A Night Out With TOS Benson

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts, .”

William Shakespeare

The passing away of Chief T.O.S Benson SAN first Minister of Information at the ripe old age of 94 came as a rude shock to most Nigerians. He had been very active on the public affairs firmament of Nigeria in the last two decades. It felt like he was always there and would always be, but the elder statesman succumbed to the ultimate fate of all flesh on 13th February 2008. There are great lessons to be learnt from the life of this great Nigerian. Many have written and made eulogies of him.

As is the custom with many great men, a couple myths and epic battles are associated with the memory of TOS Benson. One that easily comes to mind was the huge controversy over the then Head of State General Abdulsalam Abubakar’s New Year address to the Nation on January 1, 1999. Speech had contained a paragraph that extended the retirement age of High Court judges from 65 to 70 years. There was in fact no such decision either by the Dictator personally nor the junta. The “smoking gun” had been planted into the Head of State’s speech by “an unknown printer’s devil” who is still on the list of Nigeria’s “most wanted” to this day. But the unsuspecting Army General read the speech! Unfortunately for the “smuggler” he forgot to include the Federal High Court Judges whose then Chief judge Belgore J was perhaps the most powerful judicial figure of those days. Belgore was said to have walked over to General Abubakar in Aso Rock to demand an explanation for exclusion of Federal High Court from the extension since that Court too, was a High Court.

The offending paragraph had also caused great embarrassment to Lagos State Government which had made elaborate send-off plans for its then retiring Chief Judge for over 30 years meritorious service and had had to cancel those arrangements due to the paragraph in General Abdulsalam’s Speech. Chief TOS Benson, a man of uncommon courage never afraid of controversy delved into the matter filed a suit in court to avert the unconstitutionality. This was a national judicial mess from which most practicing lawyers, the Nigerian Bar Association and our famous “human rights” lawyers simply looked the other way. The matter was litigated up to Court of Appeal with Chief Benson insisting on Constitutional compliance especially since neither the Head of State nor anybody else would own up to the authorship of the paragraph. But thank goodness, the day was saved by a timely reversal of the verbal “constitutional amendment” by a correction statement issued by the Press Officer to the Head of State Muhammed Haruna. The Constitutional Case was settled and since all is well that ends well, the Lagos State Government proceeded with the elaborate valedictory party.

Despite military dictatorship, Chief Benson exuded courage objectivity and independence. He used full-page paid advertisements to express his views on crucial National Matters so that you could not be in any doubt where he stood on those issues.

His views were also often carried by the Federal Radio and Television. He exercised a lot of positive influence upon the legal and judicial environment through the power of self-expression. He was not just a bread and butter lawyer. There was the case of the appointment of an Attorney General for the Federation at inception of Abacha Regime in November 1994. Dr Olu Onagoruwa a famous Constitutional Lawyer had been nominated for the office. Chief Benson took a full-page advertisement accusing General Oladipo Diya (holder of the office equivalent to Vice President) of crass NEPOTISM and giving his reasons for opposing the appointment. The matter also ended up in Court where Chief Benson sought an injunction over the appointment. This was another matter squarely within the jurisdiction of an active Nigerian Bar Association. But the battle was fought rightly or wrongly by Chief Benson until Abacha Regime by itself revoked the appointment. Unlike some Yoruba leaders, fear of man was not in Chief Benson’s dictionary and although there were rumours of support for Abacha Regime, General Diya was helpless to defend or retaliate.

In these two battles which are examples of the kind of public causes chief Benson pursued there was no question of personal benefit. But anyone witnessing the vigour with which he pursued the principles (or his victims) would have gotten away with a wrong impression. Hence some have accused him of “vindictiveness’ because as they put it “you don’t want to be found on the wrong side of Chief TOS Benson”. He was an unrelenting pursuer of his enemies fighting them with bull-dog tenacity and ceaseless gusto until he beats them to submission. But this criticism is not surprising. Even Chief Obafemi Awolowo whom the Yorubas revere almost to deification suffered similar charge in 1979 at inception of his Presidential campaign. So do many great men.

These activities were mere extra curriculars for Chief Benson. His primary occupation to the end was the practice of law. His Chambers flourished till the end and produced many excellent lawyers and judges among who was Chief Kehinde Sofola (who pre-deceased Benson), Hon Justice Akinsanya who became an epitome of judicial excellence on the Lagos State Judiciary as well as retired Judges like Justice Oshodi who preferred to spend their retirement in TOS Benson’s Chambers. In my days at the Nigerian Law School late 70’s students had to struggle for an internship space in TOS BENSON’s Chambers and as many as eighteen of my classmates did. Many left his Chambers to prosper elsewhere as is the case with Sofola and Dolapo Akinsanya mentioned above. It is an indication of Benson’s great amiability and generosity that streams of lawyers pass through his chambers from generation to generation. Among others, he held a retainership of the famous French Car Consortium – SCOA like “for ever” to put it in American parlance. He was also an active member (and giver) to the Nigerian Bar Association both Lagos and Federal.

This brings me to my close personal encounter with Chief Benson. On a warm summer night in 1995, members of the Nigeria Bar Association Lagos Branch of which I was General Secretary had a social outing as we often did after the Monthly Meetings. Famous Lagos Lawyer Kanmi Ishola Osobu led the group. Among those we visited with on that memorable night were Justice Alfa Modibo Belgore, distinguished Alumnus of Ilesa Grammar School, (who later became Chief Justice of Nigeria) and Chief TOS Benson. Chief Benson’s palatial Mansion over-looked Falomo Shopping Center in Ikoyi, the traditional neighborhood of the rich and famous in Lagos. The house had a swimming pool and a mini-zoo. We shared anecdotes and reminiscences with the Chief and his pretty wife over good food and tasteful wines from different climes. Going down the memory lane, Chief Benson told of his forays in the 1930s as a young Customs Officer in South Eastern Nigeria including his adventures with beautiful women of Ndiigbo origin. He also told of how as a Councilor in Lagos City Council he invested all his income in landed property and how all money he made in the 1960s went into mortgage payments.

But what struck me most was the story of how as Minister of Information in the Federal Government he had constructed a shed on his official quarters where he stored all furniture issued by the government because they were of “inferior quality”. He purchased with his personal funds high quality furniture befitting the Official Residence of the Minister of Information. Now, that is integrity in action which hardly visible among public officers today.

Chief Benson was a pioneer of the fine tradition of our High Public Figures holding their spouses high in public view and giving them room to exhibit their talents and destinies. He had met Chief Mrs Opral Benson in Liberia while on a conference there in the sixties and later married her. Opral Benson pursued a dual career as a University Administrator and Fashion and beauty diva and appropriately received the Chieftaincy title of “Iya-Oge” of Lagos from the Lagos Monarch. For a man of his generation to marry from another country when most insisted on marrying from their home-towns was indeed courageous. The other known woman in Chef Benson’s life was his daughter Late Mrs Titi Ibironke – a successful lawyer in her own right. The Ibironkes and my family were close friends and I was a customer and frequent visitor to BIATO Bookstores Managed by Mrs Ibironke. Her husband was Director of Nigerian Law School Lagos where my Dad also taught. But those good relations and times did not last as Mrs Ibironke was suddenly snatched by the cold hands of death in her prime sometime in 1985. The pride and hope of every lawyer is to have his daughter or son succeed him in the profession. Chief Benson’s had realized the dream but alas his loving daughter vanished “forgotten like a dream”. You can judge a man by the way he handles not just success but also adversity. Chief Benson went through it all with equanimity stoic resignation and great courage.

Chief Benson assisted many to attain offices and achieve their professional dreams. He was particularly helpful to his fellow Alumni of CMS Grammar School – the oldest Secondary School in Nigeria. He helped many people of South Eastern Nigeria origin especially the Ndiigbo to make it in Lagos. But then there were the mis-judgements. He was so much respected in the Lagos political horizon that he was given the singular recognition of nominating an Attorney General for Lagos Statein 1992 by Governor Otedola’s National Republican Party State Government. He nominated his towns-man. Needless to say, the appointment was a monumental disaster. There were also the rumours. The Chief was accused of providing cover for the then most corrupt judge in the Lagos State Judiciary who enjoyed the singular dishonor and record of being beaten in his own official residence by a litigant. By the time this palm-on-cheek “oyinbo” was eventually forced out of the judiciary in “veiled disgrace” (apologies to MKO Abiola) in the new millennium the rumour mill was that Chief Benson was either too tired to make the phone calls to his Northern Judicial friends at Abuja or the judge’s file was so full of Petitions from Litigants, Lawyers and other judicial officers that nothing else could be done to save him.

I must not conclude this piece without mentioning an example of Chief Benson’s principled tenacity. In 1978 when Government decided to create the Honour Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria the first two awardees were the then Federal Attorney General Dr Nabo Graham Douglas and Chief F.R.A. Williams. Both had been QC’s and eminently merited the Honour. It was the assumption of most lawyers that those who had been Queen’ Counsel prior to that event would automatically convert to SAN. But the authorities in their wisdom thought otherwise. They required applications from all. Chief Benson would not brook such indignity and spoke against the unfair treatment. He simply continued to practice in Courts sitting at the Inner Bar like the Senior Advocates until he was conferred that Honour WITHOUT APPLICATION! In the meantime, nobody dared challenge him.

There are great lessons to be learnt from the lives of many of our National Heroes especially the founding fathers of the Nigerian Nation. I learnt a lot from the life of Chief Benson. But the most profound lesson which may not be known to many of his friends and colleagues has not been told. The Chief was indeed a practising Christian. I found proof of this when I personally visited him in company of Alhaji Tajudeen Bawala in 1992 to consult on Lagos Politics. When ushered into his study early in the morning, we met the Chief reading his Bible. I quickly came to the conclusion that this must be the secret to the long successful and stress-less life of this great Nigerian. Nothing guarantees success as starting the day daily with one’s Maker. No wonder that Chief Benson saw many, many happy days. That lesson stuck with me to this day.

Written by
Adebayo Adejare
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1 comment
  • I am English and met a Tajudeen Bawala in Liverpool in the early 1970s. I have a beautiful box he made for me. I wonder if this is the same person mentioned in your report and if so whether he would consider contacting me via email.