By Owei Lakemfa
Prince Bolasodun Adesumbo ‘Bola’ Ajibola, former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, and ex-judge of the International Court of Justice, ICJ, passed away on April 9, 2023 at 89. Deservedly, lots of encomiums have been showered on the late founder of Crescent University and former Nigeria High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
However, nagging questions remain: should a good man serve a bad government? Should an honest man be the chief legal adviser of a dishonest government? Should a learned man immersed in the rule of law, serve a lawless government steeped in executive lawlessness?
When the General Ibrahim Babangida military regime he served for six years was churning out dozens of repressive decrees many of which ousted the jurisdiction of the courts, was Ajibola, its chief law officer one of the drafters of those decrees? Was he privy to their issuance? Did he advise against the issuance of those decrees? If he did, and his advice was ignored why did he remain in office? When as Attorney General, his bosses detained scores of students and journalists without trial, proscribed The Newswatch Magazine and shutdown newspapers like Vanguard and Champion did he protest? When the passport of Alao Aka-Bashorun, one of his successors as NBA President was seized, why was he unable to retrieve it? When the Jamaican-born Nigerian sociologist, Patrick Wilmot was in 1988 abducted on the streets and deported to the UK, did he raise even an eyebrow? Some may argue I am raising moral issues, but what is governance without morality?
Prince Ajibola was President of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, when then Military Head of State, Genera Muhammadu Buhari was trampling the basic rights of the citizenry into the dust. The NBA under him protested. When in 1985 a palace coup swept Buhari from power, the new military rulers tapped Ajibola as their new chief legal adviser. As soon as they settled in, they continued in the repressive traditions of their predecessors, including detaining Nigerians indefinitely without trial.
When the Babangida regime would not obey court orders, Mr Alao Aka-Bashorun, as NBA President, led lawyers nationwide on a successful boycott of the courts. That in my opinion should have been the opportunity for Ajibola to throw in the towel.
When in 1990, the year Babangida had promised to hand over to elected civilians, rolled in, the regime decide on a self-succession plan. It got a group of elites to call for a National Conference of 100 persons which would recommend a diarchy. A group of patriots led by Aka-Bashorun with people like R.B.K Okafor, Kola Balogun, Tanko Yakassai and Frederick Fasehun created a counter force which called for a representative National Conference that would see the backs of the military.
After the Aka-Bashorun group rejected the regime’s sponsorship of its conference, refused to be intimidated and insisted on holding the conference, Prince Ajibola, as Attorney General, went on air to declare the conference illegal and announced that all those who attend the September 1990 National Conference would be guilty of treasonable felony with a minimum five-year imprisonment. That did not deter the multitude of individuals, including Conference Chairman and former Deputy Director General of the World Health Organisation, WHO, Professor Adeoye Lambo and elder statesman, Tanko Yakassai, who gathered at the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu-Lagos venue of the conference. However, the regime overnight sealed the edifice.
One day after Ajibola’s departure, Professor Nimi Dimkpa Briggs, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, Pro-Chancellor of the Federal University, Abakaliki, Bayelsa Medical University, Yenagoa and Chairman, Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, followed.
A renowned Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, he had also served both as Chairman of the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission, RSIEC, and the Rivers State Economic Advisory Council.
Briggs was a giant in academics and university administration. So, it was no surprise that in April, 2022 when the country’s public universities were almost in tatters following a conflict between the Buhari administration and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, it was to Briggs the Federal Government turned to break the deadlock.
Briggs did not disappoint. He got the buy-in of all stakeholders, including the Federal Government, Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, and labour. Within 10 weeks, he and his team had solved the seemingly intractable conflict. On June 16, 2022 he submitted the report to the government.
As the country looked forward to a resolution of the crisis and the reopening of the universities, the Buhari government which apparently sets up such committees like those previously headed by Dr Wale Babalakin and Professor Munzali Jibril just to buy time and wear out the academics, began an insidious campaign against Briggs and his committee. Rather than thank the members for answering the national call, government agencies and ministers attacked the person of Briggs, accusing him of being a dishonest person.
The Ministry of Finance accused the Briggs Committee of conniving with ASUU to propose salary increases that favour academics. The Minister of Finance claimed falsely that Briggs was asking that N1.1 trillion be paid ASUU members alone.
The Presidential Committee on Salaries and Wages alleged that though Prof. Briggs was the Pro-chancellor of the Federal University Lokoja, he was still teaching at the University of Port Harcourt; so, he conspired to increase the salaries he would personally be a beneficiary.
Government officials, including ministers, lied that Briggs deliberately excluded the MDAs from the sittings of his Committee.
The government officials, apart from deliberately leaking and distorting aspects of the Briggs Report, also openly instigated non-academic unions in the universities against Briggs.
The Briggs Committee had to take advertisement space in the newspapers to debunk the false claims. It revealed that both the Presidency and the MDAs participated in the Committee’s work; Briggs could not be a personal beneficiary of the salary increase and that the Finance Minister’s claim of Briggs asking for N1.1 trillion for academics was a figment of her imagination.
On April 10, 2023, Professor Briggs at 79, left us. The same Buhari government that just 10 months ago went to great lengths to try damaging Prof. Brigg’s hard earned reputation, same day issued a statement on the “historic contributions of the scholar (Briggs) to national development, particularly the educational sector…” It added that: “The President believes the Emeritus Professor of Medicine lived for the good of the country and humanity.”
Professor Briggs had demonstrated to the Buhari government that not all Nigerians have a price; that there are many who maintain their dignity and speak truth to power.
May our traducers take to the front pew to sing our praises as has happened to Prof. Nimi Briggs. May the souls of the departed rest in peace. Amen.