Layi Babatunde (SAN) at 60: How He Helped to Fight Abacha, His Fears, Vision for Nigeria

Layi Babatunde (SAN) at 60: How He Helped to Fight Abacha, His Fears, Vision for Nigeria

Sunday, October 28, 2018 6:21 pm

Layi Babatunde

By Mustapha Ogunsakin

There is something about the African culture, tradition and mythology that develop the critical and inquisitive mind of children as they grow up. In every African home, love and discipline goes together. It is not the love that pampers only, but also that allows generous use of the cane. The popular adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” is very popular in African homes. It is not only in the rod but also in the looks and carriage of the mother. When an African mother looks at his child, a connection that is almost spiritual occurs that enables the child decode the meaning of the looks. It is what late Mrs Florence Ebunlomo Babatunde, mother of Layi Babatunde SAN, Editor-in-Chief, Supreme Court Reports, in her lifetime called “tough love”, which she practices throughout her lifetime.

Her children, particularly Layi, benefitted generously from mama’s practice. As he attains the golden age of 60, he cannot but remember the discipline and love of mama, which developed his critical mind to what it is today. When mama died in 2017, he wrote in his tribute to her: “You were indeed a master in the art of combining Spartan discipline with loving kindness”.

African children never forget, for it is always the beginning of success stories. This is particularly so for young Layi, whose father, Pa John Afolabi Babatunde was a teacher. In those days, being sired by a teacher makes the discipline double. A teacher’s son cannot be late to school; he cannot get away with bad grades in his class and has to show example to other pupils.

And so from Baptist Day School, Zaria, Kaduna State where he had his elementary education, to St Johns (now Rimi) College, Kaduna, his Secondary School, and Kwara State College of Technology where he passed Cambridge, Layi was guided by this African philosophy. However, by the time he got to University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), it was a different ball game. Like many of his peers, Layi started to question the status quo. His critical mind started to ask questions.


Layi Babatunde and mother, late Madam Ebunlomo Babatunde

Ife is meant for you to ask questions. The motto and philosophy, for “learning and culture” ensures that. Besides, the Faculty of Law is bedrock of both student activism and intellectualism. His Professors, particularly, Prof Itse Sagay gave the students freedom to participate in Student Union activities. He still remembers Prof Okunnuga, his Land Law teacher. “I learnt a bit of human nature from him. He had no gold ornaments adorning his outer body as part of his dressing but he kept a small piece of raw gold in his pocket. He reminds me of the scriptures that enjoin us not to judge by sight but seek that which is true”, he recalled. Papa Okunnuga later inspired Babatude’s book on Land Law, “Hints on Land Documentation and Litigation in Nigeria” published in 2002. He also remembers others like Prof Adediran, Prof Ijalaye, and Prof Owoade(now a Justice of the Court of Appeal).


Something uniquely different happened to Babatunde in December, 1979. Law students across West Africa had formed an association, West African Law Students Union (WALSU). The union was the precursor of the West African Lawyers Association, and the Pan African Lawyers Union. WALSU enabled the students to interact with themselves, visited each other’s countries and learnt about each country sub- continent. Dateline 1979, Prof Sagay encouraged Ife Law students to join the WALSU conference in the University of Legon, Ghana. Babatunde was one of the students that took the opportunity. He was not only elected as the Secretary General of WALSU, he also had the opportunity to meet with the Ghanaian Leader, Flt Lieut. Jerry Rawlings. The meeting was a lesson in leadership qualities.

Rawlings had just made his second attempt to seize power on June 4, 1979. His putsch was successful and he formed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), through which he conducted what it termed “a housecleaning exercise”, whose aim was to purge Ghanaian society of all the corruption and social injustices that they perceived to be at the root of their coup d’état.

Meanwhile, following a programme already set in motion before the 4 June insurgency. The AFRC did not intervene in civilian rule and allowed elections to proceed, peacefully handing power over to elected President Hilla Limann on 24 September 1979, whose People’s National Party (PNP) had the support of Nkrumah’s followers.

Babatunde with former Ghanaian President, Jerry Rawlings, in 1979

Babatunde and other law students arrived in Ghana in December of the same year for the WALSU conference. After his election as Secretary General of the Union, Babatunde heard from the grapevine that Rawlings, now out of power, was hibernating with a friend somewhere in campus. He put machinery in motion, and a meeting was set for him to meet with the former Head of State.

He said: “When we got to where he resides, we met him smoking a stick of cigarette. From our looks, he perceived some of us did not like the odour. He immediately dropped the cigarette on the ground, and stubbed it. A student retorted ‘JJ in Ghana’? He was referring to the prevalent scarcity at that time of Ghana ‘s history .JJ as Rawlings was fondly called , apologized, picked the stub, and put it in his pocket. The student made a request of it and he obliged . Such was the symbiotic relationship between the leader and the led .

For the young mind of Babatunde and other students, that was the ultimate respect a leader can give and Rawlings earned his respect from that moment on. “Another lesson I learnt from that meeting was that one must not tolerate wastages, no matter how highly placed you are. If a leader of a country could preserve an inconsequential stub of cigarette to prevent wastage, I see no reason why anyone should condone wastage”, he said.

From the meeting, the few students could glean from Rawlings that he was not satisfied with the performance of Limann as President. “He in fact told us that he was disappointed with Limann. He said he (Rawlings) had thought Liman would unite Ghanaians and make Ghana prosperous the way her first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah did. From that moment I knew Liman’s reign was endangered ”, Babatunde said of the encounter.


The Layi Babatunde Family

From this moment on, Babatunde’s political awareness increased. A fire had been lighted in the soul of the young man that will create a big impact, such that beams searchlight into the behavioral pattern of the black man and his societies. After he graduated from Unife, and Nigerian Law School, he was posted to the Federal Ministry of Justice for the mandatory on year National Youth Service.
A new wig in the family. Babatunde and daughter

After the Youth Service, he set up his own Law office on Lagos Island In November 1984 after after disengaging from a partnership that lasted only a few months . The stage was set for him to start his contributions into public discourse, and begin contributing to national development.

His passion led him to begin writing letters to the late Dr Tai Solarin, Educationist, activist, columnist, and founder of the popular Mayflower College, Ikenne-Remo Ogun State. As a state counsel, Babatunde had appeared for the Attorney General of the Federation in some cases that concerns Dr Solarin. The late Chief Olu Onagoruwa SAN was Solarin’s lawyer.

Although they tried to set up a meeting, it never materialized. They however exchanged correspondences on various subjects of nation building and cultural evaluations that could move Nigeria to greater heights. The tone of their letter was almost like a dialogue, like they actually were sitting face to face with each other. The letters were frank and full of mutual respect, a reflection of how good Nigerian people can be. Solarin was far older and popular, but he never took advantage of his younger friend.

One of such letters Babatunde wrote was a reaction to Solarin’s weekly column published in the Sunday Tribune of October 13, 1985, titled “Living on bad philosophy”. Babatunde noticed some contradictions in the popular sayings of his Yoruba people. They were in form of proverbs that connotes wickedness and selfishness and which must be eschewed, or reformed.

He cited examples: “On the political front, I will cite only two sayings that are supposed words of wisdom and guidance. The first, A kii so ori olori ki awodi o gbe teni lo (you do not keep watch over another person’s affairs to the detriment of your personal interest). Yet, we are reputed to be entrenched in the typical African attitude of being our brother’s keeper.

He gave another example of other Yoruba words (of which other Nigerian tribes have similar or equivalent proverbs or ‘wise saying )that people use to justify corruption and graft amongst the people. “Ise kekere, ere nla (work little, enormous wealth), and “Ti a ba fun were l’oko(even a mad man takes care of himself first before others), and “arun mase mi, omo elomiran ni ko se(sickness should not attack me but you are free to attack another man’s child”.


Adejoke and Layi Babatunde

He said further: “Hypocrisy, falsehood, dubiousness and its attendant traits are by no standards worthy. They are to say the least an amalgamation of wicked philosophy which makes nonsense of our much proclaimed brotherliness and love. One way out of these wicked doctrines or philosophy is to confront each other with the truth”.

In his reply, Dr Solarin suggested going the Chinese way to solve the problems of negative philosophy. “We will probably have to do what the Chinese are doing. They collect such selfish and unpatriotic sayings, refashion them for universal acceptability and get the kindergarten schools taught everywhere. All children, everywhere uncritically swallows all national handouts. We have no other way”, Dr Solarin stated.

Babatunde replied Dr Solarin’s letter where he was skeptical of the Chinese approach working for Nigeria. “This country has no national philosophy to my knowledge. There is no national direction. The Chinese were able to refashion theirs because they learnt early enough that it is unwise not to have faith in one’s country. They taught their children so and of course re-modeled their thoughts and sayings. We are too pre- occupied with sharing the national cake that there’s hardly any energy left for evolving any lasting national philosophy or thinking”.

On February 6, 1986, Dr Solarin replied thus: “You probably read a Sunday Tribune article of mine where an old headmaster – he was three years my senior in the old Wesley College – prayed at a wedding and pleaded with God not to allow the newly married to spend their money educating other peoples’ children. The couple should have their own children to educate;


A new wig in the family. Babatunde and daughter

Whereas we had here in Ijebu the old missionary, Rev. W.F Mellor who never had children of his own. He and his wife served Nigeria for over half a century. We whom he taught and preached to were his children. Same was true of Dr Miller of the North. Nobody has been able to tell me whether he was a bachelor or he’s was childless marriage. The twin sisters who became Misses Miller were only two of the hundreds of children that this Englishman reared. How could we, in spite of these very great examples, continue to sing the old song on who we should give total services to?

More than 40 years after these discourses, they still hold so much truth for the Nigerian nation. The same ills that plagued the country then seem to be worse now. The so called “national cake” seems to be drying up, or it has become an albatross. Nigerians are killing themselves from the North East to the Niger Delta. The same selfish leaders continue to hold Nigeria in the jugular, snuffing live out of an already frustrated people.

Perhaps, it was this consciousness that encouraged him to start investing in causes that could benefit the generality of Nigerians. One of such was his investment in The News magazine in 1993. He believed that for democracy to thrive in any society there must be independent media. In a book, Trials and Triumphs: The Story of The NEWS” authored by Wale Adebanwi, it was stated how Babatunde helped to finance the preview edition of the magazine.
In 1992, a team of journalists working with African Concord, a magazine in the titles of Concord newspapers published by business mogul, late Chief MKO Abiola, had done a story on the then Military President, Gen Ibrahim Babangida. The military government immediately proscribed the magazine and shut down its offices at Isolo, Lagos. Abiola had gone to apologize to Babangida, who in turn demanded apology from the journalists. Led by Bayo Onanuga(now Managing Director, NAN), the journalists included Dapo Olorunyomi(now Publisher Premium Times), Babafemi Ojudu(now SSA, Political Matters to President Muhammadu Buhari), Kunle Ajibade(Managing Editor, The News) and Seye Kehinde (Publisher, City People).

More troubling was that with a date set for the preview edition of the magazine, there was no money to print at Academy Press. But God is the founder of The NEWS. Just when the editors were becoming hopeless, a helping hand came. Mr Layi Babatunde, a young lawyer, now Senior Advocate, sauntered into The NEWS office at Ibiyemi. He came to visit his friend, Dapo Olorunyomi. Told by the despondent editors about the money problem, Layi, without any hesitation, agreed to help with the funding.

Rather than apologize for their story, they all chose to resign from their employment. After their resignation, they teamed up to start their own magazine, (they later added TEMPO, A.M. News and PM News to their publications). They were however hamstrung by Finance. Babatunde was one of the investors that rose up to put money on the magazine.

Adebanwi wrote about it in his book thus: “More troubling was that with a date set for the preview edition of the magazine, there was no money to print at Academy Press. But God is the founder of The NEWS. Just when the editors were becoming hopeless, a helping hand came. Mr Layi Babatunde, a young lawyer, now Senior Advocate, sauntered into The NEWS office at Ibiyemi. He came to visit his friend, Dapo Olorunyomi. Told by the despondent editors about the money problem, Layi, without any hesitation, agreed to help with the funding. He gave out the sum of N85,000 needed to pay for the preview. With the publication of the preview, the group summoned a meeting of investors. The magazine was unveiled to them. Many in attendance appeared impressed. Onanuga recalled that investors’ money started rolling in. In one week, investors redeemed N4.5 million in pledges”.

The News and their other publications, turned out not only as a successful venture, but one that became the scourge of the military adventurism into power, and ultimately played a substantial role in ending military dictatorship in Nigeria. Babatunde helped to give voice to the vision of the young journalists that eventually assisted in the democracy Nigerians enjoy today.

So at 60, is Layi Babatunde a fulfilled man?
“As Nigerian prepare for 2019 general elections in a couple of months to come, his main worry is what the conduct of the people will be during the elections, or if elections will hold at all. Will Nigerians still sell their votes? Will the politicians still make it a do or die affair? What will be the conduct of the security agencies?

The questions come in torrents but the answers are elusive.” My fear is that we have concentrated our energy and (occurs essentially on two things i.e., providing finance and reconstituting INEC. These are not bad in themselves, but we will be deceiving ourselves to go to bed thinking that dealing with those issues alone will guarantee free and fair elections in themselves. I am afraid, we may need a rethink. The players, the voter’s nay the people and our attitude to the election are key. If the candidates continue to stand for nothing beyond grabbing power at all costs and then thinking of what to do or what can be rightly done with it later, and the people continue to accept bribe before voting rather than a consideration of the manifesto and capability of candidates, or the elections are turned into a show of strength between the North and South or a clash of religions then there is cause for worry;

It is unfortunate that we continue to pay lip service to addressing the monumental national set back election- wise, the annulment of the 1993 general elections meant on the psyche of the average Nigerian voter. I believe we need to do more on voter education if votes must count and we should not leave this to INEC alone, if we are sincere about free and fair elections. The role of the various security agencies is key and must be clearly defined. The aspirants must stop the campaign based on ethnic and religious sentiments and instead concentrate on those issues that unite us such as security of lives and properties, power, housing, health, education etc. These are needs common to all of us and not gender, tribe or religion… ”

The Political leaders have a duty to make sacrifice and show the way to peace and development of our country. It is time for them to give back to our beloved country that has done so much for them. They should think of our youth whose future hangs in the balance. It is time to stop being poachers stealing from ourselves. I believe it is not too late if we can change our ways”, he added.

As he joins the golden club at 60, Babatunde has practiced Law as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court for close to four decades. He is a fellow of the Chattered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (FCIT). He was appointed Notary Public by the Chief Justice of Nigeira in 1991 and conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 2004. He is a member of the chattered Institue of Arbitrators (UK); Nigeria Institute of International Affairs; former Legal Assessor to the Medical and Dental Disciplinary Tribunal; Legal Adviser, Mustapha Akanbi Foundation (MAF) and Chairman Lawbreed Foundation, a foundation whose motto is “one for the other” and dedicated to lending a helping hand and advancement of Legal Education. Through the Foundation, development law students have been supported and seen through the Law school.


An author and often sought after speaker and is a resource person to the Nigerian Institute of Advance Legal Studies among others. Some of his publications are: The Lawyer’s Companion; Hints on Land Documentation and Litigation in Nigeria (2002); A Handbook of Criminal Law and Procedure through Cases (2003); and The S. C. Report (Lawyers) Diary. He recently jointly authored a book with Prof Shyma Gyor on Medical Ethics and their Legal dimensions in Nigeria, which was presented to the public a few weeks back. He has written several Articles in newspapers and Reputable Journals.

Babatunde however remains hopeful about Nigeria that the country will overcome all her challenges. “I remain grateful to God that our people and size remain an advantage which obviously we are not willing to trade away easily, which is good. I am optimistic because in spite of our frustrations, we are configured to be overcomers. I know that indeed, we shall overcome if we do not relent. I believe Nigerian can become a truly independent country that is able to meet the needs of her people; where genuine rule of law holds sway, where corruption is reduced to the barest minimum, and a country well respected in the comity of nations”.

Babatunde is married to Adejoke, also a Legal Practitioner and blessed with children, two of whom are already lawyers.

• Mustapha Ogunsakin is the publisher of Gavel International

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