Olisa Agbakoba: Legacy in Activism, Law and Leadership

The Nigerian legal field boasts many brilliant minds, but Olisa Agabkoba belongs to the pantheon of exceptional lawyers whose remarkable works are a source of inspiration. From his widely acclaimed roles in activism to ground-breaking courtroom victories and landmark legislative reforms, Agbakoba’s unwavering commitment to the principles of justice has earned him the respect and admiration of colleagues and clients alike. The esteemed  founder and Senior Partner of Olisa Agbakoba Legal (OAL), recently celebrated his 70th birthday, and as expected, received encomiums from far and wide. In this profile, Vanessa Obioha highlights his illustrious accomplishments.

In the realm of Nigerian law and activism, few names command as much respect as Olisa Agbakoba, the renowned lawyer whose career milestones have left indelible footprints in the sands of time. He is a towering figure in the legal landscape having accomplished feats that placed him in the pantheon of exceptional legal minds in Nigeria.

Born on May 29, 1953, to Chief Justice Godfrey Ubaka and Mrs. Phina Agbakoba in Jos, Agbakoba embarked on his journey into law with a passion for making a difference in the lives of others. Growing up with parents who are in the legal field helped shape his early experiences and prepared him for the task ahead. He had his primary and secondary school education in Jos and Enugu.

From the outset, Agbakoba’s legal career displayed a remarkable trajectory. After graduating with honours from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he went on to obtain a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Subsequently, he was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1978, laying the foundation for an extraordinary legal career. He quickly gained recognition for his sharp intellect and persuasive courtroom skills. These qualities propelled him into the upper echelons of the legal profession. It was no wonder that he served as a research fellow in the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) Law and Intelligence Department upon completion of his studies at law school. Agbakoba left NIIA after a year and formed his own law firm, Agbakoba and Associates, which specialises in commercial and maritime law. His works in these fields have been remarkable, even more so when he founded the Nigeria Chambers of Shipping.

While he gained fame in these fields, it is his human rights advocacy that has earned him more admiration.

He has been a key leader in the country’s pro-democratic movement, and was a defender for the civil rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed. The revered lawyer is the President of AfroNet, an international NGO dedicated to furthering the human rights cause. Agbakoba is a Principal Partner and founder of Human Rights Law Services (HURILAWS) an NGO that specialises in advocacy and law. He is also the founder of Nigeria’s foremost human rights organisation, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), which he was the president from 1987 to 1995. He was also the founder of United Action for Democracy.

Agbakoba’s pioneering work as a space lawyer has propelled him to the forefront of Space Law and Regulation in Nigeria. Leveraging his extensive experience and fruitful partnerships with esteemed organisations like the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited (NIGCOMSAT), and the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), he has made substantial contributions to fortify the legal, institutional, and regulatory framework governing space activities in the country.

One of his notable accomplishments includes devising a comprehensive legal framework that accommodates the growing interest from the private sector and serves as a catalyst for investment in the realm of space. Noteworthy collaborative efforts with NASRDA have yielded the enactment of the pivotal Regulation on Licensing and Supervision of Space Activities, 2015, a transformative milestone that has reshaped Nigeria’s approach to space regulations.

Indeed, the renowned Senior Advocate of Nigeria has been at the forefront of numerous landmark cases, advocating for social justice, human rights, and the rule of law. As a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Agbakoba has been instrumental in shaping the legal profession in Nigeria, advocating for reforms and championing the rights of the marginalized. His involvement was pivotal in the creation of the Lagos Court of Arbitration and the reformation of the Lagos State Arbitration Rules. Furthermore, he played a key role in crafting the ADR Mechanism and Rules specifically tailored for the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) to enhance efficient asset management and recovery processes.

In recognition of his contribution to the growth of Arbitration in Nigeria, Agbakoba was appointed as the Chair of the National Arbitration Policy Committee set up by the Attorney General of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2020 to advise the government on strategic policies to enhance Nigeria’s arbitration landscape.

He is one of Nigeria’s leading experts in Arbitration and has presided over several complex arbitration. He is the brain behind the first Law Firm Annexed Arbitration/ Mediation Centre in Lagos (Nigeria), the Olisa Agbakoba Legal (OAL) Arbitration & Mediation Centre.  He has showcased his brilliance as a Counsel and an Arbitrator in major National and Cross border disputes relating to Aviation (Airport Terminal Concessions) Vessel Charter, Maritime Collision, Oil wells and Rigs, Telecommunications, Housing Development and Construction respectively.

He has championed legal reforms in arbitration in Nigeria including the establishment of industry specific arbitration centres in maritime, construction, energy, telecommunications and entertainment sectors. He also played a major role in the establishment of the Lagos Court of Arbitration and reforms of the Lagos State Arbitration Rules

He is a Fellow of the Nigeria Institute of Chartered Arbitrators and the Vice President of the Institute. He is also the Legal Adviser to the Institute of Chartered Mediators and Conciliators (ICMC) and a life member of the Body of Benchers. He is a member of the African Arbitration Association (AfAA) and also a member of its Advocacy Committee working to increase the visibility of African Arbitrators. He is a member of the London Maritime Arbitrators Association (LMAA), the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) and listed as an Arbitrator at the Lagos Court of Arbitration. He is at present working with the Nigerian Economic Summit group for the creation of a Center for Sport Arbitration in Nigeria.

As a highly acclaimed individual, he has been decorated with numerous awards from renowned institutions in Nigeria and abroad.  These include the Roger Baldwin Medal for Civil Liberties which he received in 1990. Also in 1993, he was honoured with the Human Rights Award of the German Association of Judges and in 1996 he was given the Aachen Peace Award. Other awards and honours include the receipt of the 15 Great Legal Practitioners of Distinction in Nigeria (1993), Fellow and award recipient, Institute of Administrative Management of Nigeria; co-director, British Council Conference on Managing Human Rights, Abuja, Nigeria; the International Human Rights Award of the American Bar Association, in recognition of extraordinary contributions to the causes of Human Rights, the Rule of Law and Promotion of Access to Justice (1996); Dr. Kwame Nkrumah African Leadership awards in 2006; and FRA Williams Legal Practitioner of the year 2006 among others.

As he clocked 70 on May 29, a significant date in Nigeria’s democratic calendar, Agbakoba found himself surrounded by an intimate gathering of family, friends, and loved ones. The team members at Agbakoba Legal, the renowned law firm he founded, organized a special event to honour their visionary leader. Immersed in an atmosphere of celebration, they showered him with accolades, recognising his remarkable achievements and profound impact.

On social media and newspaper pages, Agbakoba’s contribution to the development of the legal profession and his humanity was lauded by well-wishers, fellow lawyers, human rights activists, and prominent public figures. In a poignant moment of introspection, Agbakoba’s heart swelled with profound gratitude as he looked back on the unwavering support that has accompanied him throughout the chapters of his extraordinary life.

The resounding praise echoed his exceptional legal acumen, his unwavering dedication to advocacy, and his relentless pursuit of justice. These messages stand as a testament to the indelible impact Agbakoba has made throughout his illustrious career, leaving an enduring legacy in the realm of law and beyond.

Amongst his major publications are Federal High Court Practice Manual (published by LexisNexis, South Africa) Maritime Newsletter Volumes one and two; Manual on Election Petition in Nigeria; Maritime Cabotage in Nigeria; Bankruptcy Proceedings in Nigeria; Development Law Books (in three volumes; Towards A People Constitution in Nigeria; Transcending the Wall: A manual for Prisoners Reform. Others are: The Legal basis of the organization of African Unity Force in the Chad; Journal of International Law, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs 1981; Journal of Human Rights Law and Practice: Nigeria’s State Security (detention of persons) Decree No 2 of 1984; Exposing the Myth of Judicial Impotence with Babatunde Fagbohunlu (1991), Incursions into the Legal Profession, the way out speech given at the conference on the reform of civil adjudication, Lagos, December 1995; The Statute of Limitation in Admiralty Proceedings: A Case for Fresh Initiatives in Maritime Laws and Reforms in Marine Insurance Law, among many others.

Agbakoba is married to Lilian Agbakoba, who is also a lawyer by profession.

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