Journalism in the service of society

Justice Olugbemi: The evils of ‘Federal Character’ revisited

RECENTLY the governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, got characteristically loquacious, uncouth, and irascible talking down on his fellow southern Nigeria counterparts, many of whom are his betters by dint of hard work, intellect, and industry and not the undue advantage bestowed by an atrocious “quota-this” and “quota-that” federal character system. El-Rufai’s grouse was the principled position taken by the southern governors at their latest meeting of Saturday, 16th September, 2021 held in Enugu where they insisted the next president in 2023 should come from the South. This is what many consider the most reasonable and logical thing to do, not minding the clever-by-half sophistry of el-Rufai and the rationalizations of other power merchants from the North who have nothing but misery, poverty, and grief to show for the decades they have been in power. While a few individuals in the North may relish the kill they have therefrom made, the gaping hole bored into the purse of Nigeria, the violence inflicted on the psyche of southern Nigerians, and the generally arrested development of the country, the truth of the matter is that the North and its people have been the worse for it. It is largely because of them that Nigeria has become the poverty capital of the world. But even mad men sometimes have fleeting moments of sanity and sobriety; for el-Rufai, one such moment recently was when he looked back and concluded that federal character, meant to favour the North while discriminating against and holding the South down, has actually done incalculable harm and hard-to-reverse damage to the same North. Away with it, cried el-Rufai! But is it not too late to cry when the head is off, except one were Ogedengbe Agbogungboro of Ijeshaland? This reminds me of the story Grandma told me of a foolish boy who, thinking himself smart, hid the knife after it had lacerated him badly!

There is no denying the fact that the South has suffered from the application of federal character. There is hardly any Southerner who, if he had not personally so suffered, does not have a relation or relative or knew someone who had. But federal character application is akin to the proverbial Yoruba “adaniloro” who only strengthens our resolve to succeed and excel despite all odds. The more they try to hold us down; the more vigorously we struggle free to excel. Ultimately, the grand losers are the Northerners themselves. It is good some of them are coming to that realization now but, again, the Yoruba say “igbehin l’o ma n ye oloku ada” A man who goes to cut a tree with a machete whose edges are blunt needs no sermon! Today, I bring up the encounter of an illustrious friend with the federal character system; readers of this column should be familiar with Prof. Babafemi Badejo of Chrisland University, Abeokuta. Read on:

“On September 30, 2021 I was at a formal colourful ceremony that was similar to the pulling out parade that the military undertakes as any of their senior officers retire from service. Justice Solomon Abidoye Olugbemi took his formal bow out of the Ogun State Judiciary. A valedictory court sitting was held in honour of an exceptional Nigerian, presided over by the Honourable Chief Judge of Ogun State, Hon. Justice M.A. Dipeolu. This ceremony was to have taken place on April 2, 2020 when Olugbemi actually attained the statutory age of sixty-five, which is the retirement age for Judges in Nigeria with the exception of those on the Supreme Court bench who have an extra five years of service. We all remember that the world was in a lockdown. So, we could not gather for a ceremony for fear of a pandemic that was claiming many lives.

“The exit of Judge Olugbemi was a triple event. Being a pastor in the Baptist Church for a good portion of his life, a Thanksgiving Service was slotted into the programme as the Ceremonial Court became a Church and, immediately after, was used as the venue for the presentation of his book titled “Sweet memories on the Bench”. The reviewer of the book, Prof. Idowu Adegbite of Olabisi Onabanjo University, provided a 15-page review that wetted the appetite of all in wanting to go further and appreciate selected judgements of Justice Olugbemi on the Bench. The reviewer concluded that Justice Olugbemi is cerebral and courageous, among several other attributes that he identified from the book.

“My first meeting with Justice Solomon Abidoye Olugbemi, I really do not remember. He was working at Olayide Adigun’s chambers at 3, Oweh Street, Yaba, Lagos while I was Laide’s younger friend those days and stopped by at his Chambers to chat on national and local issues. I was an evening law student at the University of Lagos as I also taught Political Science at the same university at the time. I enjoyed interactions with practicing lawyers. Precisely, the beginning of my close relationship with Justice Olugbemi was a decision I made in 1988. I had to provide an answer to my daughter, Adeyinka Badejo, wanting to know why she was not invited for the so-called Unity School’s admission interview in 1988 when she scored higher marks than many, including those from Kano and Sokoto states with as low as 37.5% who were invited. In addition, in her class was a Minister’s daughter who scored 58.7% and was invited for the interview. She had scored 293 which was 73.25% but the Federal Government fixed 296 as the cut-off mark for girls from Ogun State, her “State of Origin”, in spite of the fact that she was neither born in nor did she reside at any time in Ogun State beyond less than three- or four-day annual visits to her grand-parents as part of end-of-year family get-togethers.

“I decided that I needed to have the Federal Government answer my daughter’s question by way of a suit. All my friends at Olayide Adigun’s chambers chickened out of filing the suit on my behalf. This was after we had all discussed and agreed it was necessary to challenge the Federal Government using the court system for the correction of a patent discrimination that violates the Nigerian Constitution. As I went into a melancholy state with no-one with capacity and friends ready to step forward with me, I was pleasantly surprised when my mere acquaintance, Solo Olugbemi, announced he was ready to take the suit on. He was advised that he could do so under his name and not under the name of the chambers. He agreed. We were advised at the chambers to write our respective Will. We all knew of the fact that the military junta that controlled Nigeria did not joke with anyone that moved against its dictatorial order and control over Nigeria. If anyone was in doubt, the assassination of popular journalist, Dele Giwa, on October 19, 1986 was enough lessons. Till today, no-one has been able to unravel who assassinated Dele Giwa but Gani Fawehinmi and company convinced Nigerians to look in the direction of the Babangida Administration.

“We were not scared to pay the ultimate price for the realization of fundamental changes that people clamoured for then – and up till date. We both had no property but proceeded to write our last Testament. Mine was to give ideas on what could be done in raising my children by my devoted wife who did not fuss over the pressure that I must not pursue a case in the name of our daughter, Adeyinka. Doye Olugbemi assisted me in ensuring that my handwritten Will complied with the law. He did not ask for a penny. I provided filing fees and thus began Adeyinka Badejo v. Federal Minister of Education in Suit No M/500/88 before Justice G.I. Akinboboye by way of an ex-parte motion on September 29, 1988. Of course, Justice Akinboboye, in an escapist manner, stated that my daughter had no locus standi. My colleagues at the University of Lagos and other Nigerians started raising funds to support a just cause at the higher level. Joining this spirit, Pa Alfred Rewane requested to have the late G.O.K. Ajayi, SAN, take over the case at his (Rewane’s) expense. I agreed to the help on the condition that G.O.K would only be the lead Counsel and the late SAN agreed. Together, we pursued the case to the very end. Doye Olugbemi was the lone Counsel as the Supreme Court read its 3-2 judgement on Case No. SC 196/1990, against us on September 20, 1996. Though the Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal that Adeyinka Badejo had locus standi, it avoided a decision on Federal Character as discriminatory, arguing that no more action was needed, given effluxion of time. The Federal Character system continues to under-develop Nigeria.

“With such a fighting spirit for what is just, little wonder, then, that Doye Olugbemi (“my learned friend from before, before” as he now refers to me), became a bosom friend who had, and continues to have, my utmost trust. For instance, as I left Nigeria to work for the United Nations, I did not hesitate to grant a Power of Attorney to him on all my affairs. In addition, I handed my commercial practice as a lawyer to him to help sort out. And he did not betray my trust. Thinking that I could pay back to the Nigerian society, I started funding a national Chess championship competition at the primary and secondary school levels, which ran for a decade. Doye Olugbemi, as he then was, organized this annual competition with gladness in support of the desire of a friend. I pulled out of doing so after my friend became a Judge. It became difficult to trust the arrangement in place in his absence; so also did the judiciary rob me of the intimacy with my brother and friend in many other respects. For instance, he speaks Hausa very well. Annually, he used to accompany me to buy ram for my family party. As a Judge, he gently told me that a Judge could no longer go into the market to negotiate the price of ram!

“I am pleased that my Lord, Justice Olugbemi, held his head high as a Judge. He never received a query from the National Judicial Council. He did not bring his name into opprobrium and also he made people like me continue to be very proud of him. I am also glad he lived up to retirement age in good health. I wish him many more years of contribution towards the realization of a just society in our country”

I dare to say that the backwardness, and all the sicknesses and diseases that ail the North today can be traced to federal character which, in itself, is a form of grand corruption and unmitigated oppression of the worst order. It is a two-edged sword which cuts both North and South but while the South which, on the face of it is at the receiving end, is minded to treat itself and therefore gets healed of its wounds and pains, a North unmindful of the dangers to itself but gallivanting, celebrating, savouring, relishing, defending, protecting, and advancing federal character has left its own wounds untreated until it became cancerous. How does anyone escape from such a self-inflicted catastrophe?

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