Olisa Agbakoba is cerebral and extremely stubborn on his convictions. No wonder this human rights activist looked down the barrel of guns during the Abacha regime without batting an eye. After his stint with the Biafran army, he was fixated on uniforms and discipline in the profession. However, his equally strict father steered him into law. He tells Ahamefula Ogbu that his greatest regret in life is the failure of the Nigerian state and other sundry issues. Excerpts
You look young and sprightly, what do you owe that to?
Basically I am content. I am not interested in looking for money for money sake. I like to be highly regarded professionally, but I do not put money as the motivating factor. The mistake that Nigerians make is to place money at the center of their lives and when money is at the center of your life, you become stressed, you become greedy, you overreach yourself, you want to be everywhere and nowhere. You want to be in politics, you have not even held a local government chair, you want to be governor, you want to be president, you want to be president of Nigerian Bar Association. So I think contentment is critical to how a person perceives himself in relation to society and I am very content.
People know you as comrade that stood for the people, looking at where you are now, are you still for the people or…?
Yes, absolutely. Where you are is not what makes you feel or not feel. Sometimes, where a person is or at the so called bottom does not mean that the person feels connected; I have always felt connected. I have always come from a very highly privileged background, both on my father and mother’s side. My mother’s side was very industrious Igbo family, they were first in a number of things, first Igbo lawyer, first Igbo doctor, first Igbo at that time in 1932, highest Nigerian in the West African Police Force. Actually the contradiction is why somebody of my background would even be interested in public issues. So, I think that is the way I need to be seen, that I have nothing to gain and everything to lose; but what is everything to lose? Just nothing. So, I feel more satisfied when people see me as a person who has pursued human rights, public interest courses.
Did you set out wanting to be a lawyer or how did you come into the profession?
As I said, my background both father and mother were highly legal. My father was one of the early Igbo lawyers; my mother’s uncle was the first Igbo lawyer and first Attorney General of Northern Nigeria. So, I had to bring this in to answer the question; if given all these factors, whether I said I want to be a lawyer or why I am a lawyer. Actually my first professional inspiration was to be a soldier because I was a boy soldier in Biafra. At the end of the war, I got into the issue of uniform and discipline, so I wanted to continue as a Nigerian army officer, not law, but my father didn’t think that was the way to go. Looking back at what happened then, I can say he frustrated all the efforts in my becoming a soldier. Then I just found myself taking the examination for Law at the University of Nigeria; so to answer your question, no, I didn’t set out in life to be a lawyer.
But you have found fulfilment in the profession?
Absolutely! My father was right to steer me into the legal profession.
What do you think life would have been like if you were a soldier?
I would have been frustrated. I would have possibly risen to be a general but it will just be about looting, stealing, corruption, no discipline, non-democratic practices. So, I think even though I was very keen in 1970 to become an officer, but looking back 50-60 years, I think my father’s decision to veer me out of the military was a right one.
You catch the image of a stubborn man that is strict, how does that work with the pliability needed in pursuit of human rights?
I am not only strict, I am a very private person, so a lot of people don’t understand me; they feel that I am strict and austere. Some people say arrogant, but I am not; I’m just a quiet private person who minds his own business and in doing that, I have heard a lot of people say he is a show off, like to pose but that is not it. I am an extremely simple person if you understand me very well, actually simple but I have very basic immutable principles, I believe in excellence, professionalism and in an incorruptible life and I believe that everyone has a reason to be a Nigerian, to serve the country.
What do you consider your most scary encounter in life?
Well, I think there are two of them. One was in Biafra, during the war. I was conscripted and was training and sent to the war front; I knew we were ill-equipped, I didn’t even have shoes; in the context of that war, in the morning, there was a major engagement and in my company of 28 soldiers, about 20 died including one guy we called armoured. We call him armoured because during training, he was like an armoured person and when he died, it made us feel mortal even though I belong to the immortal battalion. It made us feel very mortal that if armoured could die, that was one of the scariest day in my life.
The other one is 27th of March 1998 when we clashed with Abacha at the Yaba square when I could see my life ebbing; soldiers and policemen were pointing guns. When I replay it in my head, I just wonder how did I come out of this, luckily I had a totally bruised left eye, but with all the guns that were mustered to fire, those are the two scariest days of my life.
How did you meet your wife?
Back in school, that was back at the University of Nigeria reading law that I didn’t want to read, I finally went in to read law in 1973 and she came in 74. She came with a very good friend of mine called Ngozi Nwokolo, daughter of late Professor Nwokolo, Dean of Faculty of Medicine and Ngozi Nwokolo had a very high regard for me and my best friend was interested in her because she was a very beautiful girl so I chased Ngozi Nwokolo for him and she agreed. She then told me ‘well, I have a friend so since you chased me for your friend Maxi Okonkwo then I will pass on my own friend to you.’ I said who is that, she said ‘Lillian Harlem’ and I said okay, alright because as of that time, I never had a girlfriend, never, so I said fine let’s see her and she came along. Slowly, slowly we began to date and today it is history, it is now 42 years.
What stood Lillian out that made you settle for her among all the girls that came your way?
She was highly disciplined person, very quiet, very beautiful looking and I could see immediately that she was different from the lot I had come across that are always dancing, smoking and drinking. She was not part of that crowd. So, immediately, you know I was a very difficult guy to please, that time, hmm, very difficult and tough, when I sit back, for me to even have said, hmmm, there may be something here suggests to me today that she would have been a distinguished person.
You said you didn’t date before meeting your wife. That means you never had your fair share of the girls that milled around you?
No, I never had, she was my first girlfriend. I was only 19 and my father was very tough and strict. So I was brought up in a highly strict disciplined family, there was no time to fool around and do anything, she was my first girlfriend.
Were you a daddy’s or errant boy growing up?
Errant. I was very rascally. I was daddy’s boy because he loved my being rascally because in his own time he too was rascally but we were six, five boys and a girl, my dad was never one to shower love on anybody differently from the others. It was an equal rights home, affection for all but in a very strict and disciplined environment and you don’t mess up with daddy; if you do that, you gonna get smacked, that was the environment.
What gives you fulfillment?
To be content. Because when you are content, you find out that what people are looking for, you wonder what are they looking for? The first thing in life is to be content. If you are content, then fulfillment comes which is why a lot of historical leaders speak of lack of contentment in spite of power because they are not happy. Money is very important tool in happiness but it is not a critical tool to be happy. I am able to isolate materialism whilst understanding its power because I am just coming from a month-long holidays in United Kingdom and United States which will cost money but that is not to say my life depends on it. Contentment, peace at home, you live without crisis and incrimination, then there is peace, once there is peace, everything closed, once you have peace and contentment, any other thing becomes an addition, becoming an SAN, President of the Nigerian Bar Association, becoming whatever you want to become is an addition but if you are whoever you are but those foundational frameworks are not there, you won’t be happy. There are a lot of Nigerians today who you will be admiring and say I wish I was like this, I can assure you that in my job as a lawyer, just like an accountant and a doctor, we see through the DNAs of the so called big men, a lot are not happy but it won’t show on their faces.
Are you fulfilled or are there things you would want to achieve while on earth?
I like to be in a position to deliver good governance to Nigeria and when I see what is going on, where we are and the opportunity that God has given this country to be great and when I think the tools that I have to add to the efforts to make Nigeria great, it saddens me because I know it is so simple. Take the issue of why Nigeria is the way it is, Nigeria is the way it is because power is in the hands of one person in Abuja so it disempowers 200 million people. Just think if we are to decentralise power, the so called restructuring debate, Nigeria will be different. But where is that leader that can say, you know what, let’s get this country sorted, I think I can contribute to that debate.
You have achieved so much in life what are your sad moments?
The sad moments continue to be that Nigeria is the way it is in disarray, I don’t understand why our leaders cannot see that this is a country that should be one of the 10 most industrialised countries. So, that makes me very sad. Honestly, people dispossessed, no education, no medicare, no jobs, no schools, it is sad. I know but for the greed of a very few, Nigeria would have been a Garden of Eden, so that’s the sad picture that I have.
How do you relax?
I do relax by having a good drink like my wine, I use to smoke but I’ve stopped that. I like to watch a lot of movies, serious, not fiction and all that. I love to read a lot of our leaders, biographies, travel a lot because it opens the mind so you can see opportunities. What travel has done also is like I was in New York, you see leaders who sacrifice their life to make America what it is and you look back at your own situation and say why don’t we have such people? So travel makes me relaxed. I relax in the circumstances of furious obligations.
You are a successful man, handsome and of means, definitely you fall in the circle of those women will always come after, how do you handle women trying to seduce you?
I am not interested, that’s all.
And it works for you?
It works. If you don’t know what you are losing, then you don’t know what it is all about. I have very very good women friends, lots of them, even very young from the church, 15, 16, 17, 18 and even 19 but you just know there are boundaries and those boundaries must be kept because I don’t think it is my role to inflict exploitation on young women nor would I want to cheat on my wife by getting into dalliances with older women, so just be content, it may be tempting , lots of things are tempting, even when I was smoking cigarettes, it took me a long time to struggle to get out of it mostly because of such issues, but I did.
When do you plan to retire?
Never. What am I retiring for? My retirement to just go home and sit down? Noooo. I will always find myself to be relevant, if I am tired of law practice, I can be public commentator, I can talk on television , so retirement in that sense for me is out of the dictionary.
We’ve not been hearing you taking chieftaincy titles, Why?
No, I don’t believe in that. It is all fake. Chieftaincy titles and doctorate degrees are given out to the criminals of society, so why should I degrade myself by looking for a chieftaincy title? People who ordinarily should be in jail will go and take chieftaincy titles. I don’t find the traditional system any good; I think it has not helped our democracy. Everybody is a chief, everybody is an Obi, Igwe, Oba, Emir, any small domain and they use it to oppress people, extort money from them, so that is the one institution that had I had my own way, would be completely abolished because it has no relevance to democracy at all. If they will have a role they will play, but certainly not the type of prominent role I see them all playing, travelling around the whole place feeling very important when they are absolutely useless to the society, so I have complete disdain for the traditional system.
If you were given an opportunity to change any aspect of your life, what will it be?
I will wish I never smoked cigarette otherwise I have not done anything extraordinary. I’ve been like the-middle-of the-road type of person, not as quiet. I don’t socialise much so maybe actually one thing I would have liked to change is to be more outgoing, I have been like too inward, you know, stay at home though it has some advantages but with hindsight, maybe I just don’t like mixing, I find it a tedious thing mixing, going to parties and all that. I just like to after work, go home, read a good book, watch television, have my dinner, sleep, the following day I start life.
Lawyers are professionals that partake from the looting of the national treasury through representations, have you not been benefitting from such?
Generally not. In our law firm, we have an unspoken rule generally not to get involved in anti-corruption cases. I am not suggesting that if we have one, we will say yes or no but we have not identified the particular role but somehow, we have stayed out of corruption scandal type of cases. Having said that, let me qualify what you have said by saying that there is a presumption of innocence therefore by our rule of professional conduct we have a duty to offer legal representation to everybody, even a murderer. Our duty is not therefore to go to court and tell lies; Indeed I was watching the news the other day, not in Nigeria but abroad and there was a lawyer defence counsel who was telling the press he had no idea why his client killed the wife, so he didn’t go to the court to tell the judge ‘my client is not guilty.’ He presented the case of the client as best as he could. Problem in Nigeria is that the lawyers always try to become the clients. They can’t separate their role as professional advisers from that of the person accused and that has painted a bad brush so I understand your question. You find lawyers who make every effort to exonerate their clients even when the evidence point to the contrary, that’s not the proper function of the lawyer. Proper function is to offer a defence in respect of the client and the defence may well plead what we call allocutus to plead well, my client did it but there were reasons. So your question in the context of Nigerians practices is understandable. What I generally do is that I am not sure in my 40 years of practice and particularly in the last eight years, that I have personally handled any of these graft cases not because I am not consulted but I generally stay away from it.
Is Dr. Agbakoba a billionaire? How comfortable are you?
Very comfortable but as I said, a person who has the spirit of contentment doesn’t aspire to acquire riches. So, in order to be at the level you suggest, there must be a very active programme that you are pursuing. The pursuit of wealth would be primary reason for your existence then you can become a billionaire but do I have to be a billionaire to enjoy the basic comfort of life? I don’t think so. You can enjoy life whilst not being an extremely wealthy person. Okay, when I went to the UK and back, probably N12 million, that doesn’t make me a billionaire. For about a month, I went to the UK, I went to the US but I never asked myself why should I go on British Airways? If I want a private jet, you now need about maybe N40 to N50 million to fly only to London, pay parking fees and then fly off too. By the time you come back, you will find out that your holiday has cost you about N200 million. Like the other time, I was in one big hotel in the UK, Femi Otedola was there, Dangote was there, I was there. They might have been in presidential suites but I was in a junior suit but we were all in the hotel, so it doesn’t take as much as people think to have a comfortable life.
You can afford a private jet, when are you buying one?
No I can’t, even if I could, I will not buy one because it makes absolutely no sense. When I was extremely active on election petition cases, what I would do is that I will hire private jets. I had a case once in Jos, I had to be in Jos at nine o’clock in the court of Appeal, at Court of Appeal in Enugu at about 11 and Court of Appeal in Benin, so I had to hire a private jet, This was about eight years ago, it cost me about N1.5 million but the client paid N10 million, covered the cost, so why then go and spend N60, N70 million on a jet that will be parked doing nothing. Worst case scenario, if I need to make sure that my time is well spent on far-flung cases, I will go and hire a jet for that purpose but certainly not to own one; to keep it where and do what with it?
Can you compare value systems when you were growing up and what it is today?
You can’t compare it. There is no value system now, it is gone because the value system then was like my father was content to be Chief Judge, he was very happy, he was the highest paid public officer in the East Central State government, he wasn’t interested in contracts, just doing his job as CJ. Today, that is not the case. The system is money- driven, if you don’t have money you are nobody and it is unfortunate that this is also corrupting the churches. No matter what you steal, if you go to the church you can offer it to God and the priest will accept it. Back then, if they say so so and so man did so and so, you will be ostracised and be ashamed, you won’t even come out. Nigeria has no value system, a very big shame. Whatever system we had in the past 60 years has been completely eroded.
What would you like to be remembered for?
That I played my role, spoke the truth and to be counted as having been part of humanity and pushing course of public good.