By Mustapha Ogunsakin
It is said that hard work and success go hand in hand. Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) realized this early and imbibed the spirit of hardwork as the tonic needed to achieve whatever he wants to in life. Though the son of a king, Prince Fagbemi still considers himself as coming from a humble background. This classification must have set the tone for his determination to succeed and become a role model in the society.
Born to His Royal Highness, the late Oba Salawudeen Olagunju Adeyeye Fagbemi(Obembe II), the Onijagbo of Ijagbo, near Offa, Kwara State on July 16, 1959, Prince Fagbemi attended University of Jos before being called to Bar. He thereafter joined Emmanuel Chambers of Aare Afe Babalola SAN in 1985 where he worked for 15 years. He was the Deputy Head of Chambers in 1996 when he attained the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria(SAN) at the age of 37, the youngest Nigeria to attain the rank at the time.
To achieve his ambition of success, Fagbemi very early in his career decided to learn the ropes from the masters in the profession. He pitched his tent with the likes of Chief Afe Babalola and seized on the opportunity provided by the legal icon to cut his teeth. “From day one, where I cut my teeth is very important. I mean, I have been at a very important place; I was with Chief Afe Babalola SAN. He was so trusting and he always encouraged the junior ones. I seized the opportunity which was available then. For instance, he won’t restrict you from having any access to any of the files, so it is left for you to make use of the available opportunity. I saw it and I seized it. “I came from a very poor background so it was going to be a tragedy if, as a poor man or a man from a poor background I did not improve myself or did not seize the opportunity to better my lot through hard work, dedication and research. Then it was whatever argument you presented that would determine your success or otherwise in court”.
So he began to study the lives of leaders in the profession. He studied the likes of Chief Babalola, Chief Rotimi Williams SAN, Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, etc. “I was able to meet Chief Ladner of blessed memory and Chief Williams a couple of times, and Papa Kehinde Sofola SAN. I once handled a brief with G. O. K. Ajayi SAN and also had the opportunity to face him in court. So all these gave me some courage and hope that if I did well, I was likely to become one of them; that is to say, a Senior Advocate. So if I really wanted to be somebody in life. I had to be very hardworking, upright and be up and doing. And that was what I felt because if I had rich parents, I may not be where I am today. My father is an Oba but you know that’s no guarantee of success in life. So if there was anything I could do it was to help myself by working very hard and I thank God that He blessed the effort, because you can only make effort”, he said.
Fagbemi’s hard work did pay off early as he bagged the title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) at a young age. But unlike others who would rather see the conferment as a great achievement, the erudite lawyer sees it as a challenge.
“Well, it was like Chinese soup, it’s sweet and sour. It was sweet you coveted the position. When you have now become a Senior Advocate, people respect you but the sour aspect, or let me say, the duties, obligations and the responsibility aspect is, people will come to court, they want to watch how you behave and how you perform. All these put together put a lot of responsibility on you not to misbehave. You know you have to comport yourself in and out of court. In court, you have to show exceptional hard work, brilliance and dedication because people really want to measure, they want to assess whether or not you merited the award or it was just given to you. And that is why, even though you are happy, you also feel that it is a lot of responsibility being cast on you. So it’s a position which requires that you do a lot more if you want to continue to earn the respect of your immediate community. namely, the legal community and the general public.”
Since the beginning of the current democratic dispensation in 1999, Fagbemi has been instrumental in resolving many of the crises emanating from elections as he has represented various candidates at the various election petitions tribunals.
On his experience so far, he said: “You know one thing. I am not a member of any political party so as I have represented Alliance for Democracy(AD), I’ve been briefed by the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP. I have acted for All Nigeria People’s Party(ANPP), I have represented All Progressives Grand (APGA) and I have advocated for Progressive People’s Alliance(PPA). It depends, and I’ve traversed the length and breadth of the country going from one state to the other. In some situations it has been very challenging in some, it depends on which side you fall and the type of people you are meeting. And you know, naturally, election matters provoke a lot of sentiments, a lot of emotion and at times a lot of violence, because some people will love you, some will hate you with the same degree of passion that they would use to love you. So, in such situations, you assess, take account of your environment and make appropriate decisions as to how you conduct a particular case”.
Despite the violent nature of elections, Fagbemi has succeeded in validating the wishes of many parties and electorates through the judicial process and failed in some others. There had been times that his life was on the line. In 2003 for example, he narrowly escaped danger when thugs invaded Ado-Ekiti High Court, venue of Ekiti State Election Petition Tribunal when the AD governor, Otunba Niyi Adebayo was defeated by PDP candidate, Mr Ayo Fayose. Fagbemi was a lawyer to AD at the tribunal. One day during proceedings, thugs invaded the court. He escaped by whiskers!
He said of his experience: “In some we tried and we were not successful in some others. As you have in the legal profession you cannot win all the time. What you do is to try your best. There was a day we arranged a matter and one of the juniors said. ‘Oh, Oga, I feel for you. How do you feel now, because you lost even though you have done your best’. I said, “Well, what is important is even my client who I later met in England after the case, told me that he was satisfied with our performance. That, to me, is more than money and for instance, in all cases, they usually tell me, ‘You have done well, it’s just that maybe God has ordained it that way’. This may amount to advertising myself, but what is important is, I am always happy after putting in my best.”
With his humble background, Fagbemi knows where the shoe pinches and sets off to help the needy. It is on record that Fagbemi had assisted several students with scholarships, both in local and in foreign universities. Three years ago, while Covid-19 raged, people couldn’t work, Fagbemi reached out to more than 10000 young lawyers across Nigeria, providing succor to them all while the virus raged.
“Well, you saw some people going out now. I thank God. I started from a very poor beginning so if you know what it is, then you do not have to go to church or mosque or listen to sermons before you do the right thing. You see, the scholarships that we have obtained for people who go abroad for study, those scholarships are being provided by some other people, not by the government. They are being provided by individual organizations and I believe it is part of our own modest contribution to do it. There are thousands, millions of people out there who are more brilliant than some of us but because they don’t have the opportunity, why don’t you give them the opportunity so that they can now use whatever knowledge they have acquired to encourage people. Because, come to think of it, were it not because of assistance we got from other people in terms of sponsorship and all that, only God knows where I would be today”.
Fagbemi is passionate about Nigeria. According to him, with a virile judiciary, the country will achieve much in the next ten years in terms of development. “If you get the right judiciary, I tell you, it’s like seeking ye first the kingdom of God and every other thing shall be added unto it. So if you have a strong and virile judiciary you will not fear and in the next ten years you can be sure you will have what is near perfection, if it’s not absolute; because absolute justice belongs to God. The issue of electricity is also very important. Look at our rail system. Let the President for example take one after the other,” he said.
He canvassed the independence of the judiciary, even as he expressed the need for Nigerians to ensure that the right sets of people are elected into public office.
According to him, it is better to have bad laws being operated by good men than good laws being operated by bad men. “I think that the independence of the judiciary is something we cannot negotiate at all. It is non-negotiable. I have always insisted that it is better to have bad laws being operated by good men than to have it otherwise because you will not get the same result if you have good men operating bad laws. Good men will put our environment into consideration, put the facts of the case into consideration and arrive at decisions which will stand the test of time. But if we have bad men operating good laws, no matter how good these laws may be they will never achieve anything”
“So, we need a very virile judiciary and that means a lot. It means that the judiciary has to be self-accounting, which is important. I will say it is not enough until the judiciary is made to be self-accounting so that you can give unpalatable decisions without fear of being prosecuted, being humiliated or being punished for giving a decision which you believe is according to your conscience, your learning, your knowledge and according to the facts of the case,” he said.
Married with children, Fagbemi said it won’t be out of place for any of his kids to read law. “You know I started late. I have two children and if I am lucky – and I pray I will be, I will have one more, at least to satisfy my wife. The only thing is, you know, for children, one of the greatest losses a lawyer can suffer is to die without handing over the banner. Now, as far as I know, even though you are churning out lawyers in large numbers, I know that our society has not yet been saturated with lawyers. So, naturally, you will want your blood to be part of you. I want my children, or one of them at least, to be a lawyer. But you see, the children these days are so independent, so I have to be very careful the way I do it.
Even at nine, my eldest son told me as we were discussing law that, ‘Daddy, why do you want me to read law? You know you are already known, so if I read law today and I make it, they will say it’s because of you. I want to do something different that will also bring my name out’. I said, ‘No, people will know you if you are able to get a good degree’.
The other day I asked him again, ‘Do you want to do law?’ That was about five or six months ago, I think. And he said, “Well, if I want to make you happy I will say yes’ He said, ‘Well, I will not want to make myself unhappy and I don’t want to make you unhappy so don’t let me answer it. If I told you yes I would be making myself unhappy; if I say no, you won’t like it. So, daddy, don’t let us discuss it. Give me some time’.
“There was a day the other one asked if he could follow me to the office. If you see how I grabbed what I considered an opportunity, you will not believe it. We came here [office] and he was looking at the book. ‘I want one of them to take after me, so pay for me’.
In his modesty, Fagbemi said he could not tell if he is a role model. “I don’t know if I am a role model although I acknowledge that people say so,” he concluded.
Culled and updated from the book, ‘For the love of their Nation: Lawyers as agents of change in Nigeria’ by Mustapha Ogunsakin
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