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Prince Bola Ajibola

Requiem Toast for Nigeria’s Regal Jurist Prince Bola Ajibola, Forty Days After

BY GODKNOWS BOLADEI IGALI

The ancient town of Abeokuta which literally means “refuge among the rocks” was lightened with a mammoth gathering of some of Nigeria’s most renowned personalities to mark the 40th day memorial prayers for the final repose of the soul of one of the country’s most respected lawyer and jurist, Prince Bola Ajibola (1934-2023). To the great shock of this nation, this legal mind passed on April 9, 2023, after what many see as a most outstanding public service. Similar to the eastern orthodox Christian tradition, the 40 days prayers is believed to provide opportunity for the living to intercede for the dead and is considered as sacrosanct for practicing Muslims in line with the act of revelation which Prophet Mohammed is said to have received from Angel Gabriel in the fortieth night. Besides the prayers, this event of spirituality and festivity afforded the opportunity to reflect on the life of this great Nigerian and also enabled the living, a new spiritual rebirth to focus on God.

2. It is worth recalling that the last time such a mammoth gathering came to Abeokuta was not even at his death which occurred on 9th April, 2023 or the 7 days prayers which held later in line with Islamic traditions but was on the occasion of his 85th birthday. Accordingly, the assortment of personalities on this occasion assembled to salute in prayers the memory and life’s work of this global citizen.

HOW LIFE BEGAN IN ABEAUKUTA’S OWU QUARTERS

3. Going back to history, the royal palace of Oba Abdul-Salam Ajibola Gbadela II, the 9th Olowu of Owu (the traditional ruler of Owu) who reigned between 1949 and 1972, went agog over the birth of a prince on March 22, 1934. Being himself a sage and Islamic scholar of great perceptive gift, the Kabiyesi (the unassailable one) as Yoruba monarchs
are called rightly gave the infant a name foretelling his future life of influence and affluence. Perhaps more than any other African ethnic group, the Yorubas attach great futuristic worth to names.

4. Oba Ajibola was a man of strong religious values and beliefs. He was a crack policeman under the British colonial service. He was a modernist who ensured that young Bola received both Koranic and Western Christian based education. He therefore had to share knowledge at Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta, with such other contemporaries as Chief Alani Bankole (father of Speaker Dimeji Bankoke), Dr Onaolapo Soleye, Chief Sunday Afolabi and younger schoolmates as Chief MKO Abiola and President Olusegun Obasanjo. This same school, founded by the American Southern Baptist Convention in 1923, was where the great Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the renowned medical practitioner and administrator, Prof. Thomas Lambo attended several decades back.

5. The Owu sub-ethnic group to which he, just like Obasanjo, were born into, occupied a special place in the history of the Yoruba people. The Owus are believed to be one of the most ancient Yoruboids dispersed from Ile-Ife, the ancestral home of the Yorubas. Comprised of various subgroups and clans such as Ife, Ijebu, Egba, Egbado, Oyo, Ekiti, Ijesha, Yagba, Awori, Igomina. The Yorubas, one of Africa’s largest ethnic nationalities, covers all of Nigeria’s South West and a sizeable part of the population of the Republic of Benin. However, unlike the aforementioned subgroups whose location is geographically confined, indigenous Owu communities are found in good numbers in virtually all parts of Yorubaland. The spatial spread, which retells their historical antecedent of being notable warriors and agriculturists, have nevertheless maintained strong religious and cultural heritage. Gladly, in all places where they find themselves, wisdom and tact took reason, impulsing them in the 19th century, when their present settlement abodes took form, to imbibe peaceful coexistence This is in contrast to the rather bellicose predilection of their forebears, which kept them itinerant in past centuries. So, just like in Abeokuta, where they have their largest concentration, they are fully integrated in the rest of Yorubaland. They are equally given freedom of their political and cultural expressions.

6. It is against this social and cultural milieu that Prince Ajibola grew up as an Owu boy in the larger cosmopolitan Abeokuta which was dominated by the Egbas some of who include Prof Wole Soyinka, Chief Ernest Shonekan and the Ransome-Kuti brothers (Prof Okikoye, Fela Anikolapo and Dr Beko). Some others were first female senior lawyers, Folake Solanke, Prof Ade Adekola, and others mentioned earlier who were in Baptist Boys High School with him. He therefore had to create the needed impact in all areas for upward movement in a city, which became known as the knowledge capital of its day. With someone like Dr. Lateef Adegbite, a prominent lawyer, who in later years became Secretary General of Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and who gave a modern outlook to interfaith coexistence, he stuck a lifelong friendship which went beyond Abeokuta ‘parapo’.

ADORNING THE WIG AND THE EMBROIDERED ROBE

7. Chief Ajibola’s cosmopolitan background made it easy for him to transit to the United Kingdom to enrol at the Holborn College of Law, University of London between 1959 and 1962. He obtained his Bachelor of Law (LLB) and was called to the English Bar at the Lincoln’s Inn in 1962. A thorough bred professional, he established one of the most successful practices, specialising in Commercial Law and International Arbitration. He soon added the high professional plume of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in 1980. It was largely due to his efforts that the practice of Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) became composite parts of Nigerian legal practice.

8. By 1984, his peers succeeded in prevailing on him to lead the flagship professional body, the Nigerian Bar Association. From 1900, when the first indigenous lawyer, Chief Christopher Sapara Williams (called to the English Bar in 1879), became President of the Nigerian Bar and led for 15 years, Bola Ajibola became the 17th leader of the body. Chairman, Disciplinary Committee of the Bar and General Council of the Bar of Senior Advocates of Nigeria; Member, Advisory Judicial Committee.

9. His brilliant performance as NBA President caught the attention of the then military President of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Babangida, who appointed him Attorney General and the Minister of Justice of Nigeria1985 to 1991. Thereafter, he threw his wig into the highly competitive ring for a seat on the International Court of Justice (World Court) which was established in 1945 under Chapter XIV of the United Nations Charter, the ICJ is made up of 15 judges elected by the General Assembly and reaffirmed by the Security Council for nine-year terms. Bola Ajibola went through the laborious process and became a judge of the court from 1991 to 1994. In this, he actually trod the path taken by the titan, Justice Taslim Elias, who moved from being Attorney General of Nigeria to the ICJ. The only difference between both of them being that the latter served for nine years, that is, 1976 to 1991, and became one of the most celebrated Presidents of the Hague based world body. But going further down, Justice Elias himself succeeded Justice Charles Onyeama (father of Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama). Justice Onyeama, who had previously been on the Nigerian Supreme Court, was first of our own to be elected into the “Palace of Justice” and served from 1967 to 1976.

10. What many Nigerians seem not to know is that, Justice Ajibola exited from court and took up position in 1994, as member to the Permanent Court of Arbitration with respect to the court’s deliberations on “The Land and Maritime Dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon”. This was to enable him to help with the prosecution of the Nigerian case. Not surprisingly, it was only Justice Abdul Koroma of Sierra Leone, who succeeded him in the main ICJ and Ajibola, who ruled favourably for Nigeria out of 15 Judges when judgement was passed on October 10, 2002. Justice Ajibola, as an adjunct judge, also gave a favourable opinion in favour of Nigeria.
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11. Deeper and deeper into international law practice and juridical concerns, he grew into a somewhat global phenomenon. By way of inference, he was also, President, The World Association of Judges; Member, Council of African Bar Association as well as International Bar Association; Association of World Lawyers; Commonwealth Law Association; Vice President, Institute of International Business Law. At a time, he was also President of the World Bank Administrative Tribunal. Furthermore, he was at several times, Judge of the Constitution Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1994-2002); Member of the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID); Arbitrator/Commissioner, Eritrea/Ethiopia Boundary Commission; Member, Permanent Court of Arbitration and Chairman, Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission. He was his passage, a Senior Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, London and Life Patron, Institute of Arbitrators of Nigeria.

STATEMANSHIP AND DIPLOMATIC TURF

12. When his Owu kinsman, Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo became President of Nigeria in 1999 after many years of military rule and a battered national image. He sent him to the Court of St. James as Nigeria’s High Commissioner from 1999 to 2002. London, which is Nigeria’s top diplomatic post, is often reserved for persons of the highest personal trust to the Head of State. His main task was, therefore, to reanimate Anglo-Nigerian relations and use UK as a launchpad to reconnect with the rest of the world; a task which many believe he dutifully accomplished.

13. On his return, Prince Bola Ajibola, in spite of his crowded international commitments, accepted to serve as Chairman of the Panel set up by the Plateau State Government to probe the 2008 Jos riots. If only political authorities would attempt to implement his far-reaching recommendations, not only Jos but also the entire Middle Belt would have seen more sustained peace. On a larger scale, his conflict
containment matrix recommendations could be deployed to many other troubled parts of Nigeria.

14. Despite his global exposure, his personal philosophy to life has remained founded in Islamic teachings of moderation, frugality, and honour. In a metaphorical disdain for corruption, he is recorded to have once asserted that “those who eat the bones of chicken, do so quietly and in peace; but others who try to eat whole elephant will have their teeth bloodied and exposed”. He founded the Islamic Movement of Africa (IMA), focusing on moralistic living and philanthropy across the continent. With a robust scholarship programme, the IMA today has a Model Secondary school in Abeokuta, which is considered as a national reference point for academic excellence. Beyond that, he joined the pioneering squad of private university proprietors when he established Crescent University in 2005 in Nigeria. The institution, similar to such other colleges as Bowen University, Redeemers University, and Covenant University, is faith based; albeit Islamic and fully co-educational with faculty and students of all faiths.

15. His life has not only been about Nigeria and the world as his community service impact is equally far-reaching. Former Ogun State Governor Gbenga Daniels in his time appointed him as chairman of the 50-member star-studded Ogun State Elders Consultative Assembly. A position which he gladly accepted utilizing his ebullient clout to form a high-level advisory, consultative, and collective ombudsman for the practice of good governance in the State. Towards the twilight of his life, he remained a workaholic. His focus on mentorship which had seen very many, including Nigerian Vice President, who is his professional “son” and previously his Special Assistant, during the Attorney General days, assumed a new dimension of engagement. Awards, recognitions, conferments, honorary doctorates, and the like adorned his life. Suffice to mention the award of Knight of the British Empire (KBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the honour, Commander of the Federal Republic (CON).

16. Public service could often throw even the best of persons into the most controversial of circumstances; this was also Ajibola’s experience. First and foremost was the fact that he made his mark as Attorney General of the Federation under a military administration whose style of administration was through top to bottom style decrees; bereft of standard democratic ideals. For people like him and other well intended persons who were not in khaki uniform, their roles in statesmanship were founded on balancing, rather precariously, the best of ideals without offending their colleagues who always had pistols in their waistbands, even in the highest military Councils. For an Attorney General in particular, the duties were delicate as it was his expectation to moderate the authoritarian military instincts. This was the case of mixed basket as he could also claim credit for some of the good laws, policies, and institutions established during the period he was the Chief Law Officer.

17. The other controversy was idealistic as he had to stand for his country, Nigeria, as an Adjunct Judge, along with Sierra Leone’s Justice Abdul Koroma against 15 other Judges whose position favoured the other party that is Cameroon in the “Dispute between The Land and Maritime Boundaries”. Although his was an advisory opinion, all the same, his view remains on record within the World Court. He stated inter alia in latter writing “In my dissenting opinion, I voted against the decision of the majority of members on the first, third, fourth, fifth, six, second part of the seventh and eighth preliminary objections filed by Nigeria. He continued the most important aspect of this dissenting opinion: dealing with my disagreement with the decision of court to follow the imperial decision on the right of passage over Indian Territory, which I now consider to be bad case law. Fundamentally, the reason for doing so is premised on the fact that Article 36(4) of the Statute was wrongly or inadequately interpreted in 1957 and the time has come for it to be corrected after 41 years.”
18. It was therefore a thing of surprise for some of his critics within Nigeria that he later accepted to serve as Chairman of the Nigerian side of the Nigeria-Cameroon Mixed Commission set up by the United Nations with mandate to look for peaceful ways to implement the judgement. Being the typical public servant, he spoke little on the work of this commission. It is known, however, that it was beyond just conceding every part of the judgement but high level of diplomatic arm twisting and horse-trading to ensure Nigeria benefit optimally from the aspects of the judgement that favoured it. More so, Nigeria is said to have won more territories on land than Cameroon.

FINAL BYE, OMO’OBA

19. It was William Shakespeare who opined that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’. Quite true. But what the iconic writer did not seem to mention is that some others have all these factors intermingling to define their life’s journey. Although he was born into royalty and aristocracy, growing up climbing the professional ladder was not always a bed of roses. At certain times, his official actions have been misunderstood and assailed. Not the least was his decision to serve a military government and the outcome of the Nigerian Cameroon border dispute and post ICJ work. But as historians delve into these in the course of time, Bola Ajibola is likely to come out more appreciated than previously reckoned. For him, the forte is said to be hard work, more hard work, contentment, and a prayerful lifestyle. These are incredibly inspiring nuggets for today’s generations of lawyers, jurists, and public servants, not just in Nigeria but around the world.

20. Now, he will rest and await God’s ultimate mercy and reward.

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