Tunji Braithwaite was not just an accomplished lawyer but a prominent rights and political activist.
Until he breathed his last Monday morning at the age of 82, Mr. Braithwaite was unrelenting in the struggles against injustice and protection of democracy in his country and even beyond.
He was born in 1933 into the famous Braithwaite family of Lagos which has contributed to the socio-political, spiritual and economic development of Nigeria and indeed Africa.
As far back as the 1880s, his grandfather, Reverend I. Braithwaite led the first Anglican Missionary Expedition that opened up the Ijebu Province of Western Nigeria to Christianity.
In 1894, the clergyman built the first church in Epe, St. Michael’s, having accumulated a large congregation.
The seventh child of his parents’ eight children, the young Tunji Braithwaite attended the C.M.S. Grammar School, Lagos. He entered the school’s preparatory section in 1946 and completed his education there in 1953.
He then sat for his A Levels at the London University at Kennington College in 1955 and subsequently enrolled as a Law student in 1957/58 at the Council of Legal Education, London where he graduated in 1960.
Mr. Braitwaite set up a thriving law firm in Lagos. As a lawyer, among the celebrated cases he handled was the defence of the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, in the treasonable felony trial in 1962/63. He was in his late 20s.
He once explained that he joined the late politician’s legal team because everybody completely abandoned him (Awolowo) at the time.
Mr. Braithwaite, who authored books in law, including “The Jurisprudence of the Living Oracles,” also defended the late music icon, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, following the military invasion of the musician’s shrine.
Apparently keeping to his family’s tradition, Mr. Braithwaite soon delved into politics.
In 1978, he founded the defunct Nigerian Advance Party composed mainly of southern Nigerian intellectuals favouring a reformist government. The party was however not registered alongside the five parties that contested the 1979 general elections.
Mr. Braithwaite did not give up. He reorganised the party and re-applied to the Federal Electoral Commission for registration.
In 1983, NAP was registered, bringing to six the number of political parties in the country. He became the presidential candidate of the party in the 1983 election but lost to the then incumbent president, Shehu Shagari.
He was also active during the transition programme of the late head of state, Sani Abacha and had vowed to contest against the late general, who was then planning to transmute to a civilian leader.
Upon the restoration of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, he re-launched his old party, which also failed to make any impact in the current dispensation. Even so, as a principled politician, he remained in the opposition and never contemplated joining the ruling party.
After about 30 years in politics, Mr. Braithwaite, in 2009, announced his retirement from active politics but continued his pro-democracy activism through pressure groups he helped formed.
Some of the groups are the Nigerian Intervention Group, the National Consensus Group and lately the National Action Coalition, under which platform he fought for the reversal of fuel subsidy removal. He indeed participated in some protest marches against some policies of the President Goodluck Jonathan administration.
His lieutenants continued actively with the party. For instance, in 2010, NAP joined other parties to plot the exit of the Peoples Democratic Party from power. In that year, the party joined 31 other opposition parties to form the Patriotic Electoral Alliance of Nigeria, PEAN, with the sole aim of confronting the PDP in the 2011 elections.
NAP was also involved in the birth of another group, “Coalition for New Nigerian,” also formed by 23 other opposition parties ahead of the elections. The group also failed to take off.
In December 2012, the party was deregistered alongside 27 others, thus ending its existence in the nation’s political space.
Mr. Braithwaite, though no longer active in partisan politics, used the group he formed to remain active in the pro-democracy movements.
In 2014, he fully backed the convocation of a national dialogue by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, saying it was divine and could not fail.
An advocate of restructuring of the polity, Mr. Braithwaite, who was the South West Coordinator of the National Conference, lampooned those who opposed the conference. He described them as “selfish.”
He later became a member of the confab during which he canvassed a confederal constitution for the country.
During his lifetime, the late legal icon also consistently campaigned against corruption in Nigeria, which he said was a “king” that must be dethroned before the 2015 general elections.
According to him, this must be done in order to prevent corrupt people from coming to office.
While marking his 80th birthday in 2013, Mr. Braithwaite explained how he was able to combine civil right activism, politics and legal practice.
“Interestingly, all three are inter-related,” he said. “If you are a lawyer, you’ve got to know what the constitution of the country where you are says.
“Beyond that, if you are expansive, you will even know the constitutions of other nations not to talk about the United Nations. And you become really international because the world has become a global village kind of.
“So as a lawyer, concerned with the rights of the society, corporate society and the rights of individuals, you will see that the three: law, activism and politics are related. The profession of law offers better platform for any budding politician.
“This is not to say other professions; other disciplines are averse to being in politics, but the profession of law gives the lawyer a head start ahead of others. So, it has not been difficult to combine these three together.”
Tributes pour in torrents
In his tribute, President Muhammadu Buhari described Mr. Braithwaite as “selfless, patriotic and intellectually deep.”
The president said the late politician passed away at a time his wisdom, intellectual depth, vast knowledge and experience were deeply needed by the country.
Mr. Buhari urged political leaders to emulate the virtues of the founder of the Nigerian Advance Party, “who perceived politics as a platform for honest service to the nation rather than an opportunity to make money.”
A former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, said the demise of Mr. Braithwaite “has robbed the country of one of its greatest giants not only in the field of law, but also in politics.”
The former Vice President explained that he shared in Mr. Braithwaite’s passion for creating a fairer federal system that would reduce the fear of too much power and resources at the centre at the expense of the federating units.
Mr. Abubakar added that the late veteran lawyer and politician was not “your typical Nigerian politician that opportunistically changes his opinions to ingratiate himself with the new powers that be. These are extraordinary virtues for which I admire him deeply and regard him as a role model.”
Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State, in his tribute, said Mr. Braithwaite’s demise was a great loss to both the state and the nation.
Describing the late nationalist as a detribalized individual whose example is worthy of emulation, Mr. Ambode said the late lawyer was a man of the people, a typical Nigerian who was consistent in saying things the way they are, not caring whose ox is gored.
The governor recalled that during the military era, especially that of the late General Sani Abacha administration, when politicians were afraid to come out and contest, Mr. Braithwaite dared the odds and came out to contest against the late General at the risk of his life.
“He was very consistent in fighting for what he believed was right and fair to every human regardless of their ethnic leaning or creed, he was not one to shy away from taking a position that he strongly believed in,” Mr. Ambode said.
“He was always consistent in creating independent platforms to fight for the interest of the common man.”
He said as a lawyer, Mr. Braithwaite stood tall among his equals, which earned him respect not only in Nigeria, but across the globe.
“He was one of the very best of lawyers this country has ever produced; he was consistent in the struggle to see the rebirth of a new Nigeria.
“At over 80 years, he came out to protest on the streets with the likes of Professor Ben Nwabueze and other activists against the economic policies of the then Federal Government,” he said.
The Oodua Peoples Congress, OPC, lamented the demise of the elder statesman, saying it marked another closure of a chapter in the history of the country.
The National Coordinator of the congress, Gani Adams, in a condolence message, showered praises and eulogy on late activist.
“As the last man standing from the political titans of the Second Republic, during which he founded the Nigerian Advance Party, NAP, Dr. Braithwaite surely contributed his quota to the growth of his fatherland.
“His robust contributions to deliberations and discussions on the floor of conference contributed in no small measures to the success of the National Conference.
“With his death, let those in authority go back to his advise that the Conference must be as much a development conference as a constitutional one,” he said.
The congress leader then urged the federal government to immortalize “this great nationalist.”