"What a loss! I begin to feel quite ill at ease at the Grim Reaper's seeming field of choice this season. Both old and young are dropping like flies to his scythe, and, what is ominous, there aren't that many sprouts from the falling Irokos, if any. And still, how many deaths shall we mourn with the same cry? How many funerals? What can we do now, seeing how full our hands are at the moment? Why won't death find other fields for its harvest and let our tears dry?"—Ogaga Ifowodo
These words were the written response of my dear friend, award-winning writer, and doctoral candidate at Cornell University in Ithaca, upstate New York, Ogaga Ifowodo, when I informed him by e-mail of the death last week of Alao Aka-Bashorun, the 14th president of the Nigerian Bar Association. Ogaga wrote and spoke the minds of many of us who knew the outstanding Aka for the outstanding man that he was.
Alao Aka-Bashorun whose death at the age of 75 was announced last weekend was a charismatic and peerless leader of the Nigerian Bar Association through the most difficult days of military rule. Briefly exiled to England during the Abacha years, his two year long tenure at the helm of the NBA gave the organization solid institutional foundations as well as a popular base that it did not then have, nor managed to achieve since. With his death, the NBA has lost undoubtedly its most effective president of recent memory and, arguably, of all time.
Following so soon after the death of Chief Rotimi Williams, SAN, earlier in 2005, the death of Alao Aka Bashorun means that that the NBA has lost two of its greatest all time leaders in the same year. Chief Williams was the senior-most and longest serving member of the Nigerian Bar when he passed on earlier in the year. He was also the longest-serving president of the NBA, having led the organization for nearly one decade until 1968. Aka, who followed in his wake a full two decades later, will probably go down in history as the most charismatic and, when it mattered, the most effective.
It has been dreadfully sad and wrenching fortnight for the progressive wing of project Nigeria. First we had the tragic car crash on September 21 that claimed the lives of Tunji Oyeleru and Chima Ubani, followed 48 hours later by the passing of Dr. Bala Usman. The death of Alao Aka-Bashorun adds to this list of recent sad departures of men who embodied the best of humanity and of Nigeria.
Aka, as we all knew him, led the NBA from 1987 to 1989. He was elected to the presidency of the NBA at a time when the ruling military, under the leadership of General Ibrahim Babangida, appeared to have successfully dismantled organized strongholds of dissent. The bar appeared to have lost its will and way after the Babangida regime appointed its President, Bola Ajibola, to the Chambers of the federal Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in July 1985. Thereafter, a succession of forgettable presidents failed to rouse the association or tickle its sensitive regions with any articulate program.
It was widely but erroneously believed that a supposedly bar-friendly federal attorney-general gave the NBA both relevance in shaping legal policy and access to those who did it. All this was to change with the subterranean strengthening of preventive detention laws, the calculated cynicism of the prosecutorial response to the assassination of Dele Giwa in October 1986, and the subsequent proscription by ad hominem military decree of the Newswatch Magazine that he cofounded a mere six month later. Without notice, General Babangida's regime had altered nonexistent rules for the worse and the leadership of the NBA looked both inept and supine in comparison to the challenges the country confronted.
In Aka, the NBA found a President who gave it vision and a voice that spoke with moral authority, and, above all, cojones. You could always trust Aka to find the sweet spot of the NBA and of Nigerian people. You could also trust Aka to have his diction about him whether he was dispensing the law talk in the courts or providing leadership against military arbitrariness. On the issues that mattered, he spoke with a clarity and forthrightness that banished the two-handed lawyer to a distant apparition. When General Babangida took our courts for granted, Aka called out lawyers to the first and, so far, only successful nationwide strike of Nigeria's legal profession. It was a measure of Aka's stature that the congenitally disputatious community that comprises the bar heeded his call to down tools.
With a political savvy and simplicity of language that was unusual among lawyers, Aka articulated a popular challenge to the legitimacy of the Babangida regime and to the legality of its egregious misrule. Unlike his predecessors, Aka was not afraid to denounce the regime publicly. He carefully constructed a persona and platform around which other voices of opposition to military rule rallied. In time, he became a central figure in Nigeria's then emerging organized civil society, including the Campaign for Democracy (CD), and the National Democratic Coalition, (NADECO). Far from being defined by it, Aka managed to define his age. He was the voice of active citizenship, arguing for a partnership of citizens and government under legitimate constitutional authority, rather than command peremptoriness under jackboots.
Although labeled by the military as a "radical," Aka was actually a principled pragmatist who could be and was always trusted to undertake difficult tasks requiring a delicate combination of discretion and judgment. Because of this, Aka was lawyer to the so-called radicals-including organized labor, the students, the youths, and market women, and the conservative business community, including the late Chief MKO Abiola and his business empire. Both sides confided in and trusted him. Aka's campaign for the leadership of the NBA was built on the back of an improbable coalition in which ideological and generational poles found it almost natural to invest trust in him. He engineered the reconciliation of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN with the NBA, and brought to an end the decade-long dispute between a succession of bar leaderships and Gani.
Alao Aka-Bashorun enrolled as a lawyer in Nigeria in 1963. This writer first met him in Lagos in 1988, the same year in which I was admitted to the Nigerian Bar. He always wore a crown of delightfully grey hairs that did no harm to his gravitas. I had to walk by his law office in Ebutte Metta along the path of my daily trudge to and from the law school. Aka's law office was remarkable in its modesty, with nothing remotely approaching the luminous charisma of its principal or the combined brain power of its legal team. Among the illustrious graduates of that law office are Femi Falana, Abiodun Owonikoko, and Luke Aghanenu, three lawyers who bring soul to the practice of law in a tradition pioneered by Aka. Among the lawyers of Aka's generation, only Gani Fawehinmi and the late Kanmi Ishol-Osobu could hold a candle to him for the hours of committed pro bono service to the poor, students, the struggling, and the excluded. Many younger lawyers and responsible graduates, including the recently deceased Chima Ubani, owe their graduation to many hours and long journeys of free representation provided or pioneered by Aka and his law office.
Aka was, however, more than merely a bar activist and leader. He also ran a successful legal practice and did not apologize for being able to afford basic comforts for his efforts. He brought all his practice and skill to building the Nigerian Bar Association as an institution. When he was elected president of the bar, Aka inherited a wasted and wasteful project site of considerable antiquity as the bar secretariat. Upon assuming the presidency, he made it a priority to construct and complete the bar secretariat as his legacy. Under a visionary contractor-financing agreement hammered out by Aka, the present NBA secretariat on Adeola Hopewell in Victoria Island was constructed on his watch, at little cost to the NBA. It remains the NBA's richest revenue stream. The decision of the Jos Bar Conference to name that secretariat after Aka acknowledges his singular preeminence as an institution-builder at the bar.
Aka had a lot of faith in the youth, and spent considerable energy mentoring many professionals and persons. He brought his passion for young people to his presidency of the bar, nominating many young lawyers to the National Executive Committee and pioneering the appointment of an administrative secretary with responsibility for the day-to-day management of the NBA's Secretariat in Lagos. For this task, Aka plucked the late Gbemiga Abegunde, then Chairman of the NBA in Kaduna, who was cut out for a fast track to the leadership of the NBA until he was tragically killed in another automobile accident nearly thirteen years ago. That this position has remained bereft of any occupant or comparable brilliance and stature since Gbemiga's death testifies to the limits of vision at the helm of the NBA since Aka.
I last met Aka in characteristically modest surroundings in St. John's Wood in London nearly ten years ago while he was exiled in London. I had learnt he was in town and called to pay him a visit. He happily received me and I spent over three hours in his company. It was veritable Aka. We shared analyses of the prospects for Nigeria and its then rulers, anecdotes across generations, fears and hopes for our country, and aspirations for the legal profession that he loved so much and in which I was still cutting my teeth. When I was about to leave, he reminded me that "we must not give up the country to these people."
Alao Aka-Bashorun embodied the best of our profession and our humanity. He led the bar with distinction and authority never before or since achieved by our association. He was not a man for pomp or ceremony. In other and better climes, Aka would have been bestowed with the affirmations of distinction and eminence that his labors richly earned and many professionals of lesser ability and eminence have long received even when they lacked the capacity to earn it.
The best president our bar has had lived out the last eight or so years of his life with a degenerative ailment of the central nervous system. For a man who inspired so many, it was a long and dreadful journey to the moment of goodnight. It is a measure of his achievement in the portals where our lives matter and eminence is ultimately assessed by those who know its true worth that when I told a friend who is not at all a lawyer that I had to write an obituary article in memory of Alao Aka-Bashorun, the instant response I got was "he deserves praise. He revived the NBA." It is a fitting epitaph to the man who remains our most effective Bar Leader. Goodnight, Mr. President.