Lady SAN Turns 80!

27 Mar 2012

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Ibadan holds a long list of firsts in Nigeria’s history and indeed in Africa. It is the home of the first Television station in West Africa, WNTV, now NTA, Ibadan, the first Nigerian University UCI, now University of Ibadan, the first teaching hospital, University College Hospital, the first stadium in Africa, Liberty Stadium and of course, home of the first Nigerian Football Club to win an international trophy, Shooting Stars FC. 
In the heart of Ibadan rests a serene community of great men and women who have at one point or another rendered selfless service to the nation. The first Government Reserved Area in Western Nigeria, located in Old Bodija has been the home of great Nigerians who shaped and made monumental changes in history such as the first Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige SAN and former Chief Justice of Botswana, Justice Akinola Aguda.
It is fitting then to find on Ibadan’s list of pioneers, the first lady silk, Chief Folake Solanke, SAN. JUDE IGBANOI, YINKA OLATUNBOSUN AND KUNLE OGUNFUYI visited her Old Bodija residence last Wednesday and returned with a wealth of first-hand experience of the world of a learned Octogenarian who has made her mark in Nigerian, and indeed world, history…

… Court!
Chief Folake Solanke, SAN is arguably one of the most respected women in Nigeria. Her presence is quickly acknowledged the moment she makes her entry into any gathering, social or legal. For good reason, including her name on the list of special guests of honour at any event is routine. In 1972, Chief Solanke became the first female Commissioner of Western State. In 1981, she became the first female lawyer to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. In 1994, she became the first African, non-caucasian, President of Zonta International, a global organisation that advances the status of women through service and advocacy.

Born into the family of the well known entrepreneur J.S. Odulate (‘Blessed Jacob Odulate’) who patented Alabukun, the popular analgesic powder, this woman of substance who turns 80 this Thursday recounted to the THISDAY LAWYER team some phenomenal experiences in her career and commented on some national issues. 

Clad in her signature black and white skirt suit and hat, she began with how she started out on a rewarding career.
‘Strictly speaking I was called to the Bar in May 1963, but I had completed the studies within 22 months. I was called to the Bar in absentia in 1963. When I came back, I was in pupilage in the law chambers of my brother-in-law, the Honourable Justice M.A. Odesanya. That was the time I was waiting to be called to the Bar and I used to attend court with him. I was always taking notes. One of the memorable cases I remember then is the treasonable felony trial of Papa Awolowo which I attended in pupilage with my brother-in-law’.

…Learning What Being Learned Takes
The elegant lady of silk spoke on the painstaking effort required of a lawyer to become successful in his career. A former Latin and Mathematics teacher in England, she reminisced on her years of pupilage.
‘After I was called to the Bar, I then joined the law chambers of Chief Rotimi Williams in Ibadan. I found that to succeed in law you have to be very dedicated and industrious. You have to work hard and keep abreast of the law. Chief F.R.A. Williams would wake up and would be at his desk by 5.00 am and that is where he would be all day, except for breaks to have his meals. That really impressed upon me that you cannot really get anywhere in the legal profession without hard work. That was one of the things I learnt from him.
‘Every time a new client would come, once he had agreed with them as to the terms of professional fees, he would set to work to prepare that particular case. He would seek out all the authorities and put them the jacket of the file, including his address.
‘When it was time to go to court, we’d just fetch the file and we’d be ready to go. I remember one day we were preparing to go to the Supreme Court from Ibadan. In those days, his driver would fetch me from my own home at the UCH, Ibadan and we would then go to Bodija to fetch him. The driver would have picked me up at about 5.30 am. I had little children then and sometimes I would take my son to Chief F.R.A. Williams’ residence and his wife would look after the little boy while we went to court.
‘We would set out at about 6 a.m. and would get to Lagos even before the Lagos lawyers. Sometimes the doors of the courtroom might still be closed. It was hard work, but interesting. I therefore believe that you cannot succeed in the legal profession without commitment, industry and sheer grinding labour.’

…Transition to Law
It is not uncommon to find lawyers who hold law degrees as their second degrees. It is also a widely held belief that most graduates of humanities and law have poor numerical skills and weak performance in subjects involving calculations. It is then a rare occurrence to find female lawyers who had first degree in courses like Mathematics. Chief Solanke holds a first degree in Mathematics and Latin. She made a calculated evaluation of her transition from Mathematics to Law and found some significant similarities in both fields. 
‘Latin and Pure Mathematics were two of the subjects that I studied for my first degree. Then I taught the two subjects in two boarding schools in England.

‘When I came back to Nigeria I taught Latin and Mathematics at Yejide Girls Grammar School. I found it very interesting to transit from Latin and Mathematics to Law. When I started to go to court, I found a striking resemblance in the way I was resolving legal issues and in the way I was solving geometrical problems.
‘You will be given certain data that will help you solve geometrical problems. That is exactly the same with law. The laws relating to a particular case will be the data for you to resolve that legal issues. I found it very fascinating at the time to transit from mathematics to law.’
She however advised that law is better obtained as a second degree than as first.
‘Have you interacted with any recent law graduate from our universities? It’s so appalling when you hear them speak, some of them can’t speak one correct sentence in English neither can they write! If you can’t speak correct sentences in English, then you can’t write.
‘In the past 20 years I have always advocated that law be made a second degree. My advice is that it is better to get a first degree in any other discipline and then go in for law as second degree. Such graduates will find the study of law easier and it is better for the profession and better for the country.’

…Finding her Independence
She did what every practising lawyer dreams of - set up a law firm. Owing to the strong background of her early practising years, the young Solanke imbibed some endearing qualities from her tutor that stood the test of time.
‘What I know is that when I established my own Alabukun Law Chambers, I followed the pattern that I learnt in his law chambers - preparing my cases in advance.
‘Another thing I learnt from him is that you cannot prepare your case just from your own point of view only. You have to put yourself in the shoes of your opponent. You do this by anticipating what your opponent is likely to do. By the time the case starts, you are very comfortable with your own side and what your opponent may likely do.
‘Many young lawyers think that if they study their own briefs - that is if they had studied it at all - there is nothing more to do.  Then they get to court and they are in for a big disappointment, if they are not prepared for what their opponent may likely do. You never can tell what the opposing counsel is going to throw at you if you are not prepared’.

…Served on Merit
Holding a political appointment in a male-dominated polity does not come easy. In recent times, antics and drama surround political appointments, making the selection process completely opaque to the citizens.  Chief Solanke revealed the circumstances surrounding her appointment as the first female Commissioner in Western State. 
‘I was in my law chambers, minding my own legal business when somebody came into my office to tell me that the Governor wanted to see me. I went to see him - Governor Oluwole Rotimi who was a Colonel at the time. He then told me that he would like to appoint me as a Commissioner in the state and also as the Chairman of the Western Nigeria Television Broadcasting Corporation (WNTBC).
‘It was quite an experience because it had never happened before, that a female is appointed a commissioner. The media were very excited! Women all over the place were very excited! There were 14 of us in the cabinet and I was the only female. I was treated with every courtesy. I approached the work with honesty, diligence and integrity.
‘When I was there I never signed a single cheque, either in the Ministry of Establishment or in the Broadcasting Corporation. The policy was set by the board. We were there to serve. It was just such a privilege and honour to serve. I hear people lobby for appointments these days. At the time I didn’t even know the governor. I was just told the governor wanted to see me.
‘I think we need to re-orientate the whole of society to accept the fact that service is a call from God to serve him and humanity and not just to go there for only what you can get out of it’.

…Making Africa Proud
As the first black president of Zonta International, Solanke made history when she was announced the winner of the 42nd Presidential election of the organisation.

She narrated the story of perseverance of a position she had contested thrice, stating figures and dates with astonishing accuracy along with sharp mental pictures as though the events had happened just months before.
‘First, how did I get to be President of Zonta? In any international organisation of that nature there is bound to be internal politics. There were people who felt they were not ready for a black president. I didn’t see what colour had to do with it especially if you are someone who has proven all along to be capable.

‘I had first been the District Governor for Africa. Then I served on the board as International Vice President, before starting my campaign to be President. It took me six solid years. After the first attempt in Helsinki in 1988, I lost. Then there was a second attempt in Texas in 1990. After that, I was prepared to let it go. This is because it is not easy to campaign all over the world. Zonta is in about 70 countries of the world.

‘There were people within the same Zonta who were determined and who made up their minds that they were going to support me because they thought I had the ability, competence and background to hold the position as Zonta President. That it would be a good thing for the world to know that it’s what you can do and not the colour of your skin. So, members who had faith in me encouraged me to try again for third time and arranged for me to give lectures around the world, in England and America.
‘Then in 1992, I was elected as Zonta International President. It was a most extra-ordinary event! Even now when I think about it, the euphoria is still there!

‘When they voted and we were awaiting the results, I sat at the back of the hall. I was just thinking that if I should lose for the third time, I would just probably be going to Zonta events in Nigeria only.

‘This was an assembly of almost 2,000 delegates. A past international President came in and went to the stage and said, ‘We have interesting results.’ It would be interesting for whoever won so I didn’t get excited. When she started to read the results, she started from the bottom of the list, from assistant secretary upwards. She mentioned the number that my opponent scored. As soon as she mentioned 598, I knew I had won. As one who’d taught mathematics, there were about 1,200 delegates registered to vote, so I just quickly did the calculations in my head and knew I had won.

‘There was pandemonium in that huge hall. I gave my bag to my sister-in-law who had come for the first time to a Zonta Convention; she had told me two days earlier that she was a very lucky person. That this time she had come, I was going to win. I said, ‘Well, we’ll see’.
‘So, I gave her my bag and I walked the isle as people were applauding, screaming and weeping with emotions. I went to the President who incidentally was the one who defeated me in Helsinki. She wrapped her arms around me and told me to come on sit on the President’s chair. It took me six years of struggle to get there.

‘God helped me a lot by His grace to perform so many international engagements all over the world, including the United Nations.  I left a record in that office that even a non-Caucasian can do it and do it very well.’

…Breaking the Inner Bar Jinx
Thirty one years after she broke the jinx of an all-male inner bar, the number of female senior advocates of Nigeria remains infinitesimal compared with that of the men. The first lady silk who earned the epithet ‘Lady SAN’ identified some key problems that may be limiting the chances of the female lawyers from attaining the position.

‘I do feel that more of our female legal practitioners should stay in the profession of law.  I know it’s not easy, but if you do not practise and really stick to it, it will be very difficult for you. I am just not happy about the limited number of female Senior Advocates in Nigeria. They are all deferential towards me and I am treated with respect, but we need more.

‘Going to court now is something else; you don’t know what you are going to get in court now! The tradition has been so badly battered by some judges and lawyers. I want to emphasise that there are judges who still abide by their oath of office but unfortunately those who do not, pollute the judiciary.

‘Because of what is happening now many people don’t want to go into practice. When I was in active practice, when I got a brief, I would prepare and research it. I would think of what my opponent would do. I would go to court, present my case and go home with the confidence and satisfaction that whichever way it went the judge would have followed the facts, apply the facts and would give judgment accordingly. But that confidence has been shattered for many people. They don’t know what is happening behind the screen, so to speak.

‘When I started practice, nobody would think or even whisper anything of corruption about a judge. But gradually, it started from the lower court, went through the high court and it’s now gone to the highest court. This is to the extent that a few years ago a lawyer stood before the Supreme Court and said to the Justices there, ‘You are corrupt!’. Ahhhhhhh! That was a day of infamy and I have never gotten over it!

‘It was absolutely scandalous! To say that in the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court! It is unheard of! Whether it was true or not, it was sad. How could any lawyer be bold enough to come to the Supreme Court to say to their Lordships, ‘You are corrupt!’
At this point, she was close to tears.

…Dealing with Corruption
At the last National Executive Committee meeting in Akure, the NBA President, Joseph Daudu SAN set up an anti-corruption committee within the NBA. This was done on the premise that it is actually lawyers who approach judges to compromise them. The committee was set up to discipline lawyers who are found to have approached judges with a view to bribing them. Chief Solanke expressed her views on this development.

‘I would support any kind of move to curb corruption! In fact any move that would help us to deal with this monster called corruption has my support.

‘I read about it and thought that is the beginning. But we must know that the person who gives bribe and the person who receives are both guilty. We all belong to the same profession. No judge can become a judge without first being a lawyer. If a lawyer takes bribe to a judge, the judge can refuse. It is the fault of everyone who is involved.’

…From Silk to Ink
As part of activities that marked her 75th birthday, her autobiography, Reaching for the Stars, was presented to, and has been well received by, the public. She spoke on the qualities one needs to be a good writer and condemned the degenerating reading culture in Nigeria.

‘Those who cannot write don’t read. There is such an abysmal lack of reading culture in Nigeria today because of the internet. People just sit before the screen and that is where they are. Parents must let their children read. Parents themselves must read.

‘Any person who cannot read would not be able to write. As for me I have lived a life of reading. As a teacher of Latin and Mathematics, I felt very comfortable with reading. When I was a student I loved the library. The serenity in the library and the peaceful atmosphere to just read was just right for me. I imbibed knowledge from world philosophers and great thinkers through books.

‘Today we are losing a lot. No library anywhere! In the last decade, every lecture I gave I talked about this reading culture.
‘I have been able to write through God’s grace. I have no time for frivolities. I have no time for gossiping. I have no time for that’.

…Grooming Children
Parents, particularly successful lawyers, are known to transmit the profession across generations. Sometimes, their children voluntarily embrace the profession and other times they are influenced by their parents by words or in practice. Chief Solanke’s method is liberal.
‘They were free to choose. We just concentrated on their academic work in school and we never chose for them. My daughter who is now a legal practitioner and a doctor wanted to be a doctor right from when she was six years old.
‘My son is a civil engineer. Nobody told him what to read. He was very good in physics and mathematics. My last daughter is a very brilliant mathematician. She had a distinction in mathematics.

‘The only influence we had on them was our own way of life, in our profession. You must let children develop their own interests and also choose their professional careers. I know people who forced their children to read one course or the other and the children would say, ‘Oh, is that what you want?’ They will go and qualify in that area and then go ahead to do what they want.’

…On Fuel Subsidy Protests and Human Rights
Lady SAN has been at the forefront of human rights advocacy with special interest in matters relating to women and children. At the last International Federation of Female Lawyers, FIDA, conference held in Lagos, she attended all sessions and was very punctual.
Her position on the fuel subsidy removal by the federal government was widely publicised in the media earlier this year.

Commenting on the impact of government’s forceful intervention in the nationwide protest and the effect the action has had on Nigeria’s democracy she said, ‘I think it’s a breach of the Constitution if people are attacked for embarking on a peaceful protest. The Constitution provides for peaceful assembly and association. It is not right to harass people for meeting peacefully. I don’t support violence. I was absolutely outraged when I saw my learned friend, Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN tear-gassed along with other prominent people. It doesn’t even mean because they are prominent people. Nobody should be tear-gassed. They used to teargas Gani Fawehinmi, SAN and Professor Jadesola Akande. If they can do it such people, what about us professional people? I just didn’t like what I saw.

‘Let’s even start from the law on children, the Child Rights’ Act that was signed in 2000. We are very fond of signing treaties and conventions and nothing happens beyond that. It is the implementation of the laws and treaties that would make the difference.
‘Also, I think women must get to the National Assembly strictly on merit. They must show that they are capable of doing the job. They shouldn’t just be elected because they are women. They must go and do a good job there’.

Reflecting on the coordinated terror attacks by Boko Haram across the country that has largely battered the image of Nigeria, she condemned the undignified treatment of Nigerians abroad and recommended ways of tackling the problem decisively.

‘Take a look at global events and see what is happening. Nigeria’s image is so bad now that the international community has started comparing us to Iraq, Afganistan, Pakistan and other troubled spots around the world! These are the kinds of countries they compare us with now, our image is so battered!
‘Part of the work of Embassies is to protect their own citizens in a foreign land. When a citizen’s rights are threatened abroad the Embassy of his country should protect them. This is not to say they should go about committing crime.

‘Anywhere in world if an American is in trouble the Embassy is there to help him 100%. That is what we should aim at. I don’t know what assistance Nigerians get from their Embassies abroad. The orientation should not only be for those appointing ambassadors, but for the ambassadors to know what their duties are in a foreign land. That is their most important charge - to go and look after their nationals. But do they do it?

‘Nigeria today has an image problem. This is to the point that there was an effort a few years ago to rebrand Nigeria. We have seen nothing of that effort so far.

‘Now the situation is gravely complicated by the gruesome killings going on in the country. The tragic death of the Briton and Italian has further battered the image of Nigeria.

‘I am not speaking only about those two nationals, but also of our people in the North. Until we find a solution to the scourge that is going on now in the name of a religion, it will be very difficult to foresee when Nigeria can be rebranded. It is so painful when one notices the attitude of immigration officers abroad when they see a Nigerian green passport. It is very distressing and sad! What does the Nigeria passport represent today? I must say I don’t really know.’ 

…Leaving Grandma’s for Lagos
At the end of the interview with Lady SAN the photojournalist on the team, Kunle Ogunfuyi, asked if she could spare few minutes for a photo shoot. She gladly obliged. Shoot done, she heaved a sigh of relief and said jokingly, ‘What an ordeal!’
She watched with curiosity as the photographer collapsed the reflector in one movement and without attempting to hide her surprise, exclaimed, ‘Magic!’

Like every hospitable grandmother, she offered the team some refreshment oblivious of the team’s collective tradition of relishing some ‘downtown hot Ibadan Amala’ before returning to Lagos. But she saw the team to the door and bade us farewell.
Lady SAN made quite an impression on the team as an engaging, expressive, youthful and cheerful woman with a palpable sense of fulfillment.

…Great and Grateful at 80
At 80, she has reason to be thankful. She is alive, in good health and capable of performing what could be considered a daunting intellectual task - writing. Tomorrow, the cream of the Nigerian legal community will gather at the Trenchard Hall, University of Ibadan at 10.00 am for the formal presentation of her new book, ‘A Compendium of Selected Lectures and Papers’. The book comprises a selection of her lectures and other papers.
This will be followed by a Thanksgiving Service at All Saints’ Church, Jericho, Ibadan at 10.00 am on Thursday. An Alabukun Ball takes place immediately after.
For many lawyers this week, Ibadan, the city of firsts, is the place to be… 

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