Moronkeji Omotayo Onalaja; Justice of the Nigerian Court of Appeal, described by Kayode Esho, Justice of the Supreme Court as a pride to the Nigerian law who would feature forever in the country’s judicial history. Onalaja’s erudition ensured that throughout his career on the Bench, none of his judgments was ever upturned by the Supreme Court. His upholding of the view in 1993 that an international law to which Nigeria is a signatory is superior to a domestic law, saved the lives of the Major General Zamani Lekwot (rtd.) and six others who General Babangida charged with civil disturbances and created a precedence in Nigerian judicial history. He died in 2017 and was buried on June 16, the 58th anniversary of his call to bar.
Omotayo Onalaja was born July 24, 1933 to the family of Daniel Tekumo, a World War II veteran, and Susanna Onalaja of Ijebu Ode.
Places of Growth
Onalaja’s spiritual foundation was laid at the King’s Church, Enuwa where he attended Sunday School. He had his primary education at the Holy Trinity School and Christ Church Cathedral School Lagos and secondary school education at the CMS Grammar School.
Onalaja was married to Margaret Folasade Onalaja (nee Ogunsanya) with whome he raised six delightful children. Margaret died on October 19, 2002.
Onalaja studied Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London, earning his LL.B and LL.M degrees in 1956 and 1958 respectively. He was called to the English Bar in Inner Temple on June 16, 1959.
Onalaja enrolled as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on June 14, 1960. As a barrister, he was defence counsel to Prof. Soyanwo who was charged with obstructing the convoy of the Premier of Western Region, Ladoke Akintola. Soyanwo was discharged on Onalaja’s ingenious defence that a moving vehicle could hardly constitute an obstruction. He was also part of the legal team that successfully defended Prof. Wole Soyinka in the Mystery Gunman case in 1965. While in private practice (1960-1980), he was a founding editor of the Nigerian Monthly Law Reports, from 1964 to 1980.
Soon, Onalaja’s industry in practice earned him a seat on the Bench of the Lagos High Court in September 1980. In 1993, Justice Onalaja was elevated to the Court of Appeal where he served in the Port Harcourt, Lagos and Ibadan divisions. He bowed out of the Court of Appeal on July 29, 2003 at age 70.
Two books on Law: The Pursuit of Justice and Development and Legal Issues for Contemporary Justice in Nigeria were published in Onalaja’s honour. A third, Oracle of the Bench: A Legalpaedia of Hon. Justice M. 0. Onalaja’s Landmark Judgments, captures his landmarkjudgments. In 2006, he was honoured with the LL.D degree Honoris Causa of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago I woye where he served on the Governing Board for 19 years. The university’s Law faculty, to date, has organised three annual lectures in his honour. As Chairman of the Council of Legal Education 2003-2011, he received the Officer of the Federal Republic award in 2004[i].
[i] Punch June 15, 2017