By George Etomi
As I write my tribute in honour of a man who was my friend, mentor, employer and father figure, I am reminded that what matters most in the life of every man is the impact he makes while he lives- the men he built and the lives he transformed through his life. Chief Christopher Oladipo Ogunbanjo (sometimes affectionately called COO) is the man who while he lived, watered other men, exposed them to sunlight and helped them grow.
I remember fondly the year 1979, because it was the year my path crossed with that of Chief Ogunbanjo and the year my career took a dimension different from what I had planned and envisaged. I had just obtained my LL.M degree from the London School of Economics and was settling into the lectureship position I had accepted with the University of Lagos, when I ran into my friend Udoma Udo Udoma, who informed me he had quit his position at the University and had taken up an appointment with Chase Merchant Bank. Intrigued by his exit from academia, I asked him what options he thought were open to me and he recommended without a heartbeat the law firm of Chris Ogunbanjo & Co(CHRISCO) a law firm at which he had interned.
I submitted my CV and got a call from one of the senior lawyers, Chief EOA Idowu (SAN) of blessed memory, who said to me “Chief would like to have a word with you”. Indeed, Chief had a word with me and that marked the beginning of a relationship that transcended a mere employer-employee relationship and one that blossomed into friendship, and the establishment of deep running family ties. Despite never having met Chief prior to that day, we took an instant liking to each other, which the years and decades only strengthened and deepened; that mutual admiration which sprang up in both of us from our first meeting remained undiminished until Chief’s passing. He had an aura at that very first meeting which made me feel liked, appreciated and welcomed into the family of Chief, the firm and which ultimately made me look up to him as a father. The warmth and acceptance with which Chief welcomed me and its progression into a father-son relationship was significant and important to me, because I had lost my dad at 15 and had grown up in a family of so many children, where we essentially held each other’s hand through school, as we navigated life without a father, with our older ones stepping up as father figure. So, meeting Chief in real life and his first reaction to me instantly gave me that father that I lost very early in life and whom I had sorely missed. The four years I spent at CHRISCO without equivocation, shaped me into the man I have become. Not only was Chief a role model I looked up to, he was also a guardian angel to those of us he gave the privilege to work with him.
The Man, His Firm: The Chris Ogunbanjo & Co Years
I had such a wonderful time working with Chief, within just three months of being there, that I urged Udoma to come back to Chief CHRISCO and enjoy the goodness of the firm with me. Chief graciously welcomed him with a warm embrace. Working in Chief’s prestigious commercial law firm opened my eye to a world I never knew existed within the context of legal practice. At the time, the traditional career paths for lawyers were either litigation or teaching, Chief chose commercial law practice, an area which was considered the sole preserve of foreign elitist lawyers. He chose the path less travelled and took his army of young lawyers with him and that decision has made all the difference in the development of commercial law practice in Nigeria today, and in the lives of generations of lawyers whom he trained and mentored. Make no mistake about it, Chief was an astute litigator in his own right, who made the decision to walk a different path- the path of commercial law practice.
During our CHRISCO years, so many landmark events occurred in Nigeria, one of which was the indigenization of businesses, for which high caliber legal work was required. This period was significant because Nigeria was throwing off the last vestiges of colonialism, and new laws and policies had been passed which created a beehive of activities in the commercial and legal landscape. The commercial law space was dominated and indeed owned by foreigners; it was in the course of my interaction and close working with Chief, that I realised that I was actually working with the pioneer of Nigerian commercial law practice. My years at the Firm exposed me to some of the most esoteric aspects of commercial law practice in Nigeria.
Chief was never the type to hide his client from you, as most are wont to do, he exposed his lawyers to his client, taught us service delivery at the highest international standards, and gave us the code of any successful legal practice. Chief Ogunbanjo did not for a second feel threatened by the fact that he was intentionally and consciously building another generation of commercial law practitioners. He never felt poorer for making you rich, he never felt diminished by sharing knowledge and he never felt undermined by making you grow. It is therefore no surprise that by the time we started moving on, we became foundational members of the next generation of commercial lawyers. The fact that many of the young lawyers he taught and mentored in those years have established and run successfully for decades thriving, reputable commercial law practices, is testament of the quality of impact he made. Chief’s golden principles of a successful legal practice, which I continue to preach are simple: You must bring in the work, you must do it to the highest professional & ethical standard and then get paid for it.
The roll call of notable and prominent Nigerian lawyers that went through Chief is a lesson on the magnanimity of his spirit. The likes of Hairat Balogun, the first female Attorney General of Lagos State, Senator Odunjirin Dipo, Chief EOA Idowu, Senator Udo Udoma, Bode Johnson, Chief Tunji Ayanlaja, Chief Tokunbo Thomas, Mr. Bode Johnson, Mr. Asue Ighodalo and others too numerous to count, are just a few of the many he impacted and groomed.
Chief Christopher Ogunbanjo: the Gracious Man, the Benevolent Friend and the Loyal Boss
Chief had style, whenever he travelled internationally with any one of his lawyers, you flew first class with him, siting right next to him. What greater confidence could a young lawyer have when Chief permitted you to have the best and be the best? At CHRISCO many of us travelled to different parts of the world, representing the firm and country in various high flying commercial law work.
I remember fondly one event which displayed clearly Chief’s integrity and his willingness to protect his own, even at a great personal inconvenience. It was in the dying days of the Shagari regime, when there was a borrowing gale in Nigeria, and the Federal and State governments were outdoing each other in borrowing. At that time, the Federal Government (FG) was trying to borrow an obscene amount of money. The lenders in trying to structure the transaction sought to make the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) the primary borrower, as opposed to the FG being the primary Obligor. CBN ‘s role under the law was limited to currency undertaking, but in this case, the lenders wanted CBN to be the primary obligor, and the FG as Guarantor of the transaction and Nigeria’s Oil Reserves and resources as security for the transaction. As is usual with most foreign lenders, they sought to insure the risks associated with the transaction and the insurance company sought legal opinion on the enforceability of the transaction. This request for a legal opinion came to my desk and after diligent research, I gave an opinion stating that the transaction structure was against the CBN Act and the extant law. I stated that Nigeria’s oil reserves could not be given as security to lenders, and that pledging our oil assets was against the constitution because revenue from Nigeria’s oil resources go into the Consolidated Revenue Fund for distribution between the FG and the states. The FG could therefore not pledge the national asset in that manner, as the security would be unenforceable.
That legal opinion was a blow to the transaction, and it tied down the transaction. Chief did not know about the legal opinion. However, as soon as Nigerian government officials who were waiting for the transaction close got to know that the legal opinion that halted the transaction emanated from Chief’s firm, he received severe backlash, his friends in power were greatly displeased with him and they did not conceal their displeasure. Alarmed by the events and the tension the opinion generated, Chief called me and I defended the opinion. On a Saturday, we both went to the office, because he wanted to confirm the accuracy of the opinion and its compatibility with the law. Convinced of the accuracy of the opinion, he said to me “George, I stand by the Opinion”. As a young lawyer, his response left an indelible impression on me, one I have never forgotten to this day; that event was a watershed in my heart and legal career. It taught me that loyalty is something that must be reciprocated to even a subordinate. Someone of a lesser mien could have baulked in the face of such political pressure, but not Chief, definitely not Chief Christopher Oladipo Ogunbanjo, my boss, mentor, friend and father.
Chief laid the foundation for the growth of commercial law, by starting different commercial law associations, like the Nigerian Maritime Law Association. As a proud son and Mentee, I followed in his footsteps when I saw a need for a Section on Business Law within the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and took steps to ensure the actualisation of the NBA-SBL. I am glad that in my time as pioneer chairman of the SBL, the SBL honoured him with a Lifetime Award.
Chief welcomed me into his family, I share same birthday with his late wife and she called me every year to celebrate with me; this made me feel special. I continue to enjoy a close relationship with his children to this day. As I celebrate the life and times of Pa Ogunbanjo, and mourn his physical translation, I acknowledge that my personality and practice have benefited greatly from his generosity of spirit and his unrestrained benevolence.
The last photograph I took with Pa Ogunbanjo was on his 99th birthday and given how strong and healthy he looked, I was confident that we would be present to celebrate his 100th, but here we are!!! A mere mortal cannot interrogate his Creator, so I will not ask God why He did not give us the privilege to celebrate Pa Ogunbanjo at 100. I am immensely thankful to have shared in Pa Ogunbanjo’s light and to have enjoyed almost five decades of friendship with him. I join his family, my family, the legal profession and Nigeria at large in mourning the loss of a legend, pacesetter and trailblazer. To the distinguished ChrisCo alumni, I offer my deepest condolences because I know that the demise of our dearest COO is a loss that is keenly felt by each of us, because he was a worthy friend and mentor. Chief Christopher Oladipo Ogunbanjo may have left us in the physical, but his untainted, pristine legacy will forever endure.
Adieu Pa Chris Ogunbajo!!! Always loved, Forever Cherished!!!! Never Ever Ever Forgotten!!!!
Etomi is one of the most outstanding Corporate Lawyer in Nigeria.
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