GUEST COLUMNIST BY UDO UDOMA
The last time I saw Chief Ogunbanjo was on Tuesday, 14th December 2021, when I visited to celebrate with him on his 98th birthday. The Chief was doing very well for ninety-eight and I joined him in drinking red wine and toasting to his health. Encouraged by a saxophonist, Chief Ogunbanjo rose from his chair, and danced in celebration. A really memorable occasion. I was indeed sad when the news broke a few weeks ago that Chief Ogunbanjo had passed away. This was on the 7th October 2023 – just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday! He lived a long and impactful life and I join in celebrating the memory of a truly great personality.
I first met Chief Chris Ogunbanjo in 1978. I had just come back to Nigeria after graduating from university and was attending the Nigerian Law School in Lagos. I was always broke, as my father believed that his obligation was simply to pay my school fees at the Law school, and nothing more. He simply could not understand why I needed an allowance since I was living at home where food was provided. And so, having just come from the UK where I worked part-time jobs whenever I needed money, I started looking for a part-time job.
But it was not easy in Nigeria to get a job as a student. With my post graduate law degree from Oxford University, I felt I could secure a part time job as a research assistant, so I approached one or two senior lawyers offering to help them in conducting legal research. They were amused at the suggestion that I could be of any use to them, not having been called to the bar. One of them even advised me that, rather than spending time looking for part-time work, I should concentrate on my studies to ensure that I did not fail in my law school exams! I had almost given up on the possibility of being retained by any senior lawyer when a friend suggested that I approach Chief Chris Ogunbanjo.
I thought the suggestion was rather a long shot as, at that time, Chief Ogunbanjo was generally acknowledged as the leading corporate lawyer in Nigeria. In the early 1950s he, together with Chief Samuel Oladoke Akintola and Mr. Michael Odesanya had formed one of the first law partnerships in the country, called ‘Samuel, Chris & Michael’. Whilst Chief Akintola moved on to politics, and Michael Odesanya ultimately to the judiciary, Chief Ogunbanjo stayed on in legal practice and became a dominant force in commercial legal practice, continuing practice under the name of Chris Ogunbanjo & Co. And it was this great man that my friend was suggesting I contact! However, as a young man I was never afraid of taking on challenges and I decided to try it on the basis that ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. I therefore made an appointment to see the Chief.
Arriving in his waiting room about 15 minutes to the appointed time I became very nervous. His waiting room was very imposing and, as I entered, his substantial portrait which adorned the entrance seemed to be staring at me. I almost turned back, fearing I had made a big mistake. But I steeled myself, introduced myself to the secretary who, clearly seeing how nervous I was, asked me to sit down and make myself comfortable as Chief Ogunbanjo was expecting me. At exactly the appointed time, I was ushered into Chief’s office. He listened to me without interruption and at the end of my long-winded explanation of what I wanted he simply smiled and said to me “Young man, I see you are looking for something to do? When do you want to start?”.
Thus started my relationship with Chief Christopher Ogunbanjo. I worked with him until I completed law school and was called to the bar. When I went off for my NYSC, which I served in Kano, he gave me a note to Chief J. B. Majiyagbe, who also gave me a part-time job. After my NYSC, I had brief stints as a lecturer at the University of Lagos, and as an investment analyst at Chase Merchant Bank. But I missed the atmosphere at Chris Ogunbanjo & Co and returned to Chief Ogunbanjo who employed me as a junior counsel in his firm. My time with Chief Ogunbanjo was memorable and impactful. He looked after his staff very well and we were well compensated. He exposed his junior lawyers to major transactions, and it was with him that I developed confidence in dealing with the heads of major companies. From time to time, he would even invite one of us to join him for lunch as his guest at the Metropolitan Club where the captains of industry and the movers and shakers of the Lagos industrial and commercial world dined.
I enjoyed working with Chief Ogunbanjo. Those of us who worked with him were made to feel special. It was there that I bonded with my colleague and fellow junior counsel, Mr. George Etomi. Chief Ogunbanjo gave us advice as to how to conduct ourselves as lawyers. He wrote elegant, well researched, legal opinions that were clear, precise and succinct, without any obfuscation or equivocation. I learnt a lot from what he taught me. But I learnt even more from associating with him and watching how he conducted himself. Even though I worked with Chief Ogunbanjo for less than two years, it was an experience that helped set me on the road to building a successful commercial legal practice.
In addition to his busy law practice, Chief Ogunbanjo was sought after by many companies and businesses to serve on their boards. He was an active member of many chambers of commerce, such as the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, the Nigerian-British Chamber of Commerce etc. He was highly regarded in Lagos business and commercial circles and was often described as the Patriarch of the Organised Private Sector. Even though Chief Ogunbanjo was a very busy man, he always found time for public and community service. He has contributed enormously to the development of his hometown – Erunwon, to the church, to the Boy Scout Movement and to various charities, as well as establishing the Chris Ogunbanjo Foundation for the promotion of peace and conflict resolution.
Amongst his very many achievements, I would like in this tribute to make special mention of his contribution to two public sector institutions. The first is the Centre for Management Development and the second is the Corporate Affairs Commission.
In the period after independence in the 1960s, it was increasingly recognized that one of the major bottlenecks to raising productivity in Nigeria was the comparatively low quality of management skills at all levels. The Federal Government therefore decided, on the advice of prominent Nigerian professionals and businessmen, to set up a Council for Management Development Education and Training to be headed by an experienced private sector person of distinction. Thus, Chief Ogunbanjo was approached, and he accepted to serve as the first chairman of the Council, the governing board of the Centre for Management Development (CMD). Chief Ogunbanjo brought to bear his expertise and experience to set up a high-quality institution. He used his extensive connections to attract some of the best staff to the CMD. The setting up of the CMD has provided training opportunities for hundreds of Nigerian managers. When I served as Minister of Budget and National Planning, I was responsible for the CMD. On my inspection visit to the CMD, I was impressed with the foresight in locating the Centre in a wide expanse of land, surrounded by trees and greenery. Even today, it still stands out as a well- appointed facility for management training and education.
A second initiative for which Chief Ogunbanjo must also be remembered is his role in the setting up of the Corporate Affairs Commission to act as the regulatory agency for companies. It will be recalled that, up till the 1980s, the registration of companies was handled by the companies’ registry, a unit of the Ministry of Commerce and Industries. It was a most unsatisfactory state of affairs and the registration of new companies became a nightmare over time, with files littered all over the floor of the Companies Registry. As a result of widespread dissatisfaction with the company’s registration process, the Federal Government decided to constitute a 120-member Consultative Committee on Company Law to advise on a total overhaul of Companies Law. And who more fitting than the doyen of commercial law, Chief Chris Ogunbanjo, to head the Consultative Council. Amongst other far-reaching recommendations, the Consultative Council recommended the setting up of a Corporate Affairs Commission, as an autonomous body, to regulate the formation and management of companies in Nigeria. This was contained in the Companies Decree (now Act) which was promulgated into law in January 1990.
By this time, I had already set up my own legal practice, and the then Federal Military Government, headed by General Ibrahim Babangida, decided to appoint me as the first part-time chairman of the Corporate Affairs Commission. It was therefore my responsibility to set up the Commission from scratch, including finding a suitable person to recommend for appointment as the Registrar General and Chief Executive of the Commission. I relied heavily on the access I had to Chief Ogunbanjo, having previously worked with him, and consulted him extensively in setting up the Commission. He made available to me all the reports of the Consultative Committee and explained to me the rationale for each of the major innovations contained in the 1990 Companies Decree. I am grateful to him for that assistance. And I must say that the Corporate Affairs Commission has become one of the most successful and effective agencies of Government.
Chief Ogunbanjo was a man who believed in Nigeria. Even though he was not himself visibly active in partisan politics, he encouraged those of us who decided to go in, because he was always concerned about the future of the country. When his son, Tokunbo, joined me in the Senate, he encouraged us to work together to improve things in the country. He was a true Nigerian who had friends and associates from every part of the country. He was always optimistic about the future. Like many of his generation he was worried about the deterioration of values in the country but, whenever I had an opportunity to speak with him, he did not spend too much time lamenting about missed opportunities. Instead, I always found him interested and up to date about current developments. I found him engaging to converse with and he always had a suggestion to make about how things could be improved. He continued to believe that the best was yet to come for Nigeria. I believe that the greatest tribute we can all pay to Chief Christopher Ogunbanjo, and all those other public-spirited persons of his generation, who worked hard to improve things in Nigeria, is to commit individually, and collectively, to continue to work hard to achieve the Nigeria of their dreams. They may have left us for their well- deserved rest, but their dream of a better Nigeria must never be allowed to die!
Adieu! Chief Christopher Ogunbanjo! You have played your part and I wish you peaceful repose. Fare thee well!
Senator Udoma Udo Udoma
Former Minister of Budget & National Planning