Justice Dulcie Ethel Adunola Oguntoye OFR, Iyalode of Imesi-Ile
Born of English parents on May 29, 1923 at Gravesend, Kent in England, Adunola Oguntoye knows no other home than Nigeria. Although she served in the Royal Air force with her late husband, Chief David Ojo Abiodun Oguntoye, during World War II, she was determined to spend the rest of her life where the ‘land is green’. Shortly after the war, she enrolled for Law at the Middle Temple Inns of Court. In 1960, she renounced her British Citizenship in order to serve her country, Nigeria. Having served with Oguntoye & Oguntoye, a law firm established with her late husband, she joined the Western Region Magistracy in 1961. Justice Oguntoye later moved to Lagos in 1967 as Chief Magistrate. She held this position for nine years before her appointment as a Judge of the Lagos State High Court in February 1976. Thus, she became the 1st woman on the Lagos State Bench and the 2nd woman to become a Judge in Nigeria after Justice Modupe Omo-Eboh who was appointed a Judge in 1975 in the old Mid-Western region. In 1978, she sought to be transferred to the newly created Oyo state and finally retired from the bench in 1988. Justice Oguntoye was honoured deservedly as an Officer of the Federal Republic in 1978 by then Head of State Olusegun Obasanjo. Last week Jude Igbanoi and Yinka Olatunbosun sat with this lady of charisma at the Eko Hotel and Suites just a few hours before the birthday dinner held by the Lagos State Judiciary in her honour, as she went down memory lane on her six decades in Nigeria….
Waiting for Her Lordship…
Her autobiography, Your Estranged Faces, did not quite prepare anyone for the degree of clarity of her voice. With her quick strides and hair that still possesses the curly quality of a judge’s wig, Justice Oguntoye is a proud Nigerian.
Since 14 years ago, her birthday has coincided with the Democracy Day celebration. It was not a surprise to see her in green Ankara fabric as she looked back at the greener years in Nigerian history.
‘My husband and I had very great hopes when we got independence. Albeit, it has not worked out the way we wanted it, there are signs now of a kind of moral revolution which I think is what we need. When people learn how to pull together, to plan towards what they can be able to achieve I think they are signs that things are going to improve. But there is a long way to go’, she began.
White Lady with Police Escort…
She would always be remembered by those with long memories as the white lady with a police escort. As a magistrate, there were challenges which she recounted in her autobiography. Being a World War II veteran, she had been prepared to face the hard life. On her relocation to Nigeria after marriage, she moved to Ibadan with her husband in a remote part of Ibadan, now known as Old Ife road.
She had good neighbours, most of whom she had met while studying Law in the United Kingdom. Hence, she had no reason to regret being a Nigerian despite her willingly uprooting herself from her English roots.
‘I was very fortunate with the lawyers in practice and I never had any problems. The only problem I ever had was that I don’t know Yoruba! Much as I tried to learn the language, I found it difficult but I could not hold a proper conversation.
‘So once or twice it happened when I was a junior magistrate that the lawyer said something or had not said something and I said that if you don’t agree with what the court interpreter has said say so immediately, we will sort it out. But once that moment had passed, there is no going back. It worked out! I never had any problem with a lawyer!’
Mixed race marriages have been a subject of international suspicion. When an African man marries a Caucasian, it is often suggested that the man needed the marriage as a mere requirement in legitimising his stay in a foreign land. Many of these marriages fail while few others are willfully terminated. Justice Oguntoye’s marriage to a Nigerian was not founded on such frivolity. She married a man whom she is proud to say was the first lawyer in Ijeshaland.
Her face still glows when she talks about her late husband. She was fondly christened ‘Adunola’ by her husband, a name which is a hybrid of Dulcie meaning ‘sweetness’ and Ethel meaning ‘noble’. Adunola thus means the sweetness of nobility.
At a time when racism was stiff and brazenly perpetrated in Europe, Justice Oguntoye could not bear the sight of her fellow countrymen throwing rude racial abuses at her heartthrob while she walked with him on the street. For her, it was heartrending. When she arrived in Nigeria, she discovered that when young children called out at her ‘Oyinbo’, it was out of admiration and not a bi-product of racial discrimination. She felt at home. Several years later, she was honoured as the Iyalode of Imesi-Ile.
She told THISDAY LAWYER how she met the man who touched her life in totality.
‘He was a pilot navigator and I was what we called the Equipment Assistant. It was after the war in Europe ended that we met and we actually got out of the airport. That’s how we met and everything followed from that.’
Everything included her marriage becoming more accommodating. Her husband married five wives after. He had prepared her for this when he told her that in Africa, before Europeans brought Christianity to Nigeria, men could marry as many wives as they could. He however assured her that she would be the Queen of the other wives. She has since remained a worthy Queen, adored by those wives and their children.
‘When I married, it was for better or worse. Although, my husband has gone, my family is here and I had to be with my country, and for that I am very thankful.
‘I have been fortunate to have had an interest in a Nigerian. I came over here and settled with him and he had interest in my life and interest in my career. I have been very fortunate!’
Her recollection of time and dates is astonishing. When asked what her experience had been for the past sixty years in Nigeria, she promptly corrected that it was ‘59 years and a few weeks; almost 60 years!’
Corruption in the Judiciary…
Although she served at the time when corruption was not a popular discourse where the judiciary was concerned, she admitted that the judiciary might be as vulnerable as any other system in Nigeria.
‘Yes we have too much corruption that is true. We all know it but I am just so strengthened that the lady who now occupies the place of Chief Justice of Nigeria is the right person for that job. She has a very difficult task before her but I think she is the one that is equal to the task and will bring standards up to what they used to be.’
An old picture of Chief Justice Aloma Muhktar is on one of the pages of her autobiography, Your Estranged Faces; there are also old photos of the CJN in the 90th birthday dinner brochure by the Lagos State Judiciary titled, ‘A beautiful Life’.
‘We met very briefly some years ago when she was a magistrate but I haven’t seen her again. We didn’t keep in touch. I’ve watched her progress.’
Commenting on her own appointment as the first female judge in Lagos state, her face shone at the memory of that first.
‘I was overwhelmed. It is something I might have hoped for but when it came it was a surprise! I was very fortunate.’
Perhaps, she was fortunate indeed to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian people before she married one. Back in the days when her folks in the United Kingdom had little knowledge of who Nigerians were, they asked if Nigerians had tails.
Later, her parents visited Nigeria during the Independence celebration. Caught in delayed sea travel, they only saw the tail end of the week-long celebration of Nigeria’s Independence.
In Search of Greener Pastures…
On her advice to Nigerians who leave the shores of the country in search of ‘greener pastures’, she had nothing bad to say about such a move even though she would rather remain in Nigeria.
‘I don’t blame them! We have several of our children overseas. We have two in the United Kingdom, 7 in the United States and I don’t blame them - although, it is a pity because the country needs these brains. God bless these children, they want to do something better for themselves.’
She recommended that a little more time be given to judges for retirement with the retirement age increased to 70 from 65, so that others can benefit by understudying them.
‘I don’t see why not! I think most of us are still able to cope. If you are to have a very competent judge, it takes time and effort to learn and one of the benefits of that experience can be earned in a few more years.’
In her view, if court proceedings are not recorded in long hand, speedy justice may evolve. She also praised the effort of women in various fields of endeavour and commended their effort at balancing work and family life.
‘I have seen them progress since I first came. I have seen women progress in almost every career. Any profession you mention you will see a woman there that is doing well! I am happy to see that.’
Speak the Speech…
One of the most influential writers of the Elizabethan period, William Shakespeare underscored the importance of proper pronunciation of words by actors in his famous play Hamlet.
But it is not only Shakespeare that understood the importance of accuracy in public speaking. Justice Oguntoye realises the importance of accurate translation in a court proceeding.
‘In my case, it was very important to have accurate translation, it wasn’t really the witnesses giving evidence in the language that the judge or magistrate knows. It is very important indeed that translations are accurate.
‘I remember long ago in the West when I first arrived, we had a very competent Assistant Registrar and it wasn’t hard to have the translations because he translated beautifully. If we had that standard every time, it will make things probably more accurate.’
While responding to the question whether judges should have research assistants as obtains abroad, she had a different view.
‘I don’t know how the other judges would feel but I have always preferred to do my own research. As long as you have got your own library, it is not a problem.’
In a light-hearted manner, Justice Oguntoye remembered fondly how her late husband used to tease her about having a very good marriage whilst carrying out the duty of legally dissolving those of others.
‘Most ladies in profession had double job to do! I think it is a matter of organising. That’s what it comes down to - organising your work and your whole life.
‘My husband was fond of saying that I knew how to break up others’ marriages but I knew how to keep my own together. In any marriage, there has to be give and take. If you don’t attempt to make it work, it won’t work.’
While applauding the increase in the number of female judges in Nigeria, Justice Oguntoye observed that there has been a remarkable change since she retired in 1988. She’s responding to a question why she thinks some state judiciaries still lack female judges whilst others have them in the majority.
‘Don’t forget it is 25years since I have retired! But I think we have quite a number of female judges in Oyo state and there are female judges in other states.
‘I think that appointment should be on merit regardless of gender or affiliation’.
He Was Right…
Like almost everything else that she had done, she wrote Your Estranged Faces on the advice of her husband.
‘My husband kept telling me that I should write it and I don’t know but my husband said I should do so and I did it. He told me to read law.’
‘I was going to be a teacher and I had already started revising my knowledge of the Latin language, but along came my husband. He said, “You can’t be a teacher in Nigeria you have got to be a lawyer!” It took him a long time to persuade me but he was right!
‘That was the same thing with going on to the bench in the first place. It was my husband who insisted that I should go on the bench. I wasn’t keen and I said I’d rather go to the Ministry of Justice and be moving about instead of sitting down all day but he had his way and he was right!’
Of a Loving Mother…
Colour was not an issue. Every child in the Oguntoye home loves and respects ‘mum’ as she is fondly called.
Mr. Aderemi Oguntoye, a lawyer who now runs Oguntoye & Oguntoye, paid tribute to Justice Oguntoye, describing her as ‘the definition of unconditional love.’
‘I recall the years with mum in our different Judges’ quarters. I imbibed the discipline of a clear and lucid mind. Apparently, the days of regimented living were preparatory to so many achievements!’
Justice Oguntoye, he recalled had the habit of walking the children for the hours round the field, then dinner over potatoes.
‘Mum was always buried in her study either writing judgments or preparing for trials and she was quick to instruct that there must be no noise. We attracted mum’s wrath sometimes when we got carried away with the television.
‘Those early years must have been the period I opted and became resolute about law. As Judges’ children, we entertained no visitors and our friends were restricted to children of other Judges.’
Justice Oguntoye also transferred her love for the piano to the children. In her younger years during the Second World War, she found solace in the piano. But she loved her family more.
‘Law was mummy’s profession. However, daddy and the children were her passion. Mummy lived to make daddy happy and she was fulfilled in so doing. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears to me that as far as mum is concerned, daddy was incapable of any wrong! What manner of love, what a commitment, what a great example!’
Her Amazing Sense of Humour…
Her writings reflect her sense of humour and a keen observation of her environment. In Your Estranged Faces, she dedicated a chapter to snakes and named it, ‘Snakes on Sunday’. There, she recalled the repeated encounters that she had with snakes particularly when the children were around. At a point, she decided to ignore some of the snakes whenever they came and went away the same way they came.
Most of these bewildering encounters happened on Sundays and she subconsciously looked out for snakes on Sundays.
She also had a score to settle with goats. Under the section, Diary of a Countryman’s Wife, she explained why she gave up on the goats which often messed with her garden.
‘There was a play reading group of which the Eyesorun of Akure was a member. She used to send me flowers to plant in the frontage of my quarters but as fast as I planted them, the goats devoured them.
‘In the end, we had to admit defeat. The goats belonged to the Chief Superintendent of Police who lived opposite. I would not risk the good relationship by complaining about his goats.’
Although her husband made her do a lot of things and was actively involved in politics, she never would concede to discussing politics or be involved in politics.
In fact, she declined to answer any question that had political undertones.
At 90, she is surrounded by a warm family who have learnt and emulated her demonstration of unwavering love.
The interview, all too soon, comes to an end. We stand up to bid her farewell and watch as she springs up to leave the room.
A most memorable walk down memory lane it’s been….