‘I Wept, when I read about Onnoghen’s Trial’
Her list of firsts, seems almost inexhaustible. The first female Commissioner in Western Nigeria, first female Chairman of the Board of Western Nigeria Television and Broadcasting Service, first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, first non-Caucasian to be elected President of Zonta International. She is fondly referred to as, ‘Queen of the Bar’, ‘Lady SAN’, ‘Lady Silk’, ‘Grandma Silk’. Amongst her numerous honorary doctorate degrees, is the one which she received with pride in 2013 from the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, Doctor of Letters, and Doctor of Laws, which she received from Bayero University, Kano, last week. In a recent conversation with Onikepo Braithwaite, Chief Folake Solanke, SAN who turned 87 recently, went down memory lane on her journey to becoming the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, shared her thoughts about Nigeria, and revealed why she shed tears when she read in the newspaper that, the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, was facing prosecution. She gave an insight, into why there are fewer females at the Inner Bar. She also explained, why she named her Law firm,‘Alabukun Chambers’
Since your elevation into the Inner Bar in 1981, less than 20 female Lawyers have managed to attain the rank. What does this say about the legal profession in Nigeria? What measures can be put in place, to ensure that more female Lawyers get into the Inner Bar?
You know, we are now in what I call, the ‘selfie’ generation. That is, everything must be instant. People don’t wait to grow and develop. That cannot happen, in the legal profession. After leaving the University and the Law School, practicing law is extremely different. I always tell the new wigs that, their certificate and degrees are only passports to knowledge and that, it is when you now start to practice law, that you will know that the theory is different from the practice of law. Not only female Lawyers, many Lawyers are in a hurry, in this selfie generation. Everything must happen now, now. For example, when I qualified as a Lawyer in the last century, in 1963, I spent one year with my brother in-law — Mr. M.A. Odesanya — who later became a Lagos State High Court Judge. I also spent one year with Chief FRA Williams, SAN in pupillage. I spent those years trying to understand the intricacies of law practice, before I established my own Chambers in 1966.
Many Lawyers, including female Lawyers, like to go to corporate organisations for employment. That way, they are not really practicing law, in the law courts. I would appeal to them that, Rome was not built in a day. They must be ready to learn in pupillage, and to be attached to reputable seniors who will teach them and show them how to practice law. I am hoping that, we will have more
“WHEN I BECAME THE FIRST FEMALE SENIOR ADVOCATE OF NIGERIA IN 1981, IT TOOK ANOTHER EIGHT YEARS BEFORE MY LEARNED FRIEND OF THE SILK, CHIEF PHOEBE CHIADIKOBI AJAYI OBE, SAN BECAME THE SECOND FEMALE SAN. FROM 1981 TILL TODAY, YOU HAVE ABOUT 20 FEMALE SANS! I AM HOPING THAT, MORE WILL BE ADMITTED TO THE INNER BAR”
“I CONSIDER IT AN ABOMINATION, THAT ASPIRING JUDGES NOW HAVE TO FILL APPLICATION FORMS TO BE CONSIDERED FOR THE SACRED JUDICIAL POSITIONS”
females at the Inner Bar.
When I became the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1981, it took another eight years before my learned friend of the silk, Chief Phoebe Chiadikobi Ajayi Obe, SAN became the second female SAN. From 1981 till today, you have about 20 female SANs! I am hoping that, more will be admitted to the Inner Bar. We must spend time in the practice of law to become SAN, not in corporate organisations.
Female Senior Advocates should mentor and encourage promising young female advocates to stay in practice in the law courts, in order to become eligible candidates for the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. I now repeat my usual plea, that learned seniors should pay adequate remuneration to the new wigs. Only slaves are not paid for their work. Lawyers are not slaves.
As an active Member of the NBA for over 50 years, are you satisfied with the NBA as it is today? Do you agree with the zoning policy for aspirants to positions in the NBA? What are your views about the recent issue between the EFCC and the NBA President?
There is no situation, that is perfect. I approve of the system of voting by delegates in the NBA elections. What I do not agree with, is that there is a lot of money involved now in NBA elections. I am opposed to that. There should not be any financial consideration, before you vote for a candidate. You vote for a candidate whom you know has character, professional knowledge, and all that the profession expects of the candidate, including professional experience. We have to make sure we do not bring politics and money, into NBA elections.
Zoning reminds me of Section 14(3) of the Constitution on Federal Character. Federal Character has drastically diminished the quality of service, in all sectors of the country. We have sacrificed excellence, on the altar of mediocrity. I have never agreed with the concept of Federal Character.
In that context, for me, there should be less power at the centre, and more autonomy for the States. That is what I consider, as federal character. Consequently, you have the same as in the NBA now, whether you call it zoning or federal character, it is the same. You are sacrificing excellence, for zoning.
What are your views on the Hijab and Call to Bar/Wig and Gown controversy of last year? Should Lawyers be allowed to be called to the Bar in their religious attire?
I do not agree. In every institution, there are rules and regulations. If you want to join that institution, you must be prepared to abide by the rules and regulations. Can you imagine if we allow everybody to come for the Call to the Bar, in their religious attires? I cannot imagine it. I don’t want to mention any particular religion, but even our Babalawos, if you allow them to come in their attires, it will cause chaos in the courts! If we allow every religion to be displayed in ‘what we wear at the Bar’, it will cause confusion! Can you imagine people coming with feathers in their wigs, and all types of agbadas? It has nothing to do with religion, but with the profession and what we know it to be.
The traditional court outfit to wit: wig & gown and black & white attire, should be retained. Agbadas, bubas, babanrigas, coral beads, caps and hats and geles “et cetera”, should not displace the wig and gown as court wear. Otherwise, the court room will be turned into a pantomime stage for court jesters. It must not happen. The court room is too serious, for this land of riotous mix of costumes and colours. A Lawyer who appears in court, not wearing his wig and gown, is NOT visible to the court and will not be heard. On one occasion in the Ibadan High Court, as “amicus curiae”, I respectfully directed the attention of the Hon. Court to the “invisble” Lawyer. He was not heard by the Court. The wig and gown tradition, enhances the dignity of the Bar and the Court.
For about a decade or so, you have continued to express concern over the falling standards in legal education and ethics of the profession. The situation appears to be worsening, as nothing appears to have changed. What measures would you suggest can be applied, to ensure improvement? The poor standard of the Bar and elsewhere in the Nigerian society, is something that causes me a lot of pain.
No country can progress, without its people really attaining certain standards. I think that we have to go back, to the educational system that we have. I have been horrified to hear that in universities and colleges, they are now accepting 40%, 45% as pass mark! For me, that is failure!
I used to teach Mathematics and Latin, in England and Nigeria. Anything below 50%, is failure. I was aghast when I was told that the National Universities Commission (NUC) has advised that, 120 out of 400 should be acceptable. That is 30%! NUC advised that universities can adjust it as they want, but I think that the NUC should be in the forefront, of making sure that a higher standard is expected of students. I am looking forward to an opportunity to meet with the Secretary of the NUC — Prof. Abubakar A. Rasheed — to engage him in a conversation. I used to teach Latin and Mathematics. So, for me, 120 over 400 is a dismal failure. That is where we must start, and it touches every discipline, not only law. If you allow them to progress educationally with such poor grades, that translates into the poor standards which they bring into the professions, including law.
Some graduates cannot construct simple English sentences, and that horrifies me! How can you expect to practice law, if you cannot put together simple sentences in English — the language of the Court? Thus, we must start at the beginning. The Law School should reexamine the curriculum, and prepare students for the IT age. The infrastructure at the Law School must be adequate, so that the students can study law and be prepared for the Bar with a measure of comfort, constant water supply and electricity, and other amenities.
The Alabukun Powder (I take it when I have a headache), which your late father invented, recently marked its 100 year centenary. Your office is named Alabukun Chambers. As a Scion of the late Chief Jacob Odulate dynasty, how do you feel about your father’s enduring legacy?
I am very proud of my father. He was a genius! That is why, I named my law chambers after him. He formulated about 150 medications, for different ailments. Unfortunately, there are no written records. What has survived him is the Alabukun Powder for the relief of pain, which is everywhere now. There is also another medication, the Alabukun Mentholine Balm. Somehow, through his staff, it became Aboki and then later, Aboniki. Its origin was Alabukun Mentholine Balm. The “bottles” of Aboniki on sale on the streets and in the markets in Nigeria, are exactly the same kind of glass bottles which my father imported from the United Kingdom for his Alabukun Mentholine Balm. In my updated Autobiography: “Reaching for the Stars”, in the index, I published his lectures and papers. He had tremendous foresight. The pamphlet titled “Golden Precepts: A Collection of Essays”, is on the Rule of Life. Of course, the Rule of Life is synonymous with the Rule of Law. I featured it, in the revised edition of my book. The price of the pamphlet was 1 Shilling! It had a preface and had many interesting articles like, “Help Yourself, Oh Africa, Be Honest Oh Africa, Wake Up Oh Africans, Africa Shall Rise: When? United We Stand Oh Africa.” I remember reading all these. He used to publish, an annual Alabukun Almanac. I am still trying to get a copy, of one of the almanacs. I have been to the Alake of Egba, and I have not been able to find a copy.
So, the reigning Ooni of Ife, Kabiyesi Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi Ojaja II recognised my father’s centenary. The Ooni has also given me an award, “IrawoNla”, “Big Star”. My father was a genius, and I am very proud of him.
What are your recommendations, about the mode of appointment of Judicial officers in both Federal and State High Courts? In the past few years, lots of criticisms have trailed judicial appointments.
The mode of appointment for elevation to the Bench, should be what it used to be. That is, you were invited to become a Judge. You were in practice, you appeared in court, judges observed you, knew your character, your knowledge and your reputation. You were then invited, to come to the Bench.
I was invited to come to the High Court Bench in Ogun State, the Lagos State and the Oyo State, but I declined, because of my love for advocacy. In 1987, after we completed an assignment, of which I was a member of a Tribunal reviewing the colossal sentences imposed on some politicians. I sat on the Tribunal headed by Hon Justice Bello. At that time, Chief Justice Bello of the Supreme Court, and Justice Nasir, President of the Court of Appeal, invited me to come to the Court of Appeal. I told them to give me time, to think about it. After a lot of deliberation, I went to Lagos to meet the Justices. I thanked them, for the invitation. I told them that I did not have the “Divine push” to go to the Bench, because of my love for advocacy. As soon as I said that, Justice Bello said ‘nobody can counter that!’ That was how it ended.
Now, applicants are filing application forms, to be elevated to the Bench! How did we get to that? I pray that the problems of the Judiciary will be addressed, because confidence in the Judiciary, has been massively eroded.
I consider it an abomination, that aspiring Judges now have to fill application forms to be considered for the sacred judicial positions.
Let me say this at once, not all the Judges are corrupt. There are Judges who labour day and night, to abide by their oath of office, and deliver judgements purely on law and facts. I have no other recommendation, than to say that people with character, knowledge, scholarship, impeccable
reputation and experience, should be appointed to the Bench. Nothing to do with who was your father, nothing to do with where you come from, or who you know! Nothing to do with extraneous or political matters, but pure law, integrity and ability.
Some Senior Advocates are currently facing trials, for corrupt and unethical practices. For the first time in history, a Senior Advocate was convicted on several counts of trying to pervert the course of Justice. What is your opinion about this? In the past few months, some have either been suspended from the Inner Bar or have had their privileges totally withdrawn. Does this suggest that Applicants for Silk are not properly screened? What can be done about this?
Those who engage in corrupt practices, pollute the stream of justice and they break my heart. It’s a betrayal of the law, a betrayal of the trust reposed in them to practice law, as it should be practiced. To engage in corrupt practices, is a huge betrayal of the profession. Now, many people say all Judges are corrupt, all Senior Advocates of Nigeria are corrupt. Well, I am not corrupt! It is not good, that they should stain all of us. Their bad behaviour, stains the law and the profession. They should not bring dirt to everybody, through their own corrupt practices. The rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is a very elevated and prestigious position. I am very proud that God enabled me to become the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1981, and I have always been and will always abide by the ethics and traditions of the profession, “Deo Volente”.
What I will say is that, every single Lawyer, whatever status, whether a SAN, a Judge or a Junior, must be corruption free. The legal profession now, is in trouble, because of what is happening. Senior Advocates who corrupt their learned profession, are in violation of the dignity and nobility, honour of their chosen profession, and bring shame to the legal profession. Criteria for being elevated to the prestigious rank should be strictly applied, in order to elevate candidates only on merit, without any extraneous consideration. The Body of Senior Advocates should be extremely concerned about the corrupt practices of some of its members, and initiate some internal mechanisms to call them to account to the Body, in order not to damage the prestigious rank irrevocably. The leadership role of the SANs must not be compromised, as they are expected to be excellent examples for the Juniors.
Do you agree that the October 2016 raids on Judicial Officers, has had a positive effect on cleansing the legal profession in Nigeria?
I do not like, nor support that kind of Gestapo tactics. Due process must be followed. Due process cannot permit you to go and break down the doors of a Judge in the dead of night, or at any time. No! The National Judicial Council, is there. That is where a complaint should start. I do not agree with what they did. And I don’t think it has done anything, to cleanse the Judiciary or the legal profession. In fact, the nocturnal assault, has damaged the independence of the Judiciary. How would you rate the 2019 elections? Well, I don’t know. But, the turnout was abysmally low. It created the impression that people were unimpressed, and a lot of money was involved. While I will not condemn all politicians, there are some who only care about their pockets. They do not care about the people. I was extremely sad that, people have lost faith in the electoral process. We must sit down as government, and see what can be done. We must reduce the influence of money, in our political process. Money can be a cause of corruption, because after spending such huge amounts of money, the politicians would like to recover “investments” when they get into office, and that is corruption.
How would you rate the performance of the Buhari Administration in its first term, especially in relation to the fight against corruption? Now that he has commenced his second term, what steps do you think he should take to fulfill his primary campaign promises of fighting insecurity and corruption, and fixing the Nigerian economy? What do you expect from the administration this second term?
Last week, I was so disturbed when I read portions of a report, which was published in THE ECONOMIST. It gave such a damning assessment, of the first term of President Buhari. It really made me sad. I do hope that, in his second term, the President will look into the grievances of the people such as corruption, security and poverty of amenities. Unfortunately, people are not happy. If you cannot get rid of corruption, we cannot make progress as a nation. How many successive administrations have promised to resolve the power supply debacle, for instance?
Now, take the Lagos-Ibadan Express Way, which successive administrations have been repairing for over 20 years. Take a look at the railways, for another example. We do not know how many times, different administrations have promised to resuscitate the railways. We do not know how many billions or trillions of dollars, have been paid to Chinese companies to repair our railways. When I was a pupil at Methodist Girls High School in Lagos last century, I was travelling from Lagos to Abeokuta by train. I used to enjoy the train journey. It went through Lafenwa Station where I disembarked, and would continue to the North of Nigeria.
Those are examples, of what the new administration should do something about. Power problem should be solved. How can you expect industrialisation, when you do not have power? It will not happen. Without power, tourism is a joke. Now, I do not want to forget what the former Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun introduced, namely the “Whistle blower” Policy, because Kemi Adeosun is no longer there. Every citizen must be involved, in preserving this policy. I remember in a lecture I gave in 2017 in Abuja, at the Chief JK Gadzama SAN 10th Annual Lecture, I spoke about the Whistle Blower Policy, and recommended that government should not just implement it as a policy. If the policy is translated into law, it will continue and survive every other administration, to reduce corruption for the progress of the nation.
I expect the Buhari Administration, in its second term, to review its performance during the first term, and initiate novel policies and programmes to improve their performance, by correcting previous errors of his governance. The President should demonstrate to the people, his government’s commitment to: justice,
and ensure the security of the people.
An Abuja High Court presided over by Hon Justice Danlami Senchi, recently, imposed a rather huge fine on the Lawyer who filed a suit over the alleged falsification of age of the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Tanko Muhammad, JSC. There has been an outcry, over the N10 million fine the court imposed on the Lawyer. What does this say about the rights of citizens to approach the courts over their grievances?
Let me say that, it is part of the law that we should all have access to the courts. But, the N10m fine is excessive. I know those concerned, will appeal. But, you do not treat the courts with levity. I do not have the facts of the case, but I read that after filing it, when the case was in court, the initiator of the case was not there. That is what I read, in the print media.
You cannot take anything frivolous, to the court. If you take a case to the court, and for any reason you are unable to attend court, it’s a matter of courtesy that you write a letter to the court, as to why you are unable to come. But, if you feel strongly about your claim, you must go and prosecute your case in court. Apparently, the Lawyer was not there, and nobody was there. Why did he file the case? That probably irritated the Judge. The time of the court is too precious for frivolous claims, which you are not going to pursue. But, that should not put off litigants, who have serious and genuine claims.
For the first time in the history of our country, we saw a Chief Justice docked (before a Magistrate) on allegations of false declaration of assets. What did you make of the whole saga? Which side of the divide do you belong to - the side that insists that it was a witch hunt and that Government did not follow due process, or the side that applauded Government for its actions in this matter?
I must say to you that, I have practiced law for 56 years, and I have endeavoured to serve the course of justice. Then, when the Chief Justice of Nigeria was suspended, I was traumatised. I was calling everybody on the phone. The first time I heard about it, I was with my 96 years old sister — Chief Mrs. S.O. Odesanya. She called me on the phone on a Saturday evening, and told me that she had heard on the television that, the CJN was being prosecuted. I told her ‘Sister, please, it cannot happen. I don’t know what you heard on television’. And, I thought she was saying ‘court one, court two, court three’ and so on. Indeed, she was saying ‘count one, count two, count three...’ I told her ‘Sister, please, nothing like that can happen. Go and have a glass of red wine, and go and sleep, tomorrow is another day’. So, I went to bed. The next day being Sunday, I came out of Church and bought newspapers. I looked at it, page 1, it was there ‘Chief Justice of Nigeria being prosecuted before the Code of Conduct Tribunal on six (6) counts’. I wept in the car, on my way home. I remembered my sister calling me the previous night, and I couldn’t call her that morning. But, in the evening I struggled to call her. I apologised to her, that I didn’t understand what she was saying the previous day. She said to me ‘it is alright, now you go and take a glass of red wine, and go to bed’.
Then for the President to say he had suspended the
“THOSE WHO ENGAGE IN CORRUPT PRACTICES, THEY POLLUTE THE STREAM OF JUSTICE, AND THEY BREAK MY HEART. IT’S A BETRAYAL OF THE LAW, A BETRAYAL OF THE TRUST REPOSED IN THEM TO PRACTICE LAW, AS IT SHOULD BE PRACTICED. TO ENGAGE IN CORRUPT PRACTICES, IS A HUGE BETRAYAL OF THE PROFESSION”
‘I WEPT, WHEN I READ ABOUT ONNOGHEN’S TRIAL’ “....I WAS SO DISTURBED WHEN I READ PORTIONS OF A REPORT, WHICH WAS PUBLISHED IN THE ECONOMIST. IT GAVE SUCH A DAMNING ASSESSMENT, OF THE FIRST TERM OF PRESIDENT BUHARI. IT REALLY MADE ME SAD. I DO HOPE THAT, IN HIS SECOND TERM, THE PRESIDENT WILL LOOK INTO THE GRIEVANCES OF THE PEOPLE, SUCH AS CORRUPTION, SECURITY AND POVERTY OF AMENITIES”
Chief Justice of Nigeria on an exparte order, I don’t know how to describe it. “Exparte” is a Latin phrase, which means ‘from one side.’ The person who was going to be affected by the order, was not present. Apparently, they had adjourned the matter in the afternoon, only for people to wake up in the morning, and be told about the nocturnal order advising the President to suspend the Chief Justice of Nigeria. I still cannot get over it. It is a disgrace of the law. It is a disgrace of the legal profession, and a disgrace to the country. The international community would say ‘don’t take your investments to Nigeria. Their Chief Justice is in the dock and has been convicted. They do not have a credible legal system. I cannot imagine anything worse, happening to the Chief Justice of a country’.
I am not talking about misconduct, no. I am talking about breach of due process. I do not rejoice, when anybody falls from the top to the bottom. The suspension and subsequent conviction of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, constitutes a dagger in the very heart and soul of the administration of justice. This national and professional tragedy, is souldestroying. The law must survive, because if the law fails, the country becomes a failed State. I was traumatised by the tragedy. May the nation be healed. “Deo Volente”. I agonise when a person falls from grace to grass, and crashes down from a pinnacle to the ground. No one should jubilate, over another human being’s catastrophe.
The President of the Nigerian Bar Association is being tried in court by the EFCC, over allegations of money laundering in excess of N4.5 billion. Many have demanded that Paul Usoro, SAN should step aside until the trial is concluded. But, he has refused. Do you support such a call , or do you believe that those who are making the call, should wait for the final outcome of the case?
The trial initiated by the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) of my learned friend of the Silk, Paul Usoro, SAN, the NBA President for allegations of money laundering, is “sub judice”. Suffice it to say, that his declared defence is that, the money was professional fees for a number of Lawyers, including himself, for professional services rendered to clients. Under the rule of law, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. We have to await, the verdict of the court.
The nation is presently on the boil, as every part of the country is facing one form of security challenge or the other, terrorism, insurgency, kidnapping and ritual killings. Is this the Nigeria of your dreams? What panacea would you proffer, to these intractable problems bedevilling our nation?
Any government is expected to secure the safety of its people, and to design programmes for their welfare. But, today, this doesn’t seem to be the case. A month ago, one of our Ibadan Lawyers was going to the Akure Division of the Court of Appeal, and he was waylaid by bandits along the way, who took him and his driver away. They walked miles in the wilderness, and there was an alert sent everywhere. He was with them, for over 24 hours. That kind of experience, can kill a person. And I understand that, money passed before they were released. This has become a country, where you cannot travel safely. Now, the herdsmen are rampaging farms and everywhere. Women are being raped every day. May God help us! The government has to do something about the intolerable high level of insecurity, in the country. I recommend that: be submitted to the President, on how corruption will eradicated in the Ministry.
Chief Folake Solanke, SAN