Dr (Mrs) Grace Braithwaite
Dr (Mrs) Grace Braithwaite, 89, is the widow of the late prominent lawyer, activist and politician, Dr Tunji Braithwaite, who died in 2016.
It’s been five years since your husband passed on, how have you been coping; what has changed?
Many things have changed because he was an extraordinary person. But I still feel him, he is still with me. With God’s help I’ve been coping. We’ve been together for so many years – I won’t talk about him in the past tense – and we are like siblings. There are not enough adjectives to describe who he is. I say ‘is’ because to me, he is not gone, he just changed abode. I believe I’m going to see him in the resurrection. I thank God for His support because it (his death) caught me unawares. I didn’t know he was going to go. He was ill, of course, but I was expecting that he would get over it because during the sickness he spoke to me twice from the hospital. So, his death came to me as a shock. We had been married for 60 years when he passed on. So, you can imagine how it has been. Sometimes I am surrounded with many memories of him. It’s God that has sustained me; my children and the church too. I thank God for His support, otherwise how could I have coped?
What do you miss most about him?
He was a prayerful person and we prayed all the time. We thank God for our parents who brought us up in the knowledge that there is no other power, except the power of God and Jesus Christ, the son of God. I am a medical doctor; I had retired from practice before he passed on because we were in our early 80s when he passed on. So, I’ve devoted my time to feeding on the word of God and believing in Him.
He was my part, we travelled together and we travelled out of Nigeria quite a lot. He was an extraordinary person. He was always by my side. Even during his political tours all over Nigeria in 1978, I was there with him.
How were you able to combine the political tours with your medical practice?
I had doctors who stood in for me. I spent only eight years in government hospital. After that I opened my own private practice. So, I had doctors working with me.
What is the name of your hospital?
Beulah Clinic on Okesuna Street (Lagos State). I travelled with him all over Nigeria. As I said to you, he was an extraordinary person. He never drank alcohol and he never smoked.
Yes, he never drank and he never smoked. I knew him because we were in secondary school when we met, so, he could not hide it from me.
If he neither drank nor smoked, how did he unwind?
The word of God upheld him. He never drank and he never smoked and he never ate outside. Even when we went to parties, he would not eat there.
Why was that? Was he suspicious of anything?
I told you he was an extraordinary person. It was not out of suspicion; he was always talking about hygiene and about the idea (of eating in public). You know, it’s not easy to be eating in public. It was not easy for us. So, that was why I had to travel with him on his political tours. He needed my companionship and we were always together. So, when this thing (his death) happened suddenly, it wasn’t easy for me.
What are some of the things that you used to do together that you miss now?
I’ve told you. Number one (is) travelling together. Since he went (died) I have not travelled. When I am talking about travel, I don’t mean within Nigeria, I am talking about America, England and other countries. In Nigeria, sometimes it is necessary to travel home. I am an Egba woman; I may want to go to Abeokuta to see my people.
I miss his companionship. You know he was a famous lawyer. Occasionally they might want him to defend somebody outside Lagos; that was understandable but very worrying to me. I would even follow him sometimes because I knew that he would not eat outside and he would not drink outside. And my mother-in-law testified to his peculiar ways. She thought he was being naughty because when everyone was eating, he would not eat with them. And she would ask, ‘Why are you so different from the others?’ He was different from many people, not just within the family.
Apart from not eating outside, what other things were peculiar about him?
(Chuckles) He is not like an ordinary person. Even in his outfit, he is different from everyone else. In court, he would not address the judge as ‘My Lord’. He said there is only one Lord, as far as he is concerned, and that Lord is the Almighty God. Whenever he went out on occasions, he never wore an English dress; you would not see him in a suit. You might see him in a suit in court, but never when he went to church or other occasions. He has his own design, which is different from other people’s, although his followers wore that pattern too.
You said you met when you were both in secondary school; were you surprised when he ventured into politics?
I wasn’t; he was outspoken. He would always speak the truth and you know the truth is not palatable to many people. But he would say what he believed in, and not what people thought or expected him to say. He was a brave person.
Can you remember the very first time the two of you met?
We used to have debate competitions or some outing of girls’ schools and boys’ schools back then. It was on one of those occasions that I met him. I remember, it was on Odunlami Street, near Marina, off Broad Street. It was a debate between girls’ school and boys’ school. It was after the debate, as we were going back home, that he came to say hello to me. Of course, as girls, we always walked in groups of four or more in those days. It was an abomination to see a girl moving around with a boy. In those days there was a lot of discipline. So, when he came, one of my friends said, ‘Who is that one?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know who he is.’ He was so bold. We couldn’t imagine any boy coming to us while we were having our own conversation privately. The other girls just said to me, ‘Let us see you to the bus stop; don’t mind that cheeky one.’
I thought that was the end of it. But I was wrong. It was strange. On another occasion that we had that sort of programme, he came again. I did not even know who he was but a couple of my friends said, ‘This boy, he is always so bold.’ I just waved it off but he did not go away. He followed us to the bus stop again near the old Central Bank of Nigeria on Broad Street. I quickly joined a bus, I was trying to avoid him because he was becoming like a pest. He was bold. I just went off and I forgot about it. But on another occasion in my school, Methodist Girls’ High School, off Herbert Macaulay Way, we had another programme and here he was and he came to me again and I said, ‘Ah, how could this boy be coming to me?’ And whenever my friends saw him coming, they would just leave me because they felt he was becoming a pest. That was how it started in 1951.
Where did you get married?
That’s a long story. I finished my secondary school education at the Methodist Girls’ High School in 1953. Most of us wanted to further our education. My father was a headmaster, so, you could imagine the kind of training I had. He asked me what I wanted to do; I said I wanted to train as a doctor. But in girls’ schools in those days, they did not teach science subjects. So, if you wanted to further your education towards getting any science degree, you had to go to a boys’ school to take Chemistry, Biology and Physics, after graduating from the girls’ school and this could take two or three additional years. Because of the extra years, very few girls wanted to go in that line. In order for me not to follow that long route, my father said I should go to England. So, I went to England by ship, no aeroplane (chuckles).
How many days journey was it by ship?
It was 13 days on the Atlantic Ocean. We took off from Apapa in Lagos. It was not funny. It was so cold. It was terrible; you could be seasick and they had doctors on the ship. There was Kingsway Supermarket here in Lagos where they sold European clothes and I armed myself with one which my father bought for me. In England I had to take Chemistry, Physics, Zoology and Botany for my A levels to be able to get into a medical school and that took two years.
Meanwhile, my husband and I left secondary school the same year. At that time, we were already dating. So, a year after I travelled to England, he also came to England. Of course, he was pressurising his parents that he wanted to go to England. At the time, they did not know why he was pressurising them – he wanted to come and meet me. I travelled to England in 1954, he came in 1955. He had his ‘A’ levels and he enrolled in the Inns of Court in England. At that time, we were struggling students, trying to make it because in those days if you went to England and you did not do well, people called you one terrible name. We got married in England after we finished our ‘A’ levels.
How old were you when you got married?
Were your parents around for the wedding?
No, we got married in England; our parents were not there. Of course, my father and mother were annoyed. They said, “Aha, what is this? Have we sent you to England to go and get married?’ and I was just saying, ‘Sorry, sir.’
How did you inform them that you got married; was it through a letter?
(Laughs) I won’t tell you the secret. They got to know somehow. Of course, my mother-in-law had known me when we were still in Nigeria, so, it wasn’t strange to her. But my father would have none of it – a headmaster, you can imagine!
My husband had three years for his law course while I had five years for my medical training. But my husband worked hard and finished his law course in 18 months. Of course, they would not enroll him at the Bar because it was compulsory that he spend three years. So, he had to look for a temporary job while waiting to be called to Bar. But then, I still had five years ahead of me in medical school. So, I decided I would get admission into UCH (University College Hospital) in Ibadan. UCH had started medical training then, maybe two or three years earlier. So, I got admission into UCH and returned to Nigeria while he was waiting to be called to the English Bar. The UCH then was a London setting because Nigeria had not got independence then; so, everything was done in the British style.
If you used to follow him for his cases, do you remember when he represented the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
I was in the university at Ibadan then. Baba Awolowo loved him very much. But he represented Fela Anikulapo Kuti too, when the soldiers from the barracks near Ikeja bombarded his place, broke down the house and manhandled his mother. Our own man, Olusegun Obasanjo was the Head of State at that time; the whole of Nigeria was in turmoil. My husband represented Fela against the government. He also represented Olabisi Ajala – the one they called Ajala Travel. He (Ajala) was well known in Lagos and across Nigeria. He was always at loggerheads with the police and my husband represented him when they arrested and put him in detention. They (the police) also came to my husband’s office and ransacked his office; they said he was supporting Ajala.
You described your husband as someone who prayed and went to church a lot. Did he hold any position in the church?
Yes, he was a Diocesan Lay Reader. They used to invite him to preach in churches and he preached not only in Anglican churches but also in Methodist and Pentecostal churches. Of course, I went with him, as you can imagine.
What was his greatest influence on you?
I supported his cause, his political ambition. I attended the local (political) meetings. I supported him because he was speaking the truth and he was fighting for the poor. He said these people (Nigerian leaders) would travel around the world and saw how the poor were being treated but they would come back here and do the opposite.
For speaking the truth and for being outspoken did he get in trouble with the government?
Oh yes. They came to arrest him because he spoke against (former Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim) Babangida, after the Gideon Orkar coup. After the coup, they arrested those up-and-coming brilliant boys (soldiers), about 42 of them. Then the media were interviewing the politicians and other people to get their views about the coup. So, when they came to my husband, he told them, ‘Look, these young boys are telling us about you, Babangida. The least you can do is to let us know whether these accusations these young people are making are true or not. Let the whole Nigeria know.’ And my husband said that because when they interviewed Babangida and asked him, ‘All these young boys, what’s going to happen to them now that you have arrested them? What are you going to do?’ He (Babangida) said, ‘I am going to do to them like before.’ So, when the media came to speak to my husband, he said, ‘What do you (Babangida) mean by ‘like before’? Are you people not tired of shedding blood unnecessarily? These are young people and you want to shed blood again. You, Babangida, what you can do now is to tell the whole nation the truth about the allegations levelled against you and your government by these people instead of saying you will treat them like before.’ The next thing we saw was that two or three days after Punch Newspaper had published what my husband said – and of course, my husband wanted the media to publish what he said – Babangida sent a battalion of soldiers to arrest my husband. They came at 4am.
The boys who organised the coup had said they were going to remove the North from Nigeria. So, the soldiers came to our house, looking for my husband because they thought it was a Christian coup and it was my husband who organised it. And it wasn’t true but they arrested him and kept him (in detention) for two months.
They (soldiers) stormed our house at 4am and said they were looking for Dr Braithwaite. I faced them and said, ‘Why are you looking for him?’ But they said, ‘Madam, don’t ask us questions.’ They were armed as if they were going for a battle. They had their uniform and helmets on and they had guns. They ordered our security men to lie down, with guns pointed to their heads. Ours is a big house and they were going from one room to another, saying, ‘Dr Braithwaite, show us your armoury.’ Can you imagine, this happened in this Nigeria! They were going from room to room; some of those soldiers were even rouges, they stole my jewellery.
They stole your jewellery?
Yes, because we went for an occasion the day before and I just put my things on the table. I told them, ‘I saw one of you, soldiers, take my jewellery!’ I pointed at one and said, ‘I saw you particularly.’
What kind of jewellery was it?
It was gold.
It must have been costly.
Of course, it was costly. We went for an occasion and we came back, we didn’t know they were coming. Even if we knew, what could we have done? Because they ransacked the whole house but they did not see anything. Then they called my husband and said, ‘Show us where your armoury is.’ My husband replied and said, ‘You want to see my armoury? Okay, follow me.’ You know where he took them? We have a chapel in the house, that was where he took them and told them, ‘Look, this is my armoury.’ Then they said, ‘Not this one. We mean your armoury where you keep your arms.’ The illiterates thought he didn’t know what an armoury was. But my husband told them, ‘This is my armoury and this is what is helping me.’ They took him away. And I told them, ‘If anything should happen to him, you will pay for it.’ I am still waiting for that man (Babangida). What they did to those boys (coup organisers), anybody who has children should not do that because the repercussion is terrible.
Where did they take your husband to?
They took him away and were moving around until they finally took him to Apapa. And for two days he did not eat. Then they phoned me in the night and said, ‘Your husband is not eating; he is not drinking.’ And I said, ‘No, he doesn’t eat outside.’ They had more than one location in Apapa and they kept transferring him from one place to another. Later I got one of his lawyers, Dr Olu Onagoruwa, to sue the government. All I wanted was for the government to present him as I didn’t know what they were doing to him. I had not seen him for two to three days. Later the American ambassador came to our house and said the US government was interested in my husband’s case. The ambassador asked me if I had seen him and I said, ‘Yes, I took food to him once.’ The man said he would be coming and he kept his promise, he was coming.
So, you were allowed to take food to him.
Yes, I began to take food to him. Where they kept him in Apapa I didn’t see anybody around when I took food to him but I knew they must be watching me. If he wrote a note and gave me, they would take it from me. They would ask me, ‘What about what he wrote?’ and I would say, ‘What he wrote is not for you. It’s my own property.’ Then they would say, ‘Bring it out.’ I would give them and they would just keep it. But in one, he wrote that I shouldn’t worry, that these people were dogs that could only bark and not bite. They took that from me and read it and said they would show him that this dog barked and bit. But I wasn’t afraid of them; my only concern was I didn’t want my husband to be injured in any way.
How was your husband eventually released?
And at the end of the day, the one they called General Halilu Akilu came to the military hospital where they had transferred my husband and kept him for almost a month after he had initially spent one month in the barracks. He came and said, ‘Good afternoon, Dokita.’ And my husband said, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am General Akilu.’ Of course, my husband knew who he was and he asked him, ‘What do you want?’ And he said, ‘You see, it was a mistake, the C-in-C (Commander-in-Chief) (said) we are very sorry, it was The PUNCH that misquoted what you said about the coup.’ But my husband said, ‘What do you mean The PUNCH misquoted me? I read what they published, it was exactly what I said and they did not even publish everything I said. So, they didn’t misquote me.’ Then Akilu said anyway they were sorry. You detained someone for two months and you said sorry!
Then my husband asked him, ‘What next?” And he said, ‘He (Babangida) said that it was a mistake and that you can go home.’ Then my husband, ‘Okay, I am going home today.’ But Akilu said, ‘Ah! It’s not possible’. And my husband said, ‘It is possible; you’ve kept me for two months and you are telling me it is not possible; I am going home today.’ But General Akilu said, ‘But today is Sunday, the doctors are not here to discharge you.’ And my husband said, ‘I will go home today and come back tomorrow for the doctor to discharge me.’ He went home that day and that was the end of it. The Americans were interested in the case.
Do you think it was the pressure from the US government that made the military regime release your husband?
Well, I don’t know. I only know that they (US government) were aware from the beginning. I think it was God. Maybe they (military regime) were afraid; they are cowards.
Did your husband sue the military government for damages after his release?
No, he did not sue them. But he (the man who ordered his arrest and detention) is suffering now. He is walking with two sticks now. Even the man that led the battalion later came here to say, ‘Sorry, sir, it was me who led that operation.’ He was a Yoruba boy.
From the way you speak about that incident, it must have been a very traumatic experience for you.
Oh yes, it was, because at that time I sprained my ankle.
Did your husband suffer any permanent injury from that episode?
He had malaria because where they kept him was full of mosquitoes. But there was no permanent injury, we praise God for that.
Did your husband forgive them for that incident?
Yes, but he made his point. And you know why? He didn’t get along with them; he had nothing to do with them. He did not want anything from them; rather, he wanted them to listen to the masses. My husband was a fighter. If anyone was being oppressed by the government, he would stand up for them.
You sound like a fighter too.
(Laughs) Maybe he rubbed it off on me because I was with him and saw him through it all. That day they came to arrest him I followed them and said, ‘Where are you taking him to?’ But they said, ‘Madam, we’ve been very patient with you, don’t ask us questions’. But I told them, ‘I must ask you questions. How can you come and take my husband and you say I should not ask you questions?’ When I got to the gate I saw our poor security guards, two of them, lying on the floor with ‘stupid goats’ pointing guns to their heads; they tied them up before they came into the house. They tied their hands to their back. Can you imagine, poor people! It was when I was going out that I saw them and said, ‘Ah! What have these poor people got to do with it? So, you mean you tied them down all that time you were looking for your ghost armoury?’ Then they released them.
What is the number soldiers that came to your house that morning?
They distributed themselves into every part of this house, both upstairs and downstairs.
So, they would probably be like 20?
They must be, at least.
Did your husband ever meet one-on-one with Babangida?
Yes, before the issue of the coup. It was my husband that went to make a case for Babangida’s children to be admitted into Corona School because the principal said he did not want soldiers’ children in the school because they would frighten everybody. So, he (Babangida) came to my husband and said, ‘Dokita.’ My husband went to the principal then and said, ‘They are my friends, please take their children.’ One girl, one boy, I think they were children from his (Babangida’s) first wife.
Were your husband and Babangida sort of friends then?
They (soldiers) sort of presented themselves as friends. He (Babangida) wanted to know what was ticking in my husband. There was another one, General Aliyu Gusau. That one was a little bit better. They brought themselves to know what was ticking in him. But he wasn’t asking them for anything. He said, ‘What are they going to give me?’ My husband was different; he was an extraordinary person. They were friends; but if they were friends, why would they do that to him?
Did the friendship start before Babangida became the Head of State?
Yes, it was before he became the Head of State but when he got into power my husband wasn’t going to them because he didn’t need anything from them. We didn’t need anything from them, we had gone to school and we had our professions.
After the arrest and detention, did your husband meet Babangida?
No, he did not. It was Akilu he (Babangida) sent to deliver the message that he was sorry.
How old are you now?
I am 89 years old. I was born on March 27, 1932. And you know the amazing thing is that my loving, my precious, my great husband died on the 28th of March, a day after my birthday and I didn’t know he was going to go. It was a shock to me.
For being a nationalist that he was, do you think government did enough in honour of his memory?
Yes, there is a park in Lagos State. But he was not pro-government. He was fighting for the poor, the oppressed and the neglected. He didn’t join them and he never jumped from one place to another even when he was approached. So, he wasn’t a friend of the government.
So, were you surprised that the Lagos State Government named the park after him, to honour him?
I wasn’t surprised. It was on the burial day that the representative of Lagos State said that the park would be named after Dr Braithwaite. They got his message because he wasn’t mincing his words and he wasn’t afraid of any of them.
What do you think your husband’s position would have been on the debate of whether Nigeria should remain one country or break up?
He was a delegate at the 2014 national confab and he was very outspoken. He argued that the regions should be autonomous. He said the regions should manage their resources and make contributions to the Federal Government. He said there was a lot of cheating in the current arrangement, in a situation where one region has oil and the people are still suffering. The centre controls everything and gives just a little to the states. He spoke about that. He said every region should be allowed to manage their resources. That was his agitation all the time. So, I think that would have been his position today.