PLAC BEAM, a news magazine of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), a civic group in its latest edition is featuring Alao Aka-Bashorun, a prominent activist.
When in the late 1980s, the young poet and activist, Ogaga Ifowodo had his results withheld by the authorities of the University of Benin for leading a student protest, it was Lagos lawyer, Alao Aka-Bashorun that came to his rescue.
Aka-Bashorun’s law firm at Ebute Metta in Lagos was like a refugee camp for student leaders fleeing the onslaught of the police, rusticated students, trade union activists, and workers whose jobs had been unfairly terminated for daring to ask for humane working conditions or a salary raise.
It was during the military leadership of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1987, that Aka-Bashorun was elected as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). This was a period in the history of Nigeria when civil society rose to build a formidable movement to challenge the egregious violation of human rights in Nigeria.
During Aka-Bashorun’s tenure as the NBA president, he was largely acknowledged as a president who gave the association vision and a voice that reflected courage and moral authority. Having mentored many professionals and young people,
Bashorun’s passion for the youth manifested during his tenure as president of the NBA. Not only did he nominate many young lawyers to the National Executive Committee, but he ensured the construction and completion of the bar Secretariat.
Aka-Bashorun could be counted upon to take up difficult tasks, especially tasks requiring discretion and sound judgement. Perhaps, that’s why Aka-Bashorun became popularly referred to as the lawyer to the “radicals.” These “radicals,” so described by the military regime, comprised of the youths, organized labour, the market women, students, and the late Chief MKO Abiola.
Dr. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, a former Civil Liberties Organisation activist and Senior Programme Manager of Open Society Justice Initiative in West Africa, recalled that as president of NBA, Aka Bashorun unlike his predecessors was not afraid to denounce the regime publicly.
According to Dr. Odinkalu, Aka-Bashorun carefully constructed a persona and platform around which other voices of opposition to military rule rallied. In time, he was to become a central figure in the emerging organized civil society movement, such as the Campaign for Democracy and the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). Odinkalu believes Aka-Bashorun was the most effective and charismatic president of the NBA.
Ifowodo, due to his run-ins with the University of Benin authorities, was subjected to persecution. The young law student was already cutting his teeth in the not-so-exciting genre of poetry. It was known to the University authorities that he kept the company of people like Dr. Festus Iyayi, the Marxist president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
As a potential gentleman of the Bar, the University believed Ifowodo had gone astray. Although the young poet and fiery student union leader had passed his exams and duly graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree, LLB, the university Vice-chancellor Professor Grace Alele-Williams, wrote a confidential letter to the Council of Legal Education that Ifowodo was not fit in character to be called to the Nigerian Bar.
His crime: leading the students in a protest against the crushing Structural Adjustment program (SAP) economic program of the Babangida junta during which he had been arrested with other students. It was Aka-Bashorun’s intervention that ensured Ifowodo was admitted to the Nigeria Law School.
With the emergence of the Civil Liberties Organisation [CLO], the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights [ CDHR] and the Constitutional Rights Project [CRP], Aka -Bashorun stepped into the fray by providing vision, inspiration, a clear voice, and leadership which was crucial for the evolving civil societies in engagement with the dictators.
Chief Aka Bashorun died at the age of 75 after a prolonged fight with a degenerative nervous system ailment. In his lifetime, he led from the front courageously with boldness and clarity, and with a flair not usually associated with lawyers.
He was trusted by his fiercely loyal foot soldiers to follow him once he decided which direction go. He transformed the NBA with moral authority and social consciousness as a champion of democratic values and a powerful voice in the struggle against military rule. He is also largely credited for initiating and guiding the reconciliation of the decade long dispute between Gani Fawehinmi SAN and the leadership of the Bar.
On September 23, 2021, fifteen years after his passing, Kudirat, his wife, joined her husband in eternal bliss. Like her husband, she lived for 75 years. In her time, just like her husband, she marched shoulder to shoulder with other activists during the campaign for the restoration of the June 12, 1993, election won by Chief MKO Abiola. The Nigeria Labour Congress [NLC] remembers her as a dogged fighter, who sacrificed her class and personal comfort for the upliftment of the downtrodden.
Aka-Bashorun, Gani Fawehinmi SAN and Kanmi Ishola-Osobu are often described today as being the pioneers of human rights legal practice in Nigeria.