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Taslim Olawale Elias

Taslim Olawale Elias

Taslim Olawale Elias (1914-1991), Nigerian academic and jurist, was the president of the International Court of Justice. He also modernized and extensively revised the laws of Nigeria.

Taslim Olawale Elias was born in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, on November 11, 1914. He received his secondary education at the Church Missionary Society Grammar School and Igbobi College in Lagos. Marriage to Ganiat Yetunde Fowosere occurred in 1932; the couple would have five children together (three sons, two daughters). After passing the Cambridge School Certificate examination in 1934 he worked as an assistant in the Government Audit Department. In 1935 he joined the Nigerian Railway and served in the Chief Accountant's Office for nine years.

While working at the Nigerian Railway Elias became an external student of London University, and later he passed the intermediate examinations for the B.A. and LL.B degrees. He left Nigeria for the United Kingdom in 1944 and was admitted to University College, London. As this was during World War II, with London the target of frequent bomb attacks, he spent some time at Cambridge's Trinity College. He graduated with a B.A. the year he entered University College and two years later received the LL.B. In 1947 he was called to the bar from the Inner Temple where he was a Yarborough Anderson Scholar, and in the same year received his LL.M degree in law. He continued his graduate education at London University and in 1949 earned a Ph.D. in law.

Entered Academia

In 1951 Elias was awarded a United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Fellowship to undertake research into the legal, economic, and social problems of Africa. Later that year he had his first academic appointment, the Simon senior research fellow at Manchester University. There he was an instructor in law and social anthropology. It was also in 1951 that he published his first book, Nigerian Land Law and Custom.

Elias moved from Manchester to Oxford in 1954 when he became the Oppenheimer research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Nuffield College and Queen Elizabeth House. He continued his research into Nigerian law and published Groundwork of Nigerian Law in the same year. In 1956 he was visiting professor of political science at the University of Delhi. He was instrumental in organizing courses in government, law, and social anthropology and in establishing the African Studies Department. Elias also lectured at the universities of Aligarh, Allahabad, Bombay, and Calcutta. In that year he also published two books, Makers of Nigerian Law and The Nature of African Customary Law.

Turbulent Yet Promising Years

He returned to London in 1957 and was appointed a governor of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. As the constitutional and legal adviser to the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (which later became the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens), he participated in the 1958 Nigerian Constitutional Conference in London. He was one of the architects of Nigeria's independence constitution and in 1960 was invited to become the country's attorney-general and minister of justice. Elias served in this capacity through the whole of the first republic. Although he was dismissed after the coup d'état in January 1966, he was reinstated in November of that year.

In 1966 Elias was also appointed professor and dean of the faculty of law at Lagos University. Four years earlier he had received the LL.D. degree of the University of London for his work on Nigerian and African law and British colonial law. In 1967, Elias was appointed Nigeria's commissioner for justice and five years later, in 1972, became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. By this point he had long been active in the international legal world. A member of the United Nations International Law Commission from 1961 to 1975, he served as general rapporteur from 1965 to 1966 and was its chairman in 1970. He was the leader of the Nigerian delegations to the conference held to consider the Draft Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States in 1963 and to the Special Committee on the Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in 1964. He was a member of the United Nations Committee of Experts which drafted the constitution of the Congo, 1961-1962. He helped to draft the charter of the Organization of African Unity (O.A.U.), and its Protocol of Mediation, Conciliation and Arbitration. Elias was also the representative of the O.A.U. and Nigeria before the International Court of Justice in the proceedings concerning the status of Namibia.

Elias held a position of great import in Nigeria as its chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, but he had to contend with a sometimes tenuous political climate and the repercussions of an oil boom that made some Nigerians rich a bit too quickly. He was ousted in 1975 by Nigeria's military regime after an investigative paper published a story accusing him of trying to influence a court case involving his brother. Those who spoke out in support of Elias noted his incorruptibility and the fact that he lived quite modestly; furthermore, unlike other esteemed Nigerians in leadership positions, Elias had never used his high position to reap financial reward.

Vindicated by High Honor

The following year Elias was appointed a judge of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The government of Nigeria did not voice any objection to this appointment, since the elevation to the International Court carried with it a great deal of prestige, and its judges were considered to be the most exemplary (thus ethics-minded) jurists. In 1982, after the death of Sir Humphrey Waldock, Elias was elected president of the International Court of Justice, and became the first African jurist to hold that honor. Five years later Elias was also appointed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague as well.

Esteemed Intellectual

A prolific writer, Elias published nearly 20 books and numerous articles in scholarly journals. The field of emerging legal systems in African nations was his specialty, and he wrote of it broadly and specifically in titles such as Africa Before the World Court (1981) and Africa and the West: The Legacies of Empire (1986). He was a member of several international legal associations, including the International Commission of Jurists, the World Association of Judges (he served as president in 1975) and an honorary member of the American Society of International Law. He received honorary degrees from universities all over the world.

Elias died on August 14, 1991, in Lagos, Nigeria. Sadly, he was never able to refute charges of corruption, and attempted to sue the paper that first raised them, but he passed away before the case could be decided. No doubt his 1969 treatise Nigerian Press Law was cited at some point in the legal documents.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Elias. Some of his many books include British Colonial Law-A Comparative Study (1962), Ghana and Sierra Leone: The Development of their Laws and Constitutions (1962), The Nigerian Legal System (1963), Africa and the Development of International Law (1972), Africa Before the World Court (1981), and The International Court of Justice and Some Contemporary Problems (1983). □

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