They don’t come better than Alhaji Lateef Femi Okunnu. He is defined by many things: love for family and country, commitment to education, affection for Lagos, passion for the legal profession, and devotion to Islam. He is a Nigerian nationalist of the progressive bent, one who is a shaper of several landmarks in the history of the country, whether political or infrastructural. Everything he has done, and still does, is always with a touch of finesse, passion, and with dedication. He is sui generis, simply in a class of his own. As he marks his 90th birthday today, the foremost lawyer remains an inspiration to generations past and present, with his testimony of integrity, excellence and diligence.
I was but a little boy when he was appointed Federal Commissioner for Works by General Yakubu Gowon in 1967 at age 34, a position he held till 1974. I always knew him from afar as a legend. It was when I became the President of King’s College Old Boys’ Association (KCOBA) that I got really close to him. My prior admiration of the great man went notches higher. He is an old boy of KC himself, where he acquired his secondary education from 1948 to 1953. His passion for the school has not waned a bit seven decades after. He always creates time for me, discusses the school with enthusiasm and has kept motivating me on helping our alma mater attain greater heights. He was President of the KCOBA from1995 to 1999 and is still a member of the KCOBA Board of Trustees. He authored the book, “King’s College, Lagos the Early Years, 1909-1959”, in 1984.
As a “Lagos boy”, his love for the city is as vast as the ocean. He speaks about Lagos with relish and emotion. He still remembers with fondness the Balogun Lane, off Balogun Street, where his father lived and where he played in the streets. He still recalls Idun-Isagbe (Iduluwo) where his father later moved to while he was a small boy. Despite the present challenges of physical development, he is proud of the progress Lagos has made. He still recalls that the Lagos he grew up in was just about the Island. Life terminated at Yaba. There was no Surulere, no Lekki, and no Oniru Estate. Victoria Island was mostly water, while Ikorodu Road to Ikeja was all bush. He authored the book, “Contemporary State Land Matters in Nigeria: A Case of Lagos State”, in 2003. He assumed the Presidency of the ultra-elite Metropolitan Club, Lagos in 2020, in unending commitment to his beloved city.
Talk about King’s College, Lagos, and you have struck an endless conversation with him. In King’s College’s parlance, an “all-rounder” is the rare student who excels in the classroom, in extracurricular activities and on the field of play. With full colours in athletics and hockey, robust participation in societies, publications, college librarianship and sterling academic performance, he more than earned the “all-rounder” cognomen. He represented Nigeria in 1952 against the Gold Coast, as Ghana was known back in the day. He still has fond memories of cricket, a very popular and old game in King’s College. He still talks about sports rivalry with CMS Grammar School, St. Gregory College, and Government College, Ibadan, among others. King’s College practically shaped his life and prepared him for the man he is today.
Alhaji Okunnu is a pan Nigerian and patriot of inestimable value. He has served Nigeria wholeheartedly and worked for her peace, unity, and development in his entire life. As an undergraduate in London, he was a member and joint Assistant Secretary of the Nigerian Union of Great Britain and Ireland together with the late Chief Bola Ige. He later served as the Secretary-General and President of the Union in 1958 and 1959, respectively. He was also a member of the Committee of African Organisations. In collaboration with the late Chief Tayo Akpata, his bosom friend, he transformed the Nigerian Union from a conservative organisation to a radical and dynamic one, organising student protests in the UK during the London Constitutional Conferences and on contemporaneous youth-related matters in Nigeria. Their view as young Nigerians in London was that it was wasteful to ferry 100 delegates to London to fashion a constitution for the imminent independence of Nigeria at taxpayers’ expense. And when it emerged later that the Nigerian delegation also signed the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact that would see Britain establish a military base in Kano post-Independence, he was among those that successfully championed the London protests against it.
Returning to Nigeria in September 1960, he joined the law firm of Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo, from where he continued his activism, writing a weekly column in The Sunday Express newspaper and triggering a national controversy when he gave a newstalk against the contemplated Preventive Detention Bill of 1963. It caused a stir. He equally organised protests against the pact in Lagos on behalf of the Nigerian Youth Congress until it was revoked. He wrote a book on the struggle, “No Pact No Base”, a critique of the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact” (1960). In 1965, he co-founded the African Statesman magazine, which was dedicated to the realisation of African independence and unity.
Meanwhile, the years 1966 to 1974 were undoubtedly Alhaji Okunnu’s “finest hour”. Following the second military coup of 1966, Colonel Yakubu Gowon (as he then was) initiated a National Constitutional Conference “to recommend in broad outlines, the form of political association, which the country should adopt in the future.” Predictably, he was elected to the conference, where he took a very strong position on a Federalist type of political association, in contradistinction to the “Confederalist” stance of most delegates. Regrettably, the spectre of secession reared its head at the Ad-hoc Conference and discussions reached an impasse, hence the conference was adjourned sine die.
In the heady years of the Civil War, he was appointed a Federal Commissioner for Works by Gowon, a position in which he served till December 1974. Among his epic footprints are the conversion from left to right hand drive, the construction of the Eko Bridge, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Sagamu-Benin Expressway, Oworonsoki-Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, Warri-Sapele-Benin-Auchi Road, Okene-kaduna Road, Jaredi-Yelwa-Kontagora Road Shendam-Lafia-Nasarawa-Abaji-Baro-Pategi Road, along with several others.
In that position as a Federal Commissioner, Alhaji Okunnu also served as Nigeria’s Special Envoy and Leader of many delegations to numerous peace talks in Africa and beyond, which sought to prevent or end the Civil War. He led Nigerian delegations to Addis Ababa, Monrovia, Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Khatoum, Tripoli, Kinshasa, Abidjan, Bangui etc. On 31st December 1974, after seven years and seven months as a Federal Commissioner, he left public service for private life at a youthful age of 41. Yet, duty kept calling on him. In 1980, he was on the Nigerian Delegation to the UN General Assembly. He was named the Pro-Chancellor of the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, in 1982.
Alhaji Okunnu and my late father, Alhaji Ibrahim Imam, were in the committee of the 49 Nigerians that drafted the 1979 Constitution. Till date, he still feels bad that many of their recommendations that could have helped to stabilise Nigeria, such as the revenue sharing formula, were ignored by the military, which also inserted provisions that were never recommended by the Constituent Assembly. He helped set up the 2005 National Political Reforms Conference (NPRC) convoked by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration and later led the Lagos State delegation. He equally led the Lagos delegation to the 2014 National Conference by proxy as he reluctantly accepted the appointment on the condition that the Attorney-General of Lagos would do the active job in Abuja while he coordinated things from Lagos. Obviously, he was not happy that reports of previous conferences were never implemented.
He is a man at home with every Nigerian culture and is pained by the palpable divisiveness in Nigeria. Once asked what he believed was the problem with Nigeria, Alhaji answered: “How can such a country build a nation where everybody regards himself as either a Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Fulani, Tiv, Ijaw, or any ethnic identity but nobody is proud to call himself a Nigerian? Nobody is thinking of Nigeria as a nation, let alone putting it into action.” Nevertheless, Alhaji Okunnu is dyed in the wool optimistic about Nigeria and believes the country will bounce back from the grave challenges of the present.
God loves Alhaji Okunnu, and he has in turn lavished that love on country, family, profession, his faith, Lagos, and his alma mater. He is a loving and successful family man, whether it is about his immediate or extended family. He remains closely connected to his roots, tracing his huge family tree back more than 200 years and proudly celebrating their Nupe roots. He is a regular worshiper at the Syrian Mosque and a staunch supporter of Islamic causes. He is a great grandson of Prince Musa Okunnu, the Chief Asamo of Lagos, Olori Eyo Laba, Olori Eleyo and leader of Eyo Alakete Pupa, who converted to Islam in his later years, thus beginning a family line of devout Muslims. His grandfather was a Muslim scholar, teacher and preacher.
His father, Muritala Abibu Okunnu, was one of the early members and later a Vice President of the Young Ansar-ud-Deen Society of Nigeria. His mother was Hassanat Abebi Okunnu, scion of the Mogaji family, devout Muslims from Ita Igarawu, Lagos. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Alhaji Okunnu followed in their footsteps and later served as the President of the Ansar-Ud-Deen Society. He played a central role in the coming on stream of the Summit University, Offa, Kwara State. He served as the Chairman of the Ansar-ud-deen Education Trust. He has written books on Islam, including “The Sharia: Adultery as a Case Study” (2003) and “The World of Islam in Turmoil” (2016).
He has gone this far in life with the help of a wonderful and happy marriage. The union of Lateef and Lateefat has lasted six decades, and their devotion to each other is evident in the successes they have recorded together. His wife, Her Excellency Alhaja Lateefat Okunnu, has also lived a peaceful and successful life. With the total support of her husband, Alhaja Okunnu made her mark in public service, rising to the position of deputy governor of Lagos State from 1990 to 1992. She was the first female deputy governor in Nigeria (along with Pamela Sadauki of Kaduna State). This has established what has someway become a tradition of female deputy governors, first in Lagos and now across the South West. She was also Chairperson of the Interim Committee of the now defunct National Republican Convention (NRC) in 1993.
Alhaji Lateef and Alhaja Lateefat have a daughter, Justice L. A. Okunnu, who is an incorruptible judge of the Lagos State High Court. While she chose the bench, her father was in the bar through his active years. Alhaji Okunnu had studied Law at the University College, London University, from 1956 to 1959, and was called to the English Bar in his birth month in 1960 and to the Nigerian Bar in the September of the same year. He is Barrister-at-Law of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. He was a member of The General Council of the Bar, from 1966 to 1967 and was admitted to the Nigerian Inner Bar in 1992.
It is befitting that Alhaji Okunnu has received many awards and recognitions, including the Commander of the Order of the Republic of Niger (CON); Commander de I, Ordre National Du Dahomey; and Commander National Order of Togo. He is a man among men. Ninety hearty cheers to a Living Legend, Statesman, Iconic Kingsman, Legal Luminary, Diplomat and Special Envoy, Historian, Sportsman, Youth Activist, Public Servant, and Patriot, Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu SAN, CON.
*Ibrahim-Imam is the President of King’s College Old Boys’ Association (KCOBA).