• Ojo, Adekoya, Falana, Keyamo mourn
By Davidson Iriekpen in Lagos and Tobi Soniyi in Abuja
A legendary lawyer and a senior advocate, Chief Godwin Olusegun Kolawole Ajayi, died at the weekend in Lagos.
Ajayi, who was one of Nigeria’s most sought-after lawyers, died after a prolonged sickness that sidelined him from active legal practice in the last few years. He was 83 years.
His death drew immediate tributes from his colleagues such as former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Bayo Ojo (SAN); Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN); Mrs. Olufunke Adekoya (SAN) and Mr. Festus Keyamo.
Ajayi, popularly called by his initials “G.O.K.”, was born on May 29, 1931 and called to the English Bar (Middle Temple) in 1955 and to the Nigerian Bar two years later.
Everyone who knew him testified to his discipline, strictness, and gentleman’s disposition. A long time friend and acquaintance, Dr Fredrick Fasehun, leader of Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC), described him as “ one of the greatest gentlemen in Africa, and a fantastic legal mind”.
Fasehun should know. In the heady days of the struggle for the validation of the June 12, 1993 election won by the late business mogul, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, Fasehun was a general, not only in battle, but also in court. Like the legal colossus that he was, Ajayi traversed the courts to save Fasehun.
Between the Second Republic and a couple of years back, he was a major player in the legal circles.
Ajayi was among the second set of lawyers elevated to the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate. The first set has only two persons, the late Chief F. R. A. Williams and the late Dr Nebo Graham Douglas (1975).
Ajayi belonged to the set of 1978 that also included people such as the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the late Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, Mr. Tanimose Bankole Oki, Mr. E.A Molajo, Mr. Kehinde Sofola, Chief Richard Akinjide and Chief Olisa Chukura.
Ajayi was a progressive lawyer who represented the cause of the progressives everywhere in Nigeria. This perhaps accounted for his closeness to Awolowo. He was the main lawyer to the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and represented the party in Awolowo vs Shehu Shagari case where Awolowo challenged the election of Shagari in 1979.
It was in the case that the Supreme Court upheld the argument of Akinjide on what should be the 12 two-thirds of 19 to affirm Shagari's election.
Another popular case involving Ajayi was that of Alhaji Abdul Rahman Shugaba, the majority leader of the then Borno State House of Assembly, who was deported from Nigeria by the federal government on the claims that he was not a Nigerian.
Ajayi fought the case to the Supreme Court where, in a unanimous decision, the court in a judgment declared as illegal the deportation of Shugaba.
He also led over 270 lawyers to defend the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) when Fawehinmi was charged before the Transition to Civil Rule Tribunal in 1989.
However, one of the most controversial legal battles he fought was the treason charges preferred against the late Abiola, when the Gen Sani Abacha junta charged him with treason and allied offences.
Born in Ijebu- Ode on May 29, 1931, Ajayi attended Ijebu- Ode Nursery School in 1936-37 and St Saviours' School, Lagos 1938- 1940. He thereafter proceeded to CMS Grammar School, Lagos 1941- 48. He later left Nigeria for the United Kingdom where he attended the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Paying tribute to the late lawyer, Ojo said the world especially, Nigeria, would miss Ajayi.
Reacting to the death of the erudite lawyer, Ojo, said in a statement in Abuja that his death had drawn the curtains on possibly the finest era of legal activism in the country.
He added that Ajayi stood permanently on the side of the oppressed.
"He was at the forefront of law for the benefit of humanity. He stood permanently on the side of the oppressed. You can always predict where you would meet him; on the side of justice.
"He fought a gallant battle of life. He conquered. His legacies are unimpeachable.
"The justice sector in Nigeria has lost a constant voice of truth. Africa has lost a bright legal mind.
"When history of legal titans who shaped and re-shaped their worlds is being told, a befitting page is assured for the legendary G.O.K," the former minister said.
Eulogising the deceased, Falana in a statement yesterday described him as a “graceful bourgeois lawyer”.
He said: “Even though he was conservative, he defended progressive causes with uncanny audacity and relentless commitment. His knowledge of the law was unimpeachable. He had total contempt for corrupt judges and incompetent lawyers. For over four decades his name featured prominently in the law reports and learned journals. In spite of the incipient rottenness in the legal system Chief Ajayi was never associated with corrupt practices.
“Through the instrumentality of the law Chief Ajayi fought against the deportation of a Nigeria legislator, illegal seizure of passports of social critics and fraudulent election results perpetrated by criminally minded politicians.
“For defending pro democracy and human right activists Chief Ajayi’s passport was seized while he was subjected to untold harassment by security forces. But he was not deterred as he was as constant as the northern star in the defence of rule of law and social justice.”
Another senior advocate, Adekoya, mourned Ajayi, saying: "Without a doubt, he was respected by and admired by many."
Also reacting to the death of Ajayi, Keyamo said his death at the age of 83 was an indelible and irreplaceable loss to the entire legal profession.
He described Ajayi as "truly one of the very last of the finest breed of the surviving first generation lawyers in Nigeria. He was remarkable in his impeccable forensic advocacy which he often delivered with a soft, but piercing, voice. In terms of the skills of advocacy, he was my personal hero."
According to him, Ajayi will go down as one of finest lawyers the country had ever produced.