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The Founding Fathers: Chief Rotimi Williams

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EARLY LIFE

Rotimi Williams was born on 16 December 1920 in Lagos. His older brother was Akintola Williams, born a year earlier, who became a distinguished Chartered Accountant. His father and uncle were both lawyers, and were called to the bar in 1927 and 1892 respectively.

He got into primary school in the 1930s, at the Methodist Ologbowo School, then went to C.M.S Grammar School, Lagos for secondary education. Despite being given a full scholarship to study mechanical engineering at Yaba Higher College, he chose to become a lawyer.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1942 and was called to the bar at the Gray’s Inn, London in 1943. He set up the first indigenous Nigerian law firm in 1948 with Chief Remilekun Fani-Kayode and Chief Bode Thomas . The law firm was called “Thomas, Williams and Kayode”.

Political And Professional Career

In 1943, he became the first Nigerian solicitor to the Supreme Court of Nigeria and soon thereafter entered the political arena as a member of the Nigerian Youth Movement. He rose to become the movement’s general secretary.

However, the movement was soon embroiled in a crisis which dented its political support among the Nigerian masses. When the movement began to fade politically, he was one of the educated members of the Nigerian political class who joined the Action Group.

He was the group’s legal adviser in the early 1950s and was also a member of the Western region’s privy council. He was elected into the Lagos Town Council in 1953 and was subsequently made chairman of the council.

Following changes made in the Littleton Constitution, he was made the Minister of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs in 1954. The appointments placed him in good stead within the Action Group and, at 33, he was already a member of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s inner cabinet.

At 37 years, he became the first indigenous attorney general and minister of justice in the Western Region. He was made Queen’s Counsel in 1958, another first for him, as he was one of the first two Nigerians to be made one. In 1960, he became the deputy premier of the region, acting as the premier.

In subsequent years, Williams’ interest in politics waned as the West gradually became embroiled in political controversies after Chief Awolowo moved to the centre. Williams found himself being drawn again into law practice, finally quitting active politics in 1962 following the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Region.

Even then, he continued to speak out on issues of national importance; his views commanded high respect.

In 18 October 1975, Rotimi Williams became the chairman of the Constitutional Drafting Committee. The body was formed to present a draft constitution to be approved by the military administration of Obasanjo.

He led the convention to present an agenda for broad coalition building across ethnic and regional lines. The body pushed for presidential winners to have at least 25 percent of the total votes cast in two thirds of the nineteen states in Nigeria and that each of the 19 states of the federation should have a minister representing them. The political parties should also have support in at least two thirds of the states.

He was exceptional, a genius who attained the greatest professional height through sheer diligence and extraordinary devotion to his calling.

Williams had always expressed strong views against obnoxious government policies. He did this even at a time of military dictatorship when abuse of human and constitutional rights were rampant and it was extremely dangerous to be seen as a government critic.

Among several landmark cases, he successfully challenged the Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree 4 of 1984 as well as the decree by the Abacha administration proscribing The Guardian newspapers.

At 84, and up to a few months before he died, he never stopped working as a forensic advocate, shuttling, even with his diminished energy, from one court to the other.

Death

Williams died on Saturday, March 26, 2005 at the age of 84. Late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) described Williams as a genius, “one of the greatest legal minds in the world, not only in Nigeria.”

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