Idowu Sofola: A courtroom ‘general’, with a mission  

DESTINY, by the description of a leading American politician, William Jennings Bryan, who lived between March 19, 1860 and July 26, 1925, “is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved”.

And so, our personality of the week, Chief Idowu Abdul Fatai Adebayo Sofola, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and a Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), achieved his own destiny in his chosen career through hard work, dedication, commitment and strong desire to reach the pinnacle of his profession.

Today, he can look back to a good number of the solid achievements he has accomplished and say in his usual calm manner: “I thank thee Lord for your goodness”.

This is the story of a courtroom ‘General’, who mastered the art of advocacy in law and rose to become one of the leading members of both the national and international Bars and now of the Bench.

He commands great respect among his colleagues both within and outside Nigeria due to the unequal interest he developed in Bar politics. This has contributed in shooting him to the zenith of his career and gave him dazzling recognition with its attendant benefits.

He fell in love with law practice so much so that the courtroom became his second home. This was the practice of the good old days.

To buttress this point, he turned down two offers to be elevated as a senior magistrate and a High Court judge, when he was recommended to serve on the Bench.

Just a forth night ago or thereabout, he was appointed the new chairman of the Body of Benchers, a prestigious body that oversees the admission of lawyers to the Bar and their discipline as well. He took over from the sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Dahiru Musdapher, who has just completed his tenure. The Body of Benchers is made up of very senior eminent members of the Bench and Bar. He will be in this office for the next 12 months.

For these 12 months, he has assigned himself to pursue the issue of discipline of lawyers of all categories and spheres of endeavour.

Born in Ikenne-Remo, Ogun State, 78 years ago, specifically on September 29, 1934, Sofola, the last of 11 children of his mother, studied law at Westminster College of Commerce, London, Holborn College of Law and Council of Legal Education, London. He was called to the English Bar at Middle Temple Inns of Court, London on July 17, 1962.

On his return to Nigeria the same year, he was enrolled at the Supreme Court of Nigeria on July 30, 1962 and commenced private legal practice immediately. He has continued to be in active legal practice ever since.

After 27 years of rigorous practice on May 1989, at the age of 55, Sofola was elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

But in 1979, he came to the limelight in Bar politics when he contested and won election for the post of general secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). It was this office that enabled him to serve in the Council of the International Bar Association (IBA) as an officer.

Chief Sofola, who has been ranked among 100 most inspiring Senior Advocates of Nigeria and courtroom generals, did not have a robust start in life as a growing child due to health problems. He had initial hearing problems due to blockades of his two ears. This posed a very serious handicap for the young Sofola to start school in time like his peers.

This is how he painted an enchanting and pitiable picture of himself as a growing child in his own words: “I thank God for everything. God has been kind to me and my family. I come from a polygamous family. I am the last of 11children born by my mother.

“One would have expected me to be a spoilt child. The reason why I was not was because I was born with ear problems. I had problems hearing very well because my two ears were blocked.

“Unfortunately, there was no hospital at that time in our place at Ikenne, Ogun State. The nearest one then was about 65 miles away. This problem persisted for too long that it prevented me from starting school when my mates started. I started my own school at the age of 11. I thank God again, because when I started, I caught up with some of them because I got double promotions most of the times.

When I was living with my senior brother, Mr. Kehinde Sofola (SAN), a former Attorney and Minister of Justice (who is now late), at Ibadan, he was the one who used to take me to a hospital for treatment while I was still attending school from his house.

In those days, we used to have weekly reports in school on the performance of students in all the subjects. When I got to the next class, I could not make first or second position as I used to make. I managed to pass. When my brother was transferred to Lagos from Ibadan, I returned to Ikenne to start school in Standard Three. Fortunately, my ear problem was solved with some hot oil, which one man they took me to in nearby town, put into my ears to burn off the sours that blocked the two ears.

“After this treatment, I returned to live with my brother, Kehinde, again. He was a clerk then and very strict and a good disciplinarian. I thought he was being wicked to me, it was later that I realised he was giving me good training.

“When I arrived in his house, the first question he asked me was how far I was doing with my studies, particularly my multiplication table? I told him I was doing my best. So from his house, I continued my schooling. I thank God I did not repeat a class throughout. When I graduated from secondary school, I did not proceed immediately to the university. I worked one year in the Ministry of Labour. But when it was obvious that I was going to read law, I changed my work to judiciary where I served as a court clerk.

From there, I travelled to England to read law. When I got there, I had to do ‘A’ Levels. I sat for three papers and excelled in them all.

Chief Sofola, a Moslem and married to Alhaja Silifat Olusola, tells on how he met the woman who he eventually married.

“I had this woman who incidentally was the first lady I ever spoke to for a relationship. We later got married. But before I went to England, we had packed up with the relationship. So, we all forgot ourselves. When I got to England, I got another lady. One day, I went to see her in a far away town where she lived. When I got there that day and after sometime, she told me that her husband would be arriving in a week’s time. I asked her from where? And she answered me that he was coming from Nigeria. I now asked her: what about me? And she answered that she was sorry not to have disclosed this to me in our relationship. I was so upset that I did not know when I left her house and jumped inside a train back to my house. When I got to my house, I opened my door and a letter dropped from there and I took it and opened it, lo and behold, it was my ‘A’ level GCE result sheet, which showed that I cleared the three papers I sat for. It was a big relief and consolation from the embarrassment I got from the woman I wanted to marry.

“After this shock, I did not bother again, until the first woman I spoke with back home arrived in England, invited by her parents. We met during Nigeria’s Independence Day anniversary celebration in England. It was, indeed, a re-union of two friends who had forgotten about themselves.

In fact, I was an officer of the Nigerian Students’ Union, an assistant secretary. After the meeting, she and I became friends again. That was it, until we got married in 1963, after she returned from England. I returned to Nigeria in 1962, a year before she returned. I was called to the English Bar on November 17, 1962. Shortly after that event, I returned to Nigeria.

At that time, if you return as a lawyer, you stay with a senior to learn the practical aspect of the discipline. Fortunately or unfortunately, my senior brother, Kehinde, was very busy then with the Coker Commission of Inquiry during the problem of the Western Region then. So, he did not have time for me as a young lawyer. The day I was sworn in as a lawyer of the Supreme Court, my brother just gave me a case file and asked me to go and try my luck before Justice Udo Udoma. I was the only lawyer in his Chambers at that time. Fortunately for me, the case did not hold that day.

Continuing the narrations of his experiences as a young lawyer, this complete self-made lawyer had this to say: “When I was about two weeks old as a lawyer, there was a case coming up in Ikeja High Court before Honourable Justice Ikeruche. My brother told me that he had told the other lawyer, an expert in land matters, who later became a judge and retired as a Supreme Court Justice, that we should agree on a date since he could not make it for that day.

When the case was called, I stood up and announced my appearance for the defence. The lawyer on the other side had not arrived. I told the judge that I hold Mr. Kehinde Sofola’s brief. The judge asked for the plaintiff, who was not there. The judge asked witness to mount the witness box. At this point, I told the judge that I had an application to make and he asked me the nature of the application. I told the judge that my brother had a national assignment in Lagos and he had discussed this with the lawyer on the other side and they had agreed to take a date. But the judge retorted: “I am going on with this case. Tell your brother that his own national assignment cannot affect my own national assignment”.

After that, it then dawned on me that I was the one to handle the matter. The file was a fat one. I had not even opened the file because I thought the judge was going to adjourn the matter.

It was at this point that the lawyer on the other side started leading the witness in evidence. I asked myself “what would I do for a case I did not prepare, a two-week old lawyer?” I reluctantly opened the file, picked out the writ and started reading it. As I was reading the file, I was listening to the evidence and at the same time, writing down the evidence and thinking of what questions to put to the witness under cross-examination.

God helped me because of my experience as a court clerk and from England after my Call to Bar. So, I put this question, that question and so on. After sometime, the lawyer on the other side said ‘objection my Lord’. The objection was taken. I tried to object. But the judge interjected and asked me to put it in another way. “Try, try,” the judge urged me. I tried again, but the plaintiff lawyer continued to object. When the judge saw that I could not frame the question the way it would not be objected to, he said “Ok, I will grant you an adjournment, to go and discuss it with your brother. When you get home, he will tell you what to do, I cannot tell you here”. When I got home that day, I told my brother my experience, my brother was annoyed.

“Our client in this matter was my brother’s old school-mate. He was so furious on how I handled the matter that he did not hide his feelings when he told my brother: “Kehinde, you are too wicked. We went to school together, you saved your money and went to England to become a lawyer, I saved my own money and used it to buy land. Instead of you to handle the case for me so that I can secure my land, you sent your inexperienced brother to spoil the case for me”.

This made my brother to take time off from the inquiry and followed us to court the following day. So, we continued in the case, which my brother after discussing the points with me, I was the one that virtually concluded the case. Fortunately, we won in that matter and the court awarded us cost. My brother came to me and I thought he was coming to congratulate me for a job well done.

He came to scold me that if not the way I initially handled the matter, the court would have awarded us huge cost. I said in my mind, whether this was a way of rewarding me with some amount to even buy biscuits for a job well done, instead of talking about award of cost in our favour.

This was, indeed, a great experience for me. No matter how brilliant you are as a lawyer, your first attempts into practise you must falter, you will be shy to speak in court and all that. But despite those initial challenges, I got on into practice very strongly.

Apart from his escapades in courtroom practice many of which cannot be mentioned, Chief Sofola, as a young lawyer, showed interest in the Bar Association.

“When I became an active Bar man, I was being careful because I did not want it to affect my practice. But somehow in 1979, I took the form for NBA election. I was selected at Ibadan conference, an election that took me to the International Bar Association (IBA). The IBA has a council comprising one representative of each national Bar. So I served in that council as the general secretary of the NBA. You cannot hold an office in Nigeria for more than two years. It was when I became general secretary of the NBA that I became a member of the council of the IBA. No matter how brilliant you are, it is only in the second year that the council will begin to recognise you. And it is in that second year that your election into NBA will expire. And if you are not a member of council, you cannot contest for any position there.

The question now is “how did I become the first Nigerian, indeed, the first African to serve as secretary general of IBA?” In my second year in the IBA council, I was appointed assistant secretary general for two years in the international body. After two years as assistant secretary general, they appointed me as deputy secretary general for another two years. At the end of that, they reappointed me as deputy secretary general for another two years. At the end, they asked me to vie for secretary general and I asked them what would become of the substantive secretary I had been deputising.

“Later, when I reported the matter to my home Bar. They all bought the idea and worked towards rallying all African Bars to support my nomination. Indeed, the person who contested with me at that time was the president of American Bar Association (ABA). When we contested, we were nine in number. I was the only Black man. At the end of the election, I had the highest number of votes. But there was a re-run in which I also emerged the overall winner. I was so happy that I could win in such an election, that I did not even wait for the meeting to come to an end.

As a lawyer of international repute, Chief Sofola dresses very impeccably. But nowadays, he prefers to adorn native dresses, except occasion warrants for him to wear the English suit, the mark of a gentleman. Hear what he says about his dressing: “I usually dress in my native attire. I was in it when I was told that you have arrived for this interview. I quickly changed into suit, because I know you are going to take photographs of me.

On the type of food he likes to eat, Sofola said which food to take at any particular time has never been a problem to him. He can eat whatever is available at any point in time. Hear him: “Food has never been my problem. When it is time for food, I eat whatever is presented for me. If I visit you and the following day you are asking me what to prepare for me, I will pack my things and go away. I don’t want to be bothered on what I should be served. Anything eatable is food for me”.

My wife knows about this. It is very rare I request to be given amala or garri to be taken with groundnuts, or meat. In fact, anything goes.

Every man has a time he calls his happiest moments or his saddest times, particularly for a man of Idowu’s stature. But see how he describes his moments this way: “This is a difficult thing to describe. But I thank God that I have always been a happy person because I don’t have anything against anybody. I cannot think of any person I can call my enemy. I don’t grudge against any person. If any person does anything to me that I don’t like, I will just go to the person to tell him that I don’t like what he or she did to me, and perhaps he or she will say, I am sorry, sorry, and that ends the matter. In fact, nothing worries me. When I go to my home-town, I take a walk round the town, exercising myself. I have no problem with anyone or fear for any attack since I hold nothing against anyone.

Concerning the moments of regrets for this free-minded gentleman, he said: “If it is a mistake I made in the course of my job, I try and see if it can be corrected. If it cannot be corrected, I let it go. And that is it”.

For this man of the Bench and Bar, who at his age is still holding very critical national office portfolio, how cordial is his relationship with his only wife and children. One would like to know whether he is a good family man. For this, he has a ready-made answer as he responded very swiftly. “My relationship with my wife and children is very good and cordial. When I first started my practice, things were hard; my wife was the one helping the family with food. When things improved for me, I retaliated. My wife is good and caring. We have lived together for 49 years, since 1963 we got married”.

I also have nice children. My first son is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), my daughter is a Senior Magistrate with the Lagos State Judiciary. The other two boys used to be bankers, but now own a business concern. I also have a son who is an Insurance expert. Like I said, they are very, very good children. I am proud of all of them. They take themselves as one.

When my son, the SAN graduated in 1988, some people advised me to allow him to go out and work, but the boy decided to join me. He calls me oga in this chambers. He works very hard and I trust him so well that for some years now, he has been the one running this chambers. He is the managing partner, while I am the principal partner.

Sofola is a holder of several honours and titles including the traditional honours of Bobagunwa of Remoland in 1991 by the Akarigbo of Remo Kingdom, the Balogun of Idotun-Ikenne by the Oludotun of Idotun-Ikenne in 1992, the title of Aare Maiyegun of Owu-Abeokuta in 1996 by the Olowu of Owu-Abeokuta, as well as the Aare of Remo Kingdom by the Akarigbo in consultation with Remo Obas in 2001.

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