Dr. Olu Onagoruwa, armed with a PhD in Law, a glorious practice in journalism, solid experience in the classroom, rich political activism, a sword and shield of righteousness and a burning sense of patriotism, went into the den of military dictatorship. That was in 1993.He was engaged in a vicious fight in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa which left him partly mauled, but he managed to crawl out of the den alive. For about a quarter of a century he carried the wounds of that encounter refusing to succumb.
He was amongst a line of formidable lawyers which included Alao Aka-Bashorun, Gani Fawehinmi and Kanmi Ishola Osobu who taught the country that the Court Room itself is an arena of struggle and can be used for the ends of emancipation.
Although I became a journalist; a profession in which he had made a mark as Legal Adviser of the leading newspaper, the DAILY TIMES, and a teacher in journalism, it was in the trenches of political activism I struck a lasting friendship with this unrelenting fighter for social justice and peoples emancipation.
In the bloody struggle against military dictatorship, Aka-Bashorun had led in the establishment of a coalition of social, human right and student groups called the Campaign for Democracy (CD) which led the war. One of the partners in the coalition was the Movement for National Reformation (MNR) founded by veteran nationalist, Chief Anthony Enahoro with Onagoruwa as National Secretary. The MNR campaigned for the restructuring of the country mainly on the basis of nationalities.
When the CD led mass street protests and the Babangida dictatorship was forced out, a rickety contraption; the Interim National Government (ING) was put in place. A relentless struggle followed which led to my disagreement with Onagoruwa and his bosom friend, the famous Gani Fawehinmi. The latter launched a book in his chambers on the ING which a courageous Justice Dolapo Akinsanya had declared illegal. At the public presentation, Fawehinmi had called on “revolutionaries” in the military to seize power and consign the ING to the dustbin of history. I was worried that given his close identification with the Pro-Democracy Movement, Fawehinmi’s call might be misconstrued as that of the Movement, so I rose to clarify that he made the call in his private capacity. I said the Movement does not know of any group of revolutionaries in the Armed Forces that can seize and return power to the people and that we were not interested in coups as they merely amount to one set of dictators taking over from another.
The newspapers next day reported the altercation. A few days later, I met Onagoruwa who I was told wanted to see me. He said he read the altercation between Fawehinmi and I, agreed with my analysis but suggested I should be less forceful in my public rejection of a coup as one was not only in the offing but also inevitable. I told him that I had a whiff of one and that was why I was vehement in my opposition. I also promised that we will resist such a coup in the streets.
Subsequently, a stream of meetings were held by various civil groups and leaders with General Oladipo Diya who seemed to be coordinating the coup. A few times, I got reports of such meetings from civil society leaders who were being persuaded to support the coup. Then dates for the coup were openly fixed and discarded until November 17, 1993 when the ING was unseated and General Sani Abacha was imposed as Head of State with Diya as his Deputy.
Onagoruwa was abroad when the coup was carried out and immediately returned to take the post of Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister. He believed the new Government was a corrective one and that rule of law and order, will prevail. That was the same mistake a number of otherwise progressive leaders made.
As the colours of the dictatorship began to manifest, the Pro-Democracy leader, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and I visited Onogoruwa in his Odogbolu country home. He agreed the regime was not on course but blamed it all on Abacha who he said was referred to as ‘slow coach’ in government. But he assured that Diya was in firm control ‘of the boys’ and that Abacha would soon be showed the way out. I told him that things were not that simple and that Abacha should not be taken for granted. He seemed dismissive and said the progressive elements in the Government like Internal Affairs Minister, Mr. Alex Uruemu Ibru, Transport Minister, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, Works and Housing Minister, Alhaji Lateef Jakande and himself were steering the Executive meetings and government towards correct paths.
A test came when a Lagos High Court ordered the release of Turner Ogboru, the younger brother of Great Ogboru the man said to have financed the April 22, 1990 attempted coup against the Babangida regime. Abacha had played a pivotal role in aborting that coup and Turner had been tried and jailed by that regime. When Onagoruwa as the chief law officer of the country was served the court judgment, he wrote Internal Affairs Minister, Alex Ibru and the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Coomasie to obey the courts. Based on this, Ibru ordered the release of Turner Ogboru. An infuriated Abacha ordered Turner’s re-arrest and described the actions of Ibru and Onagoruwa as treasonable.
To compound Ibru’s problems, his newspaper, the GUARDIAN had been critical of the regime. A miffed Abacha shut down the newspaper from August 14, 1994 until October when the Minister apologized on its behalf. Ibru left government in 1995 and on February 2, 1996, the former Minister was shot by an assassination squad linked to the regime. He survived but never fully recovered until his death on November 20, 2011.
Onagoruwa had also compounded his problems with the vicious dictatorship when it was leaked to Abacha that at a meeting of Yoruba leaders in London, he had advocated for a violent show down with the regime. Ten months after Ibru was shot, Onagoruwa more or less got the Ibru treatment; gunmen attacked, shooting his first son, Toyin in his presence. The murder of Toyin, a brilliant operative of the National Intelligence Agency was too much for him. A few months later, Onagoruwa suffered a massive stroke from which he never recovered until he passed away on July 20, 2017.
Onagoruwa was a dogged fighter who never backed away; his wrestle with military dictatorship dominated most of his active life, and the wounds he sustained in the process, eventually cost him his life. He has earned a prominent place in the history for emancipation in the country.