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A COLOSSUS REMEMBERED: A Tribute to B. J. Da Rocha by Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo


B.J. da RochaA COLOSSUS REMEMBERED: A Tribute to B. J. Da Rocha by Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo

Barrister, teacher, politician, statesman a many-sided man, who gave of his best in every department of his life. That was Bernard Joao da Rocha, affectionately

B. J. to all and sundry, young and old, men and women, one of the great spirits most responsible for shaping the destiny of the Danquah-Dombo-Busia political tradition of Ghana.

That tradition has recently suffered some painful losses, as one by one several of its historic figures pass on to the Other Side: “ R. R. Amponsah, Kwame Safo-Adu, Courage Quashigah, Naa Morkor Busia, and now B. J. himself. Coupled with the tragic defeat of his beloved NPP in the general elections of 2008, these losses are making the second decade of the 21st century a truly challenging moment in the tradition's history. We need, today, to summon BJ's indomitable spirit and tremendous capacity for hard work to overcome the challenge, and steer the tradition to greater successes in the future.

I first met him in my father's home as a young man. Even though he did not do his pupilage in my father’s famous Kwakwaduam Chambers, he was treated by him as one of his star protégés like Fred Apaloo, Victor Owusu, Kwamena Bentsi-Enchill, Johnny Quashie-Idun, Charlie Coussey, Reggie Bannerman and Obed Asamoah, all leading advocates of their day, who passed through his chambers. BJ transferred readily the warmth of his relations with my father to me when in (my) later years we were drawn to each other. His mind and legal ability were held by my father in the highest esteem.

I understood the reason for that on the first occasion when I saw him at work. As fate would have it, that was during the celebrated treason trial of the Nkrumah years, when he gave one of the most impressive forensic displays of Ghanaian legal history. The State vrs Otchere & 4 Ors was a veritable cause célèbre, when Tawiah Adamafio, Nkrumah’s most feared Minister, Ako Adjei, Nkrumah’s Foreign Minister, a member of the Big Six and the man who introduced Kwame Nkrumah to the UGCC, H.H. Cofie Crabbe, the erstwhile CPP General Secretary, Yaw Manu, future Deputy Minister in the Progress Party government of the 2nd Republic, and R. T. Otchere were put on trial for treason before the Special Court for their alleged role in the Kulungungu bomb attempt on President Nkrumah’s life. The Special Court, the bill for whose establishment had ironically been introduced into the National Assembly by Tawiah Adamafio himself in his capacity as the then Minister for Presidential Affairs with the words that the Court “was to do justice, not law”, was composed of Ghana’s first Chief Justice, Sir Arku Korsah, Mr. Justice W. B. van Lare, the next most senior member of the Supreme Court and my own father, Edward Akufo-Addo, then the most junior member of the Court. Fortunately for Tawiah Adamafio, the Special Court managed to do both “justice and law”.

BJ was the defence counsel, together with his friend, E. N. Moore, the future Attorney General, for H.H. Cofie Crabbe, the 5th accused. As an eager and extremely curious young man, I was in Court throughout the proceedings. The then Attorney General, the late Kwaw Swanzy, leading the prosecution, made what appeared to be a powerful opening statement linking all the accused to the bombing. In the words of the Court’s unanimous judgment, a judgment which many in the profession, including the distinguished Chief Justice, the late Fred Apaloo, attributed to my father’s pen, the Attorney General “threw several balls in the air, which remained there”. It was, above all, BJ’s performance in the case that produced that result. His trenchant, brilliant cross-examination of the principal prosecution witnesses, Mallam Tula and Adotei Addo, ripped the heart out of the prosecution’s case, and left it in tatters. The verdict of not guilty followed, leading to the acquittal of the three ex-CPP high functionaries, Tawiah Adamafio, Ako Adjei and BJ’s own client, Hugh Horatio Cofie Crabbe.

It was a verdict that was to have momentous consequences for our history, for it precipitated a full blown constitutional crisis. The Chief Justice, Sir Arku Korsah, was peremptorily sacked by President Nkrumah and a referendum was called by the Nkrumah government to amend the 1st Republican Constitution to transform our nation into a one-party state and to give the President power to dismiss judges at his will. One of the first of Africa’s 90% + yes referendum results then ensued in 1964. The power was subsequently exercised by President Nkrumah to dismiss my father and other “anti” judges, K. Aduama Bossman, R.S. Blay, Henry Prempeh et al from the Bench. Further, the verdict of the Court was overturned by the National Assembly and a retrial under the new Chief Justice, the late Justice Sarkodee Addo, was ordered with a jury, composed allegedly of products of the Kwame Nkrumah ideological Institute. Predictably, a verdict of guilty was pronounced at the retrial. The President, however, exercised his prerogative of mercy to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment. The “condemned” men were released from jail after the 1966 coup.

These were some of the acts in the latter years of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule that set the tone for the fateful military intervention of 24th February 1966. This is the way in which individual deeds – BJ’s forensic excellence – can sometimes have such extraordinary repercussions on the course of history.

There is an interesting sequel to the historic trial and its dramatic verdict. The sacked Chief Justice, Sir Arku Korsah, was subsequently invited by the Special Branch of the Police Service for questioning, and held at Tesano Police Station. There he was joined by Dr. Danquah, then on the first stage of his second and final period of preventive detention, from which he never returned. It was Korsah CJ who had presided over the Supreme Court, when the Court rejected Dr. Danquah’s challenge to the constitutionality of the infamous Preventive Detention Act in the seminal case of Re Akoto, the case involving the detention without trial of the Asantehene’s senior linguist, Baffour Osei Akoto, the founder of the National Liberation Movement (NLM). The exchange between the two senior figures was apparently very heated, with Danquah allegedly berating the judge for all the ills of our nation, especially for the by now indiscriminate use of the PDA. Such are the ironies of history that the two men, both crucial figures in the evolution of Ghanaian nationalism, should meet in police custody in the new Ghana with no formal charges being preferred against either of them.

BJ’s career at the Bar flourished after the case. By the time I came to the Bar in the mid-1970’s after my soujourn in France, he was indisputably one of its leaders, along with persons such as Joe Reindorf, Peter Ala Adjetey, Peter Swanniker, J. K. Agyemang, Charles Zwennes and Nobert Kudjawu. Having inherited U.V. Campbell’s extensive practice at a relatively young age, I cut my teeth at the Bar against these famous advocates. I remember the trepidation with which I announced myself when I first went against BJ in an important Accra land litigation. To my surprise, delight and gratitude, he went out of his way to make me feel at ease. Subsequently, I heard of the complimentary remarks he made about the quality of my own advocacy. His was compelling – lucid, trenchant, with a thorough grasp of the relevant case – law. It made him a formidable adversary, with a high reputation at the Bar that was always secure. I believe that his own excellence as an advocate made it easy for him to be a good teacher of the law. There are several generations of law students who can testify to the validity of this statement.

His period as Director of the Law School in the 1980s must figure in the history of the Ghanaian democratic movement. Prevented by the heavy-handed, authoritarian methods of the PNDC from engaging during that unfortunate era in open politics, many of us who were bent on creating conditions for democratic governance in this country used to meet regularly after hours in BJ’s offices at the Law School. There we would encourage each other that our day would come, with the force and vigour of BJ’s personality at the centre of all our discussions. He was one of the most important of the senior figures at the Bar who strengthened the Bar’s resolve to refuse any cooperation with the revolutionary tribunals (so called Public Tribunals) of the PNDC era, and to demand consistently the restoration of democratic rule to our nation. His was one of the moving spirits behind the ability of the Bar to act as the unofficial opposition to military rule, not only in the Acheampong era, but also in the PNDC/Rawlings era. It enabled the Bar to act as the spokesperson of a defenceless population that sought a future under a regime of respect for human rights and the rule of law. The Bar and the values it has historically espoused owe much to the gritty determination of people like BJ da Rocha.

Indeed, in 1991, when the Bar decided to abstain from participating in the Consultative Assembly established by decree to deliberate on a new constitution for the 4th Republic, it was BJ’s strongly held view that the boycott should not mean an absence of input from the Bar to that process. The public, in his opinion, would not appreciate a total boycott. The making of constitutions was a matter in which lawyers were peculiarly well suited to undertake. The boycott was not motivated, as the apologists for the PNDC sought to portray, by the distaste of lawyers sitting in the same assembly with hairdressers and butchers, but because the Bar had sought a Constituent Assembly with full powers to promulgate a Constitution for the nation, not a Consultative Assembly which reserved the final constitution making power to the PNDC junta, as indeed happened. Virtually single-handedly, BJ undertook to draft what became known as the Bar’s Proposals on the work of the Asante Committee of Experts, which was responsible for drafting the initial proposals for the Assembly. I had the privilege of acting as an editor of his draft, an exercise that allowed me to experience at first hand his prodigious capacity for hard work. It was a trait I was to see again and again. The Bar’s Proposals were extremely useful, acting as guidelines for many who participated in the work of the Assembly. That was pure BJ – Ghana’s interest for him was always paramount.

His collection of like-minded souls at the Law School, deliberating on the return to constitutional rule, mirrored the development of his famous “Sunday School,” the occasions on Sunday mornings when many disciples and friends would congregate at his homes, first in Kokomlemle, then later at Dome, to deliberate on the issues of the day. It provided a lively platform for the exchange of views many of which crystallised into public views and positions. I was a regular participant of the ‘School’, particularly when he lived in Kokomlemle, but I was less so when he moved to Dome, not because of the distance but because of the pressures on my time as a Foreign Minister, and ultimately as the Party’s presidential candidate. I felt, nevertheless, always very much a part of it in spirit. The “Sunday School”, like many of the “institutions” that flourished around BJ, was a good idea. Hopefully, one of the disciples will take up the idea.

His entry into Ghanaian politics was propitious. Even though he shared many of the views of the United Party Opposition during the Nkrumah era of the 1st Republic, he did not take part in the politics of the time. He, however, struck in the post Nkrumah period a strong bond with Akwasi Amankwa Afrifa, the hero of the 1966 coup that toppled Kwame Nkrumah’s government and the 1st Republic. As a result of that bond, he decided to accept the Bar’s nomination to be one of its representatives in the 1968 Constituent Assembly, set up to promulgate the 2nd Republican Constitution out of the proposals of the Akufo-Addo Constitutional Commission. It was there that he met Kofi Abrefa Busia, an encounter that was to change his life. Their relationship was a classic example of the attraction of opposites – BJ, tall, forthright and loud; Busia, small, unpretentious and quiet. Their differences masked the essential identity of views, values and principles that gave deep roots to their cooperation. Dr. Busia saw his quality immediately, and, despite the strong hostility of the UP old guard, many of whom had emerged from long periods of either detention or exile, decided to appoint him as General Secretary of the new party he was forming, the Progress Party, which was to win the 1969 general election by a landslide. His organisational acumen, allied to a decisive nature, was fully on view in that election, during which he forged life-long relations with several key young members of the party – Joseph Agyenim Boateng, who became until his own death BJ’s beloved right hand man, Stephen Krakue, who later became a giant of the party in the Western Region, and Harona Esseku, future Progress Party Minister and NPP National Chairman. They were to be utterly dependable allies of his all through to the end.

Despite being eminently qualified, he foreswore ministerial office on the party’s victory, preferring to remain General Secretary, a General Secretary who by all accounts was a forceful presence at Cabinet. This was, again, pure BJ – for him not the trappings of office, but the substance of power. He, like many in the party and the country, was outraged by the January 13, 1972 intervention of the military under Col. I. K. Acheampong, which swept away the 2nd Republic and the Progress Party government. He was not prepared to reconcile with the January coup because the democratic avenues for change had not been closed as in the 1st Republic, which “justified” the 1966 coup. The Acheampong coup was irredeemably bad and remained so until his dying days. More so, as that coup gave rise to the greatest personal tragedy of his life – the arrest, torture and murder of his younger brother, Moses da Rocha, by the agents of the military regime, allegedly seeking to extract non-existent “secrets” about BJ from his brother. It was in reality just an example of mindless cruelty and callousness, the memory of which was to dog him throughout the rest of his life.

I was then a young lawyer in Paris, France, coming home from time to time to see my parents. On one such visit, I was delighted to perform a service for him. He had been a pillar of strength for my mother and family during my father’s unfortunate illness when he was elected President of the Republic in 1970. The service, which was essentially to take graphic pictures of the mutilated, tortured body of his dead brother out of the country for publication in the Western media, was one which I did with great pleasure, even though it carried a small element of danger. He received with joy news of the publicity on the matter, a development that was to cement our own relationship. I believed it eased his conscience somewhat on the matter, for which I am thankful.

His dedication, loyalty and commitment to Dr. Busia and the Progress Party knew no bounds. Indeed, in the great debate that took place within the Danquah-Dombo-Busia family in 1979 about the strategy to recapture power in the elections of that year, he stood unabashedly for the revival of the Progress Party, spurning arguments about a so-called “broad-base” party. He became again General Secretary of the revived party in the form of the Popular Front Party (PFP), which had the outstanding figure of Victor Owusu as its presidential candidate. He was bitter about the loss of that year, blaming squarely the “schismatics” of the UNC for it.

It was a measure of the man that, in 1992, when the time came again for democratic politics, he put aside his bitterness and anger to contribute immensely to the growth, strength and unity of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), which sought to reconcile and unite all the elements of the divided family. Having led the discussions in Stephen Krakue’s house in East Cantonments that served as the basis for the formation of the new party, in which all the main players of the new dispensation featured – Adu Boahen, Kofi Dsane-Selby, Kwame Safo Adu, J. A. Kufuor, Hackman Owusu Agyemang, Joseph Agyenim Boateng and my own modest self amongst others – he was determined to ensure the unity of the new entity. Indeed, in typical BJ manner, at the outdooring of the new party at the Ringway Hotel, he replaced the word “national” with the word “new”, since the word national featured too often in the description of the other new parties which emerged in the period. It was to be a felicitous substitution, and the party was thus christened the New Patriotic Party.

BJ it was, who, above all, guaranteed the unity of the new entity by the manner in which he welcomed the election of Adu Boahen, the leader of the UNC “schismatics”, as the first presidential candidate of the NPP. It was to be a turning point in the fortunes of the new party, laying to rest the ghost of the 1979 division, despite the fruitless attempts of a few misguided elements to revive it. BJ da Rocha proved his statesmanship in rising over personal sentiments to see the larger picture that a united NPP represented. He is to be credited more than anyone else with the solidity and unity of the NPP since 1992, enabling the party to go from strength to strength, leading to the historic victories of 2000 and 2004. It had been his wish and hope that he would die under an NPP administration, something of which he was deprived by the painful loss of 2008. His name, however, in the annals of the NPP and democratic Ghana will continue to glitter for as long as democracy and the NPP endure within Ghana’s body politic.

Scion of a famous Yoruba business family, the da Rocha family of Kakawa, Lagos, whose grandfather, Candido da Rocha, a merchant prince in the language of the time, is generally acknowledged as the first Nigerian millionaire, a fact of which his grandson was very proud, his own life and wants were simple, if not Spartan. His homes in Kokomlemle and Dome were simple and unadorned, expressing the nature of his own personality. The simplicity did not, however, preclude appreciation of some of the fine things of life – a gift of a bottle of Chivas Regal always brought a warm smile to his lips, as did a good bottle of wine.

Our party and nation are much the poorer for the loss of this extraordinary man, a courageous man of forthright views, highly principled and never afraid to espouse unpopular views if he was persuaded of their validity. He was a conviction politician par excellence, scornful of the stomach politicians that dominate our political landscape. For myself, I am comforted by the memory of my relationship with him, and the great chance I had of having this colossus of a man as a great mentor in law and politics.

Old BJ, rest in perfect peace. You deserve it and the plaudits of a grateful nation and party. May God continue to bless you.

Source: Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo



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