• Address delivered on Sunday, 27 January, 1980, at the luncheon arranged by the Tribune Group to mark the Silver Anniversary of the introduction of Free Universal Primary Education in the former Western Region of Nigeria.
IN 1964, many members of the Action Group and NCNC complained that the Federal Election of that year had been rigged. They petitioned to the courts. But most of them could not prosecute their petitions to the end, because the deposits for cost which Justice Fatayi-Williams had asked them to make had been too prohibitive.
It did not occur to him, or was it that he overlooked the point, that one of the qualities of judgeship is to facilitate access to the courts for the common run of the people? However, because of his attitude, members of the Action Group in the Western Region made up their minds that at any subsequent rigging they would have recourse not to the court which had erected insuperable financial barriers against their access to it, but to self-redress.
This was what happened in 1965, when the Western Region election of that year was most blatantly rigged. At that time, those affected did not know that Justice Fatayi- Williams had written a letter of congratulations to Chief S. L. Akintola in the most partisan and fulsome manner. He was almost beside himself for joy at the “success” of Chief Akintola’s Party. He obviously wrote under great
excitement, and with uninhibited childlike ecstasy. This assertion is borne out on the face of the letter itself which was in his own handwriting.
There are scratches here and there. For a master of Cam-bridge English, there are two bad lapses of the pen. He speaks of “the momentum of the change triggered off by the results of the last Federal Elections,” the petitions against the-rigging of which had been discouraged by the heavy deposits for cost imposed by him.
It is excusable for a Judge to write to congratulate his friend for his success at an election. But it is undoubtedly reprehensible and indefensibly irresponsible to do it in the excessive way Fatayi-Williams had done it, and to castigate and condemn members of opposing parties in the process. Hear part of what he says:
My Dear Premier: Please accept my most sincere con-gratulations not so much on the results of the Regional Elections about which I have no doubts whatsoever, but on what is certainly going to be a most crushing defeat of the forces of disunity and disintegration. Indeed the victory symbolizes the triumph of truth over falsehood and provides you, without doubt of a unique opportunity for redeeming the past injustice done to the Yorubas due, no doubt, to our own past disunity …
It was providential that members of UPGA decided not to petition against the rigging. If they had, how could they have succeeded before a judge who was already cocksure before the elections were held that the riggers deserved to win? Who were the forces of disunity and falsehood? These, according to Justice Fatayi-Williams, without naming them were the leaders and members of the Action Group and the NCNC.
In can versa tion, with a de lega tion of the Nigerian Sa r Association, Justice Fatayi-Williams had denied ever forwarding the letter to Chief Akintola, and claimed that the signature on the letter had been forged. If this were so, a public denial is called for; and, in any case, it is unusual to write a postscript to a letter which had not been signed. Furthermore, it is not the forwarding of the letter to the addressee that matters, but the mere act of writing it. “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”: and it is from it also that the pen writeth. The letter is an overt concrete evidence of the state of mind of Justice Fatayi- Williams at the time.
Justice Fatayi-Williams’ present political sympathy is not as clearly known as it was fifteen years ago. But the manner of his appointment as Chief Justice of Nigeria raises a number of questions which cry aloud for answers.
The first question is: why the mad rush for his appointment? The memorandum for his appointment was prepared on 21-8-79; it was initialled on 21-8-79; and it was considered at a hastily convened meeting of the Supreme Military Council on 21-8-79. As against all this, Awolowo’s petition was filed on 20-8- 79, and widely reported in all the news media in the afternoon of 20-8-79 and on the following day, on 21-8-79.
The memorandum says that the widest consultation was held and the search for a suitable candidate encompassed both the Bar and the Bench.
We now know that the consultation and search spoken of took place between the time the Awolowo petition was filed on 20-8-79 and the appointment of Justice Fatayi- Williams on 21-8-79. It is also now known that if no petition had been filed challenging the due election of Shagari, the appointment of a new Chief Justice would not have been rushed. This much is inferentially confirmed from Chief Graham-Douglas’ disclosures. The outgoing Military Government was determined that the new President must be Alhaji Shehu Shagari, or no civil rule. It, therefore, saw to it that the election was rigged; and it was so supremely confident the Awolowo appeal would be dismissed that it transferred power completely to Alhaji Shagari before judgment on the appeal was delivered.
The second question is: why did Alhaji Shagari prefer Justice Fatayi-Williams to Justice Udo Udoma and Chief Rotimi Williams? Surely it could not have been on grounds of superior competence and learning on the part of Justice Fatayi-Williams.
The third question is; is it true that the real reason for rejecting Chief Rotimi Williams was that, at the Constitution Drafting Committee, .he had declared that two-thirds of nine-teen was thirteen and had, ir;t private discussion, repeated the same view? Also, that the real reason for rejecting Justice Udo Udoma was that he was my close friend? The ostensible reason that he was afflicted by substantial physical disability should be discounted. For, it was under this disability that he presided over the more exacting proceedings of the Constituent Assembly.
To be continued