Teslim Olawale Elias (November 11, 1914 – August 14, 1991) was a Nigerian jurist who lived from November 11, 1914 to August 14, 1991. He was Attorney General and Chief Justice of Nigeria, as well as a judge and President of the International Court of Justice. He was a scholar who significantly updated and altered Nigeria’s laws.
Olawale was born on November 11, 1914, into the traditional aristocracy of Lagos, Nigeria’s capital at the time. He received his secondary education at the Church Missionary Society Grammar School and Igbobi College in Lagos. His wife was Ganiat Yetunde Fowosere, and they had five children together (three sons, two daughters).After passing the Cambridge School Certificate examinations, he worked as an assistant in the Government Audit Department. He joined the Nigerian Railway in 1935 and worked in the Chief Accountant’s Office for nine years.
Elias became an external student of London University while working for the Nigerian Railway, and eventually completed the intermediate tests for the B.A. and LL. B degrees. In 1944, he moved to the United Kingdom and was accepted into University College London. He spent some time at Trinity College in Cambridge during World War II, when London was the target of repeated bomb strikes. He got his B.A. the year he joined University College London, and his LL.B. two years later. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1947, when he was a Yarborough Anderson Scholar, and got his LL.M degree the same year. In 1949, he completed his graduate studies at the University of London and became the first African to receive a PhD in law.
Elias was given a UNESCO Fellowship in 1951 to do study on Africa’s legal, economic, and social challenges. Later that year, he was appointed as a Simon Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University, which was his first academic position. He taught law and social anthropology at the university. He also released his first book, Nigerian Land Law and Custom, in 1951.
Elias relocated from Manchester to Oxford in 1954 to join the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Nuffield College, and Queen Elizabeth House as an Oppenheimer Research Fellow. In the same year, he finished his study on Nigerian law and released Groundwork of Nigerian Law. He was a visiting political science lecturer at the University of Delhi in 1956.
In 1957, he returned to London and was appointed to the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Board of Governors.
Elias was appointed Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of Nigeria in 1960.
Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Lagos, Elias was appointed in 1966. He had gotten his LL.D. from the University of London four years before for his work on African law and British colonial law. (He would go on to receive a total of 17 honorary doctorates from universities all over the world.)
He was elected to the International Court of Justice in The Hague by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council in October 1975. His colleagues on the Court elected him Vice-President in 1979. After Sir Humphrey Waldock, the President of the Court, died in 1981, he became Acting President. He was chosen President of the Court by the members of the Court in 1982. As a result, he became the first African jurist to receive this honor.