Yusuf Ali: I Hawked Clothes, Kerosene, Dry Fish, Bushmeat until I was 17

His shaven head stands out as a ring of golden grey hair form a moustache around his lips. His sombre visage flickers as he chuckles, giving a handshake here and there. In an impeccable black suit with a bow tie to match, he stands out from the crowd.

Honour is his middle name; integrity is his stock in trade, and selfless service is his bounden duty. Well-decorated with laurels as a legal luminary, both home and abroad, he remains unassuming and modest. On many nights, he has been rewarded for his dedication to the cause of humanity. Meet the versatile and indefatigable Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Malam Yusuf Ali. For a man who completed secondary school education at the age of 23, no mountain is too high to climb. Of sterling human qualities and outstanding legal prowess, Ali’s tale from a village boy to a vintage lawyer, will make for an inspiring book to read or a biopic to watch. As one of the best lawyers in Nigeria, the legal giant will be honoured abroad on April 28 with the 2018 Peace Humanitarian Award from the Centre for African Peace and Conflict Resolution at California State University, Sacramento, USA, for distinguishing himself in the legal profession as well as for his numerous charitable works. Mallam Ali, as he’s fondly called, speaks with Funke Olaode about living, striving, and thriving in life

Born to Live, Strive, Thrive
I was born over 60 years ago in Ibadan, Oyo State. But my father was from Ifetedo, the headquarters of Ife South Local Government of Osun State. My father worked with the then Western Region Government at the Ministry of Agriculture. He later left to work with the Institute of Agriculture, Research and Training attached to the University of Ife at Moor Plantation in Ibadan. He was in charge of the institution’s soil laboratory until he retired over 30 years ago. My mother has always been a trader. I lost my father in May 20, 2017. My mother is about 86.

Factor That Shaped My Life
Well, I would say the extended family helped my communal life. I grew up as a young boy relating with cousins, nieces and nephews. I can remember vividly being a toddler, we all used to eat together. Our mothers would give us food and we would all meet outside the house to eat. For me, that defined a lot of things such as good neighbourliness and makes me have a lot of empathy. You don’t feel that somebody is inferior to you. I also lived with my paternal grandmother –learning how to do chores like cooking –until I finished secondary school.

I Hawked Fish, Kerosene, Bushmeat
It was wonderful growing up in Ifetedo though we lacked basic social amenities. As a matter of fact, there was no electricity until 1972 and by then I had left the place. It was a normal life for us as children because you don’t miss what you don’t have. We never knew electricity existed except what we read in the newspapers. We were used to lamps and local lamps. There was no pipe-borne water. We used to go to streams to fetch water and go to the bush to fetch firewood for cooking. I became a great hawker learning from my paternal grandmother who was a petty trader. She was versatile and talented woman. Her mother (my great-grandmother was from Ilorin, Kwara State). Popular for making pap, she sold clothes, kerosene, dry fish, and Bushmeat for a living –I hawked all this stuff until I left modern school. It imbued in me the sense of dignity of labour and self-pride that whenever I wanted money I would engage in menial jobs during holidays.

I Finished Secondary School at the Age of 23
I was six years old when I started school in 1960 –that was at Ansar-Ud-Deen Primary School, Ifetedo. I began attending Arabic school at the same time. Thereafter, I proceeded to Local Authority Secondary Modern School, Ifetedo. I didn’t go to secondary school immediately. After modern school I worked briefly as a clerk and got admitted into Ibadan Boys High School at the age of 19 in 1973. I was actually admitted the year my mates completed their secondary school education. It was from modern school that I discovered I had a debating ability. While in secondary school I developed it further and started representing my school when I was in Form Two. My debating prowess was instrumental to my studying law. Again, I was good at the sciences and arts subject. I did Mathematics, Economics, Geography, Literature, and History. I felt I should do law because I was looking for a professional course that was not science-oriented. My father as a soil technician would have wanted me to study agriculture. I left secondary school at the age of 23. I was determined that I was going to do well in life. It was a belated move. But it turned out positive for me because I saw it as a challenge that my mates had left me behind and I promised to do my best to catch up. It worked for me because I put all my energy and time into my studies. Being an older person, most of my schoolmates called me ‘bros’. But it gave me an advantage because no senior bullied me. I relate with some of my seniors then as friends now.

Among the First Set of Jambites
We were the first set of JAMB candidates in 1978. But I did concessional examinations in 1977. I picked law as my first choice at Ife and picked Agriculture at Ibadan because my father wanted me to study agriculture. His decision was borne out of his experience at Moor Plantation where young graduates with BSc in agriculture were his bosses.  I did very well in the concessional exams but couldn’t gain admission into the university because WAEC didn’t release my exam result in Chemistry. I needed the result of that subject to be able to read agric. In Ife, I was admitted to study law but I didn’t get a letter of admission until a week after the matriculation –I had to forgo that admission in 1977.

I Studied Law by Providence
I was admitted to study history at Ife until providence pushed me into law. Having grown up in the village, my only aspiration was to become a teacher –back then, after modern school the next step is to attend a teacher’s training college and if you were lucky you would go to a college of education. But God was with me and directed my path. It wasn’t that I had seen a lawyer before. There was no lawyer in my family. I only read about lawyers in the newspapers and lawyers were very few when I came to Ibadan in 1971. I was admitted to study law at Ife in 1977 –but those of us who were ‘guinea pigs’ of JAMB faced lots of mix-match that year. Some who wanted to read English found their name under Mathematics. I wanted to study law but was offered History Education. Meanwhile, I was offered an admission at The Polytechnic, Ibadan, to study Mass Communication. I had registered before the Ife admission offer came.  I accepted to study History Education at Ife. I performed extremely well that I was automatically given a federal government merit award which gave me an opportunity to be a university scholar –that was in my first year. For some reason, I had to forfeit that scholarship. But it gave a lifetime opportunity to study Law. Luckily for me, in my second year in the Law Department I got another merit award –I got a federal government merit award and a university scholarship.

Borrowing Money to Start My Chambers
I left the University of Ife in 1982; attended the Nigerian Law School between 1982 and 1983. I went for the mandatory national youth service and started work in Ilorin. That time lawyers were not posted to private chambers. Initially, I was posted to the Ministry of Justice where we were re-posted and I was posted to the judiciary and was attached to the late Justice Obayan. He developed personal interest in me after I had delivered on an assignment he gave me. When I told him I wanted to gain some experience in a private law firm, he gladly released me. That was how I came to the firm of the then ‘Mr.’ Awomolo in 1983. After my youth service, I promised to stay back in Ilorin and my father encouraged me. I worked with Asiwaju Awomolo, SAN, for 11 years before I floated Ghalib Chambers on June 1, 1994, in a three-bedroom rented apartment at Taiwo Junction. At that time, the rent was N12,000 per annum and the landlord demanded two years. But I had to borrow the money. The Brothers Electric typewriter was N90,000, which I paid six times. The first air-conditioner in my office vibrated so badly it appeared that my office was going to collapse –things were not rosy. But once you have credibility people are prepared to sell things to you on credit. When I started building my library I developed a relationship with the book suppliers and any little money I had I would pay. But in less than five years, God was with me. I acquired a piece of land in 1999 for N2 million. By September 2001, it was completed and moved occupied.

Living in Ilorin among Eminent Jurists
Life in Ilorin looked brighter and even as a young man I immersed myself into what the town could offer. Ilorin is a laid-back place. But the level of practice in town in terms of legal practice was amazing. When I was doing youth service the total number of lawyers including the old ones were less than 50. The older ones were looking at you and wanted you to be the best. We were also lucky that we had first class judges: the late Justice Sahidu Kawu, who eventually retired at the Supreme Court. Incidentally, his son is the current chief judge. We had the late Justice Ekundayo, retired Justice Oyeyipo, who succeeded Justice Kawu as CJ –probably the longest-serving chief justice in Nigeria for 24 years – and Justice Isa Ayo Salami who became the President of the Court of Appeal. When I started practising we had Justice Fabiyi who retired from the Supreme Court; and the current CJ of Kogi State, Hon. Justice Nasiru Ajana. So, Ilorin is a fertile ground for producing first class judges such as the Belgores, Mustapha Akanbis, the Emir, and Justice Gambari.  So, I had role models to inspire me.

Law, Judiciary and Corruption
You get to a level in life that things that were shrouded in secrecy would become common knowledge to you. Without denying that there are few bad eggs in the judiciary like there are also bad eggs in every profession. I think our attitude about rumour mongering has escalated these allegations. Nigerians believe you can’t win a case without influencing anybody. When A and B have matters in the court, once B loses he believes that A must have influenced the judge. Like I say, most Nigerians corrupt their leaders. I have said it in public lectures that even if you are appointed a commissioner, people expect you to become richer at the end of your tenure. In the good old days we had less than 200 judges. Now we have several judges. When I started in Ilorin the number of lawyers were less than 50; now we are close to 1,000; so the more the expansion the more the challenges. Nobody prepared for the explosion in the judiciary, the number of judges because of increase in number. On a yearly basis, almost 8,000 lawyers get called to the Bar. Nobody had ever thought about how to cope with job creation to absorb the lawyers being sent into the market. Recently, two lawyers were sanctioned by the Legal Practitioner Disciplinary Committee, a tribunal that tries lawyers for misconduct: one was suspended and the other was given a warning. So, the judiciary is trying to purge itself of the bad eggs.

Lessons Learnt in Life
Life is like a mirror when you smile at, it smiles back at you. If you want goodness, show it to other people that true friendship is the greatest gift. I have friends who are close to me more than my siblings. So friendship is something we should encourage and nurture. I remember when I wanted to become my own boss in 1994: my close friends were so worried. But three years after I became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, which was the best moment of my life.

Honour from Abroad
I was humbled when I received a letter that I would receive 2018 Peace Humanitarian Award from the Centre for African Peace and Conflict Resolution at California State University, Sacramento, United States of America on April 28, 2018. According to the award givers, they say it is in recognition of my distinguished contributions of talent, time, and treasure in promoting peaceable communities, institutions, and organisations as well as numerous charitable works in various parts of Nigeria. The world is now a global village. I am sure the institution being an international university must have picked a lot of information about me before they formally asked for certain pieces of information. But beyond that, my background has influenced my desire to always be of help to humanity. I had parents who encouraged me to do good at all times. My late wife also played a very big role; incidentally, my children too. This is not the first time I would be honoured. I have got a lot of awards from other places even from the Kwara State Government. When Kwara was celebrating its 50th anniversary, I was one of the 50 individuals who were given awards. A lot of non-governmental organisations have one way or the other recognised me for my role in assisting humanity.

Mixing Romance with Academics and Getting Married
I was a member of the Muslim Society of Nigeria as an undergraduate at Ife. My wife was also a member. In fact, we were activists for the society. In my last semester at school, my friends warned me that once I left the university it would be difficult to get someone who would understand me. I have known my wife for some time; we had been friends. I used to go to her house in Ibadan and I just walked up to her one day and said, ‘Would you marry me?’ She never gave me an answer. But we eventually got married. We were together for 20 years until she died in 2004. My wife was a model for a lot of people who knew us: calm; humble, religious, caring, and passionate. The union is blessed with four children of three boys and a girl who are now professionals: chartered accountant, lawyer, medical doctor and an engineer with a PhD.

Leaning on Hands of Providence
We are children who grew up with very little ambitions because you are more or less your own guardian angel since there is nobody to look up to. But God pushed me and raised me up as the first lawyer in my  household  and probably the first SAN to have emerged from my town. Now the town has produced many professors and successful professionals. Some of my friends never thought God would see us this far. There was no counselling even my school certificate combinations were something else. The saving grace is that I had ‘A’ in all but one subjects. But God directed my path to law. As I said, it was belated. But slow and steady, I am winning the race. I have no regrets about life. I would like to be remembered as somebody who came, saw and appreciated the favour of the Almighty Allah and tried his best to be of help to humanity from what God has endowed him with.