I cannot forget my first day in court, facing a libel suit of ten million naira, in an era when the naira was somehow close to and not too distant from the “almighty dollar” as it is today. In today’s Nigeria, the ten million naira libel suit will be something in the neighbourhood of 3.8 billion naira according to my Google calculation.
I was the young editor of Weekend Concord, the trailblazing newspaper that changed the face of Nigerian journalism in 1989, making Saturday a day Nigerians looked forward to. We created this avant-garde, in-your-face newspaper rich in human angle stories. What brought me to the High Court in Ilorin was a front-page story in the Weekend Concord about a professor in plagiarism scandal. Plagiarism is the crime of taking someone’s work and claiming it as yours. My reporter, the unstoppable Omololu Kassim had brought this story, backed with solid evidence showing how a University of Ilorin professor plagiarized the work of an American professor. The professor was being represented by Chief Wole Olanipekun, then one of the finest young law lawyers in Nigeria, a hardcore litigator who is today a highly respected Senior Advocate of Nigeria. On its part, the Weekend Concord was represented by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, another star lawyer who is today a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and incidentally a friend of Olanipekun. Chief Awomolo was supported by his junior, Yusuf O. Ali who is today a Senior Advocate among the four Senior Advocates of Nigeria from the stable of Chief Awomolo. Happily for us, Chief Awomolo and Yusuf Ali won the case, saving us the burden of paying a king’s ransom.
Thirty years after this courtroom triumph, I was meeting Yusuf Ali for the first time, interviewing him via ZOOM for my forthcoming book: “COURTROOM AND LAW FIRM STRATEGIES—Senior Advocates of Nigeria Share Their Stories.” Characteristically, Ali displayed the erudition I have always known him for. I could see the evidence of a more mature, more experienced, more knowledgeable lawyer than thirty years ago. We talked on different aspects of law: the things they don’t teach you at law school. Here, he harped on the importance of pupillage as key to success in law. He described his pupil master Chief Awomolo as the best teacher a young lawyer can pray for: “an advocate par excellence from whom I picked a few tricks.”
So, what qualities make a good advocate? He replied: “An advocate must be somebody who is hard-working in the real sense of the word. Number two, you must know more than law. You must know a bit of psychology, economics, mathematics, engineering, medicine, even a bit of journalism. Because you will come across these categories of professionals in your practice. Either they would be giving evidence for you or they would be giving evidence against your position. So, if you don’t have some knowledge of what they do, you will be totally at sea.
“I want to recall the plagiarism libel case the Weekend Concord then edited by you Mike Awoyinfa had against one professor at the University of Ilorin. To the glory of God, we won the case because of our knowledge of the practice of journalism. That professor was claiming ten million naira from Weekend Concord for libel because the paper carried a story about plagiarism allegation against him in the university.
“Number three, you must be humble. No matter how well rated you are as a professional, you must be humble. And then of course, you must be the epitome of honesty, transparency and integrity. These are qualities that you must never leave behind anywhere. People must be able to trust you. When you say right, people must be able to trust you are going right. And to be a great advocate at all times, you must explain the position of the law to your client to the best of your ability without cutting corners because you want a case at all costs. If there is no merit in a matter brought to you, you should be honest enough to say: ‘Look, hands off this case, because you are not going to make it.’ That level of professional honesty and fidelity is very important.
“Of course, you must be patient, if you want to be a good advocate. And you must be able to think while standing. Because your opponent may raise a novel point, so you must at all times be ‘Mr. Ever-ready.’ Ever ready to take challenges either new or old. You must love books. You must continue to read until God-knows-when. Never allow your brain to lie low or to be idle at any point. More than any other thing, you must abide by the rules of professional ethics. Don’t do anything contrary to the rules. Because that is what would make people see you as a reliable person. You must have a lawyer’s instinct. You must be able to see what other people would never see. When you are given a 500-page document for example, what are the relevant issues you must look for there?
“I recall the election petition we did in 2004 in Maiduguri, where the allegation was that the particular person who was the governor did not attend a particular school in England. Somebody then came from the British Council and said he had the list of all the universities and the accredited institution in England. A very bulky book running to almost a thousand pages. He tendered it without any objection from me. I am sure the tribunal was surprised when I said I was not going to object to it being tendered because immediately he wanted to tender it, he gave the book to me, I flipped through immediately and I saw a conclusion which was contrary to the position he held. The conclusion in that book was: ‘We have tried to be very comprehensive and detailed in this work. However, we are not claiming that we have been able to list all existing institutions in the United Kingdom.’ I saw that and immediately, I said: ‘My Lord, I am not going to object.’ So when I started asking the witness questions, I said to him: ‘Will you be surprised to know that even this book does not contain the list of all the universities and institutions in the United Kingdom?’”
“It’s not possible,” he replied. “Because this is the Bible and Koran of all schools in England.”
Yusuf Ali then collected the book, went straight to the place where it was explained that the book is not all inclusive. He asked him to read it out. The witness started stammering. Ali insisted: “Please, read it!”
When he read it, Ali, then said: “Does that correspond with the position you have held earlier on that there is no school in England that is not in this book?”
“Well, I didn’t know this one existed in this book,” the witness replied.
“OK, fine,” Ali said.
That was the clincher for him. An example of what it takes to have a lawyer’s instinct, particularly in cross-examination—an art which Ali learnt and mastered from his old boss Chief Awomolo. “In simple language, cross-examination is an adversarial system of justice where you try to ask your opponent questions aimed at discrediting his testimony, discrediting his person, showing to the court that what he was saying is not the truth, testing his own veracity,” Ali concludes.
From the young lawyer serving his pupillage under Chief Awomolo, Yusuf Ali has grown big into a master and a leader in litigation with his own lawyers, pupils, partners, followers and clientele. He has two offices—one in Ilorin his base and another in Abuja.