Exit of a Human Rights Defender



Segun James revisits the life and times of Olu Onagoruwa‎, a human rights defender, whose decision to work for the late military dictator, Sani Abacha, as Attorney General of the Federation, resulted in a reversal of fortunes in his political and personal life

On September 22, 2014, Dr Olu Onagoruwa was absent at the special session of the Supreme Court to swear in those who were conferred with the rank of the Senior Advocate of Nigeria. He was one of the 17 selected for the honour.

He could not make it to the Supreme Court on that day on health grounds. He was subsequently brought to the Supreme Court a few days later. He scored a first as the only person to be separately conferred with the award after those selected with him had been decorated with the rank.

Onagoruwa was a controversial figure in life. He demonstrated rare courage as he took up human rights violation cases that would bring him on collision course with military dictators.

In his lifetime, this PhD in Law graduate from the University of London was one person that was ready to confront dictators even when this posed great danger to his life.

He did dare the former maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha and he paid dearly for it. His son and heir apparent to the Olu Onagoruwa’s dynasty, Toyin was murdered under controversial circumstances. Yet as the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation refused to budge. He fought Abacha till the former Head of State expired in 1998.

That was the quintessential Olu Onagoruwa.

Onagoruwa, who made a name as a human rights activist served as Attorney-General of the Federation under the military government of Abacha between 1993 and 1994.

He had been suffering from stroke since the brutal killing of his son in December 1996 by yet unknown gunmen. The death of his wife few years ago also compounded his health problem.

Onagoruwa was appointed the AGF by Abacha in November 1993, he however left the post months later due to disagreements with the then military government. His friend and comrade at arms, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN advised him not to take the job. But convinced that democratic would never be conceded willingly but must be fought for, he chose to dine with devil. The rest is history.

Respected across Africa, he was part of the international team that drafted the constitution of the Republic of Ethiopia in 1994.

Onagoruwa studied law at the University of London where he obtained his LL.B; LL.M and PhD degrees. Upon his return to the country, he attended the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1971. After his pupilage, he set up his law firm in Lagos with bias for human rights violation causes. As a liberal scholar, he combined his legal practice with regular commentary on socio-legal affairs. He wrote several books and has to his credit over 250 published articles.

At a period when human rights had been put in abeyance by martial law, Onagoruwa handled many cases of constitutional significance which questioned the basis of continued military rule. He had cause to challenge the arrest of activists like Ken Saro-wiwa, Minere Amakiri, Tai Solarin et al.

When Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti and Femi Falana were detained at the Kuje prison in 1992 under the obnoxious State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No. 2 of 1984, Onagoruwa was on hand to defend them. On account of his leading role in the defence of public interest cases he was subjected to crude intimidation by the military junta.

Falana, SAN has this to say about him: “It is a great pity that Nigeria has not been fair to “Egbon” Olu Onagoruwa in his struggles to make the country a great country to live. Instead of supporting progressive lawyers for leading the campaign for the restoration of democracy and rule of law in the country the reactionary forces who held sway in the legal profession at the material time teamed up with the military minions to harass them.”

Onagoruwa was for some years the legal adviser of the Daily Times of Nigeria when the newspaper was the most authoritative source of news in the country under the able control of the late Babatunde Jose.

Onagoruwa distinguished himself in that position. Those were the days of brilliant journalism displayed in the Times Group of Newspapers by Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, the late Femi Sonaike, Dipo Ajayi, Felix Adenaike, Dapo Fasina Thomas, Bisi Adebunmi, Tola Adeniyi, Remi Akano, Areoye Oyebola, and several others. He was one of the big pen pushers of the Daily Times of that time.

He struck the headlines at that time with the case of Minere Amakiri (a journalist whose head was shaven with a broken bottle by the Aide-De-Camp to the military governor of Rivers state, Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, police officer Mr. Iwowari in 1972) in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Minere was a journalist with the Observer Group of Newspapers based in the then Midwest State.

Amakiri had published a story in the Observer considered by Diete-Spiff, to be rude to him. The story was about teachers’ strike in Rivers State. The military governor immediately ordered the arrest of Amakiri. The governor ordered that the head of the journalist be shaved clean and detained.

The Newspaper Proprietors’ Association, then under the leadership of Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande, did not take the incident funny. The association immediately sent Onagoruwa to follow the case and advise appropriately what should be done.

Onagoruwa did follow the case. He called for a large scale condemnation of the governor’s action. He eventually ended up writing a book titled “PRESS FREEDOM IN CHAINS”. The book contained details of the events of the Amakiri affair. The incident shot Onagoruwa into limelight.

He was a fearless Nigerian who believed that nothing must ever be done to shut the gates of justice against any Nigerian (no matter his status) in any attempt to disturb the path of justice and freedom.

Many years after this incident, Onagoruwa emerged the Attorney-General of Nigeria after the coup led by the late General Sani Abacha and General Oladipo Diya against the government then headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.

Throughout his tenure as Attorney-General, he never allowed the gate of justice to be shut against any Nigerian. Some instances deserve mention here.

There was the Turner Ogboru case. Turner Ogboru had been arrested, tried and imprisoned by the General Ibrahim Babangida regime after the abortive coup attempt of April 22, 1990, Turner’s brother, Great Ogboru, was accused by the IBB regime as having financed the 1990 coup. Turner was subsequently arrested by security forces and put on trial.

Immediately, a high court judge granted the application for freedom of Turner Ogboru, which was filed by his lawyer, Femi Falana, Dr. Olu Onagoruwa, the Attorney-General sent letters out to the late Alex Ibru, the then Minister for Internal Affairs, and Alhaji Ibrahim Coomasie, the Inspector General of Police directing the immediate release of Turner Ogboru as directed by the Court.

Alex Ibru complied immediately with the Attorney-General’s instructions by ordering the release of Turner Ogboru from prison custody.

A Provisional Ruling Council meeting headed by Abacha was held the next day after Ogboru’s freedom. Towards the end of the meeting, the Inspector-General of Police, ACoomasie drew the attention of the PRC meeting to the letter by Onagoruwa ordering the release of Turner Ogboru. Abacha was said to have been so enraged to learn of the subsequent release of Turner that he was said to have told Onagoruwa and the late Ibru that what they had done by releasing Ogboru was worse than treasonable felony. Turner Ogboru was immediately rearrested after the PRC meeting and returned to prison.

It is generally believed that the releases of Turner Ogboru was one of the sins Onagoruwa committed leading to the gruesome murder of his son Toyin in December1996.

The murder of his son by unknown policemen did have an effect on his health. Eventually, Onagoruwa suffered a devastating stroke some few months after the murder. He never fully recovered from the effect.

To make matters worse for him, his loyal wife of many years suddenly died. She was buried at the Onagoruwa’s family compound at Odogbolu in Ogun State.

The former Attorney General of the Federation was the principal partner of a law firm that bears his name. He was the author of the Nigerian Civil War; Fundamental Human Rights and International law 1969, The Amakiri Case, Press Freedom in crisis 1978 and Law and Contemporary Nigeria Reflections 2004 amongst others.

Onagoruwa, who attended the Academy of American and International Law Center USA on a Fulbright and Hays scholarship, served as a law lecturer in various Nigerian Institutions.

For over 45 years, Onagoruwa was involved in general practice of law. His core practice areas included constitutional law, legislative matters, banking and insolvency, oil and gas, telecommunication law and litigation.


Respected across Africa, he was part of the international team that drafted the constitution of the Republic of Ethiopia in 1994.