Aare Afe Babalola, Nigeria’s super lawyer and founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD) is one audacious man whose extraordinary success story will resonate anywhere in the world, not just in Nigeria. His odyssey is a parable to inspire every young person to aspire, to believe that you can make possible the impossible, that the circumstances of your birth should not define you nor limit you from reaching the zenith.
In a world enslaved by poverty, here is one man who dared poverty like David dared Goliath and has continued to fight poverty through philanthropy. A man who hurdled his way like an Olympic athlete across barriers into success as one of Nigeria’s leading lawyers. Afe Babalola. The lawyers’ lawyer. A man who did not attend secondary school because his parents couldn’t afford school fees. He just had primary school education but that did not stop him from sitting and passing his Cambridge O-levels, A-levels, BSc Economics, LLB from the University of London, all through overseas correspondence courses! It’s the stuff of epic Nelson Mandela would be proud of since Mandela self-educated himself in his Robben Island prison through correspondence courses.
Afe Babalola’s story is of Tutuolan proportion. He reminds me of Amos Tutuola, the novelist with just primary school education but astonishingly became the first Nigerian––before Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe––to attain global literary fame through his “Palmwine Drinkard,” the folkloristic novel set in ancient Yoruba land, filled with ghosts, spirits, wild animals, amotekuns and hunters whispering incantations to confront supernatural beings in a literary genre call magical realism—the type that excited the literary world, putting Nigeria on the literary map. Like Tutuola, Babalola was born into primitive poverty by illiterate parents, hence does not know when he was born. In his Amos Tutuola-styled autobiography Impossible Made Possible (2008) which I have read more than three times courtesy of Wale Adesokan (SAN) who loaned me his copy, Afe Babalola writes: “My parents could not tell me the exact date when I was born. This was because both parents could neither read nor write. It was not a disgrace nor strange that they could not. Indeed nobody in the family or that quarter of the town could read or write. However, my mother told me that the daughter of a distant relation who was a lay reader in a new church about a mile from our house was about a year older. She was born sometime in 1930. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that I was born late in 1930 or about 1931.”
But unlike Tutuola, Babalola did not stop at primary school education. Through hard work and stubborn determination to succeed in life, he sought higher education through correspondence. No lecturer taught him. He studied on his own, passing at every stage, until he was required to come to the University of London to finish the last lap of his law degree. So he flew to London by British Caledonian, passed his bar exams and had his first dinner in Lincoln’s Inn proudly dressed as a lawyer. Babalola writes: “I scored a double in June and July 1963. It was rare to take the LL.B degree Finals with BAR Final together. I did. When the results of the Degree and Bar came out, I was successful in the two exams taken in June and July respectively.” He returned to Nigeria to practise and became a Senior Advocate in 1987. And the rest is history.
Today, Afe Babalola has made a name for himself such that he has written his name in gold as the lawyer who fathered Senior Advocates more than any other. His story is the type that instantly appeals to me, hence I have started his biography. As a rule, I don’t even tell my subjects before embarking on their biographies. I just go ahead. Ask Segun Osoba (The Newspaper Years). Ask Mike Adenuga (Africa’s Business Guru). Ask Aliko Dangote—his book is in the can. You can see the nods and the chorus of approvals on the faces of Senior Advocates as I go round interviewing them for Afe Babalola’s biography. “Chief Afe Babalola’s contributions to law can be put into two folds,” says Claudius Aduroja (SAN). “In law practice, he has made his mark. And in publications, he has published two or three books that I know of and are very useful not only for students but for lecturers and legal practitioners. He wrote one on Injunctions—the principles behind it and what you have to fulfill before you can get a grant of injunction from courts of law. I find it very enriching to read his books. You can’t but read his books because he wrote from his wealth of experience over the years. And I think he must have crossed about 60 years’ post-qualification experience now. He is a contemporary of Justice Ayoola who retired from the Supreme Court. Both of them actually worked together. He did his pupillage in Olu Ayoola Chambers. And he is very industrious. Because in this profession, there are no shortcuts. Especially if you want to make your mark. There is no easy way. You have to work and work and work. Read, study. Consistently you have to be up-to-date with your Law Reports to know the developments, current decisions, the thinking of the Appeal Courts, the Supreme Court. And then you read law journals and the latest publications which are very important. People look at Senior Advocates as if they are super human beings. If you are not studious and read and update yourself, you will find that just a junior will floor you over a minor issue in open court. So we are always on our toes.”
Ebun O. Sofunde (SAN), cofounder of the legal firm Sofunde Osakwe Ogundipe & Belgore says of Afe Babalola: “When I say he has given back to the profession what I mean is, in his chambers, they would tell you how he has assisted them, done so well for them and mentored them. There are so many lawyers who passed through him who have become SANs. That is one aspect. Then there is Afe Babalola University. Although that is not law, but at the same time, he used his endeavours to plough back to help other people in the field of education. So I don’t know how one can write about not just a lawyer in Nigeria but about a prominent Nigerian that his name would not be mentioned. And anybody who has moved close to him would know how a generous man he is. He has authored quite a number of books on Injunctions, Election Petitions and a number of practice books. That is another area where he has been of tremendous assistance to the profession. At the time those books on Injunction and Election Petitions came out, there were not many books by Nigerians on these subjects. If you read a book by a British person on injunctions, you will not find a Nigerian case. But if you read a book by a Nigerian, you will find Nigerian cases. That is the advantage and importance of his books.”
On his own part, a fulfilled Afe Babalola says he has “represented virtually anybody who was somebody in Nigeria, from presidency to governors to senators, the banks, World Bank and other people.” He reveals his success secrets: “I am not the most knowledgeable person in the world, but I am clearly one of the most hard-working and industrious persons in the world. The Supreme Court acknowledged it in a case where they said ‘we acknowledge the industry of Afe Babalola and we have learnt a lot from his submissions which will not be limited to only Nigeria.’ That is what I do in all my cases. I prepare not only the case of my clients but the case of the defence. I prepare what I would say and I would also prepare what the opponent ought to say.”