Prof. Akin Oyebode, 70, a renowned professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA, talks about his growing up, career and plans for retirement
From your lectures and the testimonies of your students, one would almost get the feeling that you were born to teach law. What inspired your choice of studying law?
I wanted to follow the tradition of the enlightened then; if you were so hot and bright, you went to the University of Ibadan, naturally. So, I applied to read English and Drama there because I fell in love with Prof. Wole Soyinka. I was the producer of English plays in Christ School, Ado-Ekiti when I was there and my team had produced two of his plays: The Trials of Brother Jero and The Lion and the Jewel. I thought I would achieve my life ambition if I became a TV drama producer, so I got admitted to read English and Drama. At that time, undergraduates were riding bicycles, not like today when you have E-type Jaguar in the parking lot of a faculty. So, I was negotiating for a bicycle, but lo and behold, there was an advert in a newspaper for a scholarship in the Soviet Union. They wanted two A levels and I had four. I came to Lagos to attend the interview at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. During the interview, the then Director-General, the late Dr. Lawrence Fabunmi, said, young man, if you want B.A. in English, at the drop of a hat, you would have it. But he said that he was not aware of any Ekiti person that had branched into being an international lawyer. He said his honest advice to me was to forget English and Drama in UI and take up the scholarship and that I would not regret it. Three days later, I was on board the plane to Moscow. My father was away in Denmark and it was from Moscow that I sent him the postcard that I had gone to the Soviet Union. He nearly fainted, wondering what I was doing in the Soviet Union. To cut a long story short, that was how I ended up studying International Law at Kiev State University in Ukraine. Many years later, after I came back, I went for an event at the NIIA and I saw Ambassador Fabunmi. I told him about how he changed my life. He said ‘oh my God, I hope for the better’, because he had forgotten about our conversation. I told him it was through his intervention that I changed from reading English and Drama to International Law. He was happy. As I came back in 1973, I joined the University of Lagos as an Assistant Lecturer. I’ve not done anything else since then, other than being a teacher in UNILAG.
When you were in the Soviet Union, did you consider the option of staying back there to work?
Actually, I nearly got married to a pretty Ukrainian girl, whose father was a General in the Soviet military. He was in the rocket wing of the Soviet Army. The man threatened me that if I messed his daughter up, I was going to be in hot soup. But we did not stay after our programme. The Russians were anxious to ship us back home. It wasn’t like other societies where you can seek employment or set up a shop. The mandate was for us to study and return home to help our country, so there were not many graduates who stayed behind.
Was it because of the father’s threat that you didn’t marry the Russian lady?
The Dean of Foreign Students in the school used to tell us to run away from their girls. We called him a racist, but he said it wasn’t in our interest to marry their girls because he said it would hamper our career prospect at home. He was like a grandfather advising us then, and Ukrainian girls are beautiful and we were young. I went abroad at 19. But at the back of one’s mind too, one remembered the injunction of the dean. He used to counsel us to watch how we dealt with their girls. I must tell you that I was offered a postgraduate programme because I did incredibly well. I had A’s in all my exams. I graduated with the highest distinction. If you go to that university today, there is a gold plaque with a list of the names of all those who performed extraordinarily well, so I was offered postgraduate scholarship, but God decreed otherwise. I came back and joined UNILAG and one of the first things my Dean, Prof. Kasumu, arranged was for me to have a taste of western legal education and he made sure that I got admitted to Harvard Law School, which, in my view, is the best law school in the world. Harvard is a tough school because they keep telling you every day you can’t make it and you have to tell yourself you would make it. So, it was a tough struggle, but luckily, I successfully completed my Master’s degree programme and then I came back. But later, I left for my doctorate in Canada – Osgoode Hall Law School in York University, Toronto Canada, where I completed my Doctor of Jurisprudence programme and I came back to my loving, incomparable Faculty of Law in UNILAG.
When you came back from the Soviet Union, it took like 16 years for you to be admitted into the law school. What was the reason for the delay?
It was because the powers that be then did not believe that Soviet-trained lawyers had anything in their heads. They thought maybe we studied Guerrilla warfare there. Dr. (Taslim) Elias was Chief Judge of Nigeria and he believed that we were not entitled to be admitted into the law school. After some time, there was pressure from Soviet-trained graduates and they were given a condition that they would do a one-year programme in the Nigerian legal system before they would be admitted into the law school. I refused to go through that because it would have broken me. The course I was teaching in UNILAG was what I would be taking from some of the lecturers that were my colleagues. I knew where I was coming from and I knew my scholastic record; it was not about arrogance. I thought it was Infra dignitatem (beneath dignity) for me to go through that programme. When they started in 1982, I refused to join them. My father-in-law went to purchase the form for me and he wanted me to come from Toronto where I was pursuing my doctorate, but I refused to come. (Prof. Jelili) Omotola, the then VC of UNILAG, fought through the Council of Legal Education for what they later referred to as ‘Oyebode amendment’. From that moment, if you have been a law teacher for five years in a Nigerian university, then you would be exempt from that preparatory programme. At that time, I had spent 10 years, not even five. That was how I went to law school, which was 16 years after I ought to have done it. So, I went to Law School from 1990 to 1991. I was called to bar in 1991, but my younger siblings are my senior in the bar, even though I’m their patriarch (laughs). I have over 26 years post-call but I have never gone to court.
Was it because of the delay that you chose never to practise?
I won’t say so. I think it’s just a question of inclination; it doesn’t tickle me, at all. When I came back in 1975, I thought having been in the number one law school in the western world, the law school should then admit me, but the then Director-General, Mr. Ibironke, said my Harvard degree had not cured the inadequacy of my degree from Soviet Union. If I was good enough to be admitted into the Harvard Law School and I took a second Master’s degree from there, then I would not let them humiliate me. I saw my job as a law teacher and not a legal practitioner. I’ve never been in court to argue a case. The only case I argued was before Hon. Kayode Eso when I was legal adviser to the Academic Staff Union of Universities. Ben Nwabueze was then the Secretary for Education. He said trade union agreements are an imperfect obligation, like a gentleman’s agreement and that you can’t go and enforce them. ASUU asked me to do a response and we did a 37-page response to that issue and Eso, who was Pro-Chancellor of University of Benin, upheld our submission. He ruled in our favour and threw out the argument of Nwabueze. He was so furious that he sacked Eso as the Pro-Chancellor within two hours. Justice Eso was a great jurist and he recognised what we were capable of. But to say you have a case, no.
But lawyers who practise make more money, even though it’s not always about the money…
That’s why I used the word disinclined. It’s not that there is no allure to practise. Some people enjoy being great advocates, but I do whatever I do in the classroom and my students appreciate it a lot. That’s why I could stay for 44 years. You needed to have listened to the Vice President (Prof. Yemi Osinbajo) when he came to the dinner organised by my department. He said he fell in love with me for just coming to the lecture room with a bunch of keys without notes and that I would wow them for about one and a half hours. He said that was when he decided he should be an academic. But he has done better than I have. He’s a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and there are so many of them, like Odein Ajumogobia (SAN), Ndoma Egba (SAN), and Niyi Akintola (SAN), who wrote me a beautiful piece for my birthday. A judge also wrote me few days ago and asked why they should let me go. He said Nigeria would be depriving younger students of the benefit of my learning. He said even as a judge, my jurisprudence still sieve through his judgement. What else can a man desire? I have judges who are my students from the Supreme Court to the lowest court. In Lagos, there are more than 20 of my former students who are at the superior bench. I have taught many SANs and several law professors. So, I see my success in the success of my former students. It’s an exciting experience. What else can I ask for? Now that I’ve retired on my final payslip and then earned my salary for life, and my children are all grown up, how much do I really need? I have an aging car, maybe that needs to be replaced, but generally speaking, when I look behind, there are people celebrating me.
Is that why you also didn’t apply for the SAN title as academics are also entitled to it?
For me, it’s an import that could be counter-productive because it breeds contempt among some legal practitioners. I’m aware of Pa Gomez, who in his late 80s, has been crusading for the abolition of (the) SAN (title). I’m aware of lawyers like Tunji Abayomi. It’s an honorific title; you don’t have it in places like the US, where there is a sense of equality and democracy. A judge is addressed Your Honour in America; you don’t say My lord; there are no lords in America. The judges are honoured. Canada has Queen’s Counsel because of the relationship with England. And I know that some academics are invited to become QC, but in Nigeria, you don’t get it by invitation. You buy the form for N600,000 and then they have to inspect your library and all sorts of considerations, which I’m not ready to go through. There are three SANs on the same floor with me in the office and they are academics. It’s honorific, but as I said, I’m a university person and I have reached the top of my own profession. I’m a law professor of over 25 years standing. What else can a man pray for? I’ve had recognition, a gold medal from the Nigerian Law Teachers Association (Nigerian Association of Law Teachers), I just had a gold medal from the Nigerian Society of International Law. I don’t know what else is waiting for me. Mercifully, I’m a member of the Nigerian Bar Association and I pay my practising fee dutifully, along with my wife. But it doesn’t mean I should be competing with my former students for briefs. It doesn’t tickle me, but everybody has the right to go to heaven the way they want. I don’t think I need the SAN for recognition.
Even as an academic, a number of people believe in your proficiency in law, were there times you got briefs?
Oh, yes. Some don’t believe it and some say I’m short-changing Nigeria that somebody of my brilliance and intellect should appear in court. When I was in Ado-Ekiti, somebody came from Lagos to see me in Ado-Ekiti. He wanted me to draft his will so that it would be protected from prying eyes. I was flabbergasted, but I referred him to someone else. So many people tried to encourage me, but like I said, I was never inclined to do that. So, when briefs come to me, I assign them to colleagues who are in practice. Some, I give my son. But for me to don my wig and gown, I don’t even have one. When we have events that compel my wearing the barrister’s robe, I use my wife’s robes. She’s also a lawyer. She doesn’t practise as well, but once in a while, she wears her black dress to remind herself that she’s a lawyer (laughs). I borrowed my sister’s for my call to bar. We are nine lawyers in my family, but I’m the one who doesn’t practise. But that aspect has been remedied by other members of my family. My younger sibling runs a successful law firm, with over 100 lawyers in the firm. My son works with another big law firm and he’s a senior associate and head of a unit. My daughter works for an international accounting firm. So, I’ve not missed anything. But in my winter years as a retired law professor, I hope I will continue to use the knowledge and experience I have acquired over the years to advise people. When our admission into the law school was being delayed, I said I didn’t need the law school again, but Prof. Omotola changed that. He said it was a qualification I must have, and thank God for him, God rest his soul. If I did not do that Law School programme, I don’t think I would have been appointed the Dean of Law or the Vice-Chancellor. God works in mysterious way.
How did you come about your appointment as the Dean of Law faculty in Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti (now Ekiti State University) and later the Vice-Chancellor of the institution?
I was lecturing at UNILAG when a gentleman came to my residence one morning. He looked distinguished with his grey hair and he said he wanted me to come and be the Dean of Law in his university. He introduced himself as (Prof. Peter) Bodunrin, and that was the Vice-Chancellor himself. He said people mentioned my name everywhere he went and he had to look for me. He said he might not give me the kind of house I was living in then but he would make me comfy. That was how I went to Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti (now Ekiti State University) to be the foundation Dean, Faculty of Law. I stayed there for five years. I helped the foundation students and took the 52 of them to the law school. They are all successful lawyers now. During my 70th birthday, there was a large contingent of the foundation students who came to celebrate with me. They are success stories.
We understand it was one of your former students that later invited you to be the VC of the institution. How did it happen?
Yes, after the law faculty took off, I came back to UNILAG. Then, Niyi Adebayo, as the Ekitit State governor then, invited me in 2000 to come and help administer the university. He said the institution was in a rot and that I was best placed to do it because I was a familiar stranger and that I would know precisely what to do. That was how I became vice-chancellor, by invitation. I had a rough time with the next governor, Ayo Fayose. I was too difficult for him to handle, so he sent me on compulsory leave before the end of my tenure. When my tenure ended abruptly, no thanks to Fayose, I came back to my base; UNILAG. But it was a wonderful experience. It was what I call the management of poverty. The place was extremely impecunious and so you had to be creative. They had no funds and I had to think on my feet. In fact, in Ado-Ekiti then, the successful vice-chancellor was the one who could pay salaries, and that was the least of my problem; to move money from the treasury to the bursary and dispense. I didn’t need a PhD to do that. But like I said, it was a trying experience. I had to find ways and means of running the university, which had very poor subvention. I had to arrange with three of my friends who were chief executives of banks in Lagos to give me overdraft facility, so I paid salaries before I got subvention. People did not know the magic. Another thing I can recall is that we had no connectivity with the networks, but we were able to get MTN to put a mast there; just to solve problems. We did all we could to make sure we made the place liveable. It was challenging but a fulfilling experience. In all, I must be extremely grateful to UNILAG because they let me go for nine years, five years as professor and dean and four years as VC.
When Fayose ended your tenure, how did you feel about it?
An interview I had with your newspaper was entitled, ‘Weep not for me in UNAD’. Don’t forget that I had a place to return to and Fayose himself later told me that it was the mischief of some overambitious people who wanted to get rid of me. I didn’t even want a second term and I did not apply. They said they had assessed me and did not want me and I laughed, because I didn’t want the job. But again, Fayose and his friends wanted a place where they could feather their nest and I was not all that cooperative, so I became very unpopular with the government of the day and they had to send me away on leave, five months before the end of my tenure so they could do whatever they wanted with the university. One of the things my successor did was to award him honorary doctorate. Fayose and I have met quite a few times since then, like the send-off of my younger sibling when he left Access Bank as Chairman. He came as the sitting governor. He’s a comic and he doesn’t take things as people take them. He could make joke about anything, even himself. He was trying to be popular with the ordinary people but for the way he goes about it. I think he’s one of the most misunderstood political actors that we have in Nigeria. So, being the VC of that school was challenging, but exciting. I’ve not done my autobiography and the memoirs of my stay, but the title is in my head, ‘The travails of a vice-chancellor in Ekiti land; the management of poverty’. It was challenging; 2000 to 2004. Now that I’m retired, I would find time to do some of my memoirs.
Was your time as the VC the most challenging period in your career?
I would believe so. I remember Governor Niyi Adebayo, who was my student, called me and said his greatest problem was the university and that I was in the best position to change the fortune of the university. I said I would think about it and he objected. Then, he said something that struck me. He said if at the end of his tenure, he was asked what he achieved; he would point to the university. That was the challenge he gave me. It was tough. Even for official car, I had a crummy Peugeot 504 and later we bought Peugeot 406. After my tenure, I asked the driver to return the car to them.
Now that you are retired, what are your plans?
I have news for you. Another university has appointed me professor of law and they want me to be the dean. It is just starting its law programme. They have sent in their letter of appointment but I’m yet to accept. It’s in the provinces and I ask how many foundation deans do they want to make of me, but they said I was the best man for the job. That job is still there. Then, the offer came in before this issue of professors retiring on their terminal salary, because now that I would retire on my terminal salary for life, I don’t need another salary. They offered me salary and I ask myself what I need all the money for. What of peace of mind, but people say if you don’t continue doing what you are doing, you would just drop dead! They say that an active life must be nourished by activities. I read three newspapers every day. My wife reminded me that once I stopped going to the office, I would not be myself, so I would need a small office. It would be Akin Oyebode Jurist Consult, because I’m not going to practise law per se. I would be a consultant. But, I’m still weighing the options. We just thank God for His mercies and I’m now over 70. Even if I drop dead now, it’s been a fulfilled life.
What would then happen to the hundreds of books in your library?
My daughter wants to become an academic, so she might inherit the library. All we have as academics are books. A good professor’s office should be full of books.
You’re hardly seen at social gatherings; is that deliberate?
If I’m invited, I grace social events, but it’s not every invitation I honour. I don’t go without invitation, not because I hate people or because I’m aloof, but I’m in the university and a serious academic should be picky and choosy about the company he’s seen with. The company we keep matters a lot. Academics are busy people, and they don’t have time for frivolities, like judges of old, who were removed from the hustle and bustle of the society, for example, J.I.C. Taylor. But today, some judges are different. Even now, some of them announce in court the upcoming wedding ceremonies of their children, or the burial of their father or father-in-law and all such things and you see the consequence. Lawyers are falling on one another to chip money into the nest of such judges. Before, it was not the practice; judges were removed from the society. It’s not that we don’t want merriment, but we want merriment with dignity. So, I think it’s a misapprehension that I’m so aloof and I don’t socialise. We socialise, but in measure.
There are several law teachers but you have been able to distinguish yourself. Were there people you looked up to as a young lecturer?
I’m a law teacher and a law teacher must have a gift of the gab, otherwise you won’t communicate. If you find it difficult to do that, maybe you are in the wrong calling. Our job is a vocation, it’s not an occupation. You are called by the almighty himself to dispense knowledge to succeeding generations. I had a teacher then, Roberto Unger. He left Harvard Law School to become a minister. Every time he gave a lecture, he would always walk the class to a crescendo and students would applaud him. He was really gifted. I also had a great teacher in Kiev University. He was also lecturing without notes. He would just come with a pencil and it would be like telling us stories. He was an older man. I was in the same class with his daughter, who also has a PhD now. By the time you go back to see how much ground the man had covered, it might be over 100 pages, so you had to go and read. It’s amazing how people like that lecture. I modelled myself after those people. I think we are all products of experience and environment. I read novels like an unusual being growing up; Christ School had a wonderful library, especially books of adventure. I read wide as a kid. I don’t know what our children now read, because the exposure you have from diverse reading builds your vocabulary and almost every other thing. I think people must broaden their exposure. Read as far and as wide as you can and when you put English language to use, it would be your slave instead of being your master. I always have a ball with my wife because I’m like a critic of everything I hear, and don’t forget that I nearly read English.
How did you meet your wife, especially as you couldn’t marry the beautiful Russian lady?
As a law teacher in UNILAG, I was looking for a lawyer to marry, but I couldn’t get. So I did the next best thing; I married a lawyer’s daughter, among other considerations. In the Soviet Union, I was a black power enthusiast and I read all sort of things, so I was a product of black nationalist writings while growing up. I had a pan-Africanist attitude and I wanted a woman who was dark-skinned. If I wanted someone who was fair in complexion, (remember) I dated white girls, but I specifically looked out for black, ebony type and my wife is dark. That was a strong consideration. It was a blind date and that was how it started. It was very difficult for us coming from the Soviet Union to find partners from here because our attitude was European. Among us, if we asked ‘have you settled?’ It meant have you bought a car? Have you settled down?” It meant do you have a place to live and if we asked ‘have you settled down finally?’ It meant have you married? So, it was not easy to settle down finally. I think it’s the Lord’s doing that you find compatibility. My late father-in-law was very inquisitive. The first time I went to his house, he put me through cross-examination and I was wondering what was happening. When he heard that I was teaching law in the university, he was relieved, knowing that his prospective in-law was a law lecturer. So, I won his heart. He used to take my first son to court. He would dress him up in suit and tie, put him in his Mercedes Benz car and take him to court. If you are lucky, your marriage would last as long as you live, but if you are unlucky, the strains and stresses of living together in Nigeria are such that many marriages are doomed. So, you can see that I’m one of the lucky ones. We got married in 1979 and still counting. (Punchng)