Seun is a son of a former Attorney General of the Federation and human rights activist, the late Dr. Olu Onagoruwa.
He talks about his father’s passion in fighting for the weak and powerless and his ideals.
Please introduce yourself.
I am Seun; the third son of Dr. Olu Onagoruwa. I am a lawyer like my late father.
What can you recall about your father growing up?
We used to play football and watch movies together. We would buy movies and after watching, we returned them to Alaba market, Lagos to sell. We would then buy new movies to watch and take them to Alaba to sell after we had finished watching those ones too. It was fun. We did many things together.
How did he correct any child who acted up?
My father used the cane to discipline any of us who did anything wrong. He was not the kind of person that flogged his children often but if he did, one must have done something really bad. Before he used the cane on any of us, it would be clear that the person deserved to be caned for what the person did.
Who influenced your decision to study law?
My father didn’t tell me to study law. I naturally decided to study law because of the way my father practised law, how he carried himself and his career as a human rights lawyer. I was inclined to be a lawyer and be like him. It was not that he called and told me that I must be a lawyer. He left us to make the career choice we wanted. Three of his children out of four (three boys and a girl) chose law.
Your father was known more as human rights activist. Why didn’t you follow the same area of law?
The circumstances then warranted human rights lawyers. But now we have democracy. There is democratic rule. There was the Amakiri case which he handled. Nowadays, most of what we have are not like what was obtainable during military rule. The scope of human rights is limited now as it were. It has been narrowed and not as expansive as it was before. The fact that soldiers were in power at the time even made lawyers to be human rights-inclined because they were not supposed to be in government in the first place. The courts are functioning now; we don’t have clauses and all other things. Now, you want to practise and win your cases. It is now more of economic rights. Economic rights in the sense that you want to make leaders accountable, create awareness about what they ought to be doing and what they ought not to be doing and how to develop the country through laws that will be favourable to investors and entrepreneurs. It is not more about human rights anymore but the economic rights of the people to create jobs for the people. It is very essential.
Did you ever watch him in court?
Yes, I did several times.
What was your impression of his legal dynamism during the period?
My father loved reading. He was a bookworm. If he had a case in court, he would have read several cases about the matter the night before. So, whenever he was talking, he was more like educating the judge on that aspect of law. Thus, because of the foundation he laid in that aspect, one had no choice than to study well for any case. This is because once we mention our name in court, they will want to hear what one is going to say. They will want to see if one is following in one’s father’s footsteps.
Were you treated specially while in the university by lecturers or colleagues because of your father?
There was no preferential treatment from my lecturers or school mates. I was recognised as Dr. Olu Onagoruwa’s son and they expected more from me because of who my father was. For instance, if I am taking constitutional law as a course and the lecturer knows I am taking the course, he or she expects me to be among the top three best students in the course. The lecturer expects me to impress him or her in the course with good grades.
Which of his landmark cases further helped in shaping your legal perspectives?
I cannot tell you that one is above the rest. He handled several cases. I know of some cases where the odds were against him but because of his lucid and analytical arguments, he won the cases. I also saw the reasons he won the cases even though I was not a lawyer then.
Did he tell you what motivated him to be involved in journalist Minere Amakiri’s case whose head was ordered to be shaven by the then Rivers State military Governor, Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, for publishing a story termed offensive?
He didn’t tell me but I know my father and what he could do. It is one thing to say that a thing is bad and one wants to do something about it. It is another thing to only complain about a thing and not do anything about it. One needs to be passionate enough to decide to do something about a bad thing. He couldn’t stand by and watch. He was convinced that he must satisfy himself and his conscience. His decision was not driven by self-glorification but the fact that the incident hurt him and he made up his mind to do something about it.
How often does his name open doors for you?
Talking about his name opening doors, my father was not a political person even though he took up a political appointment. People acknowledge his name that it is a good name. They are happy to meet me when they see me. They say, “Oh, you are Dr. Onagoruwa’s son.’ Some could also ask how my father was doing. In terms of opening doors, I think in Nigeria it is a person’s political relevance that really opens doors including good name. A good name will make people listen to you and acknowledge you. They may probably not do what you want them to do for you anyway. But political relevance, once they know you are the child of an influential politician, they will not hesitate to do what you want, knowing that they can also seek favours from your father in return for anything they want.
Not that my father’s name does not open doors for me. It does. I have also earned much respect because of who my father was. People who knew him personally acknowledge and listen to me. But I don’t go out using his name to seek favours because I know that people are not sincere. They can promise and make jest when one leaves. So, I am not inclined to that.
What ideals did you imbibe from your father that you are instilling in your children?
He taught us to fear, love and do God’s will. He also encouraged us to fight the cause of the downtrodden and be the change we want to see and want others to be. In the house, he didn’t like us not wearing slippers. He made it compulsory that we should do so and whenever he asked us to do something, he ensured that he did same by showing example. One cannot catch him flouting an order he gave for others to obey. He never did that. If he said we should not do a thing, one was sure that he wasn’t doing it. He was not hypocritical about such thing.
How did he relax?
He relaxed by watching movies. He watched American movies and so on. He watched movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy etc. On his way home from work, he would buy movies and I always waited for him to watch them together.
What was his favourite music?
He loved the music of Elvis Presley and King Sunny Ade. He listened to KSA’s music a lot. He danced to it. He was British-trained so his dance was a ballroom kind of dance. He was good at that.
What was his favourite food?
He liked solid food.
What was his favourite drink?
He loved soft drinks. That was the only type of drink he took.
How did he react anytime he was angry?
He was hardly ever angry and even if he had to be angry, he controlled his emotions. There were times that there could be outbursts but he mastered his tempers. It was rare for him to get angry.
Was he into any sports?
No, he was not. The only thing he did when he was young was boxing. He was a good boxer when he was in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
Where were you when he died?
I was at home. I left the hospital where he was around 11pm and by 1am, one of the nurses called me to tell me that he had difficulty breathing. The next time I called the hospital, I was told that he had passed on.
How did you feel when you heard the news of his death?
Of course, I was sad because no matter how long one’s loved ones lived, one would want them to be around forever. I was also grateful to God that he had gone to rest. He had gone to meet my mother who he loved dearly and he would see my brother too. He is in a better place. What gives us comfort is that we did everything to make him happy.
What will you miss most about him?
I am going to miss everything about my father. We used to joke and play a lot. In fact, till I left the university, we used to sleep on the same bed.
How was the mood like the day he visited you in school?
He just came into the school quietly though some people recognised him. He had called me before he came and I went to wait for him somewhere.
Did he have any regrets about the country?
Of course he did. Anybody in his generation, whether an activist or not, would not be happy with the way the country is. Even those of us who are not part of their generation and didn’t experience the Nigeria of their time, are unhappy with the way the country is. He was however an optimist that Nigeria will pick up. It was his life-long desire that Nigeria will be the country to be proud of.
Was he hopeful that things would turn around for the country after the last general election which saw the emergence of the current administration and how did he feel with the state of the nation now?
Yes, he was hopeful but because of his state of health, we didn’t discuss about it. I am sure that he would have shared in most people’s opinion about it.
He worked as minister in the military regime of the late Sani Abacha. Did he regret working with the military?
No, he never regretted working with the military. As of 1992, there was a movement for national reformation. He spoke about the restructuring of the country that everybody is now talking about. He maintained that a section of the country was too powerful than others. If you examine the manifesto of that body which he served as its general secretary, everything about restructuring was in that manifesto. The body canvassed that there should be six zones and each of the zones would have a vice-president and there would be one president.
How did he cope after the murder of his son and the death of his wife?
After the death of Toyin, it was quite difficult for my dad to cope. Toyin was the first among his children to qualify as a lawyer and my dad had relied on him to carry on with the office while he took a back seat. But with lots of love and affection and the fact that he knew he had other children who not only loved him but would fill the vacuum of Toyin’s death, it was possible for him to heal and cope. Same thing applied when my mother passed away. We were there to let him know that we loved him and would take good care of him. To an extent, that helped him a lot in coping and healing.
What was the last discussion you had with him?
My last discussion with him was about disagreements among some family members. We were trying to resolve some of the issues involved.
How comfortable was his family when he joined government?
We were quite comfortable when he joined government. This meant that we lacked nothing good and had what you might consider a life of luxury. But even at that, we were disciplined from childhood to behave as well brought up children that we are. We never lived in the Government House at Ikoyi. So, when he left government, it wasn’t difficult adjusting back to a life devoid of government trappings. He returned all the government cars and property with him the same day he left government with the exception of one generator which they came to carry some days later.
Among his many feats in law, he was also African representative to the body that drafted Ethiopia’s constitution. Do his achievements put any burden on you to surpass what he did?
His achievements are truly imposing. And yes, they place a burden on me to surpass them. As a lawyer, he was outstanding and as a journalist, he influenced more than a generation with his writings. As a federal minister, he not only midwifed a constitutional conference (of which some of its proposals were adopted in the 1999 constitution), he boldly and courageously disowned. – Culled from Punch.