A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Funke Aboyade, speaks to OLADIMEJI RAMON about her childhood, career journey and related issues
Where were you born and what kind of upbringing did you have?
I was born in Ibadan but then spent my first year of life in Michigan in the United States. At other stages of my childhood, part of my elementary school was also in the United States, but basically I grew up at the University of Ibadan where both my parents were professors. My parents were strict but loving; my dad, especially, was quite the disciplinarian. We did household chores even though we had domestic staff; my mother certainly did not cut us any slack in that regard. We were encouraged to read widely and my parents regularly bought us loads of books, magazines, comics, encyclopaedia and the like. So, reading was second nature to us. We were also encouraged to be curious and to think independently and logically.
I grew up in an intellectual environment; so, we had quite a lot of intellectual discussions with my parents, as well as their friends and colleagues. My parents regularly drummed into us that “Oruko rere san ju wura ati fadaka lo” (a good name is better than silver and gold) and “Ranti omo eni ti iwo nse” (remember whose child you are).
How many siblings do you have; what is your position among them and where are your siblings now?
I am the second of four children – two girls and two boys. My older sister, an architect, lives in Abuja. One of my brothers lives in Atlanta (USA) where he runs his own manufacturing business and the other, the intellectual amongst us and the only one with a PhD, lives in Ibadan where he teaches.
What are some of your most remarkable childhood memories?
Running wild and free with other children all over the University of Ibadan on my bicycle, playing Cowboys and Indians and climbing trees at home, going to the University’s Arts Theatre on Saturdays to take part in creative arts, attending plays and dramas also at the university. I remember watching the greats such as the late Duro Ladipo and Hubert Ogunde. Professor Wole Soyinka was also my dad’s close friend; so, he was a permanent fixture in my life and I loved to just be the fly on the wall, soaking in his conversations with my parents.
I remember visits to the farm at Awe and my grandmother telling us different tales of ijapa (tortoise) and Yanibo (ijapa’s wife). They all began, “Alo o” and we would joyfully respond “Alo!” impatient for the latest tale.
My parents believed in broadening our horizons, honing our thought processes and polishing our behaviour and so we travelled quite a bit, within and outside Nigeria.
I remember a train journey from Ibadan to Kano in 1970. We had a family coach to ourselves. The trip to and fro took a week, I think. We stopped at various towns and cities, including Jos. It was great fun.
I also remember several trips by road to Kainji. There was never a dull moment with my dad; he kept us occupied with songs in Yoruba and English; stories, proverbs and sayings in Yoruba, quizzes, teaching us about the changing vegetation and countryside as we journeyed. Travelling then was quite safe.
We learnt dining etiquette by example and regularly dined out whenever we travelled abroad; we also attended concerts, musicals and shows and visited museums. Everything was a learning experience and a teachable moment. By age 12, I had been to most countries in Western Europe, the UK, the US, Canada and several countries in West Africa.
I also remember an incident in my elementary school in the US. As an eight-year-old, I had a good sense of self and was confident of who I was. I did not have the added burden of a history of slavery, I suppose. I was in Grade 3 and our teacher, a white American woman whom I quite liked, had given us an objective test; so we merely had to answer true or false to the questions. I failed it spectacularly, but only because I did not agree that Africans lived on trees and did not have houses and electricity. I was quite proud of my fail mark and felt like a revolutionary. My mum, however, was furious when I told her what had happened and was intent on storming the school – where my siblings and I were, by the way, the only black pupils – and giving the teacher a piece of her mind. My dad calmed her down and advised that it be done calmly and not in the heat of anger. I also knew that my teacher had meant no harm but was simply misinformed, as were many Americans back then.
How did you come about the idea of reading Law?
Frankly, I have no idea as I had always dreamt of being a neurosurgeon. I was very good in the Sciences and my classmates were shocked when I opted for Law. But then again, there were several lawyers in my immediate environment whom I looked up to. There was my uncle, Prince Delphus Adebayo Odubanjo, who became Agent-General of Western Nigeria in the UK; the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief ‘Folake Solanke; the second female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Phoebe Chiadikobi Ajayi-Obe; and the fifth female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Bola Akinjide. They were family friends and we all lived at the University of Ibadan and subsequently, Bodija.
As a combination of brains and beauty, one imagines that you got a lot of attention from ‘boys’ back then at the University of Ife. How did you deal with that and still finished as the best graduating female student in your set?
I don’t know where you got your beauty and brains bit from, but I was just a regular kid who was blessed with intellect. I was 15 when I gained admission to study Law and I faced my studies and partying with equal measure. I don’t think there was anything to “deal with”; I simply got on with it. My sister who had also gained admission at 15 at Ife and I were determined to do our parents proud. I bless God that we both graduated with Second Class Upper degrees in 1982. And yes, I was the only female in my set to achieve a Second Upper and so I won the Phoebe Chiadikobi Ajayi-Obe prize for the best graduating female student.
Were you also a star student in primary and secondary schools?
I was a good student and did well at my various schools – Maryhill Convent School, Ibadan, Somerset Elementary School and Radnor Elementary School both in MD, USA and International School, Ibadan. Again, I bless God. And I am grateful to all my teachers and my parents who kindled the flame of learning and excellence in us.
Will you say your further studies abroad helped your rise in the legal profession?
Further studies anywhere can only be a plus, I think. It is however not a sine qua non to progress in the legal profession.
Did you ever consider settling back in England to practise law after finishing from Cambridge; and why did you return to Nigeria?
No, that thought never occurred to me or indeed to most of us, Nigerians, at Cambridge. We finished and naturally returned home. In any event, don’t forget, Nigeria was still a reasonably good place back then.
With your very impressive academic records, why did you choose to be a lawyer rather than a judge?
Good question. I’d say because I do not have the temperament of a good judge. I do not suffer fools gladly. I am also rather particular about presentation, analysis, reasoning, grammar, courtesy, appearance and the like – it all must be just so. My colleagues in chambers joke about this a lot and say they would hate to appear before me as a judge!
How many years after practice did you become a SAN; and do you think the title came just on time or a little late?
Everything is in God’s time; He makes all things beautiful in His time. I took Silk in 2013, 30 years after my call to Bar.
The wig and gown have been described by some as relics of the colonial era and there have been suggestions that Nigerian lawyers should do away with them. What is your take on this?
Personally, I love my wig and gown!
When you decided to set up your own law firm, how daunting was this step for you?
Very daunting. I had set up my own firm before but had not made much headway. I eventually joined a big and well-regarded law firm, Babalakin & Co., as a partner, where I was financially comfortable. Yet, here I was, once again contemplating setting up my own firm. Well, fortune favours the bold; I took that step and here I am today.
What were some of your unforgettable experiences in the early days of your firm?
One of my former colleagues still reminds me that back then we had just that one client and nothing else, except a healthy hope! And of course, trust in God.
How did you meet your husband and what was the thing that made you say yes to him rather than someone else?
I am no longer married, but we met as practising lawyers. He had seen me in court and got a mutual colleague to introduce us. We got married in 1986 and have two children.
There was a belief that all big lawyers belonged to a particular secret cult. Is this a myth or reality?
Funny, I never heard of that myth all through my Law studies. Even as a practising lawyer, I am yet to find out about any such “big” lawyer. You are, therefore, asking the wrong person!
Your father was a professor and an economist of repute; how did his death strike you and what do you miss most about him?
He died suddenly aged just 63 in 1994 on New Year’s Eve; very devastating. I loved my father very much and the shock of it made me lose weight; ordinarily skinny, I became even skinnier. My hair fell out and I was in a daze for years. I felt my life was over and could not imagine life without him. I could not understand why the earth did not stop rotating on its axis and why life simply continued for everyone.
I miss everything about him; his laugh, for one. He was larger than life and filled up a room with his presence the moment he entered. (I miss) His gregariousness, his bow ties, his towering intellect, his ability to break down and simplify complexities and come down to your level. He was a great cook too and a dab hand at house work; no task was too mean or lowly for him; he led by example. He was an extremely strict disciplinarian but also very loving and generous.
What about your mother?
My mother, Professor Olabimpe Aboyade, still lives in Ibadan. She is a retired professor of Library Studies and will turn 86 this year, God willing.
Are any of your children following in your footsteps as a lawyer?
No. My daughter rolls her eyes at the very thought. She gained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College, London. Her husband, a mechanical engineer, has just finished at Oxford where he gained an MBA. He too sniffs at the very idea. However, I delight in tormenting both of them that my grandson is showing promising signs of being a QC, SAN! My son is in the creative space and studied Film Production at the Met Film School, London.
Is there a legacy that you are striving to leave in the legal profession?
I believe, with humility, that I have left one in the legal profession viz: legal journalism. As pioneer editor and creator of THISDAY LAWYER, we did what had not hitherto been done in Nigeria – a 16-page weekly colour pull-out of compelling and current legal news, stories, issues, analyses, interviews, dry wit and humour, travel, law reports, columns, international conferences and the like. Several newspapers tried to follow suit and I am flattered. Though I stepped down several years ago, I still meet people who tell me they regularly read our publication which made a great impression on them. I have also through that avenue mentored several young lawyers who have gone on to do great things in different parts of the world. It gives me great joy and fulfillment.
Were you surprised when the ICPC said in a recent report that N9.4bn in bribery exchanged hands between lawyers and judges between 2018 and 2020 alone?
If I recall, the report said that sum was offered but not necessarily received. That said; it is a wake-up call for the legal profession, so that we don’t entirely lose public confidence and respect. It’s a sad and rapid downward spiral from the days when people took off their shoes and tiptoed, just to cross a judge’s gates, to burning down an entire high court and sauntering out unchallenged, donning a judge’s robes, machete in one hand, court file in the other!
Who do we blame really for the corruption in the judiciary, lawyers, judges or litigants?
All the above, including registry staff. Plus governments, which delight in making the judiciary go-cap-in-hand for funding, which constitutionally is a first-line charge. Despite the President signing into law an Executive Order “the implementation of financial autonomy for state legislature and judiciary Order, 2020” judicial financial autonomy appears a pipe dream. We were treated to a recent public spectacle, hitherto unimaginable, of placard-carrying magistrates in Cross River State, protesting not having received their salaries in two years. In Kogi State, a while back, the governor was said to have walked out a Chief Judge from a gathering. Again, unimaginable! I expect the Nigerian Bar Association to step up to the plate as judges are generally expected to be above the fray. That said, the NJC cannot afford to be detached from these indignities meted out to judges.
What is that fashion item that you feel incomplete without?
I’m not particularly into fashion though I dress well and have some lovely items. I am not a slave to fashion. To be honest, at this stage of my life I couldn’t care less about fashion. I’m happy to be just me.
What is your favourite snack?
I love puff-puff, I can’t lie! However, I try not to eat it too often; it’s not exactly the healthiest food, what with refined flour and sugar, which I have drastically cut back on in recent years. I also love mosa.
As a Christian, what portion of the Bible do you like most?
Psalm 30:5: Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Also, Psalm 121 in Yoruba: Emi yio gbe oju mi si ori oke wonni, n’ibo ni iranlowo mi ti n wa? Iranlowo mi ti owo Oluwa wa, ti o da orun oun aiye. Oun ki yio je ki ese mi ki o ye, eni tin pami mo ki yio t’ogbe. Kiyesi eni ti npa Israeli mo kii to’ogbe, bee ni kii sun.