Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN: Jurist, public administrator, and statesman

By Akin A. Ajose-Adeogun.

OsinbajoI first met Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, in January, 1971, when I entered secondary school. Although he was just two years ahead of me, he was already highly regarded by both students and the teaching staff on account of the fact that he was a diligent and dignified student. He also possessed the prestige that came from being known nationally as a first-rate and accomplished school debating champion in the early 1970s. I lost touch with him, from 1975, for a long time, but did not fail to hear of his reputation as a brilliant and perceptive jurist on the Faculty of Law of the University of Lagos, where he was similarly highly respected and liked by his colleagues and students.

I restored my links with him when he emerged as the attorney-general, and therefore my boss in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, in Governor Bola Tinubu’s reforming administration in 1999. It was in this position that I came to observe him closely as a man, lawyer, and public servant. A profound and distinguished lawyer, he has few, if any, peers as an advocate at the Bar today. It is also my opinion that he was the most reform-minded attorney-general in Nigeria’s history. With the able support of another able and resourceful public servant and profound and distinguished lawyer, our then solicitor-general, Fola Arthur-Worrey, and drawing from the earlier pioneering work of Justice S.O. Ilori, a former chief judge of Lagos, and one of the most brilliant legal minds that adorned the Nigerian bench, he revolutionised practice and procedure in the Lagos High Court (their reforms became a model); he considerably expanded legal aid, bringing legal services within the reach of many indigent citizens; raised the conditions of service of the Lagos judiciary to a level unparalleled elsewhere; renovated, built, and equipped with modern gadgetry (bringing them into the modern age), courts all across the State; incorporated alternative dispute resolution into the administration of justice in Lagos, added important legislation to the statute roll, etc.

However, some have still criticised his nomination (as vice presidential candidate) on the ground that he was never a state governor and is a political neophyte. I find this rather amusing, as I know of few people who possess his knowledge or understanding of our constitutional history, political evolution, contemporary political issues, or, most importantly, of the great issues on which the future of this country turn. I, therefore, believe that his input into Nigerian public life is likely to be in the tradition of past politico-legal greats such as FRA Williams, Bode Thomas, Adeyemi Lawson, Udo Udoma, Wenike Briggs, Justice Dan Ibekwe, etc. His entry into public life is, like those of the aforementioned greats of yesteryear, a boon to the life of this nation, for it brings once more to the art of politics and public service the benefit of a profound intellect which is a rich seam of ideas and knowledge. The contributions of great legal minds to public service has a long and distinguished history as the great careers of Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Nottingham, Hardwicke, Eldon, and Haldane in the UK; the great New Deal lawyers, Benjamin V. Cohen and Thomas Corcoran,  in the USA; and Norman Manley, in the West Indies, illustrate. What this nation needs, particularly at this time, is less of the narrowness, partisanship, and meaness that has characterized our politics for far too long, and more in the way of ideas and independent critical thinking. It is in this light, therefore, that I have never quite understood the argument about the imagined political constraints that militate against his appointment to high political office. But then, I have never found, in all my years, that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.