His parents didn’t know they could have more children when he was born. At birth, he was given 20 names. He grew up under the tutelage of a dogged fighter with an unfathomable passion for justice; a very litigious father. His father’s fight for people’s rights led him to a career in assisting the powerless, poor, and disenfranchised to obtain justice. Akeem Aponmade tells Adedayo Adejobi how he met his wife 29 years ago, values that shaped his life, and the intrigues of his birth
What’s your name, where do you work, and what kind of law do you practice?
I am Akeem Aponmade. I work at A. O. Aponmade and Co., a law firm, as the Principal Counsel. I was called to the Nigerian bar as both an Advocate and a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and that defines my practice to date.
How long have you been practising and what are your areas of specilisation?
I set up my private practice in 2005. Given my background in intellectual property rights protection, enforcement and administration, it is natural for me to choose Intellectual Property Law as my area of specialisation. That notwithstanding, I take up quite a lot of constitutional law cases, especially those where indigent people have been oppressed by powerful people or officials of the state. I can’t stand oppression. Most of those cases are done pro bono but they bring me the most satisfaction.
What do you like best about your job?
The immeasurable confidence it gives me that I am a lawyer and I can stand before anyone to express myself.
What do you like least about your job?
Some people assume that once you are a lawyer, you must be a liar. That stigma is sometimes discomfiting.
What do you wish you had known about the legal profession before becoming a lawyer?
Absolutely nothing! I didn’t stumble on the legal profession. I didn’t become a lawyer by accident and neither am I one of those ‘Daddy said I should study law’ guys. I was determined to become a lawyer at a very early age of my life, yet I did it after I had had a degree in Political Science. So, you will be amazed at the sheer volume of information I gathered about my profession before and in the course of my legal education.
Do you have any advice for youths who want to join the legal profession?
The advice is simple: study to become a lawyer only if you have a strong interest in the legal profession or you will end up as a lawyer-hairdresser, lawyer-banker, lawyer-this or that. If you knew you were good in entrepreneurship or performing arts, why didn’t you study courses that align with your major interest in life? Having more than a passing interest in law as a profession will serve as an anchor when the vicissitudes of life come and you feel like bolting away.
What are your strengths?
First, my absolute and unshakable trust in the Almighty God. Secondly, God gave me sufficient wisdom to recognise the fact that through teamwork one can achieve effectiveness efficiently. Thirdly, I like to think and plan ahead. Possibly because I hate surprises, I like considering all possible scenarios ahead of time.
What are your weaknesses?
They are legion. I am impatient. I am not wise enough, so sometimes I do foolish things but suffice to say I continue to work on all of them.
What are your greatest achievements?
In my former life, I was the CEO of an international organisation in Nigeria, IFPI. This is the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. It is the body that represents record companies globally. Its head office is in London while I headed the Nigerian office. The organisation is involved in copyright advocacy, protection and enforcement. In order to curb the menace constituted by unregulated proliferation of optical disc replicating plants all over the world, IFPI drafted a piece of legislation that would enable law enforcement agencies trace each and every optical disc, of whatever format, to the very machine that produced it. This was essentially employing modern technology with forensic science backed by law to fight IPR theft. IFPI then lobbied several countries in the world to enact that draft legislation into law. I am proud to have successfully led IFPI’s efforts in lobbying the Federal Government for the IFPI’s draft’s enactment as a subsidiary legislation to the Copyright Act. It is known as the Copyright (Optical Disc) Regulation 2006.
Between 2009 and 2011, I had the opportunity of serving this nation as the head of enforcement of the Nigerian Copyright Commission. My official title was Technical Assistant, Enforcement. They called me TA, you know civil servants like abbreviations a lot. I was in charge of the Commission’s enforcement department and its activities all over the country. I was reporting to the Director-General. During my tenure, the Commission recorded a sharp drop in the level of piracy in every subsector the agency superintended over, be it the music industry, film industry, book industry, software industry and broadcast industry. That, I consider as a major achievement.
In private legal practice, each time I succeeded in successfully fighting injustice on behalf of any of my clients, that is a major achievement for me.
What was it like in public service?
It was the most rewarding experience for me in terms of learning first-hand how the Nigerian public administration machines work. Indeed, public servants can save Nigeria if only they will perform their statutory responsibilities diligently and efficiently. I would always say to my officers my secondary school motto ‘Act well your part’. And they did. So my department became a model in the commission. There was a rights owner whose petition we investigated after which the matter was transferred to the legal department for mediation. The man ran back and demanded that his matter be returned to our department. What happened was that when he called the officer of the other department in charge of his matter at about 5.30 p.m. the officer scolded him for calling her after office hours. He realised he had been taking things for granted as he could call the Investigating Officer in our department anytime and he would receive polite answers even if it was a No.
I felt my tasks in the commission were done one day in 2011 when a petitioner sent me a text message from Enugu in which she wrote that she had never seen a public servant work the way I attended to her complaint and got my staff to arrest those pirating her works. She herself retired from the Ministry of Defence as a Chief Education Officer. In retirement, she made video recordings of answers to WAEC questions and put them in VCDs for sale. Then some unscrupulous people started to pirate these VCDs in Port Harcourt. The prompt and decisive manner with which the Commission handled the matter all the way from Abuja impressed her greatly. She ended her long text message with these words: “Blessed is the womb that carried you; blessed is the woman that brought you to this world.” I was very moved. Those words are forever burnished in my brain. I ran straight to my Director-General and showed him the message. He was moved too.
My experience made me realise that purposeful, honest, kind, selfless and yet firm leadership is what is needed in public service. You will be stunned by the sheer capability that our public servants possess. It cannot be matched even by the private sector.
Which subjects have you enjoyed the most?
Constitutional Law. For me, it is a subject that tells the people the limits of governmental authority and power in a well ordered society.
Why did you choose to study law?
Growing up, I knew that my father as a very litigious person and he would speak of lawyers with something close to awe. And this was not an illiterate man. He was always fighting for people’s rights and to him, lawyers were the tools that he was using to engage the powerful and public officials in legal duels. From a very early stage of my life, I wanted to become that instrument that would assist the powerless, the poor and the disenfranchised people to obtain justice.
Did your father support you?
Oh yes! My father supported my ambition to be a lawyer since I was little. He wondered why I chose to study political science before law at first. When I said there were too many lawyers and I wanted to stand out by having some prior knowledge in another discipline before studying law, he agreed with me. Law was my second choice in JAMB and Political Science my first. I had the highest JAMB score of 273 in the then University of Ife. But Ife would not accept me for political science because I had a pass in Mathematics and a credit in that subject was required. So, I was advised to approach the Law Faculty. That I met cut off point to study law. I flatly refused and sought for another university. That was how I found myself in the then Obafemi Awolowo University, later Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti.
After graduation, I told my father I had been offered admission to study law, he was ecstatic. He wanted one of his children to become a lawyer because that’s his ambition before his father’s death which forced him to drop out of school to take care of his eight siblings.
What was it like growing up?
I grew up in Kaduna and Ibadan. I started nursery school in Kaduna. I was very young and with my eldest brother and his wife. I became very homesick and insisted on going back to my parents. And from the age of about five, I grew up in Ibadan until I finished my secondary education at 17. I left home before I realised that we were not actually rich. Reason is that papa made all of us, not just his children, but all the Aponmades to believe that we had what others did not have – a good name and a good heritage. He made us proud, not arrogant. One attribute of an average Aponmade child is a good dose of self-esteem. There were rich people in our community, but I grew up to see them looking up to our family. Oral history had it that our ancestor, Aponmade, came from the Orangun of Ila royal dynasty. So our ancestry contains references to crown and Orangun of Ila.
We carried ourselves around as royalties. The Aponmades would choose who would marry their daughters. Meanwhile, we did not have items of luxury. My father never owned a car. So, I was never chauffeur driven to school. Our house was a plastered mud house. This house, father called his palace. I was taught to value our name more than material things. When I clocked 50, the CSOs I belonged to organised a birthday bash to mark the day. The topic of the lecture was chosen by me. It was ‘In the Fight Against Corruption: What is the Value of a Good Name’?.
What are your lifelong dreams?
My basic dream is just to become a conduit pipe of blessings to others. And I’m happy my wife shares this with me. And to become this, it is left to the Almighty God to fashion out my life in such a manner that will make this dream realisable. I must admit that I’ve begun to realise this dream gradually. Through a foundation that I founded with my siblings in memory of our late father, lives are being touched.
What is your biggest regret to date and why?
That my mother died so soon after I started finding my feet. Her death made me lose an opportunity of reciprocating her selfless and boundless love to me.
Is there a story to her death at a time you were finding your feet?
Not particularly. I just believe that parents deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labour on their children. I envy my friends who have parents and you will always see me showing deep affection to their parents.
What’s been your biggest failure?
I did an LL.M some eight years ago. I was one of the best students in class yet I didn’t complete it. Reason: I didn’t write my thesis because I moved to Abuja to serve the nation. The failure to complete the programme haunts me. Certainly, I will still earn not just a Master degree but even a Ph.D.
What’s been your biggest success?
Knowing Jesus is to me the biggest success. Knowing Him is actually the fountain of every other single achievement I have made.
What are three positive characteristics you wish you had?
Patience, More wisdom and more wisdom.
If someone had to say something negative to you, what would they say?
I wouldn’t know. It is in the nature of people to say negative things about others, whether justified or not.
What types of situations do you consider ‘unfixable’?
None. Absolutely none.
What is your perception of taking on risk?
For there to be progress in a society, its people must be encouraged and ready to take risks because without taking risks, it will be impossible to achieve anything. It doesn’t mean that all risks will lead to improvement in status. Far from it. This is where wisdom comes in. For anyone, especially when we are taking risks on a matter that has to with human dynamics, the result cannot always be ascertained with mathematical precision. A wise person will then assess the risks as much as possible before plunging in. This I call calculated risk taking. The internet has made risk taking in any area of life much safer unless a person is lazy to find information for himself.
Describe a time where you’ve failed and bounced back.
In IFPI Nigeria, at my earliest stage of work in that organisation, I was given an assignment I was not employed for and for which I did not receive any prior training. Of course, I failed woefully and the chairman of the board turned to another officer and said ‘I don’t think he can do it’. I was mortified that anyone would say there is something I could not do when I was not equipped to do it. I also felt insulted simultaneously. I then made a case for myself as to why it happened and said that my experience had prepared me to handle the situation better next time and I should be given another opportunity. I went back to start reading files to learn how to do it. Fortunately, another situation arose again and there was no one else to do it so they called on me. My performance was so extraordinary that my work schedule was changed for me to be responsible for that type of work and I was made to leave the duties I was employed originally to perform.
Tell us about your marriage.
I am married to my best friend, Folasade. We met in the University in 1986. I was two years ahead of her. We got married in 1993. She has graduated from being my friend to being my confidant, mother, organiser and adviser. She is a special gift from God in my life.
What key lessons has marriage taught you?
I have had the honour of serving as chairman at four wedding receptions. My first was when I was just 10 years old in marriage. My admonition to new couples was borne out of the lessons I learnt myself. Storms, hurricanes and the likes are most likely going to assail every marriage. To prepare for them ahead of time, both husband and wife must first settle in their respective minds what they will want to become of their marriage, whether for the marriage to live or die. This is because every couple holds the fate of their marriage in their hands. This determination for my marriage to succeed and be enjoyed and not managed has now in turn produced some other virtues in me like patience, being considerate and so on.
But you stated earlier that patience is one characteristic you wish you had. Or, is your definition of patience exclusive to marriage?
Patience was not natural with me. I’ve had to learn it. I am certain I don’t have enough of it yet. To some people and these include my senior brother and oga, Chief Adeniyi Akintola, SAN, I am even a very patient person but I am not satisfied with the level I am. I can do with more patience in handling many things, including marital affairs. Our people have a saying which goes thus: ‘an elder who has patience has everything’.