power are just not interested in changing the status quo because to do so is to give up the power and privileges which they cherish very much.
Nigeria has always been run in episodes, no long-term thinking, just short-term tentative manoeuvres. The twelve-and-two-thirds problem was solved with a stroke of pragmatic manoeuvre with an eye on its temporary utilitarian value. It wasn’t a solution for all time; it wasn’t a just solution but one intended to bring temporary peace to the Republic even if a large section of it felt done in by that irreverent decision. That is also why the Supreme Court asked that it be not quoted as a precedent.
Here was a clash between the reality of peace and the devaluation of justice. The system preferred the latter for the realisation of the former. That did not put Akinjide on the right side of history but a knotty problem had been solved, solved at the expense of a man who had toiled hard and thought a day would come when he would put his touted magic formula for Nigeria’s transformation on display. That day never came for Awo. It never came for Nigeria.