Shola Oyeyipo writes that the late lawyer, human rights activist, author and social justice crusader, Tunji Braithwaite, has made an indelible impression on Nigerian politics and history
At death, Dr. Tunji Braithwaite has been described in various nomenclatures; he has been called fiery lawyer, author, fearless fighter, pro-democracy activist or just human right activist. But as Nigerians pour encomiums on the late politician, not many commentators have seemed to pay attention to his political ideology.
Braithwaite came into politics not by accident, but by deliberate design. He, obviously, wanted to avoid the frustration of complaining from the outside. Such was also the motivation of the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, yet another renowned lawyer and human rights activist who formed the National Conscience Party.
The need to complain from within the political circles was part of the reasons Braithwaite contested an election against the late sage and respected Yoruba political leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, despite their closeness.
1983 Presidential Election
Braithwaite’s party, the Nigeria Advance Party, was a progressive political party and the only party registered to join the five existing political parties before the 1983 general elections, in the Second Republic. It was a party mainly made up of southern Nigeria intellectuals and radicals favouring a reformist government. Principal among them were Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Professor Wole Soyinka, and the late Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
NAP was launched on October 13, 1978 in Ibadan. The leaders initially took a cautious attitude towards the idea of free education, but later advocated free university education and mandatory primary education. They positioned the party as an alternative to the old politicians of the First Republic and anchored their manifesto on a mission to put Nigeria on the path of rapid development by ending graft.
The first two decades of Nigerian nationhood was characterised by extensive military rule. Former military Head of State who later became a democratically elected president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was in power in the build up to the 1983 elections. As the election got underway, Braithwaite, a prominent Lagosian, hinged his quest to lead Nigeria on the belief that Nigeria’s potentials could be achieved by reforms, particularly by eradicating of deep-rooted corruption.
Just as in the recent election of President Muhammadu Buhari, who hinged his campaign on the fight against corruption, it was Braithwaite’s abhorrence for deep-seated sleaze among the political class that made him make the eradication of corruption, which he metaphorically tagged “clearing rats, mosquitoes and cockroaches,” the central point of his presidential campaign in 1983. But his philosophy appeared too sophisticated for the electorate at the time. He lost the election.
Braithwaite garnered a paltry 271, 524 out of the total 25, 430, 097 votes cast at the 1983 presidential election, which amounted to only 0.1 per cent of the vote, to come last among the candidates. Then incumbent president on the National Party of Nigeria platform, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, polled 12, 081, 471 (47.5 per cent) of the votes and returned as president for a second term.
Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria polled 7, 907,209; late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe of the Nigerian Peoples Party polled 3, 557, 113, Alhaji Aminu Kano of the Peoples Redemption Party polled 968,974 votes, while Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim of the Great Nigerian Peoples Party polled 643, 806 votes.
Unquenchable Desire for Social Justice
Though Braithwaite lost the 1983 election, his quest for social democratic reform never subsided. He lived the rest of his life searching for the actualisation of social justice, human rights and fairness. It was the fact that the more he waited, the more it was clearer that Nigerian leaders were not prepared to entrench the tenets of social justice that emboldened him to speak courageously against injustice.
In all his subsequent commentaries and critiques, he advocated a just society by challenging injustice and encouraging diversity. He believed that all peoples of the world share a common humanity and, therefore, have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and fair allocation of community resources. That was what he was canvassing when he promised during his presidential electioneering campaigns that he would move wealthy residents of Victoria Island in Lagos to Mushin, a relatively poor suburb, because he hated any condition that promotes social injustice, where people are discriminated against, or their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristics of background or group membership.
Jurisprudence and Religion
In 2011, Braithwaite relived his quest for social justice in his book, The Jurisprudence of the Living Oracles, where he noted that the causes of domestic, national and international turmoil were wide and varied, but that law played an important role in resolving the conflicts. He asserted that the role that jurisprudence played in various societies was often misunderstood.
Braithwaite tried to demonstrate how theological laws, astronomy, and astrology affected secular laws. He also explained the differences between justice and law and examined the development of various legal doctrines.
The Jurisprudence of the Living Oracles explores many concepts, including the higher law that governs human society, regardless of boundaries; the everlasting oracle, which judges everything and everybody; methods by which justice may be achieved in a world regulated by laws; the flexibility and inflexibility of the law of God, and the sources of God’s laws.
The book was designed as a guide for judges and legal practitioners alike. The scholarly book generated discussions among scientists and members of various religions. Braithwaite tactically connected religion with law and justice and sought to help everyone avoid unpardonable errors.
Every other thing Braithwaite did till he died was propelled by his yearning for a just society. He was a die-hard advocate of a national conference in Nigeria as a way of solving the plethora of problems confronting the country. He wanted the restructuring of the country and played a significant role in the actualisation of the 2014 National Conference organised by the former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
Braithwaite was Coordinator of the Southwest Consultative Forum for the National Conference, and he always held that those opposed to the conference were “selfish.”
He stated, “The interest of those opposing the planned conference is to seize power for political gains. The advocates of national conference are not calling for the break-up of Nigeria, but a dialogue to redefine the basic existence of the country.”
Braithwaite pushed the need for Nigerians to embrace the dialogue as it would give birth to a new Nigeria with equal opportunities for everyone (his social justice principle).
Jonathan underscored Braithwaite’s contribution to the convocation of the last national conference in his condolence letter to the Braithwaite family, when he stated that the late activist was one of the few courageous statesmen who stood in opposition during the military regime and later encouraged discussions for a better Nigeria.
“I extend my deepest sympathy over the passage to eternal glory of an elder statesman whose tremendous contributions has helped shape the progress and development of our nation,” Jonathan wrote. “Braithwaite will continue to live in the memory of many Nigerians as a strong advocate of a truly democratic Nigeria and one of the very few who had the courage to stand in opposition during the military regime.”
He stated further, “I vividly recall our various encounters during which, as a strong believer in the unity of Nigeria, he ceaselessly clamoured for the national dialogue; seeing it as an avenue through which lasting unification of the country could be achieved. He never stopped advocating for policies that will improve the quality of life of all Nigerians.”
Many older Nigerians would remember Braithwaite as one politician in the 1983 elections, whose party, NAP, was the only one registered by the electoral commission to join the five existing ones earlier approved by the military government in 1979. They will also consider him as a brave commentator on national issues who never feared in his advocacy of a pro-people, corruption-free polity.
For instance, recently reacting to a statement by Obasanjo that state governors were corrupt, Braithwaite said former military rulers Obasanjo and General Ibrahim Babangida made corruption attractive to state governors in the country. He alleged that the policies and actions of the former helmsmen elevated corruption in governance, adding that many state governors are merely emulating them.
On the terrorist attacks in the country, Braithwaite said the federal government’s declaration that Boko Haram had been technically defeated was premature and wrong. He, however, said the federal government could be forgiven for its statement that the sect had been defeated because of its good intentions and wishes of ending terrorism. But he maintained that the federal government’s good intentions were far from reality. This is in spite of his rather favourable to disposition to the Buhari administration because of its anti-corruption stance.
Few weeks before he died, Braithwaite said in an interview that Buhari had not started fighting corruption. He also pointed out that the arraignment of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal was wrong, stressing that the approach would make Saraki a free man soon, irrespective of the criminal charges against him.
Braithwaite had persistently expressed concerns that Nigerian politics was stilled troubled by military opportunism. His love for his fatherland was, perhaps, most succinctly captured in the hit song recorded for his campaign by Soyinka, “I love Nigeria I no go lie – na inside am I go live and die,” which, practically, every Nigerian sang at the time.
The younger generation, most of who did not meet Braithwaite in the heyday of his political activism, would live by some of his recent comments, which further showed him as a fearless activist. He will be remembered for his political ideals, legal precedents he set through the cases he won, his unique dress sense, and many of his interventions at critical junctures in the country’s history.