Home Top Stories Obituary: Rotarians mourn as Majiyagbe, first African RI president dies, aged 88

Obituary: Rotarians mourn as Majiyagbe, first African RI president dies, aged 88

Late Jonathan Babatunde Majiyagbe


ABUJA – The Rotary world has been thrown into mourning with the passage of Jonathan Majiyagbe in the early hours of today, Saturday, 27 May 2023.

Dr Goddy Nnadi, District Governor, Rotary International District 9125, broke the news of the death of Majiyagbe, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and first and so far only African to be elected president of Rotary International (RI).

In a WhatsApp message shared on Rotary platforms on Saturday, the District Governor said: “I have just been informed by the IPDG (Immediate Past District Governor, RI District 9125, Rotarian Ayo Oyedokun) of the passing on to eternal glory of our own PRIP (Past Rotary International President), Jonathan Babatunde Majiyagbe.
He was said have passed on today, Saturday, 27th May 2023 @ 0730 hrs. May his gentle soul rest in peace. Amen. Our thoughts, prayers and hearts are with the entire Rotary family, especially the wife, Mama Ayo, a great friend and companion to the PRIP.
“On behalf of all Rotarians, I offer our deepest condolences to all of us. We await further information from the immediate family, please. May we please continue to uphold the family in prayers at this difficult and mournful times. Thanks and God bless.”
Goddy Nnadi, PhD, mni
District Governor, D9125

Majiyagbe was born on 10 July 1934 in Lagos and was called to the Bar in 1964. He moved to Kano in 1966 and there he set up a flourishing legal practice. He became a member of the Rotary Club of Kano in 1967, six years after the club was chartered.

In 1980 he became the first legal practitioner practising in northern Nigeria to be made a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

He scored another first in 2003 when he became the first African President of Rotary International.

In an interview published in Daily Trust on 4 August 2019, Majiyagbe revealed that he took an early retirement because of health challenges caused by renal failure. He also revealed that he relocated from Kano to Abuja in order to have access to better health facilities, saying he was undergoing dialysis two or three times weekly.

Read the full interview below:

Reminiscences With Jonathan Majiyagbe

Tell us about your early years?

I was born on July 10, 1934 in Lagos, so I have just celebrated my 85th birthday. My father, Jacob Mofolorunsho Majiyagbe was from Abeokuta, Ogun State, and my mother, Victoria Olatilewa Majiyagbe, also from Abeokuta, was a princess from the Ogunbona royal family. My father was a civil servant who worked as an almoner in the health department. He was transferred from place to place. I remember following him to Kaduna, Kano, Jos and Bamenda in Cameroon. That was how I became very familiar with the northern part of Nigeria. I returned to the North when I graduated in England.

Which part of Lagos?

I was not there when I was born, but I was told I was born somewhere in Central Lagos.

Were you a favourite of your father or mother?

I was everyone’s favourite, especially my four sisters, because I was the youngest and the only son in the family. They pampered me so much within the limits of what a humble family could afford. I remember that they would not even let me go out to play football in the streets as young boys did in those days because they were worried that I would injure myself.

Where did you have your early education?

I started school at Holy Trinity, Ebute-ero in Lagos. When my father was transferred to Jos, I went with him and attended St. Joseph Primary School. Not long after that, we moved again, this time to Kano, where I was enrolled into the Holy Trinity School. I vividly remember that the Seriki, Sabon Gari, Kano, was Mr. Ballat Hughes, a Ghanaian. Till date, there is a street named after him in Kano. When we moved to Kaduna, I attended a Government School, which has been demolished, before proceeding to Ilesha Grammar School, where I completed my secondary school.

I was quite a rascal in school. I mimicked my teachers and played all kinds of pranks with other students. I was a member of the Boys Literary Society, headed by Senior Lateef Jakande. At Ilesha Grammar School, I met the late Michael Okuboye and former Chief Justice Alfa Belgore. When we had any play or drama, we represented the North. I would sing Hausa songs and take Hausa roles. We spoke English with an accent that was different from the others too. They used to call Alfa Belgore, ‘Alkali’, because his father was a Qur’anic scholar and judge, and they called me ‘Yaro’. I am very proud of Ilesha Grammar school, which trained such personalities as Justice Kayode Esho, G.O Adegoye, the late Fajemiroku, Wale Olanipekun, Ayo Oni and several other young men, who later in life held prominent positions. Our principals in those days were strict disciplinarians. The Rev NOA Lahanmi and The Rev Akinyemi, the father of Bolaji Akinyemi, are the two I remember very well.

What about your tertiary background?

I travelled to England in 1957. I did my advance level course at Kennington College, after which I read Law at the Council of Legal Education and was called to the English Bar (Middle Temple Inns of Court) in 1964. Around the same time, I graduated as Bachelor of Law from Holbon College, University of London. At that time the Law School in Nigeria was carrying out three-monthly courses for students from abroad. I rushed back home in 1965 so that I could attend the last three-month course before it became a compulsory one year course for Law School.

After Law School in Lagos, I came to Kaduna to my brother-in-law and worked with an old lawyer called Mr. Francis Ayinde Thanni. He had offices in both Kaduna and Kano, so I was sent to the Kano office in 1966.

In those days of working with Mr. Thanni, there were not many Nigerian lawyers. There was a preponderance of English and Pakistani lawyers over Nigerians, but gradually, Nigerians took over the practice of law from the foreigners, particularly when the indigenisation decree was promulgated. In Kano, we had the law firms of Irving & Burner, E. Noel Grey, who dominated the practice and quite a number of lawyers like John Huges. But when I got there, I began practising with legal giants like Agbamuche, who later became attorney-general, C.A.J. Nwajei, Ebele Nwokoye, E Lewis Thomas and a few others. In 1971, I registered my firm, J.B. Majiyagbe & Co and opened my own chambers. It is still there in Kano. My son, Mr. John Folorunsho Majiyagbe manages the branch in Abuja.

How would you describe your experience in the North, having come from Lagos?

It has been quite an interesting experience. My father was a civil servant, so travelling around Nigeria, particularly the North, gave me a sense of being an all-round Nigerian. In other words, I became detribalised. I understand some of the major languages. It was a mixture of different tribes, but we were all Nigerians – there was no tribalism. And it was very peaceful in those days, particularly in Kano. The indigenes were very kind and welcoming to everybody until we started seeing issues like Maitatsine, Aware, and others that followed after independence, particularly after the 1966 crisis that led to the war.

When I arrived in Kaduna, my brother-in-law, Mr. A.B. Salako, a land surveyor, was friendly with the late Alhaji Tijjani Hashim and the then minister of lands in northern Nigeria, Alhaji Musa. They both encouraged me to move to Kano, where I made a lot of friends, notably, Alhaji Haruna Kassim; Justice Wali; Mr. Abdullahi Ibrahim, who later became attorney- general; Justice Uwais, who later became Chief Justice of Nigeria, and the late Justice Mustapher Akanbi and Justice Dahiru Mustapha. Others included Dr. Datti Ahmed, my personal doctor; Tanko Yakasai; Alhaji Garba Bichi; Alhaji Inuwa Wada, and of course, Emir Ado Bayero. In fact, I was called the emir’s friend – Abokin mai Martaba. Indeed, I was close to the emir, always visiting the palace and leading visitors and delegations to him.

I was very proud of being acquainted with the late Alhaji Ado Bayero because he was a broad-minded person. I invited him and he accepted to become the patron of the Rotary Club of Kano. I also remember Sabo Bakin Zuwo, former governor of Kano State; Miko Abdallah; Alhaji Danlami Zango and Alhaji Dan Bappa, to mention a few. I cannot forget another old friend and ‘tutor’ Babba Dan Agundi, who was close to the late Aminu Kano and was always talking politics and Islamic law. He would walk straight into my office unannounced and say ‘Zan Koya maka doka’ (I will teach you the law). He was a very good friend. Then there was Kaloma Ali, a lawyer, who later became a minister. I was partly practising with him. I got a house close to Kaloma Ali in Fagge Ta Gabas, and people were bringing me clients through word of mouth. My landlord was a brother of Isiaka Rabiu, and that was how I became the lawyer to that family.

I became a member of the Nigerian Red Cross. I was also a member of the Kano Lebanon Club and the French Club. My circle of friends grew. People hardly knew that I came from Abeokuta. Kano was my home and I felt very comfortable living there.

Did the civil war start while you were in Kano?

Yes, it came as a big surprise because we were living peacefully together before then. Most people ran away from Kano, but I did not leave. I felt safe. I still have many friends there.

What about your Rotary experience?

Rotary started in Kano in 1961 with people like Mandrides and other expatriates. When I got there and heard about Rotary, naturally, with my religious background, I knew there was the need to care for the less privileged people, so I became a Rotarian in 1967. As I was celebrating 50 years of my practice in Kano, I was also celebrating 50 years as a Rotarian.

All these happened because of the friendship and sympathy I had for the under privileged, I got to know them very well, particularly some beggars in the street near the Kano post office. I never had to lock my car because the beggars would always watch over my car till I returned. I even sent one of them to school, intending for him to be a lawyer, but obviously, begging was more profitable because he went back to begging. I sent him to Mecca, where he continued with begging. I paid for his marriage too.

How would you describe your active years in law practice?

I had a wide commercial law practice all over the North. I represented many international companies like the KLM, British Airways, Nigeria Airways, Royal Exchange Assurance in courts and gave advice where necessary. For many years, my firm has proudly represented ABU. Several of the banks were among my corporate clients – First Bank, Union Bank, Nigeria-Arab Bank, UBA. People like Sheik Alhaji Isiaka Rabiu, Alhaji Aminu Dantata, Alhaji Sanusi Dantata became our clients.

I was blessed by God and I give thanks to him. I was the coroner for Kano for many years. I wasn’t paid, it was just a selfless service. I was also a notary public, and of course, we had a very strong Bar association, which I helped to build up. I was the secretary for many years and later appointed chairman. By then, people of Kano origin started joining. I am very proud of my background as a lawyer in Kano, especially as I became the first lawyer practising in northern Nigeria to be elevated to the rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1980.

Were Kano conservatives averse to law?

Oh no! Kano people could be stubborn, but they were never averse to law. They were sufficiently enlightened and took their grievances either to the sharia or regular courts.

When did you get married?

I got engaged just before my return to Nigeria. I had met my wife in Nigeria years before we both worked for the Bank of British West Africa in Lagos. I worked there from 1953 to 1957.

She was from the Rotimi Williams family. She caught my fancy then, but I was just eyeing and admiring her from a distance. I did not talk to her. When we got to England, we met again and a romance started and blossomed. We got married in 1966. Sadly, my first wife, Adeola, died in 2000. My present wife, Abike and I got married in 2007.

When did you build your own house?

I left the Fagge area of Kano when my landlord started building another floor on top of us, then he put up another building in the front. When he increased the rent I knew it was time to move on. A friend told me: “Maigida, why don’t you apply for a plot of land? They will give you.’’ I applied and was given a land in Bompai, where I built my own house in 1972. The law chambers were on Ado Bayero Road until 1978 when I moved the office to the building adjacent to my house, close to Kano Club.

How did Rotary start in Kano?

The expatriates introduced it. The Rotary Club of Kano got its charter as the first in Nigeria and held meetings at the Central Hotel. Two or three weeks later, the Rotary Club of Ikeja was chartered. I rose to become the secretary of the club, then a director and club president in 1972. I took over from one Mr. Essam Moukarim of the Mouka Foam fame.

We started attending district conferences. The first one was in 1974, and eventually, I became a governor in 1980, responsible for 15 countries of West Africa. And I visited all those countries. I served on the Rotary International scene first as a trustee of the Rotary Foundation, then director of the Rotary International Board. In 200l, I was elected as president-nominee. In 2002, I was president-elect and became president of Rotary Worldwide for 2003-2004. I was the chairman of Rotary Foundation four years later.

As a governor you were responsible for 15 countries in West Africa and you visited all of them; how did you get all the energy to travel?

It was the help of God. Apart from Rotary I was also very active in the Bar association. I was going to become the president of the Nigerian Bar Association, but delegates came to Kaduna where the conference was holding and pleaded with me to let Babatunde Benson become president and I would become president the following year. In fact, there was much pressure from Mr. Coker, Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Britain, that I gave in. Thereafter, I lost interest, so the highest position I occupied was vice president.

Of all the cases you handled, which one stands out in your memory?

Yes, I represented the Isiaka Rabiu family when Nafiu Rabiu was accused of homicide. I was briefed to defend him. I remember that I said the magistrate was not competent to try him; a case of murder must go to a higher court. I, therefore, applied for bail. What I said probably annoyed some people as they kept threatening me, calling my telephone and saying, “You are defending someone that everyone knows is guilty of an offence. You are saying the magistrate is incompetent, and all that. They threatened to kill me, so I requested the commissioner of police to provide me with security. However, eventually, I had to withdraw. I invited Chief Rotimi Williams to assist; he used to come to court from Lagos. In the end, Nafiu Rabiu was convicted. This case stands out. It’s a case I cannot forget.

Do you have district memories as a Rotarian?

Yes, when I travelled around the world, Rotarians always showed great respect. I remember that even as a district governor, when I visited Cote d’Ivoire, my aide came to meet me at the airport in his car, and the next day he brought a brand new Mercedes Benz. He said his old car was not good enough.

Again, during my visit to Australia, my next stop was New Zealand. When we got to New Zealand, my aide had to hand me over to another person because he was recalled to Australia. My new aide in New Zealand met us in a red car, but the next day he came with a brand new car too.

As president of Rotary International you are privileged to meet heads of governments. You are treated like royalty. Another incident was when I went to Fiji Islands and the Rotarians were showing me their projects. They took me to an old people’s home where I saw a funny looking young man. I asked what he was doing in an old people’s home and they told me they rescued him from his grandfather who had been treating him like a chicken because he did not like children. He had him tied and fed with the chickens. The poor boy was picking food with his mouth. That’s man’s inhumanity to man. So they rescued him and there was no other place to put him than the old people’s home.

Is there stigma attached to Rotary all over the globe?

In the past, yes; they thought it was a secret society, but there’s nothing secret or cultist about it. Our activities cut across religion and politics. Everything is done in the open; that is why we meet in a hotel or restaurant so that people can see what we are doing.

What values have you learnt over the years?

One of the core values of Rotary is diversity. Our strength is to bring in all kinds of people, there is no barrier. And diversity is one thing I have come to admire. One past Rotary president had as his theme, ‘Mankind is one.’ As RI president I emphasized that as well. Every month in the magazine, ‘The Rotarian’ I wore a different costume and hat to show that though we wear different garments, it is the same person. That’s what we need in Nigeria. Politics should not divide us, nor should religion drive us apart.

How did you spend your time away from work?

I was too busy working. In fact, it was only after one Alhaji Adidas came from Saudi Arabia that I travelled out after 11 years of practice without break. Some Nigerians were owing him money, the amount was mounting and he was too old to travel to Nigeria, so with all expenses paid, I went to meet him; otherwise it was working hard all the time. But as I mentioned before, I belonged to so many clubs, including the Lebanon Club and French Club, where my wife was secretary; so occasionally, we would go there, but mostly, it was my work, my Bar association, Rotary and my church.

Incidentally, my church, St Georges, was just in front of my house, so I just crossed the road. I was a member of the Anglican Diocese and became the first chancellor of the New Kano Diocese.

When did you retire?

I did not plan to retire that early. Nine years ago, by force of circumstance, health challenges due to renal failure I had to take things easy. I am presently on dialysis, two or three times a week, which would affect my work if I had to continue in practice. In search of the best medical facilities, I relocated to Abuja.

How do you see the legal profession as practised today?

There is no doubt that standards were higher. Those were the days of Justices Fatai-Williams, Kayode Eso, Ademola, Oputa, Bello, to mention few. There was FRA Williams, the doyen of the Bar. Indeed, standards were high, both of the judges and the legal practitioners who appeared before them. Lawyers were well dressed in their best tradition. I am saddened these days when I see how young lawyers dress and the standard of those joining the practice.

What’s your favourite food?

Tuwon shinkafa, egusi soup and pounded yam, Quaker Oats with raisins or kosai and pap for breakfast are my favourites.

What were your hobbies?

I started playing golf but later abandoned the game. I took up table tennis and enjoyed early morning walks as a form of exercise. I have a piano but I can’t play much. However, I can make a few tunes on the mouth organ.

I used to have a farm along Hadejia Road in Kano, where I kept cattle, poultry, rabbits, turkeys and peacocks. I used to spend many peaceful relaxing weekends on the farm. These days, because of the pain in my knees, I only walk around the garden aided by my doting wife. Once a week, I attend my Rotary meeting at the Rotary Club of Abuja Metro.

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