The name Taslim Elias was hitherto alien to me. I first came in contact with some of his judgments in old law reports and books. I took it upon myself to undergo an extensive research on this great jurist and his sojourn in the legal circle. Here are my findings. Enjoy;
Taslim Olawole Elias was born on November 11, 1914 in Lagos, Nigeria. He was a jurist. He was one time the Attorney-General of federation, Chief Justice of Nigeria and later on, the President of the International Court of Justice. He was a scholar who modernized and extensively revised the laws in Nigeria. In my humble view, the history of Nigeria Legal system will be incomplete without mentioning Taslim Elias and his remarkable contributions.
He attended the following school and institutions: His Secondary School at the Church missionary society Grammar School and Igbodi College in Lagos. After passing the Cambridge certificate examination he worked as an assistant in the railway. While working at the Nigeria Railway, Elias became an external student of University of London, and later on, he passed the intermediate examinations for the B.A and LL.B degrees. He left Nigeria in 1944 and was admitted into University College London. As this was during the Second World War, with London the target of frequent bomb attacks, he spent some time at Cambridge Trinity College. He graduated with a B.A the year he entered the University College London and two years later received his LL.B and in 1947, he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple. He was Yarborough Anderson Scholar and the same year received his LLM degree. He continued his graduate education and became the first African to earn a PhD in Law from University College London in 1949.
In 1951, Elias was awarded a UNESCO fellowship to undertake research in the legal, economic and social problems of Africa. Later that year, he had his first academic appointment; the Simon Research fellow at Manchester University. It was also in 1951, that he published his first book titled “Nigeria Land law and custom”. Later in 1954, he moved to Oxford where he became Oppenheimer Research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Nuffield College and Queen Elizabeth House. In 1956, he was a visiting Professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi. Elias also lectured at Universities of Aligarh, Allahabad, Bombay and Calcutta. In that year he published two books; “Makers of Nigerian Law” and “The Nature of African Customary Law”.
He returned to London in 1957 and was appointed as the Governor of the School of Oriental and African studies. He participated in 1958 Nigerian Constitutional Conference in London. He was one the architects of Nigeria’s Independence Constitution.
Before Nigeria became Independent, Elias as Jurist of International repute served as constitutional adviser to many British colonies such as West Indian in 1959 and that of Somaliland and Malawi respectively in 1960 while sending delegations to London to negotiate their Independences. He became a Queen Counsel in 1961, the same year he was appointed the General Rapporteur for the African Conference on Rule of Law under the auspices of International Law Commission. What a remarkable achievement? A lawyer from one the colonies were considered fit to be Pro-chancellor of a very serious institution in England ever before his country became Independent from British rule.
Elias was appointed as the first Attorney-General of the federation in 1960. When University of Lagos was founded in 1962, the founding fathers felt that the leadership of the faculty of law had to be in the hands of the most outstanding scholar. They appointed the leading authority in company law, Prof. LCB Gower. With his departure, the only person considered capable of keeping the academic distinction flying was Elias. Notwithstanding the personal strain of himself, he accepted the position of Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. He combined it with his office as the Attorney General of the federation in the seamless manner. None of the two offices suffered at all because they were occupied by the same person.
Elias tenure as the Attorney-General was robust, dynamic and initiative. According to a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, late Justice Mohammed Bello he said: “As the Attorney-General of the federation, Judge Elias was an innovator who initiated the reform of our laws and legal institutions. He was the architect of our Law School and Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. He laid the foundation for the establishment of Nigerian Institute of Advance Legal Studies. His major contributions as a reformer included, the drafting of our 1963 Republican Constitution, the enactment of Companies Act 1968 and the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1970. He resuscitated the publication of All Nigeria Law Reports regularly”.
When Elias was announced as the new Chief Justice of Nigeria in 1972, the event was mentioned worldwide. Nigeria had appointed an international scholar who had distinguished himself world as its new Chief justice. He was appointed to succeed Sir Adetokumbo Ademola, the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria. On the Bench of the Supreme Court as the CJN, he equally left behind his footprint on the sand of the apex court by putting together the Archbold like handbook known as the “Handbook of the Supreme Court of Nigeria” which contained the Supreme Court Rules 1972 and other constitutional and statutory provisions relating to the court. The Elias’s deep and profound knowledge of laws are reflected till date in number of judgments he delivered while he was in the court. Coming to mind is the case of Ashiru v. Ajao (1973) 8 NSCC 525 where in strong term he condemned the attitude of taking law into one’s hand when he said: “It cannot be over emphasized to both high and low that every person resident in this country has a right to go about his or her lawful business unmolested or unhampered by anyone else, be it a Government functionary or a private individual. The courts will frown upon any manifestation of arbitrary power assumed by anyone over the life or property of another even if that other is suspected of having breached some law or regulation. People must never take law into their own hands by attempting to enforce what they consider to be their right or entitlement. It is therefore , wrong, very wrong for a group of persons to go the workshop of another in Bode, effect a forcible entry into it, beat up his employee and remove the morning’s taking, all the purported but misguided exercise of a power on behalf, ostensibly, or a local branch of a trade union. It is even more wrong for such persons to claim immunity for their action on the pretence that it was a police officer that they employed to remove the pepper mill. The law of Nigeria is that those who set a ministerial rather than a judicial officer in a motion in this way are as liable for the wrongful seizure of another’s property as if they had done it themselves. Police officers therefore must be wary of being inveigled into a situation in which they find themselves becoming partisan agents of wrong-doers in the pursuit of a private vendetta. This kind of show of power which is becoming too frequent in our society today must be discouraged by all those who set any store by civilized values. The poor pepper mill owner is entitled to his workshop and his humble means of livelihood as is the owner of a mansion and share certificate not to be deprived of them even for one day. They will accordingly be judgment in favour of the mill owner for the loss of his earnings during the period when his mill was wrongfully withheld by the defendants.”
It was the overthrown of the Gowon administration by the Murtala administration in 1975 that ended the tenure of Elias as the Chief justice of Nigeria but this notwithstanding, he moved on to play more global roles in the international sphere. Nigeria’s loss was the world’s gain. Even the same government that ousted him out as the CJN, supported and lobbied when he was nominated to the International Court of justice. In November the same year, he was elected by the General Assembly of the United Nation to the International Court of Justice, Hague where he eventually became the first African to be the President of that court.
Elias was equally a man of numerous laureates and awards that were conferred on him. Here are of them. Academic Qualifications: LL.B. (Hons.), London, 1946; Yarborough-Anderson Scholarship, Inner Temple 1946-49, LL.M., London 1947; Barrister-at-law, April, 2 . 1947; University of London Postgraduate Scholarship 1947-49; PhD, London 1949; B.A, London, 1954; LL.D, London, 1962. Professional Distinctions: The title of Queen Counsel conferred by the Government in 1961. National honours: The title of CFR in 1963, GCON in 1985 and NNMA in 1979, conferred by the Government of Nigeria. Honorary Degrees: LL.D. Dakar, 1964; D.Litt, Ibadan, 1969; LL.D. Ahmadu Bello University, 1972; D.Litt. University of Nigeria Nsukka , 1973; D.Litt., University of Lagos, 1974; LL.D, University of Ile-Ife, 1974; LL.D. University of Howard, 1975; LL.D, University of Jodhpur, 1976; LL.D, University of Hull, 1980; LL.D. University of Dalhousie, 1983; LL.D, University of Manchester, 1984; LL.D. University of Buckingham, 1986; LL.D, Lagos State University, 1987; LL.D, University of Jos, 1987. Research Fellows: UNESCO Fellowship for Research in aspect of the legal, social and economic problems of Africa, 1951; Simon Research fellow of the University of Manchester, 1951-1953; Oppenheim Research Fellow, Institution of Commonwealth Studies and Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford 1954-1960, Research Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, 1956.
Dr. Elias was a great mind. He was great in many respects. In the survey of Nigerians of 20th century by the New Magazine, he was described as “A rare a scholar, a dye-in-wool patriot, a remarkable international jurist, a great ambassador, a humble gentleman and a warm and passionate fairly man”. Judge Taslim Olawole Elias left the world to go to the great beyond on the 14th August, 1991 at the age of 77. He lived and died before I was born and 22 years later, the world is still celebrating him. I am celebrating because he is a symbol of emulation to me and many others. Your name, contributions and legacies will live forever. Continue to rest my erudite jurist, scholar, patriot and mentor.