Chief Idowu Sofola (SAN) turned 80 on September 29. Born in Ikenne, Ogun State, he was called to the English Bar at Middle Temple Inn of Court, London on July 17, 1962. He enrolled at the Supreme Court of Nigeria on July 30, 1962, after studying Law at Westminster College of Commerce, London and Holborn College of Law. He was elected General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in 1979 and Secretary-General of the International Bar Association (IBA) in 1986 – the first African and the first non-white to hold the office. Sofola was elevated to Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1989 after 29 years at the Bar. In this interview with JOSEPH JIBUEZE, he speaks on improving the legal profession and tackling the prevailing security challenges.
How do you feel at 80?
I feel great. Sometimes, I ask myself: ‘Am I 80 really?’ A few years ago when people called me ‘Baba’, I would say: ‘Why are you calling me Baba? I’m a young man like you.’ But now I think the truth is I’m ‘Baba’. I thank and I give glory to God.
How do you see the profession now compared to when you began your career?
Things have changed. Those days we were very highly respected. A lawyer was respected and trusted, but now we’ve lost a lot of that. Our boys are not as serious as we were those days. There was a lot of hard work and preparations before going to court. Otherwise, we’re coping; we’re managing.
Who were your mentors?
There were many of them, such as my late brother Kehinde Sofola and Chief Rotimi Williams (SAN). Chief Fani Kayode (SAN) was a fantastic man; H. O Davies – many of them.
Why did you go into the profession?
First, I think it must have been the work of God. But then when my late brother arrived from England as a lawyer, I was always with him, and I was like his office clerk. Especially during the holidays, I would go out serving court processes and letters and doing the job of a clerk–even during school days. I was going to court with him and I was carried away with how he handled cases. He made a lot of impression on me. The way he dressed those days, one could not but get carried away. In order to become a lawyer I had to go to England. In our own days we had only the University of Ibadan and they were not offering law. They were limited in the courses they offered in those days.
What would you have studied if not Law?
I probably would have been a doctor, and maybe I would have made it, but I have no regret with this one (law).
What was the experience in your early days of practice?
When I made up my mind to go and read law, I resigned from the Federal Ministry of Labour and joined the judiciary as a court clerk. That gave me some experience. When I finished in England and after being called to Bar, I enrolled for nine-month post-call classes. By the time I came back, I was not just a certificate holder. I had gone beyond that. My brother would give me file and ask me to go to so and so court and handle this ex-parte motion. I went and I did it. The following day he would say go to that court. I was a bit jittery alright, but not as bad, and quickly I got over it.
Did you specialise in any area of Law?
It’s good to specialise, but when we started, if you say you specialised, and somebody comes to you with a problem outside your area of specialisation and you say ‘no, I don’t deal with that’, he would think this man didn’t complete his law studies. So you have to be prepared to take any case. It costs you more time because you have to go and read up the law on the issue, but somehow you get used to it. But now that we’re getting many and we’re now having chambers with partners and associates, we can now specialise. It is unlike our days of one-man practice and you must be able to handle any case which came to you. To specialise is better. You become better.
How can the falling standards you referred to be addressed?
You have to go back to the schools, to the university, because the products – when they speak English you will think they’re good, but let them write something down for you. You will be surprised. We have to sit them up from there, and even at the Law Schools. When some come into practice, they’re thinking of money, money, money. Money will come when it will come. You should take the first years of your practice as an extension of your law school studies. Money will come when it will. Work hard.
Can a young lawyer learn on the job on their own?
I’ll ask them to think twice, because they cannot make it. What you learned in the Law School is how to find your law when you need it. You learn the law itself in practice. When we come to practice we come to learn it. And how do you learn it? By practicing it. And how do you practice it? You must have the case. If you graduate as a lawyer with first class, your father has money and gives you a whole house and you set up a chambers, spend millions to buy books, if clients don’t come to you to handle cases, you won’t have cases to learn from or practice with. So you have to work with a senior, who will give you cases, then you practice, make mistakes and learn. Even your father, as rich as he is, cannot bring his friends to come and experiment with his son. It’s not possible.
Were there adjudication delays in your early years of practice?
In my days, if you had a case in the High Court – we used to refer to Mondays as ‘call-over days’, you take a date for hearing. Sometimes they give you one day; sometimes two, sometimes three and the cases will go on those days. Nobody has reason to come and say I’m not ready, not even the judge. Now you go to court on any day and you see about 20 to 30 cases on the judge’s list! He could spend half a day giving dates and before taking a case that day. That really kills time. The old system of just taking a date is important. We have more judges, yet problems still come up.
What other problems have you noticed?
Another problem is with our judges: some of them are lazy. I think we should be more careful the way we take in judges. Let us appoint serious ones and when they get there get them to work hard. In those days, at 9.am, the judge knocks on the down and he is sitting. But now you find some judges sitting 10.30am or 11.30am. Some that sit at 9.30am, in an hour’s time, they would say: ‘The court will rise and come back’. All these cause delays.
How can lawyers help to save time?
Some lawyers too are always asking for adjournments, sometimes because they have so many cases in a day. Why should you have two cases in a day before different judges? And some lawyers who are not ready find reason to cause an adjournment. Sometimes they know they have bad cases; instead of telling the clients from the word go that it is a bad case, they say ‘let’s go on’. And he keeps on finding reason to take adjournment.
What is the way out?
Also, asking judges to do cases like election petitions or sit in tribunals – taking them away from their own job means cases before them are not heard. So let us leave some of these things to retired judges. There are retired ones who are still strong, active, agile and able to deliver. For some of them, you wonder: ‘Why is this one going on retirement’? There are good ones who leave the Bench all because they have reached the retirement age. They are good materials for this type of thing. There are many of them.
Are you worried by corruption in the judiciary?
When I came back from England in those days and started practice, there was no corruption in the judiciary. When it was starting, it was in the magistrates’ court where they said some magistrates were collecting money to grant bail. I didn’t believe it because nobody took money from me. But later, it went from there to the high court. It remained in the high court for a long time before it went to the Court of Appeal and now the Supreme Court. At that time the Body of Senior Advocates gathered and said look, let us talk to the authorities not to make promotions from magistracy to the high court automatic so they will not go and corrupt the place.
How can it be tackled?
We said let us appoint people from the Bar, decent people, Senior Advocates of Nigeria to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court since the law allows it. We passed that resolution at that time and gave it to the authorities. Corruption would have been killed at that time. But those we knew were actually corrupt as magistrates were elevated. Now it is there and we cannot allow it to continue. The present Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloma Mukhtar is doing her best. They dismiss and retire judges. I think she should continue that way and let others follow suit.
Should corrupt judges better not be tried for corruption?
We’ve started from somewhere. Something has started. But I agree with you. But before now, how many of them were retired, or dismissed or sacked? We’ve started somewhere. We should encourage those who are doing it to keep doing it.
Terrorism is one of Nigeria’s biggest challenges. Is the fight against it being handled aright?
Before one can judge, you have to be in possession of facts. The problem we have in this country is that many of us we say things that will suit us, and we attack when we think we’ll gain advantage from there. For example we heard America said Israel should not send drones. I also heard America and England refused to send to us because they believe we’re not using them in the right way. We also heard from the news too that the boys we sent out are running away from battlefront because they don’t have enough ammunition.
What is the solution?
I think it’s a national problem. I think all politicians should forget politics and sit down together. There are things they should know that must not be exposed to the public. Nigeria is for all of us. I’m not happy that the insurgents are gaining the hand they are gaining. I thought they would have been crushed within six months. Let us work together. Let us all be patriotic and fight as patriots. In England and America, if anything happens, everyone forgets politics and faces the national problem and fights it together.
How does Nigeria of the past compare to now?
A lot has changed. I was born in Ikene where there was no hospital or maternity centre. I was told my mother gave birth to me unaided because there was nobody around to help her. While we were taking our school certificate, an officer would come from the Ministry of Works to interview us for employment. By the time we finished our exams, we already had jobs. Also by the time we were finishing from the university, work was already waiting for us with a car and accommodation. But things have changed now. As a school certificate holder, you can’t even look for job except the job of a houseboy or a messenger.
Would you say that values have changed?
Lawyers used to be highly respected. One day I was coming from the court and I passed through Leventis, I saw brand new cars. One of the sales people asked me which one I wanted and I told him that I was just looking at them. He asked me to take one and pay later. Their own car was 850 pounds but they said that I could trade in my own for 250 pounds and they told me that I could pay the remaining 600 pounds in installments within three months. I raised the first installment but my elder brother ended up paying the rest. They allowed me to take the car home without depositing or signing any document. Can they do that to anybody now? No one can be trusted. One day I was in the high court and wanted to use the rest room. I kept my wig and gown at the entrance. When I came out in two or three minutes, my wig and gown had disappeared. They must have been stolen by a lawyer!
Did you ever consider leaving the Bar for the Bench or politics?
I was invited to the Bench, initially as a magistrate and later as a judge, but I refused. I have never been interested in politics because I can’t stand the way politics is being practised in Nigeria. There is no patriotism in Nigerian politics. I was interested in the Labour Party when I was in England. I was attending their meetings but when I came back and saw the way things were done, I decided that it was not for me.
(PUBLISHED BY THE NATION TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2014.)