AN ADDRESS OF WELCOME
Courtesy Visit of a Delegation of the Oxford and Cambridge Club of Nigeria to the Residence of Mr Justice M.A. Odesanya M.A. (Oxon)
October 31 2013
True to form, being the gloriously humble and self-effacing man that he is, my darling husband, and our loving grandfather, declined the opportunity to deliver a personal welcome address to this esteemed delegation of alumni of those two venerable institutions – Oxford and Cambridge. Rather, he let it be known that this particular task would be taken up by one of his grandchildren. Unfortunately, the chosen orator, our adorable Oluwadunsin Wright, had to be somewhere else an hour ago and the infamous Lagos traffic would make it impossible for her to get back from that engagement in time for this wonderful occasion.
Thus, as a proud wife, friend and life-partner, I have been asked to stand in for her and read this welcome address. It is my pleasure to do so.
I sit here before all of you as a very proud elderly Nigerian. No, not as a member of a moneyed family. Certainly not as a relation of any of our here-today-gone-tomorrow rulers, leaders or politicians. No, the privilege is simply this – I am the wife of a great and inexplicably under-recognized and under-venerated Nigerian – Justice Michael Adeyinka Odesanya, MA (Oxon). A legal Colossus of Nigeria and Africa who has been blessed to enter the 100th year of his life and to be alive to host this very generous and auspicious delegation.
When Papa (as we all love to call him) was told that a delegation of the Oxford and Cambridge Club of Nigeria would like to pay him a courtesy visit, his first whispered comment was:
“I see. Why did it take them so long. I went down from Wadham over half a century ago!”
And after a long theatrical pause (which was one of his defining trademarks whenever he delivered any of his many landmark judgments while serving on the bench), he then asked:
“But tell me: do they really have to bring any of the graduates from that other place…I forget the name…”
Another theatrical pause:
“Ah, yes, I believe they call the place Cambridge?”
As always, there was a twinkle in his eyes as he softly uttered these words. His legendary sense of humor, just like he himself, is still very much alive and well!
When Papa left the shores of Nigeria just after World War II, it was partly at the urging of his dearly beloved late brother, Chief S.O. Gbadamosi. The great S.O.G was then immersed in the various entrepreneurial pursuits that were to yield him a considerable fortune later. His younger brother, on the other hand, was already displaying a love of the Classics and of Law. Papa had spent some years after graduating from Yaba Higher College teaching at those historical institutes of higher learning – CMS Grammar School and Baptist Academy. The opportunity to attend one of the two greatest educational institutions of our then-colonial masters – Oxford and Cambridge – was simply heaven-sent. So he agreed to accept his brother’s generous sponsorship. The older would stay back in Nigeria and make money and the younger would go on for further studies. I shall not pass any judgment on which was the better path to follow!!
(I must confess that his sojourn abroad gave both of us the opportunity to work on our courtship which had started when we were both living in our respective family homes in Lagos and Ikorodu. It started with a memorably nervous visit to my father, the magnificent Blessed Jacob, Alabukun, to inform him that he would like to ask for my hand in marriage. It may interest you that while Justice Odesanya was up at Oxford, I was taking a Degree in Classics at the University of Durham in the rather remote regions of north east England. I suppose that you Oxbridge people would ask:
“University of what? Where?”
But you must defer to my advanced years and accept that Durham too is a renowned university in Britain!
And thus he went up to Oxford, to attend Wadham College and to graduate in Law. After his return to Nigeria, and after he and I got married and started a family, he would regale friends and relations alike of the wonderful years he spent up at Oxford. Even the lights of post-war London (where he attended Middle Temple and was then called to the Bar) did not compare to the unique experience of attending an Oxbridge college. Indeed, I would often joke about how Papa loved life in Oxford so much that I used to wonder when he found time to study! He was a member of the Fabian Society, the Commonwealth Society, the University Labor Party and several literary and debating societies. He made the most of the genuinely privileged opportunity to be educated in Oxford and he remains immensely proud to be a Wadham man. But he never forgot the primary purpose of being there and that was to obtain the B.A. (Oxon) degree, and then later the unique Oxbridge M.A., which have both been lifelong prized possessions of his.
He came back to colonial Nigeria full of a burning desire to contribute to the highly-charged desire of young educated Nigerians to excel in whatever fields of endeavor that they were engaged in. Be it Law, Medicine, Economics, Engineering or the Classics. He recognized that being a graduate of Oxbridge carried with it a special responsibility to be in the vanguard of the class of professional Nigerians who would propel Nigeria to independence.
Papa played his part in that particular endeavor, excelling in his legal practice at a time when the hostility and disdain of our colonial rulers was almost unbearably palpable. He was incredibly proud to stand in front of the old-fashioned gramophone radio set in our living room as the National Anthem of newly independent Nigeria was first played to a deliriously happy populace on that famous date in our history – October 1, 1960. (Again, as an aside: I too tried to play my part in the educational development of pre-Independence Nigeria by teaching for many years at Queens College, Yaba. It would not surprise me if some of your mothers, aunties and sisters were former students of mine!)
Papa fully understood the special significance and privilege of being an Oxbridge man. For him, it was extremely important that future generations of Nigerians be given the opportunity of following in the footsteps of himself and other notable Nigerians, in attending Oxford or Cambridge. He encouraged our eldest son, to seek admission to an Oxbridge college, in his case Trinity College, Cambridge. He even jokingly told our friends that we would forgive Dapo for going to that “other place” and for studying Engineering and not Law!
Papa’s overarching immodesty prevented him from publicizing his numerous achievements.
l As a leading legal luminary and practitioner in post-Independence Lagos;
l as lead counsel at the famous Treasonable Felony trial of the early ‘60’s;
l as a pioneer High Court Judge of the newly created Lagos State;
l as inaugural Chairman of the Lagos State Judicial Commission
l as inaugural President of the Mediation, Conciliation and Arbitration Commission of the Organization of African Unity;. Among his pioneer staff at the OAU-MCA, was Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, who still sends occasional greetings to Papa.
l And so many others too numerous to mention.
Relaxing with his contemporaries of Nigeria’s rapidly growing professional class and sipping Egovin on sultry carefree evenings in the Island Club and the Yoruba Tennis Club was something he enjoyed doing. And the tales that he often shared with other members inevitably revolved around his years at Oxford.
But in all that he did and in all that he achieved, his enduring hope was that Nigeria would grow and live up to its potential to be a leading world power.
History will judge whether those hopes have been realized. However, sitting down here in front all of you today is in itself a joyous occasion. He is truly happy that you have honored him by this courtesy visit. The existence of a flourishing Oxford and Cambridge Club in Nigeria is proof that those of you who went up long after him also recognize the privilege of being graduates of those uniquely special halls of learning.
As a memento of your visit, we would respectfully ask you to accept a copy of Papa’s Profile that was prepared in celebration of his 99th birthday last June. He has also asked me to assure you that an updated version of the Profile will be presented specially to the Oxford and Cambridge Club on the occasion of his 100th birthday next year!
On his behalf, our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and I would like to thank you for this gracious gesture of respect and admiration. May your children and grandchildren also have the opportunity to become Oxbridge graduates.
We wish you safe journeys back to your respective homes.
Thank you very much.