Obituary: Sir Adetokunbo Ademola

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Adetokunbo Adegboyega Ademola, lawyer, born Abeokuta 1 February 1906, Chief Justice Western Region Nigeria 1955-58, Chief Justice of Nigeria 1958-72, PC 1963, Kt 1957, Honorary Bencher Middle Temple 1959-93, KBE 1963, Chancellor University of Nigeria 1975-93, Chairman Commonwealth Foundation 1978-93, married 1939 Kofoworola Moore (three sons, two daughters), died Lagos 29 January 1993.

IN THE first military coup d'etat in Nigeria in 1966, it was Adetokunbo Ademola who, with the British High Commissioner in Lagos, saved Nigeria from disintegration.

When Major-General Thomas Aguyi Ironsi, an Ibo, who had become head of state after the coup which ended the first Nigerian republic, was himself overthrown in a counter-coup led by northern officers, the intention of the north was to leave Nigeria. The northerners had already started sending their families across the river Niger back home, following the controversial statement made on national broadcast by Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon, who replaced Ironsi as head of state, that the basis for Nigerian unity was not there. Gowon was going to announce that the north was seceding from Nigeria, but, realising the damage this would cause, decided to cut his speech; the speech was edited, but badly edited; and that unfortunate phrase stayed in the broadcast.

Ademola and the British High Commissioner saved Gowon and Nigeria by meeting with the northern leaders and successfully arguing that since the northeners had taken political control and were now in government, they had no reason to leave Nigeria. The northerners stayed in Nigeria.

Ademola was born into a royal family as the son of the Alake of Abeokuta. His father, King Ladapo Ademola II, reigned in Abeokuta, an historic walled city of the Egbas in south-western Nigeria. Prince Ademola was brought up in his father's palace at Ake, and after his secondary schooling at St Gregory's Grammar School and King's College, both elite schools of Lagos, he was sent to England to study at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His father wanted him to be a medical doctor, but he rebelled and chose to read law.

He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1934. After his return to Nigeria he started his career as a crown counsel attached to the Crown Law Office in Lagos. In 1935 he was made an Administrative Officer at Enugu in the Eastern Region, and between 1936 and 1939 was in private practice in Lagos. He moved to the Bench as a magistrate in 1939, and a decade later was made a junior High Court judge. In 1955 he was appointed Chief Justice of Western Nigeria, the second largest of the three regions.

The colonial government made Ademola Chief Justice of the whole country in 1958, following the abolition of the West African Court of Appeal (WACA), triggered by Ghanaian independence in 1957. Ademola's time as the chief judge of Nigeria spanned both the colonial and the independent eras, making him the bridge between the colonial era and Nigeria as an independent state.

Together with Teslim Elias, who succeeded him as Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ademola founded the Nigerian Law School; before then Nigerians had to qualify in London. He was for many years chairman of the council for legal education in Nigeria and a member of the council of Buckingham University. An honorary bencher of the Middle Temple, he was made a Privy Counsellor in 1963, the first African to be so appointed.

Ademola will be remembered for several controversial trials on which he presided in Nigeria including the case Lakanmi vs the Attorney General of Nigeria. In the aftermath of the Emergency in the Western Region in 1965 the assets of a Western Region government minister, deemed to have been acquired fraudulently, were confiscated by a decree enacted by the military government which had taken over power from the warring politicians. Ademola ruled that the court had power to review military decrees. Gowon's military government enacted another decree destroying the effects of the judgment and reiterating that the court could not review military decrees. Since that time, no court in Nigeria has ever upset a military decree again.

Ademola exercised enormous influence outside the realms of the judiciary. In 1973 he was given the task by General Gowon of carrying out the census. Since independence Nigeria had been unable to conduct a successful census because of the acute rivalry between the three main ethnic groups in the country, the Hausa-Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the west, and the Ibo in the east, none of which could accept that another had a larger population . Ademola accepted the challenge but was defeated by it, and the result could not be announced. Ademola conceded recently that the census period was one of the most turbulent times of his life. Out of frustration he declared: 'It will take much more than a government to bring us together as one Nigeria.'

Apart from being appointed KBE in 1957, he was decorated with the highest national award in Nigeria as the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON). He was the longest- serving chief justice in Nigeria's history. The only sad thing about his brilliant career is that he never wrote a memoir. When he was cornered by a reporter a few years ago and asked to suggest an epitaph for his tombstone, Adetokunbo Ademola said: 'In humility I came, in humility I left. I judged only as I saw just.'

(Photograph omitted)