‘Why I shunned politics’
HE is literally a chip of the old block. Chief Ladi Rotimi Williams, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is the son of late legal icon, Chief Rotimi Williams (SAN), The heir apparent to the FRA law firm was an interviewer’s delight. Adorning a sky blue guinea brocade kaftan, you could see a striking resemblance of his father, except for Timi’s huge frame. He cracked jokes at intervals and made the interviewee and the young female lawyers in his chamber feel at home during the interview.
Chief Williams relishes his status as one of the most senior 50 SANs in the country currently. He is still in active legal practice with over 42 years in the bar and 20 years in the inner bar. In this interview with Effects, he spoke about his early years as a lawyer, what he misses about his dad and lots more.
Aside being a lawyer are you into politics?
No. I’m not into partisan politics. I mean, you cannot refer to me as a member of APC, PDP, APGA, Labour or of any party. I’m not a card-carrying member of any party. However, that does not mean that I’m apolitical. In other words, I’m interested in what is going on in my country and what is going on around me and what is going on in Africa and the world at large.
Your dad is known, he was a famous lawyer, was he the one that influenced you to read law in the University?
I grew up believing there’s no other profession except Law. My father was not always famous, he built on it. When I was growing up, he was an ordinary lawyer, even though they were not many at that time. My awareness increased by the time I became a teenager that the profession one should do is law. I used to follow my father to court whenever we were on holiday because the court was virtually next door to my school. I attended Kings College, Lagos. At that time, the Supreme Court was next door.
Whenever we were on mid -term or on long or Easter vacation, I would go and watch him in court. In those days, you don’t go on holidays like they do these days; that is, going to London on holidays. In those days, people traveled by boat, not by plane and when you were traveling, your relatives would accompany you to the port in Apapa. They would all be in tears because they would not see you for many years. You were going in search of the golden fleece, and not until you passed, you would not come back. It was while watching him in court that I developed interest in Law. There was a particular incidence during the political crisis in Western Nigeria in the early 1960s. There was a split in the ruling party in the West, the Action Group. Action Group leaders were rounded up and locked up by the then Federal Government. Awolowo was charged with Treason and my father was a very close ally of Awolowo. He was the first western region minister of justice and attorney general. It was terrible when he had to smuggle himself out of his house in Bodija, Ibadan, through the back door. He drove in my mother’s small car and traveled through Abeokuta to Lagos. He was able to prepare his case. His case was reported, Williams Majekodunmi, It’s a case in which he challenged the restriction order slammed on him then by the Federal Government. He was restricted to one village in Abeokuta where there was no mosquito net, light, nor water. I stayed there with him during the holidays. Regrettably, one of the people who disclosed where my father’s house was to the security agencies was Chief Richard Akinjide from what I was informed. He was lucky to have escaped to Lagos to prepare his case against Majekodunmi which he won. In spite of that, he was rearrested and confined. This time, it was in Ibadan. He won the case and was confined by the Federal Government at the time in spite being a diabetic patient. There target then was to ensure that he did not have access to his drugs, You know that as a diabetic, if you don’t take your drugs regularly, its hazardous. But as God would have it, he lived up to 85. The other car went through the Ijebu villages and these people followed that other car. He was able to get to Lagos and he prepared his papers in the house of his late friends, Chief Badejo Okusanya, who was a businessman but in the entertainment sector. My dad also spent some time in the house of late Chief Femi Ogun. So, nobody could connect him nor knew where he was. He needed time to prepare his court papers and we had to get him the law books to prepare for the case. We were able to get help because he had many friends who were lawyers. Chief TOS Benson knew where my father was but he did not reveal it to anybody. As far as he was concerned old friendship was bigger than politics. Having gone through all that, I made up my mind that politics was not for me.
In politics then, there was so much back-biting. Your time was not your own. You won’t even have enough time for your family and the little money that you made for yourself, people would say you stole it. So, why don’t you steer clear. You can contribute your widow’s mite to help Nigeria by advising government, You can say your mind without bitterness towards anybody. I felt that this is a profession I could go into, a profession in which if anybody tries to victimize you, you can go to court and fight against that victimization.
As far back as 1959 or 1960 in Ibadan, on a particular day, I was in my father’s bedroom where there was a big mirror. I took his wig and silk gown and put it on and I was admiring myself before the mirror. Suddenly, he entered the room by the side door. When I heard his voice, my mother was behind him, I tried to remove the wig, but my father said I should not. In fact, you look good in it, my dad told me. Then, mother called me by my pet name (I won’t tell you) and said, by the grace of God, you see that silk gown, you will wear it, that wig which is too big for your head now, you will have your own that will fit your head. I was scared because I thought maybe, my parents would get angry with me but they never did. When in 1995, I became the first second generation of SAN holders in Nigeria, I was thankful to God and I was thankful to my mother that that prediction literally came to pass. I have been wearing that silk gown for the 21 years and believe me, it’s been very comfortable unlike the cotton one. (Laughter) Even your skin would not like the cotton gown anymore
Do you enjoy preferential treatment in court on account of your father’s achievements?
No! I don’t enjoy such a privilege as the son of Rotimi Williams, but as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, judges give me preference. They allow me to mention my case before ordinary lawyers.
I mean, when you started practice as a baby lawyer?
You would appear before some judges who, of course, knew your background; knew who you are, and because of that, they are usually very nice to you. Such people also want their sons or daughter to become a lawyer one day, so they tend to encourage you. I’m not saying that judges give rulings in my favour when I don’t deserve it, but they smile at you, they encourage you, they don’t shout at you. They allow you to make your submission. In those days, we don’t write briefs. These days you would just get up in court, file my brief on the 10th of April, I adopt and you sit down. In those days, you had to be on your feet and argue your case. If you didn’t know the case, you could not go far and that is what we were used to. It is unlike these days when you could just write the brief and adopt. That is one thing about the new mode of practice, it has stifled advocacy. We don’t have advocates anymore. In those days, a lawyer could stand on his feet for three hours trying to convince the judge. These days, within 30 minutes, it’s all done and dusted, everybody has gone. Even for simple motions, you have to write a brief. So, it took a while to get adjusted to that kind of practice for people like us because this will be my 44th year as a lawyer. By the same token, there are some judges who, not due to your fault, it could be that they too sent their son or daughter to London. Rather than go there and study, there will be attending night clubs, smoking cigarettes. In those days Indian hemp was in vogue. They return home with nothing and disappoint their father. So, when they see other sons and daughters appearing before them, in fact, you irritate them. They get angry. They would tell you to sit down. They would say “I’m talking, you are talking.” My friend, Mr. Kayode Sofola once told me the story of how he made a submission to one of the justices and the judge told him, “tell your father I disagree with him. It was not the father appearing before him but the son.” (Laughter) Some of us who are so privileged, had such an experience and it was not always very pleasant. Now that one is a senior to virtually all the judges in the country in the Supreme Court besides the chief justice of Nigeria itself, who qualified one year earlier than myself. But in terms of being called to bar, I’m senior to all the judges of the Supreme Court today.
From your background, did you experience poverty growing up?
I saw poverty because there were poor people around you all the time. In those days, Ibadan was a big village and you could see people getting water from the well. Most of the houses were mud houses. On whether I saw poverty, yes, but that I knew it no. No. because I had more than three square meal daily. I had everything. In those days, it was my father’s Pontiac that took me to school. That was a time some children didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. In those days, we used to remove our shoes because there were many of our colleagues who could not afford shoes. To identify with them, we used to remove our shoes and walk with them barefooted. We were privileged to have free primary education in line with the policy of the government at that time. One of the things that the opposition was saying was that if they were serious about free education, the sons and daughters of ministers should also attend public schools. Most of the time, as soon as the car dropped us in school, we would remove our Clarke shoes and beg the constable, (my father’s orderly) not to alight from the car.
What are the things you want to remember your dad for?
He had a good sense of humour. For instance, we were in court one day; my father, being a very tall and big man was addressing the court on weight of evidence. He spoke on the issue for about two and half hours. When he finished talking, he sat down on the chair and the chair literally broke under his weight. My dad father got up again and said, “my lord, I have been addressing you on weight of evidence, but you have now seen the evidence of weight.” There is another one he liked to talk about. He was in England when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister; he was in Cambridge. He told us about a certain lecture that Winston Churchill gave after the end of the Second World War, how that a certain lady came to Churchill and said, “Mr. prime minister you are always smoking your cigar or pipe and you are always drunk, how do you plan to govern this country when you are always drunk?” Winston Churchill then told her, “madam, I know I am drunk, today I am drunk, but tomorrow I’ll be sober. But madam, you are ugly, today you are ugly, and tomorrow you will still be ugly, so I don’t have a problem.”
There was another one. I was actually in court that day, I simply froze on my seat. My father, towards the end of his life was perhaps, the only lawyer who was allowed to sit down and address the court. He was seated addressing the court on that occasion and a certain gentleman came in, (I won’t mention his name) and said, why don’t you stand up and address the court.
The justices of the Supreme Court were there and one of them was late Justice Mohammed Bello. I thought my father would get angry because the man knew that he couldn’t get up quickly. My father then looked at the short man and said, “my learned friend, when I stand, I’m taller than you, when I sit , I’m taller than you , so why were you complaining? It doesn’t make any difference to you if I’m sited or I’m standing.” The whole court laughed. He complained, to the judges that my learned friend says I’m a short man.