Taslim Olawale Elias

by: in Law

It is most appropriate that a classroom in our Faculty of Law at University Maastricht has been named after someone who was a legal legend in his own country (Nigeria) and was the first legal luminary of exceptional quality in the African world: Judge Taslim Olawale Elias.

Elias was born in 1914 in Lagos, Nigeria, at the time that Nigeria was a British colony. His long and distinguished career started with a job at the Government Audit Department in Lagos and thereafter at the Chief Accountant’s Office of Nigeria Railways.

While working  with Nigerian Railways Elias became an external student of London University and passed the intermediate examinations for the B.A. and LL.B. degrees. It was only in 1944 that he started his academic studies at London University and soon obtained a B.A. degree followed by a LL.B. degree in 1947. Two years later he received as the first African student ever a PhD degree in law from the University of London. This became the basis for a most varied career that a legal professional may have. He lectured at various universities, he became the first Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of his country  after Nigeria became independent in 1960, was Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Lagos, and was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1972. This position he held until 1975 when he was ousted by a military regime that took power that year. But only a few months later he was elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council as a judge in the International Court of Justice  (ICJ) that he served until his death in 1991; from 1982-1985 he was the President of the Court being the first African jurist to serve in that prestigious and honourable capacity. During his tenure in The Hague Elias was also appointed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The position of judge at the ICJ was without doubt the crown on the domestic and international career of Elias. In the early years of his scholarly career he focussed in particular on African legal developments in general and Nigerian law in particular. His books on Groundworks of Nigerian Law and The Nature of African Customary Law have been compulsory reading for many law students in Nigeria and other common law countries (former British colonies) on the West coast of Africa. In the 1960s Elias represented his country Nigeria in many international law making fora, such as the United Nations International Law Commission, the Special Commitee on the Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations Between States and the Vienna Conference on the Law of Treaties. He was also involved in drafting the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union. Despite his heavy schedule Elias always found time to reflect in a scholarly fashion on the  practical work that he was doing which resulted in a large number of books  on various aspects of international law. His books include such still highly relevant subjects as Africa and the Development of International Law (1972), Modern Law of Treaties (1974), New Horizons in International Law (1979) and Africa Before the World Court (1981).

It may well be that the most enduring legacy of Elias’ work is his contribution to the “universalization” of international law in both theory and practice. Elias argued that the European law of nations was not truly universal and that colonialism and its after effects could be addressed with more progressive forms of international law doctrine resulting from greater participation by the African and Asian states in the international law making processes, in partcular the United Nations.

In 1992 a two volume Festschrift was published, entitled: Essays in Honour of Judge Taslim OLawale Elia, Volume I: Contemporary International Law and Human Rights. Volume II: African Law and Contemporary Public Law. This Liber Amicorum was edited by Emmanuel Bello and Prince Bola A. Agibola (Martinus Nijhoff, 1992). More than 40 essays in these volumes written by highly distinguished authors from around the globe, comprise a personal salute to the great legal mind of Elias. The Faculty of Law of Maastricht University joins this most deserved salute by linking the name of this great international and comparative lawyer to this classroom where new generations of lawyers will be educated.

  More blogs on Law Blogs Maastricht