Babalakin JSC, The Quintessential Jurist Raps His Last Gavel
It is an understatement that late Honourable Justice Bolarinwa Oyegoke Babalakin, JSC (Rtd), CON, CFR, who died on Saturday, December 4, 2021 at the ripe old age of 94, left his distinct footprints in the sands of time. His plethora of erudite judgements, have enriched Nigeria’s jurisprudence. Even in retirement, his Lordship played a crucial role in the affairs of the nation, including his intervention in the face-off between the Federal and Lagos State Governments, over the withheld Local Government funds by the Obasanjo administration. His son, Dr Bolanle Olawale Babalakin, SAN and Mutiu Ganiyu, here pay tribute to the Judicial Icon, whose recent passage is a huge loss to the Nigerian Judiciary. May Allah admit Justice Babalakin into Aljannah Firdaus. Amin
Honourable Justice Shehu Tijani Bolarinwa Oyegoke Babalakin JSC (Rtd), CON, CFR, was born into the family of Yesufu Adeoye Babalakin and Rekia Ajoke Oke, Princess of the Ogunsua family of Modakeke. His paternal grandfather, descended from the Ogunmokun family of Owu. The Owu’s were brave warriors, skillful hunters, prosperous farmers, traders and travellers.
Justice Bola Babalakin attended St Paul’s Primary School in Gbongan. Being from a relatively affluent family, his uncle was a very successful farmer and trader. In 1936, his family had a booming business with six lorries conveying the produce of the family, to all parts of Nigeria. His father was so comfortable, that he bought him a bicycle in primary school. Unfortunately, in 1939 tragedy struck the family business, and they lost all the lorries. Justice Babalakin went from a wealthy man’s child, to a member of a family seeking to survive. The experience affected Justice Babalakin’s disposition to life, till his death. He had very little respect for wealth. He was more concerned about integrity, goodness, humanity and faith in the almighty Allah.
Secondary School Education
Going to secondary school became a challenge, and his father then made him a clerk in his produce store. The produce examiner for Gbongan and the environs in those days, was a Mr G. E. Ojutalayo. On one of his inspections, he found Justice Bola Babalakin to be outstanding, and he insisted that his parents must send him to school. He advised Justice Babalakin’s father to look for money by all means to send young Babalakin to secondary school, “even if it means selling one of your houses”. According to Justice Bola Babalakin, he said to his father, “train this boy, and you will not regret it”.
Based on the persuasion of G. E. Ojutalayo, Justice Bola Babalakin was sent to Oduduwa College in 1942. The school authority found him so outstanding, that he commenced secondary school in Form 3 and not Form 1. He coped in Form 3, because he had personally trained himself while he was working as a clerk for his father. He left Oduduwa College in flying colours.
Justice Bola Babalakin’s love for his alma mater, was everlasting. He contributed immeasurably to the College, and ensured that his children also made some contributions to the College. He was President of Oduduwa College Old Student Association, for as long as we can remember. His son Dr Wale Babalakin, SAN, recalls attending a meeting with him at Oduduwa College where some prominent old students also attended, including His Royal Highness, late Oba Okunade Sijuade (the Oni of Ife) and late Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN. They called each other various nicknames, that made it clear they all had an adventurous youth as we did.
Initial Civil Service Career
After leaving secondary school in 1945, Justice Bola Babalakin commenced work in the public service of Northern Nigeria. By 1955, he had been promoted to Senior Service. His decision to proceed to England for his legal studies was a disappointment to his boss, who believed that all he required was in-house training in administration which would have positioned him for the top of the civil service, as soon as independence came. His testimonial read as follows:
“Resigned in order to pursue further studies in UK. Efficiency of the highest order. He was promoted first class clerk only six and a half years in service. Conduct exemplary”.
Justice Bola Babalakin’s contemporaries became Permanent Secretaries, soon after independence. He never lost touch with them, and that almost every other year, he travelled to Northern Nigeria visiting his old friends. It was always a pleasure commencing from Ibadan through Jebba to Sokoto, returning to Kano, spending a lot of time at my mother’s birthplace, Zaria, and then heading to Maiduguri to see some of his old colleagues in the forestry Department.
Stint in Politics
While in the Kaduna/Zaria axis, Justice Bola Babalakin had a stint in politics. In 1946, he was the Secretary of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa in Northern Nigeria. He was even a delegate to the Owo Conference, where Action Group was born. It does not appear that he enjoyed the experience, as he never countenanced further participation in politics throughout his career as a legal practitioner, before becoming a Judge of the various levels of courts.
Justice Bola Babalakin met his wife, Ramat Ibironke Babalakin, while working in Zaria. Her family had settled in Zaria, a long time ago. Her father, Mallam Badamosi, was a very strict Moslem and a faithful loyalist of the then Emir of Zaria, Alhaji Jaffaru. One of Mallam Badamosi’s treasured photographs, was the one he took with Emir Jaffaru.
They got married in the Islamic way, and remained married from 1949 for fifty-five years until the passing away of his wife on March 7, 2004. He loved his wife so intimately, that on her passing away, he moved from his residence in Ibadan to Gbongan, on the ground that the house in Ibadan had little meaning to him in the absence of his darling wife.
On his wife’s death, her surviving sons approached him to remarry and find company for himself. He outrightly rejected the suggestion, stating that it was really not possible for him to have any marital relationship with any other woman. In his view, since it pleased Allah to deprive him of his wife, he was going to abide by Allah’s judgement.
Returning to Nigeria as a Barrister-at-law, Bola Babalakin had a stint in Ibadan with his mentor, Justice Ade Ogunkeye, before establishing his own legal practice. His practice soared significantly, and he was a very prominent and successful legal practitioner. He was also a very prominent member of the Bar Association. At the time he was was elevated to the Bench of Western State in 1975, he was the Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association. In those days in Ibadan, many outstanding and very successful Lawyers, found the Bench extremely attractive. Examples abound like Justice Olufemi Ayoola, Justice Abdul Ganiyu Agbaje, Justice Olayinka Ayoola and Justice Bola Babalakin. It is a sad commentary on the legal profession today, that a lot of prominent and successful Lawyers no longer aspire to the Bench. The causative factors for this attitude must be addressed, so that we can rebuild our professionJustice Bola Babalakin, was a sight to behold in court. He was always extremely well prepared, quick on his facts, a very agile mind and possessed an unbelievable sense of humour.
The Legal Profession in their era, was a profession for the very gifted. Every Lawyer had a fair idea where he belonged, in the hierarchy of Lawyers. Judicial appointment was predictable. The members of the profession knew those who were qualified, to aspire to the higher echelon. There were hardly any surprises. You were either an outstanding legal practitioner, or a very noticeable public officer.
Cases were decided in a relatively short time, because the Judges were a repertoire of knowledge and could decide a lot of issues on the Bench, without having to adjourn the proceedings to seek clarification. Cases were commenced and completed within time. Lawyers could not afford to play pranks with the courts. Once Justice Babalakin was presiding over the Assizes (a special court for criminal cases), he was able to dispose of about 10 cases in one month. It was possible, because the Prosecutor was prepared. The Defence counsel was well informed and ready. The Judge hardly rose to give an interlocutory ruling, as he was experienced enough to deal with the issues while sitting.
His Chambers was also a training ground for several Lawyers at that time, and some of whom were subsequently appointed Judges.
Active Member of the Nigerian Bar Association
From the day he qualified as a Barrister, until the day he became a Judge of Western State, Justice Bola Babalakin was an active member of the Bar. Every summer, he carved out a week to attend the Bar Conference. The Bar was an association to belong to. The gathering was very cordial, yet frank. Integrity was the watchword, and Lawyers took themselves very seriously and avoided any misbehaviour. He was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Bar in Jos, at the Bar Conference. The election was between Chief Solomon Lar, a popular man in Jos, and Justice Bola Babalakin from the Ibadan Bar. Even though Chief Solomon Lar had serious local advantage, Justice Bola Babalakin achieved a landslide victory. Justice Bola Babalakin held the following offices at the Bar:
1) Vice-Chairman of the Nigeria Bar Association, 1974-1975
2) Chairman, Nigerian Bar Association Ibadan Branch, 1973-1974
3) Treasurer, Nigerian Bar Association Ibadan Branch, 1968-1971
4) Member of the General Council of the Bar, 1972-1975
5) Member, Council of Legal Education, 1974-1975
6) Member, Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, 1972-1975
7)Member, Executive Committee of the Nigeria Bar Association, 1962-1975
He was very committed to his profession, and played a very active part in all spheres.
Career in the Judiciary
As a Judge of the High Court of Western State and former Oyo State, Justice Bola Babalakin sat in Court 3 in Ibadan. Even though his court was Court 3, the Lawyers nicknamed his court, Court 9 because throughout his service as a High Court Judge between 1975 and 1983, he sat at 9:00am prompt. He never sat one minute late. The late Justice P. O. Aderemi, retired Justice of the Supreme Court, said that as counsel, once he heard the knock on Justice Bola Babalakin’s door preceding his entrance to Court, he knew it was nine o’clock and he adjusted his wristwatch appropriately. Justice Bola Babalakin was never late for any function in life.
He was elevated to the Court of Appeal, in December 1983. He served in Enugu, Kaduna and Lagos. On his posting to Lagos, Justice Mamman Nasir, President of the Court of Appeal informed him that he was sending Justice Ephraim Omorose Ibukun Akpata and himself to the Court of Appeal to sharpen the court, as he knows they were exceptional Judges of the highest integrity. Interestingly Justice Nasir repeated the same statement to Justice Akpata, which he remarked in his autobiography. Writing about Justice Bola Babalakin, Justice Akpata stated that:
“I soon found that we operated on the same moral wave length in decision making, and that he was also a stickler for punctuality and discipline. He was however, more communicative and made friends with ease. I am reserved, by nature. On the whole, he brought a breath of fresh air to the Division. His sense of humour which was infectious, relieved the tedium of court proceedings. He made jokes with ease, and with good effect. No embarrassment was caused to anyone. We were both transferred to Lagos with effect from 31st August, 1987”.
His stay in these divisions of the Court, was simply exemplary. Every Lawyer who practised in Lagos at the time knew that a Panel of Justices Akpata, Babalakin and Awogu was such an efficient panel that decided cases very promptly. In his entire career, no Lawyer or litigant ever accused him of bias. Justice Bola Babalakin believed in justice according to the law, and was also very humane.
He was appointed to the Supreme Court, from where he retired in 1992 at the age of 65.
Chairman of Eso Panel Review
The Federal Government set up a Panel under Honourable Justice Kayode Eso, to review several issues in the Judiciary. The Panel made its recommendations. The Federal Government later set up a Panel to review the recommendations of the Eso Panel, and this was chaired by Justice Bola Babalakin. Most Lawyers were very happy, about the conclusions of the Justice Babalakin-led Panel.
National Judicial Council
Justice Bola Babalakin was appointed to the National Judicial Council (NJC) along with his bosom friend, Honourable Justice Mustapha Akanbi, by the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Muhamadu Lawal Uwais GCON in the year 2000, eight years after he had retired as a Supreme Court Justice.
His performance as a member of the NJC was legendary. All Judges and Lawyers were overjoyed with the performance of the NJC from the year 2000 to 2011, when Justice Bola Babalakin and Justice Mustapha Akanbi served on the Council. This era could be described as the golden years of the NJC.
The NJC was so respected that, at a stage, Lawyers started clamouring for additional responsibilities for the Council. In 2003, Justice Bola Babalakin became the Chairman of the NJC Committee on Performance Evaluation of Judicial Officers of Courts of Record in Nigeria. He diligently served in this position with efficiency, fairness, and humanness.
Other Services as a Judicial Officer
Chairman Robbery & Firearms Tribunal
He was appointed Chairman of the Robbery and Firearms Tribunal, old Oyo State, in 1976.
Chairman of the FEDECO Panel
Justice Bola Babalakin served the nation selflessly. His dedication to duty was exemplary. In 1983, after the Government of President Shehu Shagari was toppled, the Government set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to look at the affairs of the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO). For over two years, Justice Babalakin went to all the States in Nigeria and produced a report then, to resolve the electoral issues of Nigeria. The report was submitted in 1987.
Chairman of the Inquiry on Bauchi Communal Crisis
In 1991, Justice Bola Babalakin was appointed Chairman of the Judicial Panel to resolve the Tafawa Balewa, Ningi crises. Once again, his committee delivered a report to the President of Nigeria, the implementation of which was bound to resolve the Tafawa Balewa, Ningi crises.
Chairman of the June 12 Panel
In 1993, Justice Bola Babalakin was also appointed Chairman of the Judicial Panel over the Presidential Elections of 1993. The Panel did not take off, because the elections were annulled.
In all these appointments he discharged his duties with the highest level of integrity, efficiency truthfulness, courage and humaneness.
In 2005, Osun State Government appointed Justice Babalakin as member and leader of Osun State delegates, to the National Political Reform Conference. He was especially proud to serve in this Conference along with his son, Dr Wale Babalakin, SAN, who was a delegate appointed by the Federal Government.
A Family Man
Justice Bola Babalakin was the epitome of responsibility and good behaviour. He was extremely strict and disciplined, yet very fair and generous at heart and with his wallet. He is survived by his children Dr Wale Babalakin, SAN, a Legal Practitioner, Muftau Babalakin a practising Architect, Dr Abiola Adewunmi, a Consultant Psychiatrist and Mrs Bodunde Are, a Legal Practitioner and Chartered Accountant.
He was conferred with many honours including, Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), and Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR). He was also conferred with a honorary Doctor of Letters (LLD) from he Obafemi Awolowo University, and several other honours.
Life After Retirement
On retirement, Justice Bola Babalakin decided that he was going to spend the rest of his life doing charity and practising his faith, Islam. He took a determined position, that he was no longer going to do anything for money. He kept his word, and refused entreaties from anybody who wanted him to serve in a commercial capacity.
A major quality of Justice Bola Babalakin was that he was a peace maker, always busy reconciling warring factions. He was trusted by all, to tell the truth. In this role, he sorted out major chieftaincy and family issues and disputes. In retirement, he was appointed as the Chairman to review the Chieftaincy Laws of Osun State, an assignment he discharged diligently and with all sense of responsibility.
Justice Bola Babalakin continued his role in all the Islamic societies, till his death. He was a founding member of the Muslim Association of Nigeria, and at one time, the Chairman. He was also the Chairman of the Muslim Association of Southwest Nigeria, until a few years ago when he retired on the grounds of age.
Honourable Justice Shehu Tijani Bolarinwa Oyegoke Babalakin was indeed, a phenomenon. He was a representation of a rare combination of brilliance, good character, fantastic humour, gifted writer in English and Yoruba, an effortless communicator, a consummate family man, a committed Moslem, a great community leader, and a national icon.
He was a lover of his Yoruba culture, and was known to weave apt and rich proverbs into his statements. He was also known to make very profound and philosophical statements. One of his happiest moments, was when his seminal book “Selected Yoruba Proverbs and Wise Sayings” was published by West African Book Publishers in 2002. In his active days as a Lawyer his office was a Mediation Centre of sorts, as he resolved so many domestic and family disputes and saved so many marriages, free of charge. He was Chairman at so many wedding ceremonies because of the exemplary life he led, and was appointed Executor of countless Wills, because of his trustworthy character.
He died peacefully at the age of 95, and he has already been buried according to Moslem rights.
Dr Bolanle Olawale Babalakin PhD (Cantab), SAN
A Tribute to Honourable Justice Bolarinwa Babalakin JSC (Rtd)
Paying this short tribute to a personality like the late Justice Babalakin, can only be in a manner of language, a tip of the iceberg or as they say in Mandarin “one hair on nine oxen”.
Justice Bolarinwa Babalakin (retired) no doubt owed (as it was in those days ) his appointment to the Bench, to his then growing fame at the Bar. The nature and quality of his practice can be gleaned from the cases which he handled as a Lawyer, and the calibre of the .opposing counsel in those cases. To cite only two examples: In Prince Busari Owoade & Anor v Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III, (Unreported; CAW/49/74; which was decided on the 31st of January, 1975), he had appeared for the Respondents with Mr (later Chief, SAN) R.O.A. Akinjide appearing for the Appellant before the Western States Court of Appeal. The appeal was dismissed.
In Ebegbuna v Ebegbuna (Unreported; CAW/M6/74 decided on the 14th of June, 1974), he had also appeared for the Respondent before the Western State Court of Appeal, while the late Mr (later Chief, SAN) Olisa Chukwura had appeared for the Appellant. In that case, that court (per Kayode Eso Justice of the Court of Appeal, as he then was), restated refreshingly the applicable principles for the grant of a stay of the execution of an order for the payment of a lump sum to the other party in a matrimonial cause, as enunciated in Balogun v Balogun by the Supreme Court.
Hon. Justice Babalakin had an acute, and a very subtle mind. This, and his vast knowledge of the general principles and rules, were better demonstrated on the Bench. While admittedly one swallow does not make a summer, however, due to constraints of space, I can only demonstrate these propositions about the late Justice of the Supreme Court by reference to Sanusi Brothers v Cotia Commercion Exportacao Impstacao SA (Unreported; CA/L/314/88 decided by the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal on the 26th of March, 1991), where appropriately enough, he has left as a legacy to the legal profession as a leading case on summary judgement.
In this case, he was able to see his way clear through the seemingly unanswerable defences of “illegality, frustration and equitable defences”, which were raised by the Defendant. His Lordship not only affirmed the judgement of the lower court which was delivered in favour of the Respondent in that case, His Lordship was able to shed very bright lights on when such defences cannot be raised like an “Occam’s razor” by a Defendant to defeat an application for summary judgement. And this, in spite of the sound advocacy of Mr. Babajide Ogundipe (the Appellant’s counsel ) whose capacity to adapt his argument to any new turn taken in the hearing of his case, is legendary. The version of the decision as affirmed by the Supreme Court is reported in  11 NWLR Part 679 at page 566.