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Olisa Agbakoba: Consummate lawyer, bold activist

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NOT only does Olisa Agbakoba talk law, he breaths it and believes in the rule of law. He is among the few lawyers in the country whose names resonate in the legal circle. His legal life is steeped in the battle to emancipate others, particularly the downtrodden. As a human rights activist, injustice to one is to all.

The legal profession draws out in him advocacy for good governance. Agbakoba paints clear picture of his words into action and does not give in to sentiment to please anyone.

The former President of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has never been in the race to speak out to be noticed. He bares his mind when it matters, addressing issues with eloquence and boldness to those concerned. His courage sometimes sounds audacious, yet, you don’t see that in him. He delivers his point without raising dust, yet ruffles feathers.

The legal luminary may not be referred to as fiery like some of his contemporaries, but he is always at home to discourse political issues that will set the country on the right path and be accorded the desired respect in the committee of nations. Nigeria to him should not make waves on negative issues.

Leadership, he argued, shouldn’t be in the hand of incompetent people who drives the country without direction. Every administration, he believes, should be held accountable for their policies. To him, a responsible government should do the right thing as it concerns governance.
Agbkakoba hails from the commercial city of Onitsha,Anambra State, whose indigenes are known in the legal profession than in the business world. Among the lawyers that the city has produced, Agbakoba stands out.

Born into a family of legal practitioners on May 29, 1953, to Justice Godfrey Agbakoba and his wife, Phina, both from Onitsha, in Anambra State, Agbakoba lived his childhood in northern Nigeria. He had his primary education at Government Primary School, Jos, from 1959 to 1960, Hillcrest School, Jos, 1961, Government Primary School, Jos, 1962 to 1963. For his secondary education, he attended Zixton Public School, Ozubulu, Christ the King College, Onitsha, College of Immaculate Conception in Enugu and Government College in Ughelli in 1973.

He was called to bar in 1978 after obtaining LLB Law from University of Nigeria, Nsukka and went to University of London, where he did his Masters in Maritime Law in 1980. Fresh out of law school, he served as a research fellow in the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs’ (NIIA), Law and Intelligence Department. Agbakoba left NIIA after a year and formed his own law firm, Olisa Agbakoba and Associates, which specializes in commercial and maritime law.

A key leader in the country’s pro-democratic movement, as his character suggests, Agbakoba stood out in the dark days of military rule in Nigeria. He was part of the five-million-man-match called out by the pro-democracy group to counter the two-million-man-match staged at Eagle Square in Abuja, by a group that called itself Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha (YEAA). The pro-democracy match in Lagos clashed with security operatives. Agbakoba managed to escape with a swollen face, he almost lost an eye.

The Senior Advocate of Nigeria was one of the early activists in Nigeria. His choice of law as a profession helped to mould him into an activist. He is the co-founder of Nigeria’s foremost human rights organization, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), the Zambian pan-African human rights organization, AfroNet. He also co-founded Human Rights Law Services, a leading human rights organization in Africa. He was the founder of United Action for Democracy.

“By the time we were in Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), there were few human rights movements. I think I have done my best in human rights. I need to move into politics so that is why we tried to make a transition with few difficulties. My burning talent now is doing something to make Nigeria great.

I am happy, I am one of the founding fathers of the Africa human rights movement and a key actor of Nigeria human rights movement. When we look at the flourishing of human rights activities across Nigeria, we say that something has been achieved”, he said.

In recognition of his contributions to the causes of human rights, Agbakoba was honoured with Roger Baldwin Medal for Civil Liberties, 1990. Human Rights Award of the German Association of Judges in 1993, the International Human Rights Award of the American Bar Association, besides numerous legal awards.

Agbakoba, a recipient of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), is married to Lillian with three daughters.

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