You have lived beyond 90 years in a country where the life expectancy is less than 60. Is it that longevity runs in your lineage?
I thank God, who has made it possible for me to live beyond 90 years. Most of my classmates lived for 50, 60, and 70 years. In my family, there is nobody alive again out of all of us who were born about the same time and lived together. I keep asking God every morning and every night when I pray, ‘Why me? What have I done to deserve this special grace?’ I can say without any fear of contradiction that being alive beyond 90 is the design of God and not my design. But one thing I believe has aided me is the fact that I am careful about what I eat. I never drink any form of alcohol or soft drink. I rely on what is called organic food. Right from my youth, I learnt how to grow my own vegetables. I eat at least eight types of vegetables all of which I grow on my farm.
The whole of our body is run by blood and the purer the blood is, the better. What the blood requires is contained in vegetables and fruits. The type of life you lead is very important. Additionally, I do not visit friends. It is friends who visit me. Again, I work very hard. I only leave my work when I want to go and eat or rest. Farming is my favourite exercise. I exercise myself a lot by working and walking on the farm. When you work, you are helping the circulation of blood to different parts of your body.
What do you consider while choosing who should be your friends?
There is no particular yardstick for choosing friends. If somebody is working with me and I love the way he works, he becomes my friend. Most of my friends are either those who went to school with me or those who are in the same profession as me. But certainly, I do not go out to look for friends and I don’t go to anybody’s house, no matter how close.
You are an achiever by many standards. What are you most grateful for?
I am grateful to God for all that I have achieved in spite of my very humble beginning. I am grateful for the long life, grateful for giving me tremendous energy, and most importantly, the determination to overcome any problem. I am grateful for the energy, the resilience, the ability to make my dreams become a reality – so many things – and above all, my good health at this age.
What were your high and low moments in your journey through life?
In my journey through life, the saddest aspect was the fact that I had no funds to attend a secondary school. I passed the entrance examination to Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, but my parents could not afford the school fees of £5. But I keep on thanking God for giving me extraordinary courage. I sat down, ordered tuition from Wolsey Hall, Oxford, and through private studies, I was able to pass the Cambridge School Certificate the same year my colleagues who went to secondary school passed the Cambridge School Certificate. Thereafter, I was spurred by my success to study privately and pass the GCE Advanced Level of the London University through private study and was one of the best three candidates that year, because only three passed four A’ Level papers in a sitting.
That again encouraged me to apply to London University for my first degree, a Bachelor of Science in Economics, which again, I passed four years later. I was the only candidate that year in Nigeria and I took my examination at the British High Commission, Lagos. It was because of the gift of industry that I decided I wouldn’t work in the civil service. I decided to enrol for a Law degree at London University, again, by private study, which I passed four years later. These and other things are the low and high points in my life.
Which among the decisions you have taken in life made all the difference?
Yes. There is one important one. When I left Standard Six, I started working as a pupil-teacher, earning £1 a month. On January 1, 1948, I told my mother I was going to Ikere, which was only 10 miles away from Ado. She asked when I would be back and I told her I would return in two days. But it was a lie, I had made up my mind to leave Ado Ekiti to try and see whether I could make it better outside. She never heard from me for six months. She thought something must have happened. I secured a job as a pupil-teacher at St. Peter’s, Aremo, Ibadan, after six months of roaming around Ibadan. That was the turning point.
Six months after becoming a pupil-teacher at St. Peter’s, Aremo, I joined the teachers in the whole of (the then) Oyo Province to take the probationary examination for teachers because if one started as a teacher, one would be registered as a teacher on probation. If one passed the required examination, then one would be registered as a teacher i.e. experienced teacher. Out of all the teachers who took the examination in 1948, I came out with the best result. I continued to work and read privately until I passed Cambridge School Certificate Examination in 1959 as a private candidate.
Not having enough money for further studies after elementary school was enough to take you back to the farm fully. Why did you opt for private studies?
Between Standard I and Standard III, my mind was always on the farm. However, when I got to Standard VI, a trained teacher came from St. Andrew’s College, Oyo. Apparently, they were taught Psychology as a subject. The man found that I had a high IQ, but I was not concentrating. He then decided to spend more time on me and a few others like me. Somehow, after that, I became more interested in education instead of thinking of the farm all the time. I used to take the 17th or 18th position out of a class of 25. But this time round, at the end of Standard Six, I found myself in the first position. That encouraged me to be more interested in education than farming. By the time I took the Standard VI final examination, I came first in the whole class. By that time, my mind completely left farming. Although I still went to the farm every weekend, my interest was in education. I started thinking about how to improve my education beyond Standard VI.
What advice do you have for young Nigerians who draw inspiration from you and the heights you have attained?
My advice is that people should not think that they cannot make it because their parents are poor or because they have no money to go to school, or because there is no helper for them. The truth is that you can make it! All you need is to dream big and plan big, then drive your vision yourself. Don’t be hopeless; what you need is perseverance, determination, industry and prayer for good luck to the Almighty God daily. The combination of all these amount to prayer. My philosophy is, ‘He prays most to those who work hardest’. Do not spend all your time kneeling. When you dream big, plan big, then drive that vision yourself and work hard, then you are already praying. Hard work is prayer combined with faith. Faith never fails. Suffering always gives birth to the thought of how to improve your life. Those who persevere most are those who come from poor backgrounds. I have trained more than 23 Senior Advocates of Nigeria; more than half of them come from poor families. They are the people who work hardest. Suffering breeds character, character breeds faith and faith never fails.
Was there something at your birth or during your childhood that gave a hint that you would grow up to be a great man?
Nothing at all! I wore no shoes for almost 20 years of my early life. But there was one thing I had going for me – I worked harder than others while on the farm. So, if anything at all, it was the fact that my father used to pray for me that I would make it with the way I worked. Maybe that was the only thing that gave me the hint that I would make it. I was never afraid of working for any number of hours a day, doing anything I wanted to do, or staying in the classroom, which at that time was windowless and without doors, with my lantern at night. I worked till midnight. Again, I am tireless. It is only when I finish what I have before me for the day that I would feel like retiring.
What kind of parents did you have?
I think my parents were in large measure responsible for what I am, because both my father and mother were hard-working. My father would wake up in the morning and trek to the farm with the early morning moonlight. We trekked to the farm along bushy paths, six miles away uphill, with wild animals left and right without shoes. How I wish my father was alive today! I inherited a lot from him and my mother.
At what point did you get married?
When I was still studying privately, living in Ibadan, I came home one Christmas. At that time, I had passed my four Advanced Level subjects. My colleagues were married then. When I was about to go to sleep that night, my mother said, ‘You are going to your room; here is a lady I have arranged for you’. I asked, ‘For what?’ She said I should take her to my room. I laughed and said I did not want any woman. So, the lady went away. My mother wept all night and told my father, ‘I think your son is a eunuch’. My father said, ‘Leave the boy alone, he knows what to do in life’. I never came back to Ado Ekiti until I had my first degree in Economics and another in Law after which I saved enough money for the Bar examination in England. There was no Law School then. It was in London that I got married in 1964.
What impact did marriage have on your career and other areas of life?
As far as I am concerned, I do not allow marriage to have any effect on my plan and whatever I want to do. In ABUAD here, when I employ anyone who does not have a Ph.D, my charge to them is usually that they should not get married until they have a Ph.D. In my chambers, I tell my lawyers that they have two wives: one is their job and the second is the woman at home. Number one wife is your job and the wife at home is number two. It is only when you leave this place after a few hours that you can see your wife at home. No wife can disturb me at work.
Interestingly, your children are lawyers. Was that something that you wanted and did you take deliberate steps to make that happen?
Yes. If I had 200 children, I would want all of them to become lawyers, because I benefitted a lot from Law and I want to leave for them that legacy of success in Law practice and I am happy that they are doing very well. It was deliberate. One of my children had seven As in the Senior School Certificate Examination and the Federal Government wanted to take her as a government scholar, but I said no. If I had allowed her, she probably would have ended up in either medicine or engineering, because she had an ‘A’ in every subject, but I did not allow her to take the scholarship. I think Law is good. I benefitted from it. I want my children to benefit from Law the way I have.
If I had studied for a PhD in Economics, I would probably have ended up as a professor of Economics. Who would have heard of Afe Babalola? Even yesterday, I received a letter from the topmost organisation in arbitration in the world of which I am a member. I received letters from different countries that recognise what I am doing. I am proud that I chose Law among the courses that I could have done. I think it made me more popular than expected. It has given me a lot of respect and honour. I love it.
Do you have grandchildren who are lawyers or is it something you are looking forward to?
Not yet. Well, I can’t control the children of my children. I have a child whose children are all interested in business. The children hold different degrees in business. How I wish I could control them. But I have control over my children and made it compulsory for all of them to study Law.
Having made huge success in the private sector using your managerial acumen, why didn’t you consider going into politics to offer yourself for service?
In his book, The Republic, Plato asked, ‘Who is a politician?’ And he said, ‘Everybody living in society is a political animal. Therefore, everybody should be interested in who governs him and how he is governed. Those who are not interested in how they are governed should live in the forest’. I am a political animal. I am interested in who governs me. Therefore, I follow what politicians do and correct them as much as I can. As far back as 1965, I wrote in The Sketch and later in Nigerian Tribune and Vanguard every week, highlighting the problems of the country, particularly about governance. However, I do not like to leave my work and engage in partisan politics. The politicians recognise this. I have been a lawyer to presidents, governors, politicians, blue-chip companies and banks, and individuals throughout the country over the years. I enjoy that. They respect me. They love me. They admire me and they look for me. My not joining politics is not because it is not good. Politics is important.
You were said to have rejected political appointments in the past. Why did you turn down such opportunities?
I remember that twice, I was offered ministerial appointments – one by the late General Sani Abacha and the other by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. My lawyers were happy when I was offered the appointments. My big reasons were that I grew up on my own, I developed on my own, and I know how to manage my office. If you were in Ibadan, you would be told that at 7am, Afe Babalola would be in his office and he would not leave the place till about 11pm, except when he went for lunch. I asked myself whether I could work successfully with civil servants. The answer is no. Very few people can work the way I work. I would make instant enemies if I took up the position of a minister, because I would expect the civil servants to come to the office by 7am and expect them not to go home until 11pm. Most importantly, the problem of this country is either indolence or corruption. Before you can get anything done today in the civil service, you have to grease the palms of workers and I can’t stand it.
How will you describe your tenure as the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos?
I was able to serve for two terms of almost eight years in UNILAG because I had my own source of income. I did not take a kobo from the billions of naira paid to UNILAG when I was the pro-chancellor. When a man comes out with a degree in the university and he says he wants to do politics, what does he mean? He knows that when he is there, he has access to the government’s money. Those are not the type of people we want in government. Those who want to be in government must be those who are self-sufficient, who have their own sources of income and believe that what they want to do is to serve the people; they must not see themselves as masters of the people. They should not ask for any salary at all. Between 1960 and 1965, legislators did not earn salaries. They earned only sitting allowances. Many did not even collect the allowances. My position on people enriching themselves because of their access to public funds is clear and known to all.
History has shown that rather than improve, the situation in Nigeria has worsened since the 1970s. Do you honestly believe that Nigeria as a nation will work?
I believe that Nigeria, otherwise known as Niger Area, was a name carved out during the 1884 Berlin Conference. It is a well-known fact that there was nothing called Nigeria until 1884 when the white men saw Africa south of the Sahara as part of the Dark Continent where people were primitive, where people were using hoes and cutlasses, where there was no electricity, and where people did not wear clothes or shoes. They came and enslaved us. Thanks to the Christians in England, who rose against slavery and fought wars on the high seas. Eventually, there was a law against slavery. Then gradually again, people like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who studied privately, returned from overseas and fought for independence from the colonial masters. I was alive. I knew what life was under the British colonialists. I knew what life was from 1960 to 1965. In 1960, I was in London for my Bar examination. I had a British passport and we had the option to retain our British passport or change it to a Nigerian passport. I was proud of my country Nigeria. I knew independence was an opportunity for us to develop and that there was no reason why I should retain the British passport. I, therefore, changed my passport to a Nigerian one.
Did you regret that decision?
I am never going to regret it. I am going to ensure that Nigeria has all that it takes to become a great country. Nigeria, consisting of several nations, can still become one nation – the United States of Nigeria. After all, America was sighted first by the Portuguese, later by the English and so on and you have many countries there now.
What exactly is the problem?
Poor management is our problem. Greed is also another problem. The constitution is at the root of our problem. That is why I am a crusader for the change of the constitution, which is not my constitution, not your constitution but imposed by the military. Section 14(2) of the Constitution says, ‘The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government’. The constitution, in the preamble, says, ‘We, the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, do hereby make and give to ourselves the following constitution’. Tell me when you were consulted before the 1999 Constitution was made. I was not consulted, no Nigerian was consulted; it was made by the military. The same military, in 1966, toppled the one we made in 1960, which was our constitution. Between 1960 and 1965, Nigeria was performing very well, but for their unlawful takeover, we would have caught up with Britain under (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo and others when we had the people’s constitution. Many people have suggested a new constitution. Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution says, ‘The National Assembly may, subject to the provision of this section, alter any of the provisions of this constitution’.
The word, ‘alter’, means change, and ‘any’ means all if any. So, the National Assembly has the power to amend this constitution by allowing an interim government for the next six months to fashion out a new constitution. My proposition to them is to amend the constitution to allow an interim government to make a new constitution. This is so because the government and the National Assembly have refused to yield to the people’s demand for a new people’s constitution. For instance, The Guardian newspaper developed 57 editorials on the urgent for a new constitution. They should have in mind while doing so the fact that Nigeria is a huge country of many nations and as well what our parents did when they wanted to obtain independence. They all knew Nigeria; they adopted the parliamentary system of government between 1960 and 1965, and it worked well. But now, the military’s presidential system has created insecurity, unemployment, and so on.
Some Nigerians, including SANs, have picked holes in your proposition, saying a call for an interim government is a call to anarchy. What is your response to that?
They did not read Section 9 of the constitution properly. They did not understand that the present members of the National Assembly have the right to amend the constitution whereby they can lawfully bring in an interim government to amend the constitution. They do appreciate the fact that it is the duty of the government to make sure that the security and the welfare of the people are the paramount duties of the government. They don’t appreciate that Nigeria is nose diving into poverty; Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world. They don’t appreciate that we are number two or number three in insecurity. They don’t appreciate that the government has failed under the so-called constitution of the military to ensure the security and welfare of the people. They don’t appreciate that there is an urgent need now to amend the constitution to save the country. If they appreciate all these, they will agree that the only way is to amend the constitution now.
The amendment must be one that will ensure that we have conditions for those who want to contest elections as to their age, source of income, and ability to run even their own business. I am not unaware of the fact that most Nigerians are in support of my idea and that most of those who are opposed to the amendment are those who have easy access to government money. I don’t need government money; I have never earned government money. I want people who have their own source of income to run the government of this country. I want those people who will be interested in the safety of this country, those who will be interested in the welfare of the people to run the government of this country. I want to be able to travel on a train, by air, and on the road without fear or favour. These are the critical things. Anybody who opposes a new constitution for this country today is not a friend of Nigeria.
Some of those opposed to an interim government argued that it is not provided for in the constitution. What is your take on this?
There is a provision for it. That is what I am saying. Section 9(1) of the constitution says, ‘The National Assembly may, subject to provision of this section, alter any of the provisions of this constitution’. The word ‘alter’ means ‘change’, while ‘change’ means ‘substitute’. ‘Any’ means all or any part of it. They (National Assembly) have the right to say, ‘We have failed in our duty to provide security, we have failed in our duty to provide welfare for the people, therefore, let us amend our constitution to allow an interim government for the next six months to make a new constitution for us’. You don’t have to be a lawyer to appreciate what I am saying. Doesn’t the constitution give them the power to alter it? If the answer is yes, in altering the constitution, doesn’t the constitution say you can make any change, and you can substitute all the constitution? It is like a lawyer who goes to court to file a case. If he makes a mistake in some paragraphs, all he needs to do is to go to court and say, ‘My Lord, I want to amend my pleading before you and substitute this new one’. It will be granted. It is done every day in the court. There is no provision in the constitution made by the military to amend any or all the provisions in the 1999 Constitution. Now, we can do so.
Kenya did theirs recently; they set up an interim government. Many other countries have done the same over the years – Spain from 1975 to 1976, Fiji, 1987; Romania, 1989 to 1990; Lebanon, 1989 to 1992; Bangladesh, 1997 to 1999; Albania, 1991; Cambodia, 1991 to 1993, El-Salvador, 1921 to 1924; Burundi, 1992 to 1993; South Africa, 1993 to 1994; and Indonesia, 2005 to 2006, among others. These countries set up interim governments to fashion out new constitutions. It is not new. In any case, our constitution permits you to do that which is right. Amend this constitution for what is right. How can that become illegal when the constitution gives you the power? It is there – power to amend, power to change, power to substitute. It is their power, but they won’t do it because they are benefitting from the present constitution, which gives them the power to earn huge salaries, and gives them access to government money. They won’t do it.
Why did you take a special interest in education as demonstrated in your founding of ABUAD?
I found that education is the catalyst that can cure ignorance, obliterate tribalism, religious discrimination, and uplift you to a very high level financially and otherwise. Education is an important part of life. I am a beneficiary of quality education through private study. I will not be what I am today but for education. I made a lot of money through education. But for education, I won’t have properties in Central London nor would I have been honoured by the University of London with an LLD from the prestigious university. Through education, I have the best of retainers from Mobil to Shell to World Bank to Julius Berger and so on. If anybody ought to celebrate education, I’m one. That was why after rejecting a ministerial appointment, the government asked me to help it at UNILAG. I accepted because I knew the value of education. Fortunately, it opened my eyes to the problems afflicting public universities. I was able to make a big change and the government acknowledged it.
It was that, which encouraged me to set up a university, because I had the means. So, I sold my properties and I emptied my deposits in many banks to fund this university, which fortunately the Nigeria Universities Commission has described as ‘a model, a benchmark and reference point for other universities’. ABUAD has also been recognised as a world-class university by UNESCO. I am already enjoying the benefits of quality education being given by the exploits and achievements of our students and graduates.
How much input do you have in the running of ABUAD and how convenient is it for you, considering your age?
It is most inconvenient. I had to leave my practice because in Nigeria, unless you are personally involved in the running of your business, you will not achieve your goal. We have societal problems caused by the constitution, which makes people think that the best way to live is to loot government money. This is why I say those who want to contest elections must be screened by special bodies as to their sources of income, whether they have pending cases in court about fraud or whatever. They must be clean people. As far as ABUAD is concerned, it is a big success because of my personal involvement. We have the administrative set-up under the law, but I opened my two eyes to how they do their job.
What are some of your unfulfilled aspirations?
The only remaining thing for me is to see ABUAD rated among the first 100 best universities in the world and we are in very close range now.
What is a typical day like for you?
Every night, I always pray to God to let me wake up strong, and when I wake up in the morning, I kneel and thank God for allowing me to live another day. I then go to take my bath, have breakfast, which is usually made up of raw tomatoes, raw green pepper, and fish harvested from my farm, then go to work, come back at about 3pm, have my lunch, rest, return to work in the evening till midnight. I work for 364 days out of the 365 days in a year, Sunday notwithstanding. The only day I do not work is Christmas Day, because my name is Emmanuel.
What are some of the activities that you love doing that age no longer allows you to do?
Trekking a lot is too much for me now, but I still trek. I go to the farm, but I can’t do most of the work I used to do on the farm anymore. I am trying to see whether there are native herbs that can make that possible.
Do you have a favourite sport?
My favourite sport is football. I used to play football when I was young. But now, I only watch television to see my favourite teams like Manchester City. I also like boxing. I used to box when I was young, but I no longer box since I received a very heavy blow on my left cheek.