Recent democratic history of The Gambia, especially, the 2016 democratic transition that led to the ouster of Yahaya Jammeh was in focus on Wednesday, 28th of September as a Nigerian jurist, Justice Emmanuel Fagbenle was conferred with the prestigious Kwame Nkrumah Outstanding Merit Award for his outstanding roles and contributions to the establishment of democracy in Africa and the process of decolonization.
Fagbenle was seconded to the Republic of Gambia as a legal expert under the Bilateral Legal Services Agreement between the country and Nigeria.
He served in various capacities as state counsel, head of civil litigation, deputy director of public prosecution and director of public prosecution at various times in the West African country during which he handled many high-profile cases.
Fagbenle’s performance earned him a promotion to the bench of Gambia with his appointment as a High Court Judge in 2009 and the Court of Appeal in 2012.
He was promoted the President of the Court of Appeal in 2014 before his final elevation to the position of the Chief Judge of the Gambia on 13 May 2015. However, in that position, Fagbenle, a deeply religious man, was in the eyes of the storm in 2016 over the political impasse in The Gambia during which his strong belief in the democratic process and integrity as a judicial officer came to the fore.
Even as the focus of the global community was on The Gambia, Fagbenle was able to maintain very firm neutrality, refusing to take sides with any of the contending sides. He also ensured that the courts remained open for airing of grievances on all the sides, thus, helping to defuse tension and avert danger to lives and property in the West African country.
His refusal to accede to the demand for an interim government and overturn the petition instituted against the President was widely acknowledged as an uncommon display of integrity and commitment to democratic ideals and ethos across the world.
Indeed, Fagbenle was ready to reign and sacrifice his office for the sake of peace and the development of democracy in The Gambia.
Seven years after that event, dignitaries, friends, classmates, lawyers and judicial officers gathered at the NAF Centre to witness the conferment of the Kwame Kwame Nkrumah Award on Fagbenle in recognition of that feat.
The organisers of the award likened the Nigerian to the first President of Independent Ghana, a reputed vanguard of African unity and the prime advocate of Pan-Africanism.
“During the heated political impasse in the Gambia, he ( Fagbenle) discouraged any unconstitutional political solution including interim governments because of his staunch belief in the democratic process, especially in a nascent democracy like Gambia,” the coordinator of Kwame Nkrumah Vision Alive Movements, Dr Felix Okonkwo said.
He noted that Fagbenle as the Chief Justice at the time of political turbulence The Gambia ensured the court remained open even at very personal risk to give the people of Gambia the needed platforms to air their grievances to prevent anarchy without aligning with any party.
The event also provided an opportunity to reflect on the contemporary state of the continent and the need for leaders who can conceive and bring ideas to fruition for the benefit of their people.
In the keynote address, he delivered just before the award was presented to the former Gambia Chief Judge, a former ambassador to Gambia when Fagbenle was also in the country Professor Mike Ikupolati attributes the pervasive poverty and insecurity in Africa to wrongful selection methods of leaders.
He particularly noted the disruptive influence on the selection of good leaders in Africa, citing the situation in Nigeria as an example in the lecture titled “Leadership and Economic Development: The Pathway for African Leaders.”
Ikupolati, a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria also gave eloquent testimony about the Fagbenle he knew in Gambia and how he contributed in various ways to the development of the country and of Nigerians living there.
He recalled that while he was already out of Gambia at the time of political turbulence, he kept in touch with Fagbenle, and during a phone call, urged him to do the right thing as the eyes of the global community were on him or to run away to the nearly Senegal if that proved impossible in the circumstance.
Ikupolati said he was excited that rather than run away, Fagbenle decided to stay back and do the right thing to the glory of God and Nigeria. He cited the former Gambia CJN as an example of the type of leaders needed by Africa.
While responding to the accolades, the awardee thanked Nigeria, and especially his former boss and the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Kanu Agabi SAN for the opportunity and the privilege to serve in the Gambia judiciary. He also expressed appreciation to his friends, colleagues and other associates who contributed to his success in Gambia.
Fagbenle who was born in Otan Ayegbaju, Osun State of Nigeria on the Sth of August 1958 recalled that aside from his role in the judiciary of Gambia, he was also instrumental to the development of legal education and the security sector in Gambia.
He effectively combined law, advocacy, education, sports and entrepreneurship. He is also a promoter of constitutionalism, the rule of law, judicial reforms and accountability on a global scale.
Fagbenle, who has attended conferences, training and seminars in all parts of the world was in 2015 appointed member of the World Peace Advisory Council in South Korea.