opinionBy Yusuph Olaniyonu
Lagos — Arguably, there are three Nigerians who have contributed most to the development of the law. They comprise Professor Taslim Olawale Elias, Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams (SAN) and Chief Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi (SAN).
These men dominated the practice and development in the Nigerian legal system in the last 70 years or so. Incidentally, these three men who have written so much about law in Nigeria and espoused ideas that enriched our jurisprudence, did not write their own stories. Neither did they get other authors to help them write the stories of their lives. Thus, they died without their biographies written. Fawehinmi started writing his autobiography but the lung cancer which he battled in the last few years of his life robbed him of that opportunity as the project was left unfinished. No such attempt was made by Elias and Williams before they surrendered to death.
The crux of this article is to emphasise the body of knowledge that is lost each time a great man dies without any proper documentation of the story of his life. The biography of a great personality is like a chapter in the life of the nation which produces the great man. It is an account of the era in which the man live and it serves as historical document for future generations to read. As at today, there are up to 100 books on the Kennedy family in the United States of America. The Rockefellers, the Bushes and other great families in the US have books written on them. There is a whole body of works on Presidents in the United States. Leaders in the areas of politics, business, military, academic and the professions in advanced countries take time to write their memoirs while other writers take it as a duty to write biographies on the prominent achievers in their society.
US President Barack Obama who hit our consciousness just a few years ago has written three books on himself, both biographical and idea-oriented. There are other books already being written by others on Mr. Obama.
How come Nigerian leaders in all spheres of life do not care to have the stories of their lives recorded for posterity? Is it because they do not want others to read about them? Are Nigerian prominent personalities too pre-occupied with the persistent challenges of living in a third world nation that simple issues like biographies is far less important in their considerations? The fault however is not that of the worthy people who fail to record their life histories. It is also the fault of our academic, media and the literary communities. The university faculties, journalists and other writers should also take it as a major task to write biographies of individuals whose story will help us learn more about the national history and socio-economic and political developments in our country.
For example, it will not be a bad idea if the faculty of law of the University of Lagos undertakes the sponsorship of the biography of Elias who was the pioneer dean and whose scholarly works in the area of development of law in post-colonial African states was acknowledged all over universities in Europe and the US. Also, doctoral students can be encouraged to write the biographies of some of these individuals as their dissertation. Even faculty members can be given university grants to undertake studies on the life and times of these individuals strengthened by a publishing commitment from the university press. Funds for such academic engagements can be sourced from foundations and organisations based here and abroad.
I believe this task forms part of the duties of a university to conduct researches and expand the body of knowledge in various aspects of life. Writing biographies about these great individuals is part of the ways to teach national history to the younger ones. It can also help to inculcate in them the culture of reading. Biographies is one way we can ensure that the 'labour of our heroes' past shall never be in vain.' I know Mr. Femi Falana, an associate of Fawehinmi is also working on the biography of the senior advocate who died on September 5 this year. Falana should hasten to complete the work. The children of Fawehinmi can also try to complete the auto-biography which their father started. If Fawehinmi's children can do this, they will be emulating the eldest son of Sir (Justice) Udo Udoma who completed the autobiography which the respected jurist started before his demise.
There are still so many things we can learn about Elias, Williams and Fawehinmi. Between these three men, Nigerian legal system has the best of its contributors. These were Nigerian lawyers who could stand their grounds in terms of achievements against any of their peers in the world. They were all pride to Nigeria.
Born on November 11, 1914, Elias was educated at CMS Grammar School and Igbobi College, Lagos. He married Ganiat Yetunde Fowosere and they had three boys and two daughters. He was admitted to the University College, London in 1944. He was also educated at the Cambridge's Trinity College and the University of London. Elias was called to the Inner Temple Bar in 1947 where he was Yarborough Anderson scholar. He got his Ph.D. in 1949. Elias was awarded several fellowships to do researches and he taught in many British universities. In 1951, he wrote his first book, 'Nigeria Land Law and Custom'. In 1954, he wrote the 'Groundwork of Nigerian Law.' Other books authored by Elias are 'Makers of Nigerian Law,' 'Nature of African Customary Law', 'Africa Before the World Court' and 'Africa and the West: The Legacies of Empire'. He edited 'Nigerian Press Law' which he co-authored with his colleague from the University of Lagos.
Elias had the distinction of being a professor of law, a distinguished legal practitioner, author of master piece legal works, dean of the nation's foremost law faculty, attorney general of Nigeria and federal commissioner for justice, chief justice of Nigeria and president of the International Court of Justice. He died on August 14, 1991.
Williams was born on December 16, 1920 in Lagos. Educated at Methodist School, Olowogbowo and CMS Grammar School, Lagos and the Selwyn College of Cambridge University where he obtained a B.A. degree in 1942. He was called to the English Bar at the Gray's Inn in London in 1943. His grand uncle after whom he was named, Rotimi Alade was a lawyer called to the bar in 1892 while his own father, Thomas Williams was called to the Bar in 1927. In 1943, he became the first Nigerian solicitor to the nation's Supreme Court. He was the first Attorney General in the country when he served the Western region. He was the first Nigerian to be conferred with the rank of Queen's Counsel and in 1975 he was one of the first two Nigerians to be conferred with rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Williams bestrode the Nigerian courts and the constitutional drafting process from the 1940s to 2005 when he died like a colossus.
He was the only lawyer in the world who was addressing the court sitting down. His cases opened new legal principles in the various areas. He was the only lawyer who got the highest courts, the Supreme Courts and the West African Court of Appeal (WACA) to reverse themselves on several occasions. His cases like Lakanmi and Kikelomo Vs AG West remain loci classicus till date. His law office has produced the highest number of lawyers, the most number of senior advocates, judges, law teachers and legal administrators. Williams headed the body which wrote the 1979 constitution which remains the most autochtonous legal document in the nation's history of constitution making. The 1979 constitution has remained a reference point in the nation's constitutional making process. One of the nation's best judges of all times, Kayode Eso, described Williams as " a living legend and the greatest law advocate Africa has produced. He is outstanding, most renowned and most eagerly sought after, notwithstanding the fact that he is already over 80 with continued law practice over 60 years."
Fawehinmi who was born in Ondo town on April 22, 1938, was educated at Ansar-ud-Deen Primary School and Victory College, Ikare, Ondo State. In 1961, he enrolled in the Holborn College of Law for the LL.B degree of the University of London. He read on his own to pass the Parts 11 and 111 of the degree programme in 1964. He enrolled at the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Nigerian Bar on January 15, 1965. He began his law practice in the chambers owned by his elder brother, Rasheed Fawehinmi. In April 1965, he started his own chambers. In 1978, he finally moved the chambers to its present site in Anthony Village, Lagos. The law office boasts the best library in the country and one of the best in Africa.
Fawehinmi was a lawyer who used advocacy, authorship of law books and publication of law reports to democratise the knowledge of law. His Nigeria Weekly Law Reports (NWLR) opened access for lawyers to decisions in the courts. As at today, over 780 parts of the law reports which is a must read for lawyers and judges have been published. Each part now has over 300 pages weekly. It has been published continuously for 21 years. Gani wrote about 20 books on different areas of law spanning constitutional law, criminal law, commercial law and procedural law. He handled about 5700 legal briefs during his active period in the courts from 1969 to 2002 and more than 1,500 of these were pro bono cases which he handled on behalf of the poor, oppressed, cheated people, free of charge. Many of his cases are loci classicus. They included Fawehinmi Vs Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, Fawehinmi Vs Abacha, Adesanya Vs Senate, Fawehinmi Vs IGP, Fawehinmi Vs Akilu, among many others.
He died on September 5, 2009 and was given a heroic burial as advocate of the masses.