By Kris Obiaje
Dr. Tunji Abayomi, the Ondo state-born prominent lawyer is well known for his human rights and democratic activism. Dr. Abayomi takes a front row seat when you mention constitutional legalism. Brilliant and successful; the Akoko-bred politician and University of Toledo-trained legal practitioner who believes women, especially mothers should be adequately strengthened so as to build a better society. The Pro-chancellor, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko shares his life experience on growing up and sundry issues with Kris Obiaje and and Stockswatch team. Excerpts
In the Beginning… My Background
I was born in Oke Agbe, now the capital of Akoko North West local government, over sixty years ago. I went to school in Oke Agbe. First I attended St George’s primary school; I completed my primary education in Ikare which is also in Akoko in Ondo state. From there I proceeded to Ajuwa grammar school, Oke Agbe under one of the best leading personalities in terms of raising children to be notables, the name of the man is Chief Guy Gargiulo.
Akokoland Honoured Guy Gargiulo
Gargiulo came to Nigerian at the age of twenty eight and he is now eighty five and his still lives in Nigerian. Gargiulo is a man who, out of the rural community Oke-Agbe, produced giants. He abandoned wealth and the world and dedicated his life to children. I think that is why he has gotten several chieftaincy titles in Akoko community.
Where the Road Led After Secondary School
Like I said, I was well trained and well exposed in the secondary school, to work as well as to character. As at the time I left secondary school, you could say that I was fit in learning and in character, it wasn’t just a question of that we have to read a book every week from the library.
I left Ajuwa grammar school and proceeded to Lagos. As it was in those days, Lagos was like London to us and I worked in the College of Medicine libra6ry, from 1968 when I left secondary school to 1972. In March 1972, I proceeded to Ohio State University and this is why there is a lot of lesson to teach a whole of younger generation.
My Mother, My Jewel and Strength
Now in my case, I entered the arena of life at a disadvantaged, because I lost my father when I was a year old. But I had a mother and it is important to emphasize that women should be fortified with values and vision because in doing that, they help to create greatness in the society. At that time we were poor because she had lost her husband. She was struggling but believes that education was essential. At that time, quite a number of her colleagues didnt value education.
There are two points here to be emphasized; first, it is important to strengthen a woman because in her strength could be the compassion to remake the children to make the society. It is also important to strengthen a woman because in them is internal strength of immeasurable standard. You will see a woman always struggling and doing everything to ensure her children succeed.
So if you want to make the society work, I think the fundamental and the foundation is to make sure women are adequately equipped, because in the home, the essentiality of the woman in raising the children and managing the home cannot be underestimated.
Off to Ohio State University
I left Nigeria in March 1972 and proceed to Ohio State University; the value came handy over there. I had to make my education possible. I was working five jobs every day, because I have no helper, no assistance, nothing really, it was just me against the world you might say. In the morning I will do janitorial work; that is cleaning toilets for the white people.
In the late morning I will work as a photocopy clerk, in the evening I will go and mow the lawn, late evening between 7 and 9 I will do babysitting, late at night I will do dish washing at the restaurant to prepare for the next day. That’s how I managed until I finished. I finished my undergraduate in two and half years instead of four and then I did master’s degree.
Multiple Jobs and Academic Excellence
In America you take courses; those courses are for different hours. For example a particular course could be between 8 and 9, another one may be between 10 and 11, and another one may be between 2 and 3. So what I had to do was to position those works between those hours. You must also appreciate that there was no other way; first of all, there was no money. Nobody was sending me any money, and secondly I had to be in school otherwise I would be sent out of America.
Thirdly I had to do well in school because if you didn’t do well that means you can’t stay in school, and if you dont stay in school you will have to leave. Since by character, there were Nigerians going around even by then, committing fraud, MasterCard and others, but I wasnt changed because I was trained to aspire at the highest integrity. So, that was how I made it, even when I went Graduate School to do my Master’s Degree, I had to work through, not just to work on work, but have to work on books. So that’s the story.
Graduate Law School
Again in America there is nothing as under graduate Law, you go to graduate school to study Law. The programme in America is a little different; you get what is called “Doctor of Jurisprudent,” which is Doctor of Law; that is a graduate degree. But for you to be able to get into the programme: America as you could say is extremely competitive, you have to take what they call a hard examination to get into the programme, and then you also have to have what is called good first degree. In other words, that means you must be an alumnus student before you can get into the programme. So in my case I wasn’t just an alumnus student, but also, I already had a Master’s before I now proceeded to study what is called Doctor of law. America does not award PhD for law, it awards JD.
Why I Took Interest in the Law Profession
What happened was that I had to decide whether to go for PhD or not. I had an uncle, an outstanding Professor of Anthropology, he was at the same Ohio State University and he said to me, “From my interaction with you, I think the best profession for you is law”. So he said I should take the law school admission test, which I should prepare to take it. Coming Back to Nigeria and Settling Down
I got back in the last day of 1981, and then I got a job at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos as an administrative clerk. Let me go back, after secondary school I got a job at the library, University of Lagos, College of medicine, Idi Araba and I worked there from 1969 to 1972. So when I came back, the same College of Medicine retained me, but now as an administrative clerk, just for that one year before I proceeded to the Nigerian law school in July or something about that late 1981 then I graduated in 1982. The choice now was whether to take a job as an employment or to endure the tremor of struggle in order to cut a path for myself. At that time it was fairly difficult because even then, you still have to work under somebody for a period of three years before you can start your own practice. I think I was just roaming around one or two people. Then in 1983 I set up in Makoko. I was just managing, struggling there.
Akinrinsola, Kusamotu, Omodunbi and Rotimi Williams as Legal Mentors
Before I went to Makoko, I was with one lawyer called Rasaq Apalara, who is a friend of another indigene of Ondo state, the late Chief Sola Akinrinsola, they were friends. So one day, Akinrinsola came to Rasaq Apalara and they were discussing a case. He has been briefed to handle a case, I think Attorney General of Ondo state against Attorney General of the Federation. I heard them discussing and I said to myself, it will be interesting for me to participate. They decided they were going have a meeting on a Sunday, in order to look at the case. That meeting was with Omodunbi and Dr. Kusamotu, so I said this is an opportunity. I said I better participate in this particular discussion. So I spent the whole weekend in the office, studying the constitution, taking notes. The advantage of that was when I got to that Sunday discussion, they were both surprised.
From that point, they took interest in me and that was how occasionally I began working with all three, rotating my services between them. So I started to grow gradually on my own. When Akinrinsola left 34, Aje Street in Yaba, and moved to another office, I then took over the office from 1985 until 2008.
So in terms of raising me, I consider them mentors, Akinrinsola in particular. My interaction with him was closer and deeper and extended or extensive in terms of professional relationship, than for example Kusamotu.
Climbing the Ladder in the Legal Practice
The point is that when you work hard, you may not be the most successful, you may not even be the best recognized, but there will always be a form of benefit. I know that for the children of the poor, they could only rise through their efforts. That is number one. Moreover, it is essential for them to make the best of every single opportunity.
I will give you a simple example. I was a young lawyer when I met Olusegun Obasanjo. How did it happen? I was at Oke-aje Street in 1987 or thereabout. Chief Obasanjo, then no longer president, had sent his resident lawyer, one Lucky Egede, to go to Rotimi Williams, his Lawyer. This was a case in which Gani Fawehinmi sued Olusegun Obasanjo on behalf of one Inspector Ale, who was said to have been assaulted by Obasanjo. And you know Gani Fawehinmi; he made so much noise of this purported assault. It was alleged by that time that Obasanjo did not only assaulted the man, but took him to his farm in Ota and locked him up. Gani Fawehinmi now took the case as a violation of fundamental human right.
Gani Fawehinmi was immensely popular as a general in the legal profession as Obasanjo was as a retired General. And the resentment of Gani Fawehinmi for Obasanjo was also very popular and well known. So he now initiated an action against Obasanjo. Obasanjo now wanted the lawyer to defend him against Gani Fawehinmi. There was a lawyer in my chamber then, he name was Muhammadu. He was a friend of Lucky Egede. He now told Egede that, My Oga is a good lawyer, first class, a great lawyer.”
Lucky came and was quite impressed and surprised by my presentation and angle to the case. He said he will go back to General Obasanjo, instead of going further to Rotimi Williams. He now went to Obasanjo that told him that he met a young lawyer who was very hot, and Obasanjo said he should bring me. So I now went to Obasanjo and explained to him. So that was how a particular legal theory was developed, in the legal profession; that “fundamental human right only inured to the benefit of the citizen against the state, instead of the benefit of a citizen against another citizen”.
Of course, the case was a celebrated case. The court was full to capacity and then of course, I had worked, I mean I had read like mad, I must have spent days and days working. Because I had said to myself that, this case will either make me or mar me as a young lawyer. And here is a young lawyer, who had to represent a General and a former head of state in a world that takes great interest in the case and particularly of celebrated lawyer like Gani Fawehinmi.
So the case was argued in Ogun state before one of the judges and as I laid down my arguments and I was talking with ten legal theories to defeat the action, the judge himself got very excited and said let me, “let me write, let me write. I remember I said of all of their hundred and ten cases in all the Commonwealth countries, only one is against my procedure and I summit, my lord, its an egregious error of law.
When the Day of Judgment came, the judge decided in my favour and it was a noted legal thinking entirely. By this time of course, Gani Fawehinmi has been detained. Oyetibo who was now the head of law firm of Gani Fawehinmi completed the case.
Motivation for Going into Politics
Before I decided for politics, I first of all decided for human rights. I spent many years in the struggle for human rights, because you must appreciate that as a person, who came from a rural town, who experienced denial as a child. We enter arena of life at a disadvantage having lost my father like I said. My natural compassion is for the ordinary common toil of the people. It was just natural that I have to be a general, a warrior, for the struggle of human rights and so I started even before Obasanjo was detained. Now remember I had told you that I was Obasanjo lawyer in a case against Gani Fawehinmi-inspector Ale, so we retain this professional relationship with Obasanjo, until suddenly, Obasanjo was detained. I was still his lawyer, which was how I started the campaign for his freedom worldwide.
Of course, that campaign led me to detention three times. One of each last for eleven months and then the third of it, I was taken to Jos prison and my cell, I was detained with criminals and in my cell in Jos prison was called German country. I was there when Abacha died in 1998. When he died, we had some freedom to move around. I had lost by that time five years of my life in the struggles for human rights and three detentions in that struggle. I lost everything, my family were scattered everywhere. I came out and started re-building my life again, that is why when we are talking about democracy today a lot of politicians dont understand the cost of getting this democracy and that is why its not really valuable to them to make enough scarifies for it. Anyway, democracy finally came at the cost of our liberty and freedom.
But democracy has not really brought what we anticipated. We had hoped that it would help our people to know the very good life, to meet the expectation and the needs of our people, but it didnt. So now many of us have felt that. And I have said this, during the struggle for democracy in 1998 during the transition. I was of the view that the members of the human rights community should take interest in politics. That was the confrontation between me and Late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, not just him, Femi Falana, Olisa Agbakogba, all of them were in one single camp that we shouldnt take part in the democratic transition.
I was of the view that we should. The last bastion against dictatorship was Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON) and we are meeting in the house of Gani Fawehinmi. Gani Adams was one of the younger members of JACON, and of course, Faseheun was also there, we were meeting there. I was of the view that if we enter politics and for example we have like four or five states, because we were very popular. We were credible and were about to have democracy.
We can build those states, to improve the condition of our people. Because we had fought for it and so we knew the value, but they say we shouldnt participate. That was how JACON broke; I just left, because I said I didnt see any seriousness in terms of the perception of the future. That was how it broke. Well, the break will continue but it is interesting that even before I joined politics, Gani Fawehinmi, our leader had attempted to run for president, Femi Falana had attempted to run for governor, and Olisa Agbakoba had some political interest. So we lost that chance. So it occur to me that we could do a little bit more, if these politicians cannot achieve better life for our people and they are pre-occupied with their self-interest, why couldnt those of us who knew the value of the struggle for democracy, it will make more sense that we can make a difference.
That was how I picked interest in politics in 2004. Thats shortly after late Chief Adebayo Adefarati lost election in Ondo state. Actually I started rebuilding the party, because as at that time everything looked hopeless in Ondo state for AD (Alliance for Democracy). They had lost election, no offices, no flag, and nothing. I had made a little bit of money around that time, which I dedicated to rebuilding the party and I have continue unchanged, so to say, that progressive life until today.
Why I am Home and Close to My People
Two things are responsible; first I believe there are great opportunities. When I look at my people and see where I am today, it seems like I was seeing one of my letter to my friend, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu during the controversy of the bye-election in Ondo state in 2016. I felt fulfilled, I need no enhancement, and I have been enhanced. In 2005, the University of Toledo that was founded in 1832, decided to honour nine of its Alumni. Nine of his students that ever graduated from the school since 1832, and out of those nine, I was one.
There was a woman too who specialized in bone marrow trans-plant among the recipients. Now if you consider that one came from Oke-Agbe, and he is celebrated by an American university, then you will know that anything is possible. So when I look at the possibilities, given the support and opportunities, this land, anywhere in it can become a citadel hope for human needs. I tried my effort, struggle to see what I can do to increase the possibility of the poor in particular.
I see possibilities, so I think if I continue to come, even if I cant support through materials, I can support through inspiration. In fact that was the reason I built that center in Oke-Agbo. That same center has hosted the president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. It has hosted the American Ambassador, has hosted Tinubu and in 2015 hosted Vice President Osinbajo, when he came for campaign in the State with almost 80 people. I built that center for only one purpose; to create inspiration and aspiration in the mind of the child of the commoners, to know that if Tunji Abayomi can become this and do this; it is also possible.
You know, if you enter the Arena of life that is disadvantaged like his, it is possible you can have arena triumph. That is the first. The second reason why I always come home is because I see myself as a representative of the ordinary people. I have had the experience in different situation where I know that, without a representative particularly the government of Nigeria, the ordinary people have no friends. So, I, as their representative, I want to know their pains, their worries, their concern and I want to see what I can do, in order to help, to wipe tears from their faces.
My Message to Akoko and Ondo state Citizens in Diaspora
There is need for better cooperation and compassion for the ordinary people. Greater cooperation among those who have, and those who are able and capable toward valuable ends, that can help to develop this state, this nation and the society. And there should be greater compassion, because if they have compassion for their people, they will not embezzle their money. We will see their pains, if we have compassion for the people, you will not buy ten cars, you know what I mean, even if you are a private person, when people have no food to eat, you just do justice.
This issue that I have interest in people , let me go back, when I was a young child my mother was a trader, because I was the only child and I have lost my father, my mother tried to do many things for me with the hope that konilo.
I was a little spoilt, not that spoilt but a little pamper, a little indulged. My mother traded around and she will buy cloth we called okirika. I think they call them “Bend down” now but in those days they were good materials, some new, some old but the important thing was that. I have a lot of clothes and my mother will put those cloths on the line, then as kids we would go round, sit on the floor and play with koto, because there were not that much back then.
I always wonder at that time even as a kid, why was it that I have clothes, lots of clothes and my colleague and young friends had none? So I will go back, pack some of the clothes and distribute, sometimes I take off my own cloth and I will give to my friends and I will run back. When I was in America, Nigerian students, when they came over there, I will be the one to receive them even in my environment, settle them, accommodate them, acculturate and help them before they find their way in America. So my life has actually been defined by compassion for the common aims of ordinary people.