Following the overthrow of the civilian administration in Nigeria in January 1966, the Constitution was suspended while Martial Law became the grund norm. Human rights of citizens were put in abeyance. In a bid to justify the detention of citizens indefinitely without trial a decree was enacted for every detainee. But by 1967 a single prevention decree was promulgated by the Yakubu Gowon military regime. The decree like other draconian legislations of the era ousted the jurisdiction of the court to entertain any suit challenging the detention of any person. Apart from deposed politicians, a number of human rights defenders and political activists were detained under the decree.
For fear of victimisation majority of Nigerian lawyers declined to approach the court to file writs of habeas corpus or fundamental rights applications to secure the release of detainees. Even though it was not financially rewarding, Dr. Onagoruwa was one of the few lawyers who took up such cases at the risk of their liberty or life. Indeed, some of them were detained and subjected to all manners of harassment for daring to challenge the detention of patriots that were regarded as political extremists by military dictators. Although the detention decree was repealed, like other anti-democratic decrees, to pave the way for the restoration of civil rule in October 1979, it was restored and re-enacted as the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No 2 of 1884 by the Buhari/Idiagbon junta.
Notwithstanding that the courts were prohibited from hearing human rights cases, Dr. Onagoruwa successfully secured freedom for me, Dr. Tai Solarin, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Chief Gani Fawehinmi and many other victims of the preventive detention decree. On May 19, Baba Omojola, Dr. Ransome-Kuti and I were arrested in Lagos for allegedly planning to overthrow the then self-styled military President, General Ibrahim Babangida. We were detained in Kuje prison under Decree 2. Chief Fawehinmi dismissed the stupid charge and proceeded to launch a legal battle for our release. Totally embarrassed by the legal action, Chief Fawehinmi was arrested and brought to Kuje prison to join us. At that juncture, Dr. Onagoruwa took over our cases. Persuaded by his submissions the trial judges ordered our release. But in a demonstration of its characteristic impunity, the Babangida junta refused to release us from illegal prison custody.
Apart from condemning such arrogant display of naked power by the discredited military junta Dr. Onagoruwa embarked on contempt proceedings against the then Attorney-General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Mr. Clement Akpamgbo SAN. With additional pressure from the Lagos and Ikeja branches of the Nigerian Bar Association for our release the junta shamelessly charged us with a treasonable felony before the Geagwalada Chief Magistrate Court. Even though Chief Fawehinmi and I had secured bail for ourselves and our comrades Dr. Onagoruwa took over our defense in the case. Asked by the media if he was not worried that we had been charged with the grave offense of treasonable felony Dr. Onagoruwa said that “the charge constitutes a monstrous allegation which cannot be proved against the patriots who are fighting so courageously and selflessly for the liberation of our country from military vampires.” Soon thereafter, the charge was struck out in our favor due to want of diligent prosecution by the junta.
Whenever Dr. Onagoruwa was detained or charged with a criminal offense in any court, Chief Fawehinmi was the defense counsel. When Dr. Onagoruwa’s personal and chambers accounts were frozen on the basis of an ex parte order issued by Justice Moshood Olugbani of the Lagos High Court Chief Fawehinmi ensured that the accounts were defrozen quam celerime. And when he was charged with stealing of a client’s money, Chief Fawehinmi was on hand to persuade the court to exonerate his comrade. Regrettably, Chief Fawehinmi parted ways with Dr. Onagoruwa when the latter agreed to serve as the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the Sani Abacha junta. The legal establishment had wanted to take advantage of the disagreement to reopen the charge of stealing against Dr. Onagoruwa as soon as the appointment was announced.
Since it was a disagreement based on principle, Chief Fawehinmi did not hesitate to join issues with the reactionary elements who had concluded plans to reopen the charge of stealing. In asking me to join him at the Court of Appeal where an application had been filed to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, Chief Fawehinmi said, ” Femi, omo eni o ni buru ka f’ekun pa je, we have to save Olu from the den of the lion.” With those words, I was convinced that we had a duty to intervene. Meanwhile, Dr. Onagoruwa was not aware of the surreptitious moves of his sworn enemies to dent his reputation and remove him from office.
At the instance of Chief Fawehinmi, I called Dr. Onagoruwa to inform him of the dangerous application and our readiness to have it dismissed. He could not believe the desperation of the legal establishment to remove him from office at all cost. He, however, expressed his profound gratitude to us for our solidarity. As he and Chief Fawehinmi were no longer on talking terms, he charged me “Femi ba mi dupe gidigidi lowo Gani.” Of course, I did. At the Court of Appeal, Chief Fawehinmi led a team of other progressive lawyers to defend Dr. Onagoruwa. The frantic efforts of the state counsel to reopen the case was frustrated by Chief Fawehinmi. He was in his best elements as he made a mockery of the application. In a short bench ruling, the Justices of the Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed the application.
By teaming up with other radical lawyers to defend the victims of human rights under a fascistic and plutocratic military junta, Dr. Onagoruwa was constantly harassed by the neocolonial State. For his uncompromising stand, the legal establishment denied him his leading position in the legal profession. Hence, his appointment as Attorney-General was vigorously opposed by the defenders of the status quo. No doubt, Dr. Onagoruwa made his mistakes like all mortals. One of such mistakes was the decision to serve as the chief legal advisor to a ruthless military dictatorship which he paid dearly for. In celebrating the life of the great lawyer we urge the family to take pride in his immense contributions to the struggle for the protection of human rights in a hostile environment. While thanking the family for supporting Dr. Onagoruwa in all his travails I am indebted to the lawyer for risking his own liberty to secure the liberty of other citizens.
Being a Tribute to Dr. Olu Onagoruwa SAN by Femi Falana SAN at the Christian Wake -keeping Service held in his honor at his residence at Odogbolu, Ogun State on Thursday, October 19, 2017