Professor Toriola Oyewo Ajagbe is a professor of Law who was elevated to the position of Senior Advocate of Nigeria by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee recently. In this exclusive interview with Olufemi Olaniyi, he explained how he grudgingly studied Law on the advice of Basorun Kola Daisi and the role of Aare Afe Babalola(SAN) played in his life. EXCERPS:
When and where were you born?
I was born in Erunmu, a community in the Egbeda Local Government Area under Ibadan. I was born exactly on January 11, 1931.
How was your birth recorded since many were not educated at that time?
One of my brothers recorded it. He was educated but he is dead now.
When did you start school?
I started school very late and I had to reduce my age so that I would not be rejected. My father had five wives and it was his policy to send only the first male child of each of the wives to school and I was the second male child of my mother. I was not qualified to be sent to school because of my position.
How did you eventually go to school?
My brother was sent to school and when he got to Standard 6, he was flogged for misspelling a word and he became angry. Because of that, he said he would no more go to school. My mother pleaded with him to change his mind, my father, too, pleaded with him but he remained adamant. He refused to change his mind because he hated being caned. I wanted to go to school but my father would not send me, so there was nothing I could do. My father did not want to create a precedent of a double standard. Everybody pleaded with my father that he should send me since my brother had refused to continue but he said no. My mother had to toil night and day before my father eventually asked me if I would go and I said yes.
How old were you when you started school?
I think I was more than six years old because when my father stretched my hand over my head, it could touch my ear conveniently and I had to cut my age and told them I was born in 1932 so that they would not reject me.
Which primary school did you attend?
I went to Seventh Day Adventist School, Erunmu.
Are some of your classmates still alive now?
Yes, they are. Pastor Adeniji Ajagbe, Olakanmi Ajagbe, and myself, Toriola Ajagbe – we were three Ajagbes in my class in those days and the three of us are still alive.
Which secondary school did you go to?
I went to Seventh Day Adventist Grammar School also. I am an Adventist to the core and I will die an Adventist.
What did you do after secondary school?
I left secondary school in the early 1940s. The. Seventh-Day Adventists were very good for three things – you become a pastor, a teacher, or a nurse. My mother told me she loved teaching because she believed through teaching, I would be rich in life. Teachers were well paid at that time and I went to Seventh Day Adventist Teachers’ Training College and I left in 1947. When I wanted to leave, I took an exam at Government College Ibadan, I loved the school. Then, I also took the entrance examination into Ibadan Grammar School concurrently. Government College, Ibadan considered me for fee-paying but Ibadan Grammar School considered me for a scholarship. I had to make a choice and being an orphan at that time, it was very easy to choose Ibadan Grammar School. My mother died on May 11, 1948, and my father was also no more then. I had to go to Ibadan Grammar School.
But my scholarship developed a K-leg. I came first in the exam but unfortunately, they gave the person who came second and another person a scholarship while I was omitted. Dr. Saka Agbaje was the Chairman of the Ibadan Grammar School Scholarship Board as of that time and I was recommended. Being from a village, they did not want to give me the scholarship. I was a village boy and I had nobody to go and talk to anybody on my behalf. Dr. Saka Agbaje did his best; he said I must be given the scholarship whether they liked it or not. Then Anthony Agbaje gave me a scholarship but when I got to Standard 4, the money they were paying regularly before started to wane. So, anytime they called fees defaulters, I would be among them because the man who gave me the scholarship could not pay on time. So, I went to Lagos to do a private study exam.
Did you leave Ibadan Grammar School?
I did not leave. I went during the holidays and did the private exam. I went to sit Cambridge School Certificate Examination as a private student and I passed. When the result came, Reverend Alayande was annoyed.
Why was he annoyed?
He had a good reason to be. He told me and my late colleague to work towards being admitted for Latin, Classics Studies just to follow the footsteps of the late Chief Bola Ige.
Which university did you go to?
I went to the University College, London. For my master’s, I attended the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. It was affiliated with the University of London. I also went to the great University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). I was teaching and studying at the same time.
What did you teach at the University of Ife?
I was an expert in Local Government Law and Administration. When I was teaching there, I was studying concurrently. I had a master’s of Philosophy in Public Admin. I had done a Ph.D. in America. I went to Constituent Assembly in 1988/89 and I was the Chairman of Local Government and Legislative. We recommended the creation of more local government councils and it was taken. After that, I wanted to rest but I saw an advert in the newspapers for African Studies at the University of Ibadan. I went because of my love for education and I majored in African Law. I did another M.A. and after that, I did my Ph.D. in African Studies.
How many PhDs do you have?
I have two. I have one in African Law and the other one in Administration.
When were you appointed a professor?
I was an Associate Professor at the University of Ibadan. Then Professor Owoeye invited me to Lead City University, so I went to Lead City as a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Law. I was also a professor and Dean of Faculty of Law, Crescent University; professor of Law at Al-Hikma University, Ilorin and professor of Law at Adeleke University, Ede (Osun State) where I am presently and from where I got elevated to the position of SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria).
They didn’t want to let go of me at Al-Hikmah University but I had to travel from Ibadan to Ilorin and the road from Oyo to Ogbomoso is terrible and that was why I went to Adeleke University. If I have my way, I don’t want to leave Adeleke University but I will still leave one day.
Do you also practise Law in addition to lecturing?
Yes. Law is my profession. When I came back to Nigeria in 1963, I got my LLB through the encouragement of Basorun Kola Daisi. I wanted to be a secretary and that was what I went to do in London but Basorun Kola Daisi asked me what I was doing and I told him that I was studying to be a secretary but even in Law I was excelling and he called me and said, “Olympic (that is by nickname), I advise you to study Law; a lawyer can be a secretary but a secretary cannot be a lawyer.” They told me not to do a change of course when I got to London so I was acting based on that but he (Basorun Kola Daisi) said I should think about it and I saw the wisdom in it. We were in London. I went to study Law grudgingly because I wanted to spend only two years. Unfortunately, those who said I should go to London did not send me a kobo. That is why I wrote him when I got the chair of Law that the achievement was his. In 1987, I wrote a book on Local Government Law and Administration.
When were you called to the Bar?
I was called to the Bar in London with honours on July 16, 1962, and then here in Nigeria, I was called to the Bar on January 11, 1663, on my birthday.
Which one do you value more between your professorship and your elevation to the position of a SAN?
I value the two. Number one, being a professor of Law is just like being a professor of Geography, Biology, or any of the disciplines. You were appointed because you distinguished yourself as an academic but this one, SAN is my calling. What it means is that I distinguished myself in my calling. I thank God for making it possible for me to reach the peak of my profession and my academic career. But it wasn’t easy.
How did you feel when you received the news of your elevation?
I was happy and I thank God for making it possible because I had been looking for it for a long time; it didn’t come.
How many times did you apply for it?
This is my fifth time. I applied in 1999. Despite my publications, the award went to (the late) Prof. J. Omotola, SAN; in the year 2000, I applied and it went to Mr. J.K. Jegede, SAN and in 2001, it went to (the late) Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN. Chief Gani Fawehinmi was made a SAN and this attracted the attention of newspapers. Sunday Tribune made us understand that Gani Fawehinmi did not bag his SAN title because of his perceived exploits in the courtroom but through academic publications of Weekly Law Reports and if the number of published books and articles was the sole criterion for choosing people in the academic, the merit should have gone to Chief Ajagbe Toriola Oyewo. Gani was not in academia then but he was a very good lawyer and it went to him. I did not begrudge him. May his soul rest in peace. He discussed with me and in those days, it was only one person they would choose from the academia. It looked as if he usurped my slot then but you don’t give up. I had to present myself again and again. I was not just presenting myself but I was working very hard.
Will you still be going to court at your age?
I go to court and I will keep going. If you are a lawyer and you are teaching Law and you don’t go to court, then you are not doing your calling. I have cases that I handle.
For how many more years do you still want to go to court?
The legal profession is unlike being a professor of Geography or History or Biology. We have no time limitations. The more time you spend, the more experience you have. In academia or in the public service, once you reach a certain age, they ask you to retire. But in the Law profession, you practise until you die. Look at the case of Rotimi Williams; he died as a lawyer, just like many other lawyers. Gani died as a lawyer. But as a lawyer, you only abandon Law when God says, “It’s okay, come home.”
What kind of foods do you eat now as an old man?
I take cornflakes or pap in the morning. My food is regulated, anyway. I eat plenty of amala in the afternoon but I don’t eat the one prepared from cassava, and I eat fish because I don’t like meat. I eat amala with egusi soup.
How old is your wife?
She was born in 1936, so do the calculation. She is downstairs; she is preparing to see her daughter who is celebrating her birthday. She has left the service and she wants to celebrate her birthday. We are blessed with long life and it is a gift from God. We both struggled together in London to make it before we started procreation.
Do you exercise?
I still do the little I can do. I stretch myself very well when I wake up. I try to do all forms of exercise in the morning. I wake up between 3.30 am and 4 am every day. I learnt that from Aare Afe Babalola. We lived together in those days.
When do you go to bed?
I go to bed between 8 pm and 9 pm but even at that, I would read until I sleep off. Whatever I was reading, I would still complete it when I wake up by 4 am. As the editor of Adeleke University Journals, I have to read so many scripts sent to me. You write, publish or perish. I have to read a lot.
You don’t use glasses to read or walk…
That is another gift from God. It is not because I did something but it is a gift from God. Aare Afe Babalola also doesn’t use glasses. The man would wake you up and say, “Toil is the word, you must struggle in life.” With strong determination and the help of God, you can achieve anything.
One thing I have learned with this elevation is that you don’t give up. Persistence is very important, don’t give up. If you attempt something and you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. With the help of God, but God will not come from heaven to wake you up in the morning unless you are sick. Work hard and call on God to help you, and He will do. He has been marvelous to me. I give God the glory because this award was not given to me posthumously. I wanted to excel in my profession and as an academic and God has done it. I thank Him a lot and may His name be praised. Aare Afe Babalola congratulated me and wrote in a text message sent to me. “Congratulations! God’s time is the best. God’s time has come. Give all glory to God.