The People’s Lawyer Of My Generation Is Gone By Tunde Akanni

Aturu’s path and mine crossed each other at the Civil Liberties Organization, CLO, in mid 1990s where I had shared the same office with his bossom friend, Omolade Adunbi, now an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan. Such was his consistent oyaya or warm disposition and large-heartedness that everyone whose path crossed that of BF, as we fondly called him, was “my brother” or  “my sister”.  Way back in 1994 or thereabout, this writer as the spokesperson for the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, then was just settling in at the CLO secretariat when BF sauntered to my desk one morning.

He had come to introduce to me, a lawyer friend, Kunle Omotimirin. He wanted me to help promote Kunle who had just started what he called Ireti Housing Agency. “Kunle is a reliable property consultant and a very reliable professional colleague”. Not given to time wasting, as soon as Kunle and I, exchanged cards, he stormed out of the CLO secretariat together with Kunle.

At that time, I had just gotten to know BF well apart from being known from afar on account of his activism, the most celebrated then being his rejection of the NYSC award.  As an NCE trained teacher, he had served his country meritoriously during the NYSC award and the Military Governor of the State then was to honour him publicly with handshake. BF declined the same handshake many would die to have! Perhaps, our brother’s public demonstration of “he who must go to equity, must do so with clean hands”.  

This year, more than thirty years later, Aturu offered the world a reminder that his character as talaka hadn’t diminished any bit with emerging comfort as a busy lawyer gradually ascending the ladder of leadership in his career. He wasn’t any tempted by the promise of N12 million for each of the 2014 delegate to the National Cconfab. Aturu was nominated but would not be part of any deliberate national treasury depletion by the widely acclaimed clueless leadership that threw up the idea of the confab. Aturu, his soul mate and friend of many years, Chima Ubani and several of us in the human rights movement had clamoured for Sovereign National Conference to address the political directionlessness of this country for years to no avail. The best version of the said conference in the vision of the sitting government is the jamboree to which those who should be leaders of the country constitute the smallest fraction. Some of us have additional reservations which will be discussed in another context in future.

Since introducing Kunle to me, Aturu and I  chatted more often any time he came to the CLO secretariat. And he frequented the place. He was a leading member of the organization and was one of the most relied upon by CLO for pro bono legal services. Yours sincerely never forsaw the likelihood of emerging as a client of BF. But this happened sooner than any one could guess.

Some seven days to the June 12 anniversary of 1995, I was arrested  and detained after I had, on behalf of CLO, condemned the arrest of the respected former Governor of the old Ondo State, Pa Adekunle Ajasin and  500 others at a NADECO meeting held at Pa Ajasin’s house. After the anniversary was over, the  police felt a little at ease and took several of the activists so arrested and detained including Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti and myself both detained at Panti Police Station to court. Court granted us bail and adjourned the matter. Before the next adjourned date a few police operatives who had been mandated to search my apartment had paid additional visits to extort bribes from my people at home.  

As the adjourned date approached, the rumour was rife that given the increasing tension deriving from the activities of NADECO and civil rights groups, I would be re-arrested and detained. It would not be wise for me to fall victim of an already sensed danger. Yet, I had debated within myself: would it not anger the court more If I didn’t show up? I later learnt from my lawyer wife that that would have earned me a warrant of arrest from the court.  Although a lawyer in the regular employ of the organization was dedicated to my case, my concerns deepened by the day.

The respectable lawyers in the house including Eze Onyekpere, Ogaga Ifowodo and a couple of others had to be at some other courts on the next adjourned date for my case. Somehow, BF got to know about my worries. He sent word to me that I should leave the matter to him. He promised to be there even at the risk of being arrested too. BF promptly arrived the court as Alhaji Sina Ayekoti, veteran judicial correspondent, who was my colleague at National Concord, now with The Sun later told me. The matter was called up at the court and BF stood in to fight the legal battle. The police later abandoned the matter. So how can I get to thank this volunteer enough for the professional investment without the slightest motivation or support from any one on my matter especially as there was a lawyer in the house on full pay dedicated to the matter? It was the beginning of some good bonding between us. On my recommendation for instance, the same car dealer, Wale Adeeyo, who sold my first car to me, sold to Omolade Adunbi and Aturu…

But I am not the only loser on Aturu’s death.  Several Lagosians, at the very least, are whether they know it or not. Consistently, he demonstrated his belief in the the Qur’anic preaching that everyone should be his brother’s keeper even as you strive for your own welfare in the face of challenges. To my surprise, he once mustered to me the highly recommended Islamic prayer “laila ila anta subhanaka ini kuntun mina solimeen”. Need I remind Lagosians that he once sought to rule them as governor on the platform of his political party, Democratic Alternative, DA which we all co-founded as CLO activists? Aturu, now recently emulated by Fayemi, as another gallant loser in Nigeria’s political history, moved on to some other challenges beckoning for his attention as a genuine leader.

Aturu’s leadership and life of service within the civil society movement was never in doubt.  Never  about self aggrandizement or ego massaging. After he lost the governorship election in 2007, Lagos State Government did not fail to recognize the sincerity of this patriot called Bamidele Aturu. That government appointed him to serve as a member of the Governing Board of  the Office of the Public Defender, OPD. Aturu accepted this and made sure he attended all meetings promptly.  Lagos State’s OPD has since become an irresistible model in justice administration for other states. OPD in Lagos State has since become an institution. A new building which Lagos State might consider re-naming after this people’s lawyer was recently commissioned at Surulere, near the National Stadium. I believe Aturu deserves it!

Aturu’s leadership was yet another reflective of his love for welfarism. The most conspicuous of all these perhaps was at the burial, two years ago, of my first cousin, Olaitan Oyerinde, at Ede, in Osun State.  Mournful comrades had taken their turns to render funeral orations. When it was our brother’s turn he upped the stake.  Aturu recalled how families of some comrades had suffered after the demise of their breadwinners. His personal example of solution: He promptly announced the setting up of a foundation of Olaitan Oyerinde for the sake of his young family. No be say he just wan run mouth like that.

He announced a personal donation of N100,000. How much are the rest of us Aturu left behind ready to offer, not necessarily to support Aturu’s family but the teeming millions of the weaklings in our society? Ageless sage, Professor Wole Soyinka, alerted us to this long ago: “The man died in him who keeps silent in the face of injustice”.

Tunde Akanni is a development activist and journalism teacher at the Lagos State University.

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