Oluwarotimi Odunayo Akeredolu, 1956 – 2023
Oluwarotimi Odunayo Akeredolu, 1956 – 2023

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

In 2008, shortly after his inauguration as the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Oluwarotimi Odunayo Akeredolu, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and former Governor of Ondo State, who has died at 67 of cancer-related causes, had before his desk the request by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) to provide comments on behalf of the Association on a shortlist of candidates for the award of the rank of SAN.

In the same month, a judge sitting in the Federal High Court in Kano had referred a lawyer in the same city to the Association for possible professional discipline in connection with an allegation of serious mis-conduct in proceedings before the judge.

As president of the NBA, Aketi, as he was known, directed a senior official of the NBA to transmit the communication from the judge to the LPPC. Unknown to Aketi, the official whom he requested to do this, partly owed his own office to the lawyer. When the list of new SANs came out later in October 2008, that same lawyer was on the list. It turned out that the NBA official whom Aketi had directed to communicate with the LPPC had deliberately subverted the instruction and failed to do so.

That lawyer in Kano later rose to high ministerial office under Muhammadu Buhari. Although they notionally belonged to the same political party, Aketi’s assessment of him as lacking in character never wavered. It proved accurate.

This vignette provides an insight into the kind of leader that Aketi was. He was a man of deep conviction but not always of great detail. He trusted people to respect channels of authority and could neither understand nor abide the chicanery that defined leadership and public life in Nigeria.

Aketi embodied all the virtues for which Owo, the frontier kingdom in Ondo State from which he came, is famous. He was a man of candour, simplicity, generosity, deep conviction, and fearsome courage. And he believed in leadership, public service and the defence of the public good even at great personal inconvenience or sacrifice.

The second son of an Anglican priest, Aketi’s life was defined by unwavering commitment to equity, service to country and to the community. When he was born on 21 July, 1956, Obafemi Awolowo was the Premier of the Western Region. Aketi’s primary education began in the thick of the post-Independence crisis in the Western Region in which Owo was a major theatre. Following his secondary education at Loyola College in Ibadan, Aketi attended Obafemi Awolowo University, (OAU) Ile-Ife, from where he graduated in 1977 with a degree in law.

The following year, in 1978, he was admitted to the Nigeria Bar. As an undergraduate, he shared billetings with Olusegun Mimiko. Denied his mandate as governor of Ondo State in 2007, Mimiko needed a good lawyer to help him recover it and found one in his old mate, Aketi, who subsequently challenged him unsuccessfully for the keys to Alagbaka, the seat of the Government House in Akure, the capital of Ondo State. When Mimiko left office at the end of his two terms in 2017, Aketi succeeded him.

Aketi was comfortable in the company of strong women. One of his closest personal and professional relationships was with Chief Folake Solanke, the senior lawyer in Ibadan and first female SAN in Nigeria. Youth Service year saw him in Enugu where he met the formidable Betty Anyanwu, from Emeabiam, near Owerri, the Imo State capital. A cancer survivor herself, Betty read aquaculture, an excellent qualification for managing the unpredictable waters that would define her husband’s trajectory.

That trajectory prepared him well for the journey into public life. Seven years after qualifying as a lawyer, in 1985, the Ibadan Bar elected Aketi as its general secretary. The bar in Ibadan is known for its deep traditions of discipline and collegiality. The year after he finished his tenure in this role, I first met Aketi during my national service in the famously hospitable garrison city. He was building a quiet reputation for himself in bar politics and it marked the beginning of a life-long relationship.

In 1992, Aketi attended the controversial conference of the NBA in Port Harcourt as the Chair of the Ibadan Branch, becoming a central character in the Association’s inconclusive elections of that year. The previous year, he’d served as the Vice-Chair.

Three years after completing his tenure leading the Ibadan Bar, Anthony Onyearugulem, the Navy captain from Ikeduru, Imo State, who was military administrator of Ondo State, appointed Aketi the Attorney-General of Ondo State. Wole Olanipekun, the Senior Advocate who served in the same position six years earlier in 1991 had also preceded him to the presidency of the NBA by the same number of years.

The following year, in 1998, he became the 139th lawyer to be enrolled as Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Preceding his name on the roll of SANs was Olisa Agbakoba, together with whom he had graduated from the Nigerian Law School in 1978. By a unique stroke of coincidence, in August 2008, Aketi succeeded Olisa to become the 24th president of the NBA.

Bayo Ojo, who was elected to the position in 2004 also graduated from the Nigerian Law School in 1978 as did OCJ Okocha before him, completing an improbable quartet from the 1978 set who led the NBA in the decade from 2000 to 2010.

In Ibadan, where he made his home and built his vocation and reputation, the streets admired Aketi as much as his profession loved him. It was where he earned his spurs as everyone’s favorite brother, the Arakunrin.

In partnership with Akinlolu Olujinmi, a Senior Advocate and former Attorney-General of the Federation, he built one of the most formidable law offices from Ibadan, if not the country. The LawHub, the sprawling law office complex that offers young lawyers in the city free or subsidized office space for take-off in the profession, was his professional give-back. Through it, Aketi mentored and supported younger lawyers too numerous to count.

The profession appreciated and requited his selflessness. In 2008, he became the only lawyer in living memory to be returned unopposed to the presidency of the NBA. It is unlikely to be repeated.

Aketi was a man with minimal needs and no ego. As president of the NBA and as Governor, he paid his bills. He disliked parasites and was not a man for luxury. At the Ibadan Bar and in his politics, Aketi, the man of deep ideology, would nevertheless defer to the elders even when he disagreed with them.

His loyalties were never in doubt. In 2018, as Governor of Ondo State, he returned to Enugu, the city in which he met his wife, to commission the law office of Ikeazor Akaraiwe, who had served as First Vice-President during his tenure as President of the NBA. Aketi arrived for the event in the evening from the funeral in Onitsha of Ositadinma Jude Nnadi, SAN, with whom he had formed a good relationship despite working on opposite sides of a case. Delayed on his journey to Enugu, the commissioning took place in the twilight hours and, once it was done, he headed back to Akure by road.

It was in the heat of a crisis of insecurity in Ondo State in which his intervention in the face of presidential indifference was both courageous and decisive. As Governor, Aketi was keen to show that the idea of a regional concert to respond to that insecurity was viable.

It is impossible to miss the contrast between the courage that defined Aketi’s life and the cowardliness of those who, while his earthly remains were still warm, set upon his wife of over four decades with a disgraceful campaign of innuendo and character assassination, generously garnished with toxic chauvinism and vile bigotry.

On his return from prolonged hospitalization overseas in September, 2023, Aketi, the cancer patient, who had already beaten the most optimistic prognostications of the doctors, prayed to be able to live to complete his tenure in 2025. In reality, he knew he was on borrowed time. Aketi relished one last battle with mortality but even his legendary will and courage proved to be no match for a determined enemy. Two days after Christmas, on 27 December, immortality arrived.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at chidi.odinkalu@tufts.edu

In this article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *