Akin Oyebode: How I Missed Being Wole Soyinka’s Student at UI

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The trophies, plaques, certificates shimmered in their respective places on the shelf, wall, and a table; just as framed certificates of awards adorned the glittering wall of his office. They are not from Toronto or Oluwole. Here, all that glitters is gold. Every glistening item in the office represents moments of industry, inventiveness, intellect, and perseverance of a man that gives his best and does not leave the rest. With silvery moustache and beard gracefully sitting atop his upper lip and chin, respectively, he exudes the elegance and ebullience of youth and old age. As a teacher not many may be as prolific and proficient as Prof. Akin Oyebode. In an interview with the erudite scholar and retired professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, the septuagenarian talks about the thrilling episodes of his illustrious life. Oyebode lives and breathes law – though it has not always been like that – writes Funke Olaode, who explores the life and times of a legal luminary following his retirement – at the age of 70 – at the University of Lagos

He ranks among the best in Nigeria’s academia, traversing the field like a colossus for 44 years. His seeming ageless features, unrelenting zeal to excel, the hunger to conquer new turfs and unwavering belief in God are the major characteristics that set him apart. The distinguished legal giant, indefatigable researcher, prodigious author with an unassailable integrity, Prof. Akin Oyebode, beams with pride – the kind that engenders humility as evident in his words: “Providence steered me into law. I had wanted to study at the University of Ibadan because of the newly appointed Director of the School of Drama, Wole Soyinka in 1967.”

Eventually becoming a proud teacher of law, he has the singular honour of teaching more than 60 Senior Advocates of Nigeria, 35 law professors – Nigeria’s Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, was one of his students. As much as he could, he tried to play down his early privileged life sharing the same neighbourhood with the Europeans. “To date, I’d call myself an ‘ex-ajebota’. I lived in GRA, Ikeja, when it had only four African families and all the streets were named after the Europeans. We lived in the renamed Ladoke Akintola Street. Funny enough, we were prevented from attending White schools like Grange and Corona. It was purely for the colonialists. So the colonialists devised a school for people like us that did not belong to their social circle. So my primary school is right behind Archbishop Vining Memorial Church Cathedral.”

To the law guru, who retired at 70 last year at the University of Lagos, the schools a child attends matter a lot. He illustrated this with his personal experience. “The school that I went to more than anything shaped my life. I went to Christ School in Ado-Ekiti –the same school my father attended. Most of my siblings attended that school too. I think the school you went to, the friends you make growing up –people of like minds –will no doubt make a significant impact in one’s life,” he recalled.

Nothing prepared him for a career in law. An inventive mind, he wanted to be an engineer. Then again, he was struck by the genius of Wole Soyinka in the arts. What a crossroads that must have been for a young mind. The septuagenarian explained how he chose his eventual career path. “Honestly, providence steered me into law. In those days, we had teachers from the best schools all over the world, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale. In school, I wanted to be an engineer. In fact, I read Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics (MMP). But I had this American teacher who taught us English. He called me one day and said I was wasting my time in Pure Mathematics, Additional Mathematics and Physics – that I would end up just being an ordinary engineer. But if I read humanity I would excel. That was how I switched from engineering to humanity and I have not regretted that decision,” Oyebode narrated. But he was not done.

Speaking further on the matter, he pointed out: “Again, I was very lucky to go to Christ School, though most people saw me more like a rascal. But l later became house captain, prefect and had very high scholastic records at school. I had a distinction in English which was a feat in those days. I ought to have read English and Drama because I had fallen in love with Wole Soyinka in school. In fact, I produced two of his plays when I was 19. I got admission into the University of Ibadan in 1967 to read English and Drama because Soyinka was the director of the School of Drama at UI then. Providence would later push me to attend an interview at the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA). The former Director of the NIIA, Dr. Lawrence Fabunmi, advised me to abandon English and go for International Law. He said, ‘at a drop of a hat if you want a Bachelor of Arts from Ekiti you can get 30’. But he said he didn’t know any Ekiti person who had studied International Law.”

Encounter with Dr. Fabunmi no doubt altered his destiny for good. Afterwards, he got a scholarship to go to the Soviet Union. Among about 250 who were interviewed only five individuals were selected. He was one of them. Oyebode admitted: “Dr. Fabunmi was instrumental in my taking up the scholarship. Three days later, I was air-borne to Russia to study International Law.”

As a 19-year-old, who was leaving the shores of Nigeria to travel to Russia for the first time, not a few events awaited him – such moments as he recollected too soon. “Well, I was 19 years old and just finished my HSC when I landed in Moscow. There are some culture shocks starting from the plane. I looked at the letters of USSR and I thought ‘is this the language I am going to learn?’ I had studied Latin in school and I picked up the language fast. Then in my time you can imagine young Nigerians going to the Eastern Europe. It was a learning process in terms of culture, climate – it was a different society. So, studying in a European society ignited in me pan-Africanism, black power as a defence mechanism and coping strategy for survival in that kind of the environment. And of course, we have the Nigerian Embassy. I didn’t study in Moscow. I was sent to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine now.

“It was full of trying times because of the strangeness of the environment and the attitude of the people as if we just dropped from the sky into their country. They never believed we had perquisite preparation for university education. We had to tell them that we were some of the best and brightest from our country that coming to Russia didn’t mean that we didn’t have universities back home. But the Russians thought they did us a great favour because we were on scholarship – there was a lot of envy. The girls also liked us – which again wasn’t a comfortable scenario with the Russians when they saw us with their Ukrainian girls,” he recalled.

Did he ever think he would end up in the classroom or at what stage did he develop passion for teaching? “I went to Russia in 1967 and came back in 1973. As a student, I had very great teachers and my role model was Prof. Lucas – a fellow who taught me International Law and who supervised my master’s project. He was an authority on the Law of Treaties and the way he charmed us: well dressed, he would come to class with small index cards and would take you through the rudiments of international law within an hour and when you got back to the hostel and pick the text book you would see how much he had covered. He lectured without notes. I said that is the type of person I wanted to be. He was an inspiration – his intellect was awe-inspiring. He was a great jurist. He was a member of the International Law Commission.

“I remember the day he came back from Vienna and came straight into our class. This was 1969. He exclaimed and said a new star was born in International Law. He was referring to Justice Elias who had just made a mark at the International Court. You could literally see my head was swelling in a class of students from 42 different countries and a Nigerian was singled out. Elias never studied international law. Elias’ doctorate was on land law. But he read it up and became a master. Justice Elias became the Minster of Justice and Attorney General – and later Chief Justice of Nigeria. More significant, he became the judge of the International Court of Justice. All those things affected us in terms of aspirations and impacted on us that the sky is not the limit for any young Nigerians who have aspiration and capacity to actualize his dreams,” Oyebode pointed out.

By the time he returned to Nigeria at the age of 26 in 1973 – drawing inspiration from Lucas and Elias – his career path was already laid out. “I came straight to the University of Lagos, faculty of law. I was the youngest lecturer in the faculty. I was only 26 and we shared offices. But I must pay tribute to the man who actually offered me the job – Prof. Kasumu. He was the dean and had just come from the University of Ife. When I assumed duty the authority thought I was going to the Law School. I said they should bury the thought that I came to Unilag to become an academic. Again, Prof. Kasumu believed that after spending so much time in Europe I deserved some exposure to Western Jurisprudence. This man got me admitted into Harvard Law School. Again, a friend and confidant, the late Prof. Jelili Omotola, who became the dean at the faculty, also insisted that I must go and work for my doctorate. I had thought I didn’t need it after the double-barreled qualifications. He advised me that having a PhD is another qualification and is established for a purpose. That is how I left for Toronto, Canada, for my doctoral degree,” he narrated.

Just as his impact was felt throughout his 44 years at the citadel of learning, his home state, Ado-Ekiti, also benefitted from his expertise as he helped it to establish the University of Ado-Ekiti’s faculty of law – following the persuasion of his former student – former Governor of the state, Otunba Adeniyi Adebayo. He would later serve as a dean of the faculty and then the vice-chancellor of the institution.

For a man whose life is filled with thrilling moments, it may be difficult to single out certain achievement or period in his career that he cherishes most. Without thinking long and hard though, he pinpointed 2010 – when he got international recognition. The international law and jurisprudence scholar shed more light on that: “I became a professor 26 years ago. The high point in my life was when I gave my inaugural lecture some six years ago – it was the high point being an academic. But the high point of my career was when the African Union briefed and gave me the mandate to draft the Trans-border Cooperation Treaty for Africa in 2010. I had to shuttle between Nigeria and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The treaty was signed two years ago. To be briefed by the entire African continent to do a job for the continent was challenging. I faced stiff competition among many other legal experts but I won and my draft was adopted and now at the Convention of the African Union.”

Do not be fooled that his life is all about academics and law. Oyebode is a man of flesh and understands the mandate given to Adam in Eden. That mandate he exercised with his wonderful wife culminating in the birth and nurturing of three accomplished children – two of them are lawyers. “The firstborn, Akin Oyebode – an economist – is the Executive Secretary of the Lagos State Youth Employment Trust Fund. He provides loans for young entrepreneurs and starts-up. My other son is a senior associate and group leader with a top law firm. My daughter – the youngest – works for an international firm in Lagos,” the proud father disclosed.

So, what would he have done differently were he to restart his life? “It has not been a bad experience. God has favoured me tremendously. I don’t know what else I would ask for. Why should I change a winning formula that has worked for me?” he wondered. If that is the case, is there something he regrets in life? He answered: “I was fresh from Europe when I joined Unilag – a week to my 26th birthday. I have made my own contribution and I have bowed out in style. Unilag has given me the leverage and place to stand on, to impact the world. I have had a fulfilling career and I have no regret.”