Paving The Way

“Amidst the cross-currents and shifting sands of modern life, the law is like a great rock on which a man may set his feet and be safe.”- Lord Gordon Hewart PC, KC (1870-1943), 7th Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales (1922-1940).

Did you know that Broad Street, Lagos was once comparable to Chancery Lane in London? Close to the Alakija family house, on the other side of the road, were chambers of legal luminaries- the legal chambers of men like Joseph Egerton-Shyngle and Montague Thompson, about whose legal prowess many stories were told. A few yards away from Shyngle lived the great legal pioneer and former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (1900-1915), Christopher Alexander Sapara-Williams (1855-1915), who wrote his name in gold as Nigeria's first lawyer by his being called to the English Bar on 17th November, 1879. Sapara-Williams used law as a force for positive change and retained for a long time an unmatched reputation in advocacy and an intimate knowledge of unwritten customary law. The late human rights activist and erudite lawyer Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN (1938-2009) took Sapara-Williams a lot to heart and had the following quote of his mentor adorning the wall of his law chamber in Anthony Village, Lagos:

“The legal practitioner lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country.”

• Sapara-Williams, who also practised law in Accra, Ghana, handled such popular cases as Cole vs. Cole and the Attorney-General of Southern Nigeria vs. John Holt and Company, which were some of the celebrated cases of the time.

• Then, there was Foresythe, who featured prominently in many leading cases of the period.

• Also, among the legal giants of the time was the first Nigerian lawyer to be knighted, Sir Kitoye Ajasa (b. 1866), a distinguished legislator (1906-1933), who was very close to the colonial authorities and often applauded their policies. A personal friend of the Governor-General,, Lord Lugard (1858-1945), and an acquaintance of Henry Carr (1863-1945), a Nigerian educator, administrator, and member of the legislative council in Lagos from 1918-1924, who favoured assimilation with the European colonists, Ajasa, in 1926, founded the conservative Nigerian Pioneer, which was meant “to balance the views of both the colonialists and the indigenous Africans.” He is also the father of the Nigerian nationalist and feminist, Lady Oyinkan Abayomi (1897-1990), who formerly headed of the Nigerian Girl Guides and founded the Nigerian Women's Party on 10th May, 1944. In August 1923, she married Moronfolu Abayomi, a lawyer who was assassinated in court two months later. In 1930, she remarried, this time the President of the Nigerian Youth Movement, Dr. Kofoworola Adekunle Abayomi (1896-1979).

• Also, high on the list was a prominent lawyer, nationalist, and former President of the NBA, E.J. Alexander-Taylor (d. 1947), nicknamed “the Cock of the Bar”, and father of the first Chief Judge of Lagos State (1967-1973), Honourable Mr. Justice John Idowu Conrad Taylor (1917-1973), a “judicial legend, whose great passion for justice and fair play was balanced by his judicial conservatism which favoured an unsentimental strict interpretation of the law and a rigid adherence to precedent.”

• Also very prominent in the legal arena of those days was Eric Olaolu Moore, the first Lagos member of the United Nations Committee of Experts which advised on labour conventions and regulations. History will forever remain kind to Moore and Egerton-shyngle for the role both men played in cases against the Secretary, Southern Nigeria, on the issues of native land tenure and customary law.

Indeed, the practice of law was said to be lucrative even in those days because the years that followed the first World War (1914-1918) were years of prosperity; and so, there was a great boom in trade. Apart from the brilliant lawyers of the time, there were also “men of timber and calibre”: the acorns of commercial oaks and great businessmen who pioneered the economic activity in which the lawyers flourished. This was the heyday of Nigerian mercantilism (i.e. relating to or involved in trade).

On the scene in Lagos then were illustrious merchants like:

• James Wilson Vaughan, fondly called Daddy Vaughan, who was a prosperous Lagos merchant. His son, Dr. James Churchill Vaughan (1893-1937), a prominent political activist and medical doctor “attempted with little success to collate the works of the pioneering Nigerian doctor Oguntola Sapara, who had taken a special interest in traditional herbal medicines but had left only fragmentary records of his researches”;

• J.H. Doherty “the Prince Merchant,” (b. 1866), who rose from an environment of poverty and enmity to create a successful merchandise trading firm,” at the Alakoro district of Lagos;

• Candido Da Rocha, a wealthy and successful merchant who lived in Water House on Kakawa Street, Lagos (so-called because he sold water to Lagos residents in the area) behind the high-rise CSS Bookshop;

• Chief Karimu Kotun (1881-1958), a businessman and trade ambassador who succeeded Adolphus Martins as private secretary of the Oba of Lagos, Esugbayi Eleko in 1919 and the following year became the first Ajiroba of Lagos (1920-1958). Kotun, who lived on Agarawu Street and later Idumagbo Street, Lagos, was also President, Alowolagba Society of Lagos and President of the Lagos Muslim Cricket Club;

• Sir Adeyemo Alakija, KBE (1884-1952), a lawyer of great distinction, wealthy businessman, co-founder and Chairman of Daily Times of Nigeria, who brought his maternal nephew 'Tokunbo, later Sir Adetokunbo Ademola (1906-1993), son of late Alake of Egbaland, Oba Oladapo Ademola (1872-1962) who later became the Chief Justice of Nigeria (1958-1972), to live with him;

• Dr. Joseph Akanni Doherty, a horse racing promoter and one of the pioneer leaders of the defunct Action Group, who along with Mbonu Ojike (1914-1956) and Dr. Akinola Maja, found themselves in an emergency committee tasked with uniting the fractured NYM-post Zik and the emerging NCNC;

• Taiwo Olowo, a wealthy Lagosian who belonged to the class of individual founders of village settlements in Lagos;

• Chief Sanni Adewale father of the former Chairman of Julius Berger Nigeria, Chief I.S. Adewale;

• George S. Da Costa (1853-1929) who made a fortune in photography in those days;

• J.A. Ajao of J.A. Ajao and Brothers at Elegbaata Street, Lagos, and

• S. Alfred Coker of Balogun Street, Lagos etc.
All of them, wealthy businessmen and notable merchants of great fame and wealth, many of them got listed in the Macmillan, Allister ed. (1920), 'The Red Book of West Africa: historical and descriptive, commercial and industrial facts, figures, and resources'.

Aside law and trade, the period was also one of endless agitation by the people of Lagos, which culminated in the deportation of Oba Esugbayi Eleko, the Oba of Lagos, in 1925 following prolonged political unrest and intense protests over the payment of water rate and long, tortous litigation over certain lands claimed by the Lagos “White Cap” Chiefs.

The leading politicians of the time, surveyor and nationalist Herbert Macaulay (1864-1946) and medical doctor, former president of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), and pioneer director of the Yaba asylum - the popular Yábàá-Apá-Òsì, Dr. Crispin Curtis Adeniyi-Jones (1876–1957), were both lawyers. The trio of Curtis Adeniyi-Jones, Eric Olaolu Moore and Joseph Egerton-Shyngle would on 24th June, 1923 team up with Herbert Macaulay (1864-1946) and Thomas Jackson to found the Nigerian National Democratic Party, the first Nigerian political party. The NNDP contested and won all three seats that were allowed Africans in Lagos in 1923, 1928 and 1933, capitalizing on an initiative to allow elective representation into the legislative council. A few people today are aware or even remember that Macaulay, alias “Ejo N'gboro” and “Wizard of the Kristen Hall,” once lived on Odunlami Street, a stone's throw to the CSS Bookshop House, Lagos.

In those days, to traders and agitators alike, lawyers were a help in time of trouble. Although it is difficult to assess fully the influence exerted by lawyers on the people who lived in Lagos in the early twenties of the last century, it is, perhaps, a matter for history to decide whether these men were always above board in their dealings. However, since moral standards do change, our yardstick must accordingly derive from the standards of the day. It is indisputable that these men kindled the torch with which succeeding generations have found their way into the dark labyrinth of the unknown; that, especially, is one thing that will endure forever. Perhaps, this short poem written by eminent lawyer, author, pioneer Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Information (1970-1975), past Chairman of the Yoruba Tennis Club, and Babaeto of Lagos, Chief Folarin Coker (OON), who marked his 90th Birthday on Monday 22nd July, 2013, does justice to it all:

“So give them a passing thought some times,
Those men of the earlier day;
The men who have founded the track we tread,
The men who have paved the way.”

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Articles by Ajiroba Yemi Kotun