By Azu Ishiekwene
AT the beginning, I was tempted to think of the author as a reluctant memoirist. Hon. Justice Sunday Akinola Akintan says his two greatest motivations for writing Reminiscences: My Journey Through Life, are 1) to fortify the slender repertoire of written records in Yorubaland and 2) to heed the counsel of famous lawyer T.O.S. Benson that the only way for a man to avoid being buried with a life’s worth of library is for him to write a book before he dies.
Reminiscences: My Journey Through Life is not an autobiography and should not be so mistaken. Yet, in six parts comprising 21 chapters and 218 pages of this memoir, the author uses the autobiographic technique of fact focus to render, connect and weave strong emotional threads which help to sustain the reader’s interest.
The author could have been “Engineer Akintan”, and he probably would have received his father’s blessing for his choice. Pa Emmanuel Olofingunleka Akintan was a very religious man (in the days when religion and polygamy were not irreconcilable). He was a prosperous cocoa farmer in Aiyetoro Owena in Idanre in the old Ondo Province, which later became Ondo and Ekiti states.
If his son did not want to become a priest or a farmer, perhaps he could have become an engineer, especially since the young Akintan was good in mathematics.
“The legal profession,” Akintan writes, “was a novel profession in the family and the impression he (Pa Akintan) and many others in the community had was that it was a profession where you could hardly find an honest living person.”
This impression — or perhaps more accurately, this prejudice — was not limited to Akintan’s community in those days. The general feeling among swathes of the local population in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas, was that when lawyers and interpreters were not busy looking after themselves, they were acting as puppets and tools of the British colonial masters.
No honest lawyer?
His overriding passion was not only to study law because he was enticed by its esoteric rituals – the wig and gown and the dramatic courtroom courtesies — though he could not deny the pull. More important, it seems, was his desire to demonstrate that there could be an honest living lawyer, one that could uphold the fundamental values of honesty, fairness, fidelity, faith and devotion to family and community, and yet make a decent living.
He believes that this prospect is possible in law, though less so in private than in public practice. He believes, also, that law can and should not only be an instrument of recompense but also a leverage to build community.
As a young lawyer in the office of the Solicitor-General posted on relief duty to Kano, for example, he intervened to right the wrong done a private beer manufacturer by a foreign competitor that was hiding the empty bottles of the local company and thereby increasing the local company’s production cost.
But Akintan didn’t stop at calling out the unfair practice. He recommended a waiver to the minister of finance on the company’s outstanding excise duties and also a financial bailout for its working capital. The minister obliged. It would be interesting to know how many young lawyers in a similar position in public service today would do that for a company they do not know in a state far away from their state of origin, and all for nothing.
That is not all. In the Companies Registry and Business Name Registry under the Federal Ministry of Trade where he worked for three years (and for a period under the supervision of the formidable Sokoto prince, Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, then permanent secretary) the author deployed the human face of the law yet again.
Encounter with Obasanjo
This comes across in Chapter 11, where Dr. Moses Majekodunmi whose company failed to deliver on a construction contract related to Festac ’77 was to have been arrested and detained on the orders of General Obasanjo, then military officer in charge of works. Signing off the file with “immediate effect” and letting heads roll would just have been in line with the spirit of militarism of the time, especially since Obasanjo had made his remarks in red ink.
But Akintan took a different, potentially dangerous track. “I read through the file,” he says on page 91, “and found that nowhere was a demand made for a refund of the money paid to the contractor. I therefore wrote that the action requested was premature since the request for his arrest and detention was in respect of recovery of debt.” General Obasanjo responds a few days later, “OK, the demand should be made.” And that was under the military.
Again, the law is deployed as an instrument of social cohesion when, as a High Court judge in Ondo, Akintan was confronted by the case of a woman whose well-off siblings had conspired against and demolished a stall she attached to her father’s house. The stall was her only means of livelihood but her half-brothers who claimed their late father had not paid any dowry on her mother wanted to dispossess her of the stall, which was all she had.
It was a case where a judgement, however carefully thought out and reasonably delivered, would hardly have been justice. It would only deepen strife and the family’s grief and misery, perhaps extending it for generations down the line. After a prolonged back-and-forth (including, in fact, a recusal by Akintan at some stage), both parties agreed to let the judge’s wise counsel prevail and to settle the matter out of court.
Although the book is divided into six parts, Akintan spends over half of it on his roots, his growing-up years in Owena/Idanre and his early career as a lawyer in Lagos. The next big chunk – his years at the Bench from 1978 to 2008 – gets less in page count but packs significantly more in his acts on the big legal stage.
Would he still be able to maintain his high moral ground at a time when contrary values appeared to have taken hold? Would he stand firm when the appurtenances and accoutrements of his exalted position could open the possibilities, even justification, for compromise – or, as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would say, to chop and clean mouth?
He provides some insights through the lenses of his judgements, between chapters 15 and 17, and closes with his non-judicial and post-retirement activities in the next four chapters.
But to read the judgements alone — whether the one involving a witness who turned a case on its head under cross-examination (page 110), the case of the murder of the chairman of the Oredo Local Government Area (shortly after the Anini conundrum in Benin), or the case of the Attorney General of the Federation & others v. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar & others (2007) — without understanding the story behind them (the research, preparation, diligence, courage, transparency and single-minded commitment to justice and fairness) would be a disservice to the author and the book.
Ajasin v Omoboriowo
Of the judgements in his time as High Court judge, Akintan shares a particularly significant one: the 1983 electoral dispute between Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin (of the Unity Party of Nigeria) and his estranged deputy, Chief Akin Omoboriowo (who had defected to the National Party of Nigeria, the ruling party).
If the election tribunal headed by Justice Olakunle Orojo had not heeded Justice Akintan’s advice to go the extra mile by sitting long, arduous hours to hear all the addresses by counsel and deliver its judgement by Saturday afternoon – 72 hours before the Monday deadline permitted by the enabling law – the state would have become ungovernable, as the electorate would have been obliged to believe that the panel deliberately ran down the clock and sided with the electoral commission to defraud them by imposing Omoboriowo.
His leading judgement in the Supreme Court in the case of Joseph Ona v. Atenda, which laid to rest the indigene-ship and non-indigene-ship palaver in the Federal Capital Territory, is adtingas terminus pavulorum sententiae (a landmark judgement) hardly remembered in the charged and often emotional debate about residency status in Abuja. Until I read this book, I did not know I had just about as much right in Abuja as the Gwari.
What are his views on social issues such as the death penalty and congestion at the courts? He believes, based on at least two cited cases he presided over in the High Court, that unreliability of evidence, especially by suborned or malicious false witnesses, “increases the possibility of innocent people being convicted and sentenced to death”, and he is therefore opposed to it.
The King’s trumpet
In a sense, Akintan’s position is consistent with the Yoruba proverb, “Ori yeyenim’ogunt’aiselopo”, derived from the mythology of the missing trumpet of the King of Otolu. After ordering the beheading of 17 palace workers at the Ogun shrine on suspicion that they were responsible for his missing trumpet, the king later found that it had, in fact, been stolen by his younger son who wanted to supplant the heir apparent.
Can you imagine, for example, how the judge who wrongly convicted Archie Williams for stabbing and killing a 30-year-old White woman in her home in Baton Rouge, Louisana, in 1982, would have felt if he had sentenced him to death by execution before DNA evidence led to his freedom after 37 years in prison?
The credits at the end of the movie, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”, an adaption of Bryan Stevenson’s book, says: “For every nine people who have been executed in the US, one person on death row has now been proven innocent and released, a shocking tale of errors.”
On case congestion at the courts and general administration of justice, he argues that the re-introduction of the Assizes system, the restriction of some cases to the Courts of Appeal, and better management of the electoral system could help decongest the appellate courts, especially the Supreme Court. “The position grew so wild,” Akintan writes, “after the 2015 election that the number of election petitions far outstripped all the other cases filed in all the courts in the country” (page 149). It doesn’t look like the situation is getting better.
If, like me, you’re not cut out for such rituals, there’s still something to keep you turning the page. A family-bound reader, for example, would connect easily with Akintan’s fondness of his mother; his deep bond with his wife and family; his frustration when his niece, Ebun, who, even though he had taken and treated as his own daughter, still got engaged behind his back; and his devasting sense of loss when he received the news in London that Uncle Wright Akindoroye, Ebun’s father, who was instrumental in his studies abroad, had died in a car accident.
The office of judge carries its own risks as well, and Justice Akintan does not understate them. He cites two examples reminiscent of, but even far more dangerous than, the threat faced by Sonia Sotomayor (Justice of the US Supreme Court) in her book, My Beloved World, where a case she was handling as lead prosecutor exposed her and the judge to the terror of an Asian mafia.
In Justice Akintan’s case, some persons whom he had convicted for armed robbery (they were eight; five had been executed and three sentenced to five years in prison) sidled up to him at a departmental store in Lagos; on another occasion, the half-brother of someone he had convicted for murder approached him at a wedding in London and reminded him of the case. Both encounters leave him dazed and frazzled, to say the least.
His literary style, like his profession, is conservative — the next edition could use tighter edits. Also, when he touches on politically charged subjects like the Supreme Court’s decision on the Attorney General of the Federation and others v. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar; his encounter with Justice Atinuke Ige after Chief Bola Ige was murdered; or his role in the trial of Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chairman of the Preliminary Complaints Assessment Committee of the National Judicial Council, the journalist in me is left asking for more details and insights.
The memoir may not be as grand as Rev. Samuel Johnson’s The History of the Yoruba, or as thematic as Saburi Biobaku’s The Origin of the Yoruba, both of which offer profound insights into Yoruba culture and history, from a different genre. Also, the memoir may not fulfil the author’s ambition to enrich the tome of Yoruba literature in, say, the robust and adventurous style of the Awujale in Awujale: The Autobiography of Oba S.K. AdetonaOgbagba II, for example.
Yet, anyone genuinely interested in the evolution of the proud, fearless and industrious Ondo people and the mosaic sub-nationalities, especially the Akoko, Ikale, Owo, Akure and Ondo people, with their rich culture, riveting landscape and enchanting dialects, will benefit greatly, as I have, from Akintan’s memoir.
As I closed the last page, I had no doubt that Justice Sunday Akinola Akintan is leaving behind something more than what he bargained for when he answered T.O.S. Benson’s call to write, keeping in mind that Benson did not live up to his own lofty counsel to write a book before he died. Reminiscences: My Journey Through Life is a legacy for not just one but for many libraries.