By Ogaga Ifowodo
Thursday, 12 May, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, it was my exceeding delight to join Professor Itse Sagay’s legion of admirers and former students in the public presentation of his life’s story entitled All Will Be Well. It is one more testament to his erudition and doggedness that he published it at 81-years. He waited almost too long, he said, but that is because he wanted to write his story himself.
And by the testimony of the book reviewer, my fellow Great Uniben comrade, Barr Jiti Ogunye, Sagay’s accomplishment is distinguished by a fetching literary style, product of his avid reading and familiarity with the literary classics during his time at Government College, Ughelli, and after.
Sagay’s name is synonymous with intellectual acuity of the highest order. He was the first to graduate first class in law from the then University of Ife, then repeated the first class feat at the Law School, was snatched by the law faulty of Ife and soon after proceeded to Cambridge for his Ph.D. Sagay literally established the Nigerian law of contract when Sweet and Maxwell published his The Nigerian Law of Contract (with the earlier A Casebook of the Nigerian Law of Contract breaking the ground). Yet he obtained his Ph.D in international law, is also an authority on matrimonial law, having published extensively in those fields while devoting considerable time to the Supreme court as the final arbiter of justice.
Everybody who spoke — Chief Segun Osoba, former governor of Ogun State, Rev Shyngle Wigwe who chaired the occasion, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) minister of works and housing and his former student (through a representative), Mr Louis Mbanefo (SAN), etc — testified to Sagay’s steadfastness and commitment to principles. Indeed, so unbending and ever ready to defend his position is he that the word “cantankerous” is often used to describe him. His consistency and commitment to truth-telling had led in 1987 to his dismissal, alongside the late Prof Festus Iyayi, Jackson Omene and others from the University of Benin to which he had been lured to establish its Law faculty, leaving his prestigious perch as professor at Ife.
In my 5-minute tribute, I said cantankerous is a word he should wear as a badge of honour. I ended by recalling an interview with The SUN newspaper to mark his 70th birthday. I quoted an anecdote he related on the continuing costs of his unbending integrity in a brief testimonial on him solicited for a publication in his honour six years ago and I repeat it here. Following the (shamefully still unsolved) assassination of Chief Bola Ige while he was Attorney-General, former President Obasanjo sought advice on whom to appoint as the new AG and this is Sagay’s account of what his cantankerousness caused: “Obasanjo approached a very senior retired judicial official, when we lost Chief Bola Ige, to say: “Can you help me nominate somebody to replace him?”
“That person said, ‘That’s no problem; I already have somebody in mind.’ He mentioned my name. He said Obasanjo just told him, ‘Well, I don’t really know this man; let me make enquiry.’ After two months or so, the man went back to Obasanjo and said, ‘I suggested a name to you, have you not made enquiries?’ Obasanjo said: ‘Yes, I had made enquiries and they said he’s cantankerous.” And the senior judicial officer said, ‘Yes, he’s not only cantankerous, in fact, if you breach the law while he’s Attorney General, he would even prosecute you, even as president! That’s the kind of man you should appoint. He has no time for power and politics. He would do what he thinks is right.’ The man said that Obasanjo looked at him straight in the face, and, with a mischievous smile, told him: ‘You can see that the advice I was given was right.’ That was the end of the matter.”
Oh, did I mention that Sagay was not only my teacher but also has been a mentor? For a start, he gave me room in the service quarters of his newly established law firm in Alaka Estate, Surulere, Lagos, on my return from national youth service in 1992. I had elected to join the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), just as many former student activists, among them Emman Ezeazu, Chima Ubani, Lanre Ehonwa, Innocent Chukwuma, Emma Edigheji, Mahmud Aminu, etc. That room became the underground secretariat of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), away from the permanent siege of the SSS to Beko Ransom-Kuti’s 8 Imaria Street home in Anthony village which was the official secretariat. Chima Ubani, CD Secretary-General, would even move in with me just before the first June 12 (1993) street protests called by CD in the wake of General Babangida’s annulment of the freest and fairest presidential election so far in our beleaguered history.
Sagay is an exemplar of the public intellectual. He wears his gown to town and helps to simplify the complexities of our clamorous, multi-ethnic, post-colonial country seemingly unable to shed its fractious cobbling together and come into her own as a self-determining nation. Perhaps there is no better way to describe the essence of Sagay than to turn again to that 70th birthday interview. Asked by The Sun newspaper what his favourite advice to people is, he said: “Leave this world better than you met it. Contribute to the world. Contribute to your society. Do not come to eat in order to live. . . Come to dedicate your life in such a way that when you leave, you will have made a difference, a positive difference to your society.”
On 20 December, Sagay will be 82 years old. Despite many soul-trying personal experiences in the last 10 years, he remains unbowed, his mind still constantly worrying about Nigeria. He is the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption. And he remains an indefatigable tribune of democracy, the rule of law and social justice. May all be well with him and his devoted wife, Sheila, and with Nigeria! Ise!🙏🏽