Tunji Braithwaite (1933-2016)
Olatunji Akinwande Braithwaite, lawyer, crusader, humanist and politician was incontrovertibly those and many other things to Nigerians. He was a bright and articulate legal practitioner who would have broken even more grounds in law practice had his life as a politician not been just as colourful and engaging.
He was the politician for whom politics was more than the quest for office but a social crusade for the betterment of the people and against all that assailed their wellbeing. He was the quintessential scion of privilege who made his name railing against privileges and eminent domain.
He was a fighter for social justice whose vigour, rather than wane, increased with age and his voice on the frontlines even as an octogenarian was as strident as it was in the early days when he first hit the national limelight.
With his death the other day at 82, Nigeria lost one of the last of its most original fighters for an equitable, prosperous and restructured nation.
It was very romantic to sometimes view him through the prism of his association with his famous client, the late Afro-beat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and the many battles against the state they fought together. Braithwaite was, however, a non-conformist of his own hue and their partnership was only natural.
Even with his upper-class pedigree and well-heeled aristocratic Lagos connections, Braithwaite never gave up on the struggles for equity for all. As a social activist lawyer, he was in the caravan of legendary crusaders such as Alao Aka-Bashorun, Kanmi Ishola-Osobu, Olu Onagoruwa, Gani Fawehinmi, and the founding patriarch himself, Sapara Williams.
For him and his band of brothers-in-arms, the law is nothing other than an instrument for advancing the cause of the underprivileged and for championing political and social justice. The likes of Braithwaite taught aggrieved people to go to court instead of resorting to self-help and he was a difference maker in compelling both governors and the governed to note the nexus between rule of law and social justice.
Although he was often criticised for being too distracted by politics from his brilliance at law practice, he however remained among the best public intellectuals in law. His belief was iron-cast that when the law and its adjudication fall into the hands of ignoble men, the essence of the profession is breached and its sacred ethos violated. Thus, he was a believer in the rule of law rather than the rule of men and his revulsion for impunity, excesses and vulgarity on the part of state officials was without measure.
What is more, till his transition, he always saw the need for the survival of Nigeria beyond narrow class interests. He was a firm believer in the development of the country as irrevocably dependent on restructuring. Nigeria, according to him, would never be great without recourse to a true federalism that would allow different regions to develop according to their endowments. And he fought that battle till the very end.
Born in 1933 to Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Adesoye Braithwaite, the late social critic attended the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Grammar School, Lagos, where he completed his secondary education in 1953. He sat for his Advanced Levels examination at Kennington College of the London University in 1955 and enrolled two years later as a law student at the Council of Legal Education, London. He was admitted into Lincoln’s Inn in 1958 and graduated as a Barrister in 1960, the year Nigeria obtained her independence from Britain. He enrolled as a Barrister and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in March 1961. His hunger for higher degrees was unquenchable and in 1985, earned a Masters of Arts (Degree) from Columbia Pacific University in the United States. He crowned this with a doctorate degree from the same institution. The seventh of his parents’ eight children, and the last of his mother’s three sons, Dr. Braithwaite who wrote the famous book, Jurisprudence of the Living Oracles, among others, was married to Dr. Grace Simisola Braithwaite, a consultant paediatrician with whom he had five children.
He founded the Nigerian Advance Party (NAP) when Nigeria returned to democracy in 1979 but his party, at the vanguard of which were many idealistic young professionals, was not registered for that year’s elections. But Braithwaite was undeterred. With his colourful, even iconic dressing, and even more colourful language (members of the then ruling class were ‘rats and cockroaches’ he vowed to chase out of power), the party held a certain appeal to young Nigerians and was allowed to contest the 1983 elections. Braithwaite was its presidential candidate.
It was not surprising that his very last gesture of public defiance came as a result of principled opposition to the scourge of fuel subsidy in 2012. In January of that year, the fiery lawyer joined other patriots and elder statesmen led by Professor Ben Nwabueze to register their outrage at the then subsidy hoax and what they called the unconscionable suppression of the popular protests then. This was one of Braithwaite’s finest hours in defence of political and civil liberties as he and Nwabueze, alondside many others, were tear-gassed by security officers of state.
This neither silenced his voice nor slowed his march for Nigeria’s liberation from a wobbly political structure and leaders he regarded as nothing more than rats and cockroaches.
Interestingly, he has bid his beloved compatriots goodbye amid another prevailing chaos triggered by nationwide energy crisis.
He was, indeed, a man of courage who will be sorely missed!
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