Mr. Justice Sowemimo: The Man Who Passed Sentence On History
In November 1962 Nigeria witnessed what would turn out to be the trial of the century.
For the first time in this country’s history some of the most respected politicians would be docked and accused of treasonable offences and it was up to one man to make a decision that he understood would change his life and that of the accused forever.
That man was Mr. George Sodeinde Sowemimo, presiding Judge over the most controversial trial in newly independent Nigeria.
The trial was that of the one time premier of the Western Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo along with 24 others, they were accused of planning to overthrow the civilian government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
This sensational trial would be the first of its kind. The lives of Chief Obafemi Awolowo along with his co defendants would be put under a microscope, some aspects of it, which were not known to the world would be made public and the audacity of jailing a politician would set a precedent that would be repeated many times later in the future.
The problems of these men started in 1962 with the tension and total breakdown within the Action Group political party (which led the regional Western Region Government) leading to the removal of one of its more prominent leaders, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola
This removal sparked bloody riots on the streets of the region and led to an equally violent showdown on the floor of the regional legislature.
A state of Emergency was declared and the Government was dissolved.
Action Group leaders were placed under house arrest and a federal administrator was appointed.
The new administration initiated an investigation into various allegations against the past administration. Accusations of criminal misuse of public funds were made and in the course of the financial investigation, police uncovered evidence, linking Awolowo and other AG members in a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
Awolowo along with other members including Dr Chike Obi, Joseph Tarka, Chief Alfred Rewane and Victor Olabisi Onabanjo were arrested and put on trial. Chief Anthony Enahoro was in the UK at the time but he was also eventually extradited to Nigeria where he was tried and convicted of treason.
The accused were …….
After a 10-month trial, with a total of 95 witnesses, 383 exhibits examined. Judge Sowemimo delivered an 8-hour judgment.
The Out Come
Chief Anthony Enahoro – 15 years
Mr. Ayo Akinsanyo – 7 years
Mr. Sunday Ebietoma – 7 years
Mr. Lateef Jakande – 7 years
Mr. Anomuogharan Okotie – Yesin – 7 years
Mr. Michael Omisade – 7 years
Mr. Uzodinma Nwaobiala 5 years
Mr. Samuel Onitiri – 5 years
Mr. Gabby Shasore – 5 years
Mr. Joshua Akamo – 5 years
Mr. Adeyiga Akinsanya – 3 years
Mr. Josiah Olawoyin – 3 years
Mr. Simeon Oyeshile – 3 years
Mr. Sebastian James Umoren 3 years
Mr. Sunbo Jibowu – 2 years
Chief S. T Oredein – 2 year
Mr. Samuel Otubanjo – 2 years
Mr. Tunde Amuwo – Discharged
Mr. Joseph Tarka – Discharged
Chief Alfred Rewane
Mr. Victor Olabisi Onabanjo
Dr Chike Obi
Chief G. Ekwejunor-Etchie
Mr. Muri Badmus
The Trial Judge Mr. Sowemimo stated:
“….Whatever others may say, this is my personal view. I am not
speaking as a judge but as a Nigerian. Here we have one of the first
Premiers of the autonomous region standing trial. If you were the
only one before me, I would have felt that it was enough for you to
have undergone the strain of the trial. I would have asked you to
- But I am sorry, I cannot do so now because my hands are tied.
Having sentenced those young chaps whatever happens I have to pass
some sort of sentence. If I made up my mind to sentence the other
accused persons who I find were tools in the hands of others, and if
my conclusion is right, it is for me to see that a punishment by me
in my court is such that others would see that there is no
I do not see what useful purpose a sentence of imprisonment will do
to you, but I have come to the conclusion that these things emanate
from you. To get yourself involved in this thing is enough shame.
But this is a political crime. There are things which one may never
know. All I know is what is before me and I am bound by the
evidence. You mentioned about the delay in giving judgment, but I
wish you were in my position and had to read some of these things –
the evidence which was about 800 pages and the notes of submissions
also about 600 pages. I was never hoping or thinking that I would be
called upon to try a former Head of Government and Leader of
Opposition. I am only happy that this is a court of first instance. ”
At the conclusion of the speech by Justice Sowemimo, Chief Awolowo was sentenced as follows:
1st Count – 10 years I.H.L (Imprisonment with Hard Labor)
Treasonable felony, contrary to Section 41(b) of the Criminal Code
2nd Count – 5 years I.H.L.
Conspiracy to commit a felony, contrary to Section 516 of the
3rd Count – 2 years I.H.L.
Conspiracy to effect an unlawful purpose, contrary to Section 518 (6)
of the Criminal Code
Sentences to be concurrent