One should not write an autobiography unless one has fought, won, and lost many battles and bears the scars of defeat and the accouterments of success. Additionally and perhaps more crucially, one should not invite non-participating others and the rest of our increasingly voyeuristic world into one’s life story unless the story is sufficiently representative of and can function as a stand-in for the struggles and triumphs of others while challenging and alerting them to the salient forces shaping their lives. Dele Ogun meets these challenges with panache, passion, and verve in The Law, the Lawyers, and the Lawless.
To enjoy the gift of this little brilliant book, one must set aside its misleadingly lawyerly title. Not because there is no law or legalese in the prose—there is, albeit of the layman-friendly variety. But because, although a member of both the English and Nigerian bars and a founder of the first black-owned commercial law firm in England, the author’s narrative and analytical offerings, not to mention his style, are a rebellion against the strictures and apolitical pretensions of the legal profession.
In The Law, the Lawyers, and the Lawless, Dele Ogun (short for Ogunetimoju) crafts the tapestry of a life journey that begins in the small, informal universe of a Nigerian village and terminates for the time being in the sartorial world of English lawyering. It is a journey whose beginning does not foretell its ending and in fact forecloses it. That is the inspirational quality of the story. In between these two signposts, Ogun takes the reader through the intriguingly uncompromising world of African diasporic parenting; the racially impervious underbellies of British post-imperial cosmopolitanism; and the fighting spirit that is a byproduct of the immigrant’s undying fears and anxieties.
The story begins in Aiyede, Southwestern Nigeria, stalls momentarily in post-independence Lagos, and then zigzags through Britain in the period in which the Crown and the British people were still twitching from the loss of their African empire: the 1970s and 1980s. Ogun’s journey of self-discovery then winds its way through a moment of anti-immigrant ferment in Britain, the late 1980s and 1990s. Thrust into the British legal profession, Ogun navigated not just the exclusionary politics of the British Bar but also, tragically, the disappointment of lingering economic non-integration in the acclaimed bastion of post-imperial racial and cultural diversity: London.
Conquering these forces necessitated guile, persuasive power, persistence, shrewd interpersonal skills, and, more than all these, the embrace of unconventional paths to the British legal mainstream. It also required the mastery of minority activism and politics at the elite end of legal practice in England. Ogun was both a pioneer and a leader of the struggle for operational space and professional empowerment for minority lawyers in Britain. Ogun’s search for the British dream entailed an immersion in a multiracial, multicultural socialization process and in a peculiarly African form of educational discipline that was administered by his father.
Biography is one of my favorite genres because through its malleable technique one can project the texture of one’s life onto the lived experiences of countless others and use its narrative as an insightful window into the sociology, politics, culture, and economics of our condition. In the hands of a gifted storyteller like Ogun, the genre has the capacity to illuminate the vicissitudes and conflicting loyalties that mark an individual’s journey through life. It can cast an insightful spotlight on larger philosophical and political realities that do not often make the cut in formulaic academic and fictional writings.
Dele Ogun’s story is only personal to the extent that his experiences as an African immigrant in Britain derive from the willful choices and agency that underpin his actions and inactions. Other than that, his story is an approximation of the story of every postcolonial immigrant: constrained and challenged by the aftermaths of colonialism, the conceit and self-indulgence of metropolitan institutions, and the unseen, discriminating hands of post-imperial racial backlash against the children of the British Empire who now call Britain home.
If you are an immigrant you will laugh and meditate your way through the pages of this book, relishing the wit and accuracy that Ogun brings to bear on the narration of his many professional transitions and personal and political encounters in British society and beyond. You will also soberly recognize your travails and triumphs in them. There is almost an instructive quality to the plot of the book. It touches on the full menu of the immigrant’s story.
One moment we catch the author reflecting on his internal battles with that perennial immigrant’s liability: pride. It is a teachable moment when he decides to swallow his pride and stoop to a professional superior of lower education, training, and ability—all in a seemingly futile effort to pay his dues, secure the validation of his adopted country, and access its opportunities. Another moment, we see him resisting the humiliating and Othering claims of a haughty apologist of a racially exclusive Britain. His undressing of an Oxford Don who was enunciating the propriety of excluding immigrants from the political life of Britain is for me one of the classiest refutations ever. Please savor a taste of Ogun’s compelling wit in this response to the bigoted Don who was fuming about the election of “heathen” Asians to the British parliament:
When you speak of heathens in your parliament, you seem to have overlooked the fact that these heathens were happy in their own countries until your grandfathers… took it upon themselves to go and visit them. I need to share something with you, which is that in cultures like mine, if you decide to come and visit me, it would be regarded as rude if I didn’t return the visit and that is what we immigrants are doing.
Oh, the disarming wit!
Speaking of wit, it is my favorite aspect of this book. The stories are told with a facility and informal literary artistry that belie the rigidity of the author’s legal training. Wit, evocative metaphors, and that reliable device in the African storytelling toolkit, proverbs, all combine to season another delicious aspect of the book: the author’s vivid recall and narratives of personal relationships and encounters. These are the human elements, if you will, of the book. The descriptions; the humanizing, deeply reflexive and honest self-examinations; the critique of the self and the other—all of these add additional delight to a book that is already provocative and enlightening on many levels.
The author’s narration of his struggles with the familiar immigrant’s burden of the exotic name will be simultaneously depressing and inspirational, especially for immigrants who have exotic names of their own and must make themselves and their children’s names acceptable or tolerable to the arrogant nomenclatural preferences of host cultures. The immigrant reader will also take away gems of wisdom and experiential knowledge from the author’s return experience as he struggled to readjust to life as a law student at the Nigerian law school in Lagos.
It is, however, not just the immigrant or those interested in immigration issues who will find the author’s journey rewarding. There is something in this book for everyone. Take Ogun’s explanation of the Thatcher economic revolution for example. It is perhaps the most insightful, yet simple, rendering of the transformational reforms that the Thatcher government carried out, altering the face of British society for ever. It is this gift for reducing complicated matters of politics, economics, and jurisprudence to simple nuggets of simple, easy-to-grasp explanations that makes this book a remarkable feat of versatile edification.
At many junctures in the book, the author packages into readable personal narratives sophisticated commentaries on matters as serious as race relations, racism, xenophobia, ethnic suspicion between African and Nigerian groups, Caribbean-African frictions, minority politics in Britain, the opportunities and pitfalls of racial solidarity, and Western hegemonic intrusions and their capacity to shape destinies and futures. The boldness with which Ogun takes on these issues ought to provoke more open debates on them.
His five-year collaborations with an African American lawyer and a fact-finding mission to minority lawyers’ events in the United States yield a narrative glimpse that is at once revealing and suggestive of the global quality of racialized struggles. That episode of trans-Atlantic racial alignment is reeducating in its sheer rawness.
And Ogun’s conversation with Donald Easum, a former US ambassador to Nigeria is revelatory, to say the least. During the discussion, Mr. Easum unguardedly raised the prospect—perhaps imminence—of a scenario in which Chief. Moshood Abiola, the imprisoned winner of the June 12 1993 elections and Sani Abacha, the Nigerian head of state at the time, were no longer present to block the inauguration of a new post-crisis beginning for Nigeria. Easum probed Ogun on possible stabilizing successors to the stalemated and unacceptable status quo, and the former ambassador casually suggested Olusegun Obasanjo, who would assume power with Western backing in the aftermath of Abacha and Abiola’s controversial deaths. This is a bombshell of serious political ramifications!
Even readers who operate in the author’s professional forte would find his sinewy, bold, yet accessible approach to and opinions on the formulation and development of legal argumentation, advocacy, jurisprudence, and the received myths of blind justice fascinating and enriching.
We Nigerians and Africans do not tell enough of our own stories. This bold splash by the author should challenge us to commit more of our stories to print. I hope that Ogun has deftly opened the floodgate.
Do not let the lawyerly title and the occasional denseness of the legal digressions stand between you and the pleasures and insights of this well-conceived book.
Dele Ogun, The Law, the Lawyers, and the Lawless (London: New European Publications, 2009, ISBN 978-1-872410-75-3). 205 pp. Price: ₤10.00. Reviewer: Moses Ochonu