On the 13th February, 2018, I had my 1st Dinner at the Nigerian Law School (Lagos Campus) because, apart from passing the Bar Exams, the law is that an Aspirant to the Nigerian Bar must have had three (3) Dinners with the Body of Benchers before he/she is called to the Bar.
The Dinner started at exactly 5pm prompt! These Body of Benchers (preceeding by our Law School Lecturers) began to file in and something caught my attention. I saw one “Mama” with very grey hair and my thoughts were, “Even this Mama does not need to wear a wig; her grey hair is enough wig”.
Lo and Behold, this ‘Mama’ was the Presiding Bencher. The Deputy Director-General of the Nigerian Law School (Lagos Campus), Mrs. Toun Adebiyi introduced this Mama with the “natural lawyers’ wig” as MRS. HAIRAT BALOGUN OON, the first female Attorney-General of Nigeria. It was like the Deputy Director-General wasn’t going to finish singing this woman’s praise.
Two days after, I had the opportunity of reading the interesting interview of this ‘Legal Achiever’ as conducted by The Guardian Newspaper.
The above Headline made me wonder why she came for dinner or why she didn’t declare at the dinner, at least, that all of us be Called to Bar without all the
onerous task of passing the Bar Exams. But I’m sure you’ll learn greatly from her words of wisdom produced below:
Life Bencher, Mrs Hairat Aderinsola Balogun (nee Alatishe), is an Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), Barrister-at-Law of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn and Member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. She was called to bar in February 5, 1963 in London and July 13 of the same year in Nigeria. She is celebrating her 55 years at the Bar this week at the age of 76. The first female Chairman of the Body of Benchers, who is one of the few successful female litigators in Nigeria, shares her experience over the years in this interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE.
You are 55 at the bar. How do you feel about it?
The first feeling is one of happiness, satisfaction and gratefulness to God for keeping me in the same position for so long. I had my ups and downs, but by 90 per cent, I have enjoyed what I’m doing. So that is a big bonus. I’m glad I didn’t choose something else, I should have been a teacher but I changed to be a lawyer.
Can you now beat your chest to say that you have achieved professional fulfilment?
I think so. There is no need to be shy about it or pretend. I think if one can be lucky to stay a profession for that long and he cannot say to the world that I’m happy I have done my best and I’m fulfilled, then it is a waste of time. Fulfilment is not based on honours but in your personal satisfactions that so many cases have been thrown at you and you handled them satisfactorily. You cannot win every case, but majority you have done have given you satisfaction and people have come back to thank you, even for working in government. Till today, I still meet people I don’t know who said I assisted them when I was the attorney general. For personal clients in the chamber, many have become my family friends. I go to their children’s birthday and any occasion they invite me to. I think that is the testimony and one has to be grateful to God that it has profit all the way. I might as well been trading.
55 years down the line, you are not a senior advocate. What accounted for this?
I never applied to be one. My goal was not to be a senior advocate. You cannot be everything. I have not really aspired to be a SAN. There was no such thing when I first came. We were operating the British system. I think few years after my arrival, Chief Rotimi Williams and one other were made QC and eventually some people became SAN. I never actually dreamt to be one. My ambition was to do what I was doing successfully and when I reflect on my decision today, it is a better judgment to me. Besides, I have been fortunate to hold some responsible positions that some SANs have not held and will never hold. So, that keeps me in good stead. I can hold my head up anywhere. This may be conceited in a way, but I mean every word of it. Lately some people came to say why didn’t I go for SAN and I said there is nobody there who can judge me. What I mean by that is that you are supposed to be judged by your peers or your seniors in everything. And when I look at the membership of the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, I said they cannot judge me because they will not know how to judge me. So, why will I carry my documents to them? So I’m fulfilled without it.
It means that you missed the time you should have applied had you showed interest?
No, I don’t think I missed it. My line of thought is that every other honour that I have been given, I never applied for them and will never apply. Those things are more valuable to me and more meaningful to me than for me to apply to say make me SAN.
In other words, you have issues with the procedures. In your opinion, you feel it is something that has to be bestowed on someone without asking the person to apply?
Exactly! In the U.K., the chancellor or judge will be watching you and at some point say to you, don’t you think it is time for you to apply for QC? And you will be wondering that you have been found worthy. Now, what does the application entails? They only need your name and address. They don’t need to demand how many cases you have won and so on even though we know how people manipulate cases. It should be like the national honours, you don’t apply but if some people look at you and think you are deserving of it, they put your name there.
Have you in any way in the past use your various positions to push for a change in the procedure for the conferment of SAN?
Never! That is because it really was of no consequences to my career as a person. It is not something I hankered for. If I did, of course, I would have my complaint. It is like when we are talking about the NBA, we insisted that to qualify, one has to be so so years in the bar. It is like a body in a community, which I refused to join. It may be edifying, but I wasn’t just interested. A very small number of SANs appear in Court and not available to give leadership to junior counsel.
There were not too many women in the profession 55 years ago. What inspired you into advocacy at that time?
The truth is that, at that time, I wasn’t conscious that I was different from the men. I just saw myself as a lawyer and carried my files to court and no opposing counsel treated my as merely a woman. I didn’t have any of that discrimination. If I had any discrimination at all, it has nothing to do with professional status. There was a time in 1971, we had annual bar conference in Zaria and people were campaigning vigorously and one fellow who was probably in his 50s came to me and ask who I was going to vote for? I said what? You are asking me? What a stupid question and he just slapped me on the cheek. I didn’t know two other gentlemen were watching and they defended me. So the fight shifted to them. That was about the only time I can say, maybe he did it because I was a small girl still under 10 years in the bar. I don’t think he could have slapped a man! Nobody has given me the impression that my gender was of any consequence.
A lot of successful women leave advocacy when they get married. How have you been able to maintain focus?
I think it is about management. You decide what you want to do and manage your life in that line. You have to look at the whole picture as a married woman with children, who must look after them in addition to other family responsibilities and organize yourself to ensure that one side is not cheated in your responsibilities. Otherwise, you give up that side and I didn’t want to give up anything in my case. Some people do not know how to organize themselves. They will rather give up something and say there is too much problems. It is not a question of money either. It is not everybody who says if I don’t work, I won’t have enough money or since my husband works and gives me all the money, I better stay and look after him and the kids. It is not everybody. It is lack of organization and management. They think they have beaten off more than they can chew and it is possible. You have the intellect and knowledge to do it well. Some will say they have to beg their husband repeatedly before he allows them to go to court while others will say if their husbands refused to allow them go to court, they will stay because their marriage is very important. They are not organized! I don’t believe any man will say that you will not go to court especially if he married you as a professional. I used to take my children to school and bring them back from school. When people complain these days and say school problems, I have to take the kids to school and all that, I say don’t tell me that. You can say there is traffic now, but we had enough traffic at that time for the number of vehicles and the number of roads available. When traffic starts in Surulere that time, you will almost feel like cutting your head off. In the morning, I dropped my children to school. When I had my lunch break is when they finish school by 12.30 and I go, take them home and zoom back to the office. That is how I used to manage it. No body took my children to school for me. I even took others when they begged me. You must find time and create it because you attracted the responsibility to yourself.
Who were the lawyers you were looking up to as a junior?
I did not only look up to them but I deliberately chose them as mentors. I used to go to them and listen to them. On the female side is late Aduke Alakija and Mrs Gloria Jackman. Jackman rose to become the chief registrar of the Supreme Court. For the men, Chief Rotimi Williams, Kehinde Sofola and my uncle, Osipitan. He is 95 this year. Oludayo Sonuga and some judges I used to go to their courts and chambers to learn. It is not now that when you visit a judge in chambers people will think you have gone to give him something or take something. Those days, nobody thought of that. One of them is justice Oluwa. He will be 100 in May. It includes Justice JIC Taylor, J.A Cole and my boss, Chris Ogunbanjo. I spent my first four years and few months in his chambers.
Who were your contemporaries at the law school then?
Some of my colleagues whom I share the same call anniversary with are now deceased. 57 of us attended law school together in Igbosere. Some of those alive are Chief Akin Delano (SAN), Judge Bola Ajibola (SAN), Justice Josephine Izuora (former Judge of the High Court of Anambra State), Kenneth Longe (Life Bencher, Former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice Edo State), Chief Ernest Shonekan (former head of interim government) and Justice A.O. Silva (former Judge of Lagos State). Those now deceased include Frank T. Akinsanya, Justice Solomon Adeloye (former Chief Judge of Ondo State), Chief Olayinka Rhodes, Alhaji Abdul Rasaq, Chief Kayode Animashaun, Prince S. G. Laoye and I am sure that your readers will agree that we have all tried our best for our time.
When it dawned on you that indeed serving judges were really indicted in corruption allegations, together with some senior lawyers. How did you feel?
I felt I could just die. I was really upset because there was no need for it. But some judges can’t help it because they get over familiar but it is for you to stop them. I have been to court and a judge said to me, Mrs Balogun welcome oooo, I am one of your boys. I didn’t recognize the person and I said really? And he said from so, so body and I said okay welcome your lordship. Me, I cannot think of anything for him and he can’t get anything from me. If he thinks of favouring my client, that will be his own business. I think since he saw my attitude in that kind of conversation, he will never ask me for anything. So that is how it happens. How can you say somebody says his father or mother died if the person is not your relation? I don’t know if I have ever walked into any judges chamber alone except when I visited the chief judge of Lagos because she is new and sought for our advise. I think one of the major reasons is that “Ethics” is no longer taught as a standalone subject in the Nigerian Law School for over a period of ten years. I am told they now combine it with other subjects. I was a lecturer and examiner in Ethics and Law Office Management (free of charge) for five years at the Nigerian Law School between 1979 and 1984.
Are you saying if a lawyer who rose from your chambers becomes a judge and loses his mother or father and asks for your assistance, you will not do it?
He doesn’t need to ask for my assistance. Once I know, I know what reasonable thing I will give him that nobody will have to say anything about it. We have somebody who went from here to the Lagos high court and none of us pops in and out of his office. To do what? In fact, if I hear his report from other judges, they say he is a terrible judge, so strict and doesn’t take nonsense. And I said, do you know who is his mother? And we made jokes with it.
Do you think we can get it right in the area of judicial corruption?
I think we can. We must really punish erring officers. Let them know that they are not in the bench to make money. It is a social service that they are giving and they are getting their salaries. You know what you were going to get before you get there. In the olden days, they never get half of what they are getting now. How much corruption incidents did you hear then?
Do you think there is a connection between these developments and the mode of appointment of judicial officers?
Some appointments have corrupt tendencies because there is no merit involved. But I think they have tightened it up in the last two years now.
Should the candidates be subjected to public scrutiny and not just to the lawyers alone?
Are you suggesting we vote for them like the Americans? I think we have enough people to check candidates. Long time ago, when I used to be interested in the NBA, we recommended that there should be examination and some people opposed it. The first time they tried it in Lagos state, they saw the result. I believe that we have to be careful with the judiciary by not making it pedestrian like any other thing. I don’t like secrecy, but at the same time, I don’t think we should be pedantic with the matters of the judiciary.
You had your legal education at the U.K. at a very young age. How privileged were you at that time?
At that time, my parents were well off. They could afford it because I had my secondary school there and legal education there. I left when I was 12. My father was a produce buyer. He buys cocoa from the locals, grade it and sell to the big companies like the UACs and other companies.
That is how he made his money. In fact, there were 30 of us. He was a Muslim and polygamous man. Everybody went to school. It is only one person out of the lot who didn’t go beyond the first year of secondary school. Many of us qualified professionally and I’m not the only lawyer that he had. My mother was the only child of her own mother and her mother was very rich. She was a textile merchant. The idea of my schooling abroad came from her, but when my father brought international passport and announce I was leaving next week, she started crying. She was crying until the day I got into the aeroplane. I’m sure there are many people who had money but they didn’t think of using it well to train their children. We had instances of my father’s cousins, whose children he educated and paid their school fees.
How many of you are from your own mother?
We were six but have lost three. My brother did automobile engineering and my sister did catering and we are all doing well.
Irrespective of the fact that your parents could afford everything you needed, could you recall any challenge as undergraduate?
Not as undergraduate! When I was in England, my money comes on time. I just go to the bank and draw out what I wanted. But when I first came back, I received a rude shock, which I did not expect, knowing the status of my parents. The first one was to get a car. I thought that they should be so elated that I became a lawyer at 21 and buy me a car, at least a Mercedes Benz. I channelled my request to my mother and she said I would get a car. After few months, she went and registers a special number plate with my birthday initials (1010) because I was born in October 10. So I was happy that a car was coming. So when I asked about the car, she said she can’t buy me a car. I couldn’t believe it! Who else will buy me a car, I asked, and she said you have to buy your own car like others. I argued that she can afford it and she refused and advised me to request for one in my work place. I was devastated. Up till that time, I go with her car to the law school for three months. So, I went to my office and told Chief that I needed a car and he said I should ask my parents to buy me a car. I told him my mother said I should borrow the money in the office and he said he couldn’t lend me any money because I just started and car was not part of the condition. He said he would take me to the bank of Lagos where he and his friend had interest and request that they give me £380 which would be deducted from my salary until I complete it. The car I chose to buy then was £600. I went to my mother and she completed the money for me together with the insurance fees. That was how I was able to buy my first car. To the glory of God, after that time, I bought my cars from my earnings.
There is a clause in the NBA constitution that recognizes rotation. But someone is already kicking against the provision that says a candidate can only run for a certain office from his area of birth and not where he resides and practices. What do you think of this?
It is very silly and stupid. One man doesn’t make an island. I’m sure that some people who agreed with it can’t be bothered. But I think someone has gone to court now. That is why Nigeria will never make progress because lawyers who are supposed to know the law are in disarray. We cannot advise the country properly. The day we settle our own scores and the NBA becomes a settled organization, this country by the grace of God would assume the best country in the world. Lawyers are the ones giving them wrong advise. But if they come and we say no, that can’t be done, it is against fundamental human rights, this one is against the constitution, don’t even think of it; he goes to the next lawyer and he says the same, then all will be well. But these cacophonies of advice are not good. Why should they? Whosoever that wants to run for an office is a Nigerian and the profession is for Nigerians. We don’t have state bars so far. If we had one, then everyone will go to their states and campaign there. It is just one bar association. Why can’t the best candidate emerge? It is politics and it is ridiculous!
What do you think of the leadership of the NBA?
I’m sorry to say and to observe that the NBA is not serving the profession and they are not serving the country as an organization. They are only interested in their own pockets and their own personal rights. That’s all!
At what point did the bar get it wrong?
I cannot put my finger on it exactly because things get bad slowly until it gets to a point of no redemption. You see someone standing for election and you assume he is a gentleman, that he would do better and then you see the person completely changed as soon as he gets into office. They are not interested in what is going on at the bar. They are only interested in the office. To acquire special status and make plenty of money to spend and then put some bit and pieces on the way of the young lawyers. I think that they can do better.
In your opinion, what is the state of legal education today in Nigeria?
Legal education, I think from the universities are doing their best. I suppose the universities work very hard and give students their degrees. But I think the law school has outlived its usefulness. It supposed to be a postgraduate institution where you learn more practically. In any profession you go to, take for instance the postgraduate medical college, they won’t begin to ask you how do you measure somebody’s blood pressure? They talk about serious issues that are really edifying. But the law schools admit so many people by hook and crook. How can you teach too many people in a postgraduate school? Too many people fail the exams. Something is definitely wrong. It is either the tuition is wrong or the atmosphere. Why do you need to call 6000 people to the bar every year?
You think we should do away with the law school?
The system in which it is running now, I think so. What I will suggest is that they leave the school as an examining body and allow people to set up private institutions to pass exam. When they are ready and think they can pass the exam, they apply to the institution and say they are ready, when is the next exams? In that, they will not get so many people per period. At the beginning, there was a rush to have as many Nigerian lawyers as possible, but along the way, we lost the quality because of the way they are herded together. Some people hardly attend lectures and just find a way of signing attendance and going away.
What do you think of the present state of governance both at the federal and states levels?
Too many cooks spoil the pot. I think we have too many people in governance. It is an unwieldy National Assembly. Since this dispensation, how many laws have they passed? We don’t get the best. I mean top educated people who really know why they are going there. The system of governance is so expensive.
What is the way out? Do you think the government should adopt the recommendations of the national political conference or return to parliamentary system of government?
I have not read the full recommendations, but I’m sure there are sound recommendations. They should take a good look at them. There is no shame in going back if something doesn’t work. Why is everybody going to the parliament to make fortune for himself and buy cars and houses? Can you live in more than one house? Some have five to 20 cars locked up somewhere. What is the meaning of that? I definitely have no idea!
The agitation for restructuring is gaining momentum. Do you identify with the campaign?
Definitely! This one is not working. This togetherness is not working. It is like marrying a bad husband or wife; one will kill the other one. Is it not happening? When such hostilities exist, the two of them cannot stay in the same house or one will kill the other. We cannot co-exist peacefully because everyday is about fight and kill. I pity children who are born now. Between now and the next 10 year, what would they see if nothing is changed?
What do you think of the leadership of president Buhari in his attempt to make things better? Do you think he is heading in the right direction?
Buhari is doing his best. That is my own summary. You can work it out yourself.
Is his best good enough for you?
I am not Nigeria
As a Nigerian and an elder stateswoman?
He is not alone and he cannot do it alone. He is doing his best, but others are not even doing their better not to talk of best.
As the first female member of the council of the International Bar Association (IBA), what role did you play for them?
I was instrumental to setting up genders committee, which is still on till today. We set up a working group, which blossomed into the committee. We also succeeded in making the IBA to come to Africa – Nigeria and Ghana because before that time, they had only gone to Kenya. We also influenced some appointments and I think generally people like me were instrumental in getting other Nigerians join the IBA.