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First lawyer from the North, Abdul Ganiyu Abdulrasaq, SAN On Life, Politics and Law

27 Nov 2012

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Alhaji Abdul Ganiyu Folorunsho Abdulrazaq, SAN

He means different thing to different people. To some, he is a politician whilst others see him as a businessman. His colleagues in the legal profession easily recall his advocacy skills. Alhaji Abdul Ganiyu Folorunsho Abdulrazaq, SAN, is the first lawyer from Northern Nigeria. He is also a former President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Born in Onitsha and fluent in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, Abdulrasaq who turned 85 recently went down memory lane with Jude Igbanoi, Tobi Soniyi, Sunday Aghaeze and Adebiyi Adedapo, reminiscing about the legal profession, politics and the stock exchange…

We consider you to be one of the most fortunate Nigerians. You were born in the South-East, you are a northerner from Ilorin, and you are also a Yoruba man and this was the tripod that held Nigeria together then - the East, the West and the North. When you look back, how did the circumstance of your birth influence your development in life?

Well, everybody’s later life is a product of his earlier life and I am no exception. By accident of birth, I was born in Onitsha by my parents who were Yoruba from Ilorin. I did not choose it myself, nor did I choose my parents. It is the work of nature and God. So, generally speaking, like everybody else, you cannot control where you are born, because you couldn’t dictate it and you had no hand in it. 

I consider myself very fortunate to be a Yoruba man, born and educated within Nigeria in the Eastern Region, among the Igbos. The compound in which we lived, we were all non-Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, Nupe in the same compound, so I grew up to speak three languages without being taught. This was because in the compound these three languages were spoken. I consider myself fortunate for those attributes. These are things some other persons would have to start as an adult to learn, not only the language. They formed part of my character because we lived in the same compound and played together.

You are a man of many parts. You were in public service, you were in private practice, you were a teacher, a scholar and Nigeria’s Ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire. How did you combine all those?

Like you said, these services ran over time, so it is a question of which part of the time I was, where circumstances played in my favour at that time. For example, when I was Ambassador in Cote d’Ivoire, I didn’t appoint myself. It was my political leaders then that chose to make me one, namely Sadauna of Sokoto, and the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and also the President, Nnamdi Azikwe.

Let us go back to your Onitsha experience. Where were you during the civil war and how did you feel when the place you were born was at war with the other part of Nigeria?

I was already an adult during the civil war, so I was not in the East; the civil war was in 1967 when I had already become an Ambassador. In fact I left Onitsha to University of Ibadan as one of the first students in 1948. I was in Onitsha in secondary school until 1947. Then I was fortunate to be one of the very few at that time to pass the entrance to Ibadan University at that time in 1948. During the civil war, I was already an adult, practising law. I wasn’t in that environment at all.

How did you feel when the war broke out, that the place where you were born was at war?

Naturally, I felt for those who were there then. It was Igbo land and I am not an Igbo man, but I felt for them. This is because I grew up with many figures there. I went to school with many figures there. For example, when I was in the east, the Headmaster of my primary school became the Anglican Bishop of Enugu in later years. At the time I was in Lagos. I didn’t participate, but some of them I felt for because they were my colleagues, either in the primary school, secondary school or in the profession.

I thought the war was needless because of the causes of it. That is of course, the remote causes from my own region or Nigeria. We had Araba. My brother was still in my chambers in Zaria when Araba started and they had to leave to go back to Lagos because an incident of Araba happened which was completely intolerable, in front of his house. Some hoodlums were chasing a non-Hausa at Araba to leave the North. They were illiterates, they didn’t consider the idea of the boundary of the North. Where we came from did not appeal to them, because we were not Hausa and we were not Fulani. We were Yoruba, but administratively we were in the North. They didn’t take that into consideration. They just said ‘all Yorubas.’ They started with Igbos and then with non-Igbos. At that time, there was a day they chased one man to the front of our house. I was in Lagos at the time. They were chasing people around. Once you were not Hausa, they identified you, and they chased this fellow right to the front of my house. Everybody was running helter-skelter and the man fell down in the gutter  and they just set fire on him and burnt him to death. So, my own brother who was also a lawyer in my chambers, when his wife saw it she told her husband ‘I am not sleeping in this place tonight. Take me back to Lagos.’ That was how they left, first to Ilorin and from Ilorin to Lagos.
Those were bad times and it was from ignorance. May it never happen again.

Justice Kayode Eso has just passed on at the age of 87. You may have appeared before him at some time in your practice. What are your impressions about this late judicial officer?

Justice Kayode Eso, may his good soul rest in peace, was well known to me. We practised together in the North in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. He practised in Jos and I in Zaria. We also practiced in   Maiduguri.
Justice Eso was a personal friend and he will be sorely missed.

In 1949, we both met in Lagos as job applicants fresh from college, he from llesha Grammar School and I from CMS Central School Onitsha. By sheer coincidence we both got two job offers each on the same day as Sanitary Inspectors with City Council Lagos and as teachers. We both independently opted for a teaching career and were posted to the Saka Tinubu Ahmadiya High School, Olusi Street Lagos Island where he taught Mathematics and I English and Mathematics. Our acting principal then was a Ghanaian, Mr. Hagan.

Although l left him there in 1948 to study as one of the first set of students of the University College Ibadan (now University of Ibadan), Eso and I were admitted to Trinity College, Dublin. We were there from 1949 to 1953 and both studied law and amongst our contemporaries was late Abdulateef Gbajabiamila, father of Hon. Gbajabiamila, current Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.

When Eso and I returned to Nigeria we both independently set up law practices in the North. We were sparring partners and I appeared in many cases with him.  He was a very good lawyer and eventually, an upright and very brilliant judge .He was bold and radical in his judgments. It was a fitting tribute to his capability that he rose to the Supreme Court. His judicial career was in the Western Region and I practised in the North and in Lagos hence I did not really appear before him.


Can you still recall some people who helped you to grow and become what you are today?

Yes, many people! There was Audu Smith of Lagos. He was serving in Onitsha. The help he rendered was that when my parents left Onitsha for Ilorin, because he was married to a cousin of mine among his wives, he helped me for the rest of my stay in Onitsha. I remember Imam Ashafa. When I came back to Lagos after my secondary school in the east, Imam Ashafa saw me in Lagos. We used to meet in the Mosque, the Amadiya Mosque, and he said, ‘you are the type of young man that we would like to encourage.’ He took me to Jubril Martins and said, ‘this man has just come, he has come from the east.’ He was a grandson more or less of Alhaji Mustapha, Bashorun of Lagos. He said, ‘we would assist him, let him take entrance examination.’ In those days, there was no entrance examination except in the University of Ibadan, which was the first one. So, they told me, ‘come and sign a bond with us and we would send you to Ibadan.’ There it started, that opened the gate for me for scholarship. Imam Ashafa is still alive, Jubril Martins, of course is dead.

You were once the president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, and recently things haven’t go well with the Exchange. Looking back in retrospect, how do you react to the problems recently witnessed at the exchange?

I must say I am unhappy about the state of the Stock Exchange now! I think one can only pray to God to soften the heart of those controlling the place to realise that they have to soft-pedal. Trust is a great responsibility given to any human being God chooses. The fact that you are heading an organisation does not mean that you have to behave like God. Remember that the God that gives you the success to head an organisation must be respected and the way you can respect it for people to see, is to ensure that the rule of law applies. That is when you set up an organisation and you rise up to the headship of an organisation, you must respect the rules kept there by your predecessor. If you find any particular rule unsuitable, you must carry along people who are there with you that made you the head to convince them by reason, so that harmony will set in in the organisation. I wish that harmony should come back to the Stock Exchange. That sort of harmony that was there when I was there with others. May God help the Nigerian Stock Exchange.

In specific terms, how can we restore people’s confidence in the Exchange, because we know that it thrives on people’s confidence?

It is a big question. The stock brokers have a role. The members of the Council have a role, and the Securities and Exchange Commission also has a role. These are the controlling organisations that affect what is happening in the Stock Exchange.

I think it is more or less internal affairs of these respective organisations to look into the affairs of the stock exchange to regain the confidence of the investing public, particularly those within Nigeria and more particularly, those outside Nigeria who are investing in the Nigerian Stock Exchange.

You were an executive member of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and also National Legal Adviser of the party. We recall the discipline that existed within the party structure; such discipline is very rare to find now among political parties, what has gone wrong, from your point of view?

What I will attribute to the lack of discipline is that the historical leadership in respective parties at that time, namely Zik, Awolowo and Sadauna of Sokoto, were respected by their respective members. Their words were more or less like law to their members, including of course Aminu Kano, and lately Talka and Ibrahim who left us as the Secretary General of NPC and went to his home in Maiduguri, Borno State. There was discipline; these days I see that discipline is missing. It could be interpreted to mean ambition, personal ambition of respective persons over their respective political parties, rather than obedience to the settled order of things. I, although part of the old one, yearn that such discipline that we had in the respective parties can return, and the ambition by younger persons should be less than it is now.

In Nigeria now, there is such rivalry for leadership that the leaders are not respected and obeyed as we did in our time.

You once declined an appointment as a judge at a time when people would gladly drop anything to be a judge, what informed that choice?

Well, it is personal. You are talking about 1968. At the time, I wanted to make a political career rather than a judicial career. It is as simple as that. In fact when I was appointed, I wasn’t consulted. I saw it in the newspapers. I went to a meeting in Lagos and I was returning. At that time I was Commissioner for Finance in Kwara state. I went to the first conference of Commissioners for Finance, called by General Gowon who was then the Head of State. Awolowo at that time too was Commissioner of Finance. It was about three days after Gowon’s wedding, so Gowon called a thank you cocktail the day we finished. It was a two-day thing in what they later called Ribadu House.

The next morning when we came to say goodbye to him, I said, ‘congratulations!’ We were congratulating him on his wedding, and he said, ‘congratulations too!’ I thought it was his nature of repetitiveness, he has a character, he repeats himself almost immediately! I didn’t know that he was congratulating me for being appointed a judge, I thought he was repeating my congratulations to him!
Those days whenever I went for a meeting in Lagos, Nigerian roads were very safe, I always left Lagos at 5am and by 7am I would be in Ibadan, on my way to Ilorin. When I got to Ibadan about 8am, in the newspaper I saw my picture and an appointment as a judge. I wasn’t ready for it. I got to Ilorin and I didn’t go to my house as usual. I drove to the Government House to complain that this was what I saw in Ibadan. Instead of my governor to explain anything to me, he started to lambast me. He said that I went to Lagos to represent him in the Commissioners of Finance meeting and got myself appointed as a judge. He was very annoyed, I said, me as a judge? I didn’t know anything until I got to Ibadan and I saw my name in the newspaper. He couldn’t believe it. I asked him if he was not also consulted, he said no.   I told him that I was also not consulted and I was not prepared for it and I wouldn’t take it. This is because at that time, I had no wish to become a judge.

Who was the governor then?

Bamigboye; he didn’t take me seriously. He said I was an Ilorin Mesujanba, that he sent me to Lagos to do something and I got myself an appointment! I said I was not even ready and I was not taking it. He couldn’t believe what I said, that I was not consulted. So, Gowon was calling him from Lagos to say ‘This your new judge refused to be sworn in.’ I said, ‘but I told you before’.

It was not my personal ambition to be a judge and according to the law at that time a judge could never be removed or sacked unless he committed a crime. I gave them a legal headache, here was a judge who refused to be sworn in. Elias who was then the Attorney-General was in a mess. He sent for me and I made a journey to Lagos to see him. When I told him the story, he said, ‘yes,but we knew you were qualified and you’re the only one qualified.’ At that time Justice Bello, who later became Chief Justice of Nigeria was a Chief Magistrate, Acting Judge. If I had taken it, I would have been the first northerner to become a judge and in the system of Nigeria, promotion in the judiciary is hierarchical. That you know yourselves and which year you will become what, because they just promote in those days and I think it is still like that according to the day of your appointment. If I took it then, I would have become the first Chief Judge of Northern Region. The hierarchy goes on and I would have become the Chief Justice of Nigeria eventually. This is becasue I would have been the first judge from the north, like I am the first Barrister from the North. My mind didn’t go to that, so I told Elias that I couldn’t resign an appointment that I didn’t take. 

Ademola who was then the Chief Justice Nigeria called me and begged me that they were in a mess. He asked if I had any advice to give them. I told him to let us meet and that I would go and meet with Elias. Elias and I met and they said they would remove me. I said, ‘well, you cannot remove me because according to the Constitution, I did not commit any crime.’

Elias said, ‘advise us, what can we do?’ I said the only way I could help was that I would help draft Decree Number 60 of 1969. It is still in the law of Nigeria till date. I drafted and they put my name to it. I think I am the only one that has that historical antecedent that has a law made for himself alone in his name, Decree number 69 of 1969.

What did the law say?

It says “It is hereby decreed that Alhaji Abdul’Ganiyu Abdul’Rasaq who was appointed a judge is now deemed not to have been appointed” and that is part of the law till today in Nigeria.

You were a member of the 49 wise men who drafted the 1979 Constitution, what is your opinion of the current review exercise?

The 1979 Constitution was drafted by our committee headed by the late Chief F.R.A Williams SAN. I was the Chairman of the sub-committee on the legislature and executive. We had eminent professionals, intellectuals and politicians of great experience as members. We put together a document that was the grundnorm reflecting the hopes, aspirations and rules of engagement of the people of Nigeria.
I do not think the problem of Nigeria is the Constitution per se. While I recognise that change is a permanent feature of life, we should not seek to constantly review our Constitution at every whim. There is an intangible concept called the spirit of the Constitution which can never be legislated upon. If the spirit of the operator of the Constitution is sour or foul, you will have perception that the Constitution is bad. The main advantage I see in the current review is the practical engagement of the Nigerian people by the National Assembly in debate about some key aspects of the Constitution. We are a nation of over 250 ethnic groups so this serves as a good platform to vent our feelings, not necessarily a sovereign national conference. Ideally, the National Assembly is the appropriate forum where these debates should take place but the extraordinary socio-economic circumstances of today are triggering off highly divisive issues which ordinarily would have been peripheral.

Yes there are critical issues that need to be addressed such as conduct of Local Government Elections by state Electoral Commissions or INEC, onshore/offshore Oil revenue matter, single term Presidency, State Police, rotational Presidency on North/South or six Zonal basis. Another important issue is whether the procedure of adoption of the Constitution includes the referendum or not.  

Invariably all these issues border on good governance and the absence of operating the Constitution in the spirit of the drafting fathers. Admittedly, if we had good internal party  democracy, a robust opposition, fair economic weather, independent regulators, independent judiciary, equitable distribution of wealth, many of these issues will not be at the radar level to trigger a constitutional review.

Nigeria is a very difficult country to govern; you could rule it in a bullish manner or in a gentle but revolutionary manner. We probably still suffer from the military hangover of force or coercion as a major instrument of government; however, in this modern electronic age where democracy thrives these can no longer obtain.


You must remember your legal practice days with fond memories. Are there things you miss now that you can  no longer go to court?

Oh yes! I liked making submissions before the highest courts, particularly Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. I liked brief preparation. It is the advocacy that I miss, that is standing before the judges or team of judges, arguing a case and citing authorities, I miss it!

The urge to make money is affecting legal practice. People want to make money and they don’t want to establish themselves as advocates.  What advice do you have for lawyers who are coming up?

The first advice is their conduct and integrity. There is nothing more important to a lawyer than integrity. That is to say for his client to trust him. From stories that I heard, that is whittling down and as you rightly said in your question, it is the love of money. But the love of money is not limited to the profession of law. Many professions in Nigeria, in fact to all Nigerians - unlike in those days - the love of money is now pervasive.

How do you relax? What do you do for recreation, what sports do you undertake?

For over 50 years now, I exercise in the morning. It is equivalent to walking two kilometres every day. It is a physical exercise and it lasts for 15 to 20 minutes. There is no day I don’t do it, except if I am in a plane at that period. That is because it will sound ridiculous to be doing it where passengers are! In fact they will think I want to hijack their plane from the pilot!
It exercises every part of the body. It is called Canadian Air Force Exercise, I recommend it to you!

Can we see a demonstration? Not a tedious one that you have to take off your clothes…
I will pull off my clothes, but don’t take my photograph! I just want to spread the education, I recommend it to you all. (He demonstrates.) From here to here, I could run. This is a very short one. My room is bigger than this. You walk this way, say 50 times. Then you lie down, put your feet up and down. It won’t reach down, it will just be about 60 inches from the ground. You do that 30 times. You run on the spot about 1,000 times. You shadow-box 3,000 times. Then  you do the push up, making sure that only your palm and your toes go up and down, about 100 times. You must do all these things within a period of 15-20 minutes.

Are there national issues that bother you that you want to comment on?
I think our unity needs to be solidified politically.

How can that be achieved?
In many ways, but it is in the hands of the politicians. For example, there is a trend presently, one feels as if the Nigerian populace are taken for granted, there is no real appearance or feeling of democracy. Our opposition is weak. I don’t know whether the opposition is weak because of those who are in it, but certainly it is not by the government of the day. I would have said, for example if anything happens, any political observer can always tell you that the governing party of today really have no opposition, to the extent that anybody who does not live in Nigeria and comes from outside will think it is a benevolent dictatorship of one party.

Of course a leader of the governing party would think it is because the populace has accepted the party, and the party should not be expected to create an opposition for itself. On the other hand, one wants to see democracy really in practice. The tendency may be that once there is no opposition, there is no alternative government, in other words. The populace in Nigeria has no alternative programme to choose from and there is a danger in just having a one party country, anybody observing will be wondering what is the need for INEC when there is no opposition.

This is not criticising INEC or Professor Atahiru Jega as a person. Atahiru Jega is very good. He is an administrator. He sticks to the rules. He is almost faultless. If I were not a Muslim, I would say he is a saint in the political arena! He is good, but he cannot create the opposition. Unless people gather and say that they want alternative; in other words, what I am saying is that Nigeria has no alternative choice other than the party that is there now. Yet the intelligentia of the country always point to the countries where you have opposition parties. In America for example, we have Obama’s party that the people want and they voted for him, this is irrespective of the fact that Romney’s party also exists.

Do you have fears over Nigeria’s future? 

I have full confidence in the dynamism of our youth, their resilience, innovation and instincts for survival in these hard times of unemployment and downturn in the economy. I pray that our leaders at all levels realise the great responsibilities we have towards the youth through providing them good education and employment. The youth are the key to the future greatness of Nigeria and should never be taken for granted.

The recent civil revolutions in Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa are lessons for us.
I have faith in Nigeria’s future                     

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