Lawyers and human rights activists turned out in their numbers recently to honour one of Nigeria’s oldest and most vibrant lawyers, Pa Olatunji Gomez, who was 90.
A lecture was organised by a group, the Legal Torchbearers, as part of events by the Lagos Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to celebrate Pa Gomez, popularly known as “It is a matter of conscience”.
The theme was: ”Bar Activism in Nigeria: Past, Present and Future.”
Alhaji Olufemi Okunnu (SAN), a long-time close associate of Pa Gomez, lamented what he described as the slow, but sure extinction of firebrand activism among members of the Bar.
He said things had changed from the fervour of the 1960s, 70s and 80s as witnessed during the eventful tenure of Alao Aka-Bashorun as NBA president.
Okunnu said the dampening of revolutionary fire and collusion with public office holders was to the public’s detriment.
He urged lawyers to gird their loins and play the leading role in the fight for true federalism.
NBA Criminal Justice Reform Committee Chairman, Chief Arthur-Obi Okafor (SAN), urged lawyers to stand for the rule of law.
According to him, it was the only way to fight injustice and promote equity and fairness.
Former Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) Chair, Ms. Ayo Obe, urged the Bar to embrace activism to save Nigeria.
“A lawyer must always be ready to test every bad action or policy in the court of law. We cannot all be activists, but what we cannot do is to throw away activism,” Obe said.
The keynote speaker, Prof. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, who is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics (LSE), spoke on the evolution of legal activism.
Odinkalu situated Pa Gomez’s central role as the living conscience of an activist’s heritage from his student days at King’s College.
“It was a role,” Odinkalu said, “which came at a steep price which Pa Gomez was nevertheless willing to pay, comforted as he was by the armour of his social conscience, in accordance with his personal credo: It’s a Matter of Conscience.”
Lagos lawyer Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa and the branch’s former chairman Mr. Alex Muoka said lawyers have critical roles to play in a society’s survival.
Adegboruwa said: “It is my firm belief that all lawyers are by nature and profession, activists. The NBA motto and Constitution are very clear on this issue by stating clearly that all lawyers must promote: the Rule of Law; the integrity and independence of the Bar and the Judiciary; the right of access to court at reasonably affordable cost; and the promotion and protection of the principle of the rule of law, respect for the enforcement of fundamental rights, human rights and people’s rights.
“So, I urge all lawyers to x-ray all contestants to the various offices in the NBA by their pedigree and vote in genuine activists, remembering the times of Chief Alao Aka-Bashorun, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Chief Priscilla Kuye, Augustine Alegeh (SAN), etc.
“And this is why I commend the chairman and members of the NBA, Ikeja Branch, for the courageous protest embarked upon on. We need more of such from lawyers, to speak truth to power.
“The Bench too should embrace judicial activism, as was done by the Honourable Justice Bairaman in the landmark case of Madukolu v Nkemdilim, where he laid down the golden principles guiding jurisdiction, without citing a single authority and precedence.
“So, too, our noble Lords and judicial officers must be pro-active to interpret our laws in favour of the rights of the people, as was done by Lord Denning, Honourable Justices Kayode Eso, Chukwudifu Oputa, Samson Uwaifo, etc.
“There is no better way to better way to honour Pa Gomez than the gathering of his own constituency, acknowledging him as such a great Bar man or great Bar activist, whilst he is still alive and kicking.
“So, I join the Premier Bar and, indeed, all lawyers across Nigeria, to salute Pa Gomez and to urge all lawyers to emulate him as a worthy ambassador.”
The man Gomez
Born on March 15, 1928, the young Gomez enrolled at the King’s College in 1944, where he soon acquired a reputation for his independent-mindedness, fearlessness and leadership ability.
He qualified as a lawyer in 1961, after training in England.
In over half of a century of professional practice, Pa Gomez has come to symbolise the social conscience of the legal profession in Nigeria.
Pa Gomez’s ideological consistency through the decades of transition from white colonialism to the rule by black politicians and soldiers was in line with his belief that a lawyer’s first duty was the well-being of his fellow citizens and the good ordering of society, whatever the clime or dispensation.