Tunji Braithwaite: How I suffered defending Awolowo, Fela

Tunji Braithwaite: How I suffered defending Awolowo, Fela

Monday, April 4, 2016 3:20 pm

Tunji Braithwaite

Tunji Braithwaite

Dr. Tunji Braithwaite
, who became a lawyer in 1961, died on Monday 28 March 2016. However, when he was alive, the founder of Nigeria Advance Party spoke to Editor, ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, on his life, his ordeals when he was defending Chief Obafemi Awolowo (during his treasonable trial) and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Photo Editor, IDOWU OGUNLEYE, snapped the shots

Many believe you have Lagos and Ijesha blood running in your veins…

Tunji Braithwaite is a son of the soil of Lagos State although we have our ancestry as well in two states now – Ilesha, Osun State and Abeokuta, Ogun State. But we were all born in Lagos here at the old Mercy Maternity Hospital. That was the only maternity hospital run by the British government then. It was a high quality maternity hospital and that was where I was born on 17 September 1933.

I went to school in Lagos – CMS Grammar School, Lagos. Then I went abroad to study Law because during the colonial rule, you had to go abroad to study most courses. In Nigeria, no university taught Law, even till the time that I graduated. I graduated in 1960. I am a Barrister of England. When I came back, there was no Law School in Nigeria and a few of us did not attend Nigerian Law School. So in practical terms, any lawyer or any judge, living or dead, who attended the Nigerian Law School is my junior at the Bar.

During your school years, can you remember any of your mates, those who are alive and those who have passed on?

Yes. Ernest Shonekan is one and he is alive. There was one Oba, a paramount ruler, he was in the military then, he passed on not too long ago. He was an Oba in one of the Ijebu towns. There was Professor Afolabi Olumide, who was the pioneering Vice-Chancellor of Lagos State University, LASU.

Many lawyers like to refer to the late Alexander Sapara Williams as their role model. Who was yours?

Sapara Williams was in fact my relation; he was my older brother from my father’s side. He was one of the first lawyers, along with the Kesters.

Well, my role model as a lawyer was an English Lord (and I’m sure so many lawyers will agree with me). His name is Lord Denning. He was a great lawyer and he must have inspired 10,000 x 10,000 lawyers across the world. Even in other democracies, like in the United States, they cite Denning.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Why did you prefer private practice to the Bench?

In our time, the Bench was very dignified no doubt and most lawyers aspired to the higher Bench. But at the same time, legal practice offered young, hardworking lawyers a fast track to build a reputation, accompanied with wealth, because there were not many lawyers. I think I was number 234 or so on the roll, which means, from the time that lawyers were enrolled, from the time of Sapara Williams, the Moores, Alakija, Fani-Kayode, Rotimi Williams and others.
There was a lot of opportunities for lawyers to get to the top of their professions. Though the Bench was revered, in terms of building up a reputation, accompanied with wealth, private practice offered better options.

Tunji Braithwaite  in court for Fela Kuti

Tunji Braithwaite in court for Fela Kuti

As a lawyer, you defended the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Can you narrate some of the experiences again?

The defence of Awolowo came with some difficulties. The defence of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, too, came with its own difficulties. But that of Awolowo was unique in the sense that it was the first treason trial that ever took place in Nigeria and even since then there aren’t many treason or treasonable trials.

So in terms of its legal and professional magnitude, the case was unique. There was great tension in the country; political tension. It got to a point that relating to Awolowo was dangerous, in the sense that the powers that be, led by the Northern oligarchs, controlled the Federal Government which had the power of life and death, so to speak. Distribution of patronage was in their hands and they could arrest and detain people without trial for days. And here was I, a young lawyer – I was under 30 years – going publicly in the open to relate to this man and to the annoyance of the powers that be. I was threatened with detention.

Awolowo was being persecuted. His friends and associates betrayed him. They came forward to say things against him and by my nature, I simply abhorred that persecution. The more Awolowo was persecuted, the more I felt obliged in my own young and humble way to be a source of comfort to him. That was the compelling reason. And as I said, we were marked.

And in the Nigerian situation, the government could distribute patronage and also intimidate. It was a civilian government but the country was polarised because the 1959 Constitution under which the country attained independence was so lopsided that only a northerner could become Prime Minister. In practical terms, the constitution so gave the North a disproportionate number of seats, that a northerner needed not come down to any part of the South to canvass for votes. He would win overall majority. That was how we started.

Tunji Braithwaite

Tunji Braithwaite

So the country was polarised and my nature abhors injustice; my nature is inclined to be in the support of the oppressed and the downtrodden. Awolowo was oppressed in the right sense of the word and if you are a student of history, one of the consequences of that injustice and oppression was the first coup in the country.

Since Awolowo was incarcerated, they could not conduct elections; there were inconclusive elections in 1964, there were general strikes. Talk about heating up of the polity. In the end, the first coup took place by young, idealistic, military boys in the rank of major. No one can deny that it was an indirect consequence of injustice and the persecution of one man who was popular in the entire south-west. So the trial was prolonged but he endured the trial because they locked him up in prison and while he was in prison, his first son, Segun, died in a motor accident. His promising son, first born, died in tragic circumstances! We all felt sorry for him. I remember that on the very day that I heard, I went to see him in prison at Broad Street, where they call Freedom Park now.

He was first of all banished to a place near Epe, then he was under house arrest before he was transferred to a place at Ikoyi. Then he was removed to prison. It was during this time that his first son died and the persecution nonetheless continued. I can say this without any fear of contradiction because I was part of the whole thing; all the trials. Everything was being teleguided. So I said it was dangerous for people to continue to see me with him, but that is my nature.

Apart from threats of detention, were there other threats of physically harming you at that time by the government?

They held the power, the federal power. By the grace of God, I am alive to tell the story.

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