Olu Onagoruwa, former Attorney-General of the Federation, whose death was announced on Friday, meant different things to different people, but there is a consensus that he was a man who never shied away from taking up daunting challenges. Only that when nature comes calling, even the bravest of men cannot but answer.
Onagoruwa hails from Odogbolu in Ogun State and obtained his LL.B; LL.M and PhD degrees in law at the University of London. Upon his return to the country, he attended the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1971. He is also a member of the Inner Temple of the English bar, and the International Bar Associations.
He combined legal practice with regular commentary on socio-legal affairs. His core practice areas include constitutional law, legislative matters, banking and insolvency, oil and gas, telecommunication law and litigation. He wrote several books and has to his credit over 250 published articles.
FALLOUT WITH GANI FAWEHINMI
Onagoruwa and Gani Fawehinmi, another deceased legal luminary, used to be very good friends. Both were very outspoken lawyers and were popular for taking up cases that many would not dare approach.
Their friendship and outspoken nature even made them enemies within the hierarchy of the legal practitioners in the country.
“Notwithstanding their enormous contributions to legal development, the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) resolved never to confer the title of SAN on Chief Fawehinmi and Dr. Onagoruwa. Hence, their applications for the rank were consistently rejected on the spurious ground that they were not “fit and proper persons” to be admitted to the inner bar,” wrote Femi Falana in 2014.
But that friendship turned sour after Onagoruwa accepted the appointment of Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice from Sani Abacha, the then Military head of State.
Gani was unhappy that Onagoruwa accepted to serve in the “very corrupt and repressive government of Abacha”, and that was the beginning of a breakdown in their relationship.
Here are two stories told by Ebenezer Babatope, a journalist and politician, to mark Onagoruwa’s 80th birthday earlier this year:
“Minere Amakiri had published a story in the Observer adjudged by the then Rivers State Governor, Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, to have been rude to him… The military governor immediately ordered the arrest of Minere Amakiri. The governor ordered that the head of the journalist be shaved clean and detained.
“The Newspaper Proprietors’ Association … immediately sent Dr. Olu Onagoruwa to follow the case and advise appropriately what should be done. Onagoruwa did follow the case and called for a large-scale condemnation of the retaliatory actions of Governor Diette Spiff on the Amakiri matter.
“He eventually ended up writing a book titled “PRESS FREEDOM IN CHAINS (which) contained details of the events of the Minere/Amakiri affair.”
The second story is ‘the Turner Ogboru case’.
“Turner Ogboru had been arrested, tried and imprisoned by the General Ibrahim Babangida regime after the abortive coup attempt of April 22, 1990.
“(But) a High Court Judge granted the application for freedom of Turner, which was filed by his lawyer, Femi Falana.
“Olu Onagoruwa, the (then) Attorney-General sent letters out to the late Alex Ibru, the then Minister for Internal Affairs, and Alhaji Ibrahim Coomasie, the Inspector General of Police, directing the immediate release of Turner Ogboru as directed by the Court. Alex Ibru complied immediately with the Attorney-General’s instructions by ordering the release of Turner Ogboru from prison custody.
“The late Head of State, General Sani Abacha was said to have been so enraged to learn of the subsequent release of Turner Ogboru that he was said to have told Olu Onagoruwa and the late Alex Ibru that what they had done by releasing Ogboru was worse than treasonable felony.
“Turner Ogboru was immediately rearrested after the PRC meeting and returned to prison.”
Onagoruwa was subsequently dismissed by Abacha and reports had it that his son, also a lawyer, was later murdered by the Abacha’s “hit men”.
Onagaruwa never recovered from that loss.
APPOINTED SAN AT 77
Onagoruwa made history by becoming the only non-SAN to be appointed Attorney-General of the Federation.
Here’s how Falana put it: “Pursuant to the guidelines which had been drawn up by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee since 1985, Dr. Onagoruwa ought to have been conferred with the rank by virtue of his new appointment.
“But the Committee of senior judges and lawyers headed by the then Chief Justice of the country, the late Justice Mohammed Bello, decided to breach the law and refused to confer the rank on the Justice Minister.
“In a bid to justify its unjust decision the Committee instigated the Lagos State Ministry of Justice to approach the Supreme Court to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeal which had dismissed the charge of stealing brought against Dr. Onagoruwa.
“In a short ruling the court indicted the applicant and dismissed the matter with substantial costs. Notwithstanding that the application was dismissed, Dr. Onagoruwa was denied the rank.
“In a move which smacks of institutionalized injustice lawyers who had been short-listed for the award in 1994 had their hope dashed as the entire exercise was cancelled. Thus, they were collectively punished along with Dr. Onagoruwa!
“Like Chief Fawehinmi who was conferred with the rank of SAN towards the end of his life, Dr. Onagoruwa is being admitted, rather belatedly, when he can no longer take advantage of the title.
“All the same, the members of the LPPC led by the outgoing Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Honourable Justice Maryam Aloma Muktar deserve commendation for ensuring that justice was done, at long last, with respect to the treatment meted out to Dr. Onagoruwa who is now over 77 years old.”
STRUCK BY STROKE
“The murder of his son by unknown policemen till this day did have an effect on his health. Eventually, Dr. Olu Onagoruwa suffered a devastating stroke attack some few months after the murder. He has not fully recovered from the stroke attack,” Babatope wrote.
Onagoruwa, however, managed to appear before the famous Oputa Panel, where he narrated a graphic story of how Abacha’s men killed his son.
Testifying for over 45 minutes before the commission, Onagoruwa, partially paralysed, said the assassins that murdered his son included Baranabas Mshelia aka Rogers, a Sergeant, and Frank Omenka, a Lieutenant Colonel, both of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI).
To make matters worse for Onagoruwa, his loyal wife of many years also died. Despite all the problems, Onagoruwa lived up to a ripe age of 80.
Now, having lived a long live, though not devoid of pain and sorrow, the octogenarian has finally found lasting peace.