What comes to mind when his name crops up is a colossus of the Nigerian bar. Brilliant, meticulous and amiable, he has won many celebrated court cases. But for this legal legend, it was a long walk to a life of achievement. Raised in the village where the only source of inspiration was the priesthood, he failed his Common Entrance examination and so secondary education eluded him leading him to find solace in a Modern Secondary School. He later served as a policeman in the 1960s. But like a phoenix, he rose above his adversity. The turning point in his life to pursue higher education came while serving as a salesman in a bookshop, where he noticed the disparity in salary between graduates and others. He sat for the G.C.E. and advanced levels exam, while he was well advanced in age. But he passed. He entered the then University of Ife at 27, graduated at 30 and was called to the bar in 1978. This is the story of Asiwaju Adegboyega Solomon Awomolo, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the first Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice of Osun State. Today, his resilient spirit and visionary prowess have paid off. He turned 70 on September 19, this year and in this interview with Funke Olaode, the Igbajo, Osun State-born legal icon talks about his life, challenges, and career
• I never aspired to be a lawyer
I went to university as an adult
I was raised in the village
I am a legal practitioner, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria; Fellow, Chartered Institute of Administrator; and Life Bencher. By the grace of God, I have reached the peak in Legal profession. I was made a SAN when I was exactly 14 years as a practising lawyer. I was made Asiwaju of Igbajoland (my hometown) in 2015. But going this far is by the grace of God because the journey could have been truncated due to life’s circumstances. I was born in Orile-Ilugun on September 19, 1947. My mother, an indigene of Orile-Ilugun in Egba Odeda Local Government of Ogun State, was a Kolanut seller. My father, on the other hand, was a discharged British soldier, who fought the Second World War. He hailed from Igbajo in Boluwaduro Local Government Area in Osun State. One of my uncles, Rev. Moses Awomolo was a Nigerian Baptist Convention Reverend (an evangelist), who introduced Baptist Convention to parts of Osun, Ila, Iragbiji, Igbajo, Ejigbo, Ikirun and the present Kwara State comprising Offa, Ijagbo and so on. I have another uncle who was a contractor. So, I grew up among a large family of uncles, aunties, grandfathers, big mummies and so on. My father had only one wife but it was a large family where communal living was pronounced. We all ate from the same pot. The only difference is that you know your mother because of this motherly affection. And once in a while she calls you into a corner or room and gives you a piece of meat, sweet, egg and asks you to clean your mouth. In the midst of this setting, there was an emphasis on education. Of course, being a village setting there was no electricity, though we knew it existed in Ibadan because my late uncle, Deacon Adetunji Awomolo, a co-owner of Abdullahi and Awomolo Nigeria Limited, firm of civil engineers, builders and contractor was based in Ibadan and we used to visit him during long holidays or vacations. So, we knew there were television and radio stations because my father had a small transistor radio that was always present in his bedside.
I never aspired to be a lawyer
Being surrounded by noble and hard-working people influenced my life, to see myself beyond the local village. It was a family setting where you had educated and enlightened people and you were made to aspire to become something in life. Although at that age, I didn’t aspire to be a lawyer and didn’t even know about lawyers. I was only inspired by my environment. The only aspiration was to either become a teacher or a pastor or a priest in the Anglican Church. Then, one might have wanted to be a councillor. They commanded the respect, honour, and dignity of the locality. I remember, when a councillor wanted to have a town hall meeting, everybody would be there. At that time they always went around with local policemen. When the chairman of a local government was visiting a particular locality, it was a celebration. When officials of government such as a District Officer or Inspector of Education were to pass through a village or visit a particular school, it was like seeing a governor. So, we all aspired to be like them. Again, our parents left us to develop at our own pace although they monitored, very strictly, our morals. You were not allowed to fight in school, to steal or bring strange things home from school or anywhere. We were not allowed to eat in other people’s home or to be rude to others. We were taught to be prudent with money. I remember I had a small box, ‘kolo’ (piggy bank), where I kept my money. You were only allowed to break your ‘small bank’ at Christmas, Easter or on your birthday. As children, we didn’t lack anything. We ate chicken, egg, beef and whatever we wanted to eat. I am not a ‘butter’ child but not poor either.
I thought Nigeria’s Independence Day was a mere celebration
I began my primary education at the age of seven in 1955/54 at St. James Anglican Primary School, Orile-Ilugun. I was Agric and Sports Prefect between 1959/1960. I did my First Leaving Primary Examination called G2 in my village in 1960, which coincided with the year Nigeria got her independence. It was a special day for the country but as children, we didn’t know the legal and political implication. I remember prior to Nigeria’s independence we used to celebrate Empire Day, which normally fell on May 21 of every year. We would all get kitted in white socks, white knickers, and a T-Shirt. But on October 1st, we were made to do a parade. The District Officer was there with the police band. We knew that it was an Independence Day but didn’t know the legal and political implication of it. We thought it was a celebration day that was supervised by the D.O. We were given free meal on that day, green-white=green flags, a beret with Nigerian crest. We had a good time and those who were in the city watched the television. But we were listening to the radio as events were happening in Ibadan, Lagos and other places.
Lack of money denied me of secondary education
After my primary education, I was supposed to go to Baptist College in Iwo, Osun State but was not successful in the Common Entrance exam. I was persuaded to go to Modern School which I did. I enrolled at Egbe Odeda Anglican Modern Secondary School in 1961. By the time I finished in 1963/64, I still aspired to go to secondary school but my father said he didn’t have the money to help me achieve that dream. He asked me to wait till the next year. Right there, I decided to go and meet an uncle who was a contractor in Ibadan. He was one of those who never believed in influencing any decision or to go and beg. He said until I passed my examinations, I should keep trying. And because I didn’t make it the second time I was a bit discouraged. My uncle took me to his sites because he had a lot of projects at the University of Ibadan. I became his site assistant, records, and stock keeper and worked at various buildings, particularly at UI. I worked with him for three years. In 1967, I enlisted in the Nigeria Police Force and worked in several divisions: Ibadan, Ijebu-Ode, Enugu, and quit in 1972. Of course, I had jettisoned the idea of going back to secondary school but I hadn’t lost hope. While working as a police officer, I attended Bamiyowa Evening School, Oke-Ado, Ibadan where I studied and obtained University of London General Certificate of Education (GCE O’Level and Advanced Levels). This feat rekindled my hope of university education. I left the Nigeria Police and joined the C.S.S. Bookshop Ltd. Ibadan from 1972-1974 as a sales representative, covering Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti and Osun states.
Disparities in salary as a marketer influenced my higher education
I was having a glorious career as a sales rep, but this propelled me to go to the university at a point. There was a year we had new recruits of young graduates. So, I introduced these young men into the market and they were trained by me on the field. And after a year, they were given almost 10 times of my salary. That was the day I decided to pursue tertiary education in Law. As I said earlier, I didn’t know about Law. I read about F.R.A. Williams in Lagos and legal icons like Chief Afe Babalola SAN, Olu and Yinka Ayoola, who later served as Chief Judge of The Gambia and later retired as a Supreme Court judge inspired me. These gentlemen were the toast of legal profession in Ibadan then. These noble men were always in their sparkling bibs and white shirts, black suits. They rode the best cars in town: Rover, Bentley, and Mercedes. I said I must be like them.
I entered university aged 27
I enrolled at the then University of Ife at the age of 27 and graduated at the age of 30 in 1977. I went to Law School and was called to bar on July 8, 1978, which was an icing on the cake for me. I became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1992. Though it was a long walk to academic attainment, my first celebration was my admission into Ife. It was like metamorphosing into something else because to be an undergraduate of Ife was something else in those days and, more so, I never attended a secondary or grammar school. I was overwhelmed with joy the day I graduated at Ife; my mother was with me and my uncle, the contractor, was there. My life was also interesting at Ife where I met lecturers who were like a father-figure. I was one of the oldest in my class and also had a lot of Biafran returnees who were majors, captains in the Nigerian Army. I was also made the president of Law Students Society and Vice-President, Nigerian Law Student Association of Nigeria. Most of my classmates called me ‘Lord Awoms.’ I accommodated and related with them very well because they were younger than me. I got along well with the immediate past Chief Judge of Ondo State, Sehinde Kumuyi, a friend and he was also an ex-policeman.
Life as a ‘corper’
I was posted to Kwara State for the one-year mandatory youth service and began my career in Ilorin as a state counsel in the Ministry of Justice. The Solicitor-General then was Mr. Medopin, who retired as a judge of Kogi State. I later moved to the Legal Aid Council, which hadn’t been established then. It was our duty to establish the Legal Aid Council offices in Omu Aran, Okene, Lokoja, New Bussa, and Jebba. We also collated and collected people who needed legal aid, particularly. One of the cases that I would never forget was a woman in Ilorin who had post-natal depression and claimed to hear a voice that she should cut her three-day-old baby into pieces. She actually cut the baby and was charged with murder. It was my responsibility to defend her. She actually confessed to the crime. It was a case of unintended crime laced with a medical challenge. It was a challenge for me as a youth ‘corper’. I gathered some materials and was also tutored by some experienced lawyers. Of course, she was sentenced to life imprisonment but with clemency -if, she is cured, she can be pardoned. I defended several cases as a youth ‘corper’ because I immersed myself into what the moment could offer me. I was passionate about the job and was willing to learn. At the end of the youth service, I won the NYSC award.
Embracing the world of legal profession
After my youth service, I was invited by the late activist and lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, to work with him in Lagos. Another good friend, Femi Lanlehin, who later became a senator, also pulled me. So, I was tempted to go to Lagos, but Lagos life was not part of my desire. Chief Gani Fawehinmi offered me good money and an official car. But I didn’t want to start my career in Lagos. I passed through Law School in Lagos and had a rough experience. I lived in Ikeja and would go to Victoria Island. The long traffic jam discouraged me. So, there was a push from friends like Bayo Ojo, SAN, Wole Olanipekun, SAN, and a number of other friends who didn’t want me to leave Ilorin. I joined the chamber of Chief Tunji Arosanyin & Co. in Ilorin. At that time, Chief Arosanyin was the secretary of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and was made the chairman of a Federal Parastatal. He handed over the chamber to me. The chamber was busy and because I was committed to it, I was not bothered. I was under a tutelage (understudying a senior lawyer) for five years. While there, I was affiliated to Chief Afe Balalola in Ibadan and David Foluso Babalola, a legal practitioner in Ilorin.
Becoming my own boss
Having served under the tutelage of Chief Awosanyin for five years, in February 1983, I set up my own chambers called Awomolo and Co. (Mosaic Chambers), located at Owoniboys House, No. 159, Ibrahim Taiwo Road, Ilorin, Kwara State, where I had a whole floor to myself. It was an expensive adventure but I had made up my mind from day one that I don’t want to be a room-and-parlour lawyer. In 1984/85, Yusuf Ali, SAN, joined me as ‘corper’ and he was with me for 11 years before he decided to launch out and have his own chambers. Again, I handled celebrated cases. A few of the cases that shot me into prominence were the late M.K.O Abiola versus a professor who was sued for plagiarism; and FCMB versus Abiola & Son Company Ltd (a mortgagee). I was always on the front page of Concord papers. I won both cases.
The biggest threat in my career
Just like any other profession, I have had my own fair share of some intriguing moments. The bizarre moment I have ever faced in my life was when I was doing the Ewi of Ado-Ekiti’s case in the 1980s. Oba Aladesanmi died and another king, Oba Adelabu was installed and it went into litigation. There was a challenge by one of the princes of the Aladesanmi who said by tradition he was supposed to be the Ewi, not Adelabu. And because I was scared of sleeping in Ado-Ekiti, I would leave Ilorin around 6 am to go and defend the case in Ado-Ekiti. And each time I was going to Ado, the opposition would arrange women who would wear a white dress and put a pot of water on their head, carrying all sorts of fetish things. They would be dancing and chanting incantations. After about two occasions, I wasn’t scared again, because I am a Christian. Those were the challenges but we won because the judges were bold and courageous and treated the case as it was.
How Ilorin touched my life positively
Anybody who has lived in Ilorin must have the blessing of Ilorin because it has a way of touching lives positively. Wole Olanipekun, SAN, Bayo Ojo, SAN, Yusuf Ali, SAN, Justice Ayo Salami, Justice Saheed Kawu, present Sultan of Sokoto and so on. I decided to leave Ilorin and relocate to Abuja in 2004 when my mentor and confidant, Chief BabaAfe Babalola, SAN, got the former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s brief in 1999. His (Obasanjo’s) victory was challenged by Chief Olu Falae of Alliance for Democracy (AD). And Chief Afe Babalola was Chief Obasanjo’s lawyer. We were in Abuja doing election petition and filing appeals. Sometimes, we could stay for a month. In his (Obasanjo) second term too, he faced another challenge. In no time, it was clear that Ilorin could no longer accommodate us and I moved to Abuja. So, it has been a roller coaster. By the grace of God, it gladdens my heart for the opportunity God gave me and others of like mind to bring back Nigerian Bar Association to its feet in 1998 when it went comatose in1992, after the fracas in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. We conducted an election and Chief. T.J. O Okpoko, SAN, won.
I have been married for over 30 years to my wife, Mrs. Victoria Olufunmilayo Awomolo, SAN, a native of Ponyon in Yagba, Kogi State. She was a Chemistry graduate and was working as a teacher in Ilorin when I met her. It was love at first sight. She was a very young girl, but very organised, friendly, patient and meticulous. When I met her I knew she was the one (for me). She later read Law at the University of Ibadan, called to the bar and became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 2013. I say jokingly that she is the only lawyer in Awomolo and Associates that cannot resign. The marriage is blessed with four children, two boys, and two girls. One of them is a lawyer. My first son read Economics and is currently studying Law; the last one did Electrical Engineering at Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti. Another one read Mass Communication in Bowen University and went to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland to study Human Relations. So far we have had a beautiful life.
It has been God all the way
I have run the race to the best of my ability. I have won cases; I have lost cases. And the mercy of God is sufficient for me and His steadfast love for me is new every morning. I didn’t know anybody in the Senate when I got a call to be their constitutional consultant for the last six years. The same thing happened when I got a call to handle the INEC brief as a legal consultant, among other five lawyers. I didn’t know Prof. Attahiru Jega. All these are unsolicited opportunities and I don’t take them for granted. Am I slowing down? Well, I think I am enjoying the moment and when it is the time my body will tell me to slow down. I like working, reading and doing research. God has been good and I have never had any health challenge. I have lived a very simple life. And looking at my life, nobody is perfect; life is full of ups and downs, success and failure but what matters is that one triumphed. I grew from nothingness to get to the height of the legal profession. It is not by my power but His grace. If I come again I would be a lawyer and would also marry my wife.