Senior Advocate of Nigeria and delegate at the on-going national Conference in Abuja, Niyi Akintola, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI why he didn’t attend secondary school and managed to become a SAN
Tell us a bit about growing up.
I grew up in Jos, Plateau State, and I can speak and write Hausa very well. I have no secondary school education at all. I was actually admitted to Olivet Baptist High School and Ibadan Grammar School but the money was not there to attend. The fee was just five pounds. Then I lost my grandfather and I became an apprentice in a mechanic workshop. But I would run away from the workshop and read on my own. I passed the O Level as a private student. Then, I went to the Ogun State Polytechnic where I made the best result in Higher School Certificate and Cambridge examinations. Later I went to the University of Ibadan to read Law and later Political Science.
Why did you choose to read Law?
Initially, I was admitted to study Sociology at the University of Ife. I obtained the form and chose Sociology without any guidance. Don’t forget that I had no secondary education. I was already at the university preparing for my matriculation, when I ran into Prof Iluyomade, he was the one God used to direct my life. He advised me to go and read law.
Some have said that the award of Senior Advocate of Nigeria is not based on credibility; how true is this?
Well, I don’t know what informed such opinion. People don’t know the difference between privilege and rights. The rank is confirmed by the Privileges Committee, not a rights committee. When you enjoy a privilege, it is not a right, it is something that is given to you out of grace. You can’t enforce it. For instance, the President is duty bound to appoint a minister from each of the states in the country. It is the constitutional right of every state to have a minister in the federal cabinet. But it is a privilege to have more than one minister from a state. That is at the discretion of the President. That is why a big state like Oyo is having only one minister of state since 1999. It’s a privilege to have a substantive minister.
Is the National Conference heading in the right direction?
It is too early to judge the direction which the conference is heading to. Let’s give the confab members a benefit of the doubt.
What will be your position at the conference?
My position is in line with that of the South-West and Oyo State, subject to modification to reflect the views and aspirations of Oyo State people.
What are these aspirations?
Don’t forget that the South-West is gunning for regionalism and self-determination. Don’t forget that my state has the longest border in Nigeria bordering neighbouring countries. To that extent, my position will and must incorporate the wishes and aspirations of the people of Oyo State along that line.
How would you react to the claim of former Abia State governor, Orji Kalu, that the National Conference is ‘full of sleepy old people’?
I don’t see anything wrong in conglomeration of ideas. Kalu is a member of my own generation. He has been in the business world for over three decades. He is a renowned businessman and he is somebody who has passion. I respect him a lot. But it is very unfortunate that he is looking at some issues from regional perspective instead of seeing them from nationalistic perspective. It is very unfortunate that he did not watch his language. I will not be a governor for eight years and still make certain statements that are not expected of me, especially on matters of national importance. The people of this generation have moved away from prejudices and it is unfortunate that some people still live in the past.
Most juicy cases today go to lawyers who have been in the profession for decades. Is there a future for young lawyers and do we have space for them to operate?
What we must appreciate is that Nigeria is a nation of 170 million people but there are just about 150,000 lawyers among them as of today. Some of them are no longer living. The number is negligible compared to the population. Our major problem is centralisation. It has killed many countries but our leaders don’t read. The system killed USSR all in the name of unity. That is why we are clamouring for devolution of power. Some of our leaders are criminals; they profit from the system. That is why someone would deduct money from the local government account to buy ambulances for them. The truth is they can never have the same need. If there is devolution of power today in Nigeria, the country will open up and millions of jobs will be created.
You were counsel to some governorship candidates who won their positions through tribunals. What were the challenges you faced during the period?
There were many of them. Some of the challenges were time constraint, electoral body’s dishonesty, non-availability of election materials dubious politicians and witnesses who switch allegiance for financial gains and many more. There is also the challenge of the Nigerian factor. It is difficult to displace an incumbent governor but God has used me to remove some of them. But it is a difficult task. There is intimidation and threat to property, associates and family members. In the past, politicians attacked themselves but today, lawyers are endangered species. Two of our members were recently murdered on their way to the court in Delta State. I was the first to expose James Ibori as an ex-convict. The Investigation Police Officer, the judge who sentenced him and other witnesses just disappeared and nobody is asking any question. At a time, a witness who testified against an incumbent government was murdered at night. Many people who have legitimate cases don’t have money to get good lawyers and those who even have the money succumb to pressure from incumbent government.
Have you been attacked before?
I was attacked at the Court of Appeal in Ibadan over the impeachment case of Senator Ladoja and I had to escape from the scene in an unmarked small car. My car was vandalised in the process. I know the attackers, we all live in Ibadan and I still see them. In the election petition against former Ekiti State Governor, Segun Oni, in Ado-Ekiti, I moved across the court to have my lunch in a nearby eatery when gunshots started reeling in my direction. I escaped miraculously. I abandoned my car there and it was vandalised too. In Owerri, Imo State, Bauchi and Abeokuta, I had similar experiences. Sometimes, I would book three hotel rooms in my name but end up sleeping elsewhere. Sometimes too, I would leave home in a car and reach my destination in another car. All these were the safety measures I took to escape intimidation and suppression. I was in Benin at a time attending to election petition when juju was planted all over my office in Ibadan. But God took over. I have relatives who refuse to associate with me because they are afraid of being attacked by my enemies. Someone once said that he would rather not fly in the same aeroplane with me because it was not safe. These are the hazards of the job.
If you have not been a lawyer, what would you have been?
I would have been a musician but not the kind that sings immoral music we hear now. I love musicians whose songs have message. Musicians like Aruna Ishola, Yusuf Olatunji, Ebenezer Obe and Sunny Ade have music that have philosophical meaning.
How do you relax?
I don’t have social life. I work and read all the time. I am not a member of any club; I don’t drink, smoke or attend parties. I am actually a member of Ibadan Recreation Club but in the last three years, I have not been there. I cherish every minute of my life and if I feel that I have wasted any of them, I ensure that I gain it back. Punch