Dr. Kole Abayomi is the fourth child of the legendary Nigerian nationalist, Dr. Kofo Abayomi. In this interview with Ademola Olonilua and Eric Dumo, he talks about his life and relationship with his father
Having risen to be Senior Advocate of Nigeria in your field, how would you describe your childhood?
I grew up in Lagos and my childhood was good. Knowing my background, I lived well and was brought up in a very comfortable environment. I went to the best schools. Lagos was good then. My primary education was at Princess School and Christ Church Cathedral School in Lagos; I never schooled outside Lagos except when I travelled abroad.
How come you attended two primary schools and two secondary schools?
Princess School was a preparatory school, a mixed school; but for boys, when you were in Standard Three, you had to be withdrawn. It was a mixed school up to Standard Three because basically, it is a female school. From there, I had to go to Christ Church Cathedral School which is also a church school. I proceeded to CMS Grammar School which was just the next compound to Christ Church Cathedral School.
How was it like growing up in Lagos Island, a place known to be rough?
It was not as rough as it is today but even as of then, you had to know the son of whom you are.
I had friends who were on drugs but I have never taken drugs in my life. I had friends who were always going to night clubs but I preferred regular parties. I had friends who broke bounds in school and I also did a bit of that.
Did you ever get caught?
Yes, I got caught. There was a time I took about nine people to the Ambassador Hotel. We left school at about 8pm and got to school about 2am but we were caught, two were expelled, six were suspended but the principal thought that since I just got in from another school and I did not know the routine, I should be on probation. My friends thought that it was favouritism but I was not bothered.
Did your father hear about it?
Yes, he did but he did not punish me. He told the school to punish me as they deemed it fit.
You also attended King’s College at a point, how did that happen?
My father was a medical doctor and he had his own practice. He expected me to study medicine. I remember one day when I was in the boarding school and I went out to buy something, coincidentally my father’s car drove by. When the driver saw me, he stopped and approached me with my father at the back seat. We had just finished the term, so I had my report card in my pocket. I came first in class. I showed my father my report card and he browsed through it. I did very well in biology and chemistry, I did not offer mathematics or physics because I was more inclined to the arts class. He asked what I thought I was doing because he expected me to study medicine but I told him I was not going to study medicine. He just threw my report card at me and told the driver to move the car. He was visibly angry.
During the next open day, he sat me down, we spoke and tried to iron out the issue. I told him that I could not offer medicine because I could not stand the sight of blood neither did I like seeing sickly people. He laughed and told me that when he was studying medicine, the best doctor during his time fainted when they were dissecting corpses. He said I would outgrow my fears but I was adamant, so we left the matter.
A week later, he called me to pay a visit to the principal of King’s College at the time, Mr. P. H Davies with a letter. I think what was in the letter was that he was introducing me to the man and also that I refused to study medicine which he was not happy about. The principal interviewed me for about two hours and replied my father’s letter. In the principal’s reply, he said he had spoken to me for about two hours and from our conversation, he deduced that I was a brilliant and very self-confident man whom he was very sure would do well in the future. He advised my father to allow me study law because my arguments were logical, my English was impecable and I would make a good lawyer. To show how confident the principal was in me, he asked me to come and write my Higher School Certificate examination in King’s College which was a privilege back then. Everybody wanted to attend King’s College in those days. I left CMS Grammar School and joined King’s College in December.
What was it like being born into a privileged family?
Of course, it would be correct to say that I was born with a silver spoon. My father, Sir Kofo Abayomi, was a famous personality. He was of the privileged class and we were seen as privileged children which carried some responsibilities as well. Since one was from a good home, people were watching, so one had to behave because if one was seen doing something wrong somewhere, before one got home, one would have been reported. I always tried to comport myself.
What position were you in the family?
I was the fourth child out of six children.
Would you consider yourself to be your father’s favourite child?
I think so.
What do you think endeared you to him?
He relied on me right from when I was young. When I was about 19, he gave me all his title deeds to keep for him. When I was in England at the age of 21, he had instructed his lawyers, Thompson and Coker, to prepare his will and he showed me the drafts to criticise and I scrutinised it very well. I was in my first year in school as a law student. Right in my presence, my father sent for his lawyers and chastised them. He queried them for not advising him well that what he wrote was not correct. They said that he wrote it down for them and that they were only trying to follow his instruction but my father told them that as a doctor, if someone came to him about an illness, he would use his knowledge to treat the person. The fact that he wrote it down as an instruction, they should have gone through it and written it in a legal form. He later asked them to change what he had written based on my correction. These men were very senior lawyers, Thompson and Coker, but he was chastising them in my presence.
My father and I had a very good rapport. For instance, I was signing his cheques. If I did not sign and he counter signed, the banks would not honour his cheques until I had signed. The reason is that he was going blind and to ensure that his stewards would not cheat him, he wrote to the bank that he wanted one of his children to be a co-signatory.
You were not the most senior of his children, so why did he choose you?
Because I was close to him; I had access to him. My elder siblings comprised of two half-Scottish Nigerian children, then my father also had a child who is half Yoruba, half Efik, then he had me and later gave birth to my two younger brothers. He trusted me.
Didn’t the fact that your father chose you to sign his cheques cause any bad blood between you and your siblings?
My father was an old and wise man who managed his affairs very well to the extent that nobody really complained outside even if they had something inside them. When he gave me his title deed and will, he told all his wives and children; he did not hide anything from anyone. Also, I do not know how I was able to manoeuvre myself through that situation. Most people of my father’s status who had multiple wives and children like my father were not able to manage their homes the way my father did and I learnt a lot from him.
Why did you choose to study law?
I had always admired seeing lawyers in court. At a young age, I used to go to the court and peep; then I would see these lawyers in their well starched collar and well adorned suits. At that time, the main court was at Tinubu, so when they finished at court, the lawyers would go to Grand Hotel at Broad Street in their suits and bibs. Most of them were politicians but I admired the way they spoke. That made an impression on me and from a very early age, I was determined that I was going to read law. When I was at King’s College, I used to write on the board by addressing myself as Dr. Kole Abayomi, LLMB, LLB London, Ph.D Cantab. That was even before I went to study law. By the grace of God, all of that came to pass.
Also, after my father got the letter from the principal of King’s College advising that I should study law and also offering me a place in the school, my father talked with me again. During our conversation, I told him that I was going to make him a promise that I would be Dr. K. A Abayomi just like he was. My father was Kofo Adekunle Abayomi while I am Kole Adeniji Abayomi. When I got back from England, I told my father that I had fulfilled my promise. When I got back, Sola Odunfa who was my classmate in primary school, had become a senior person at Daily Times, I think he was an editor. He sent someone to interview me and the headline was that I had fulfilled my promise to my father.
My father was very happy. I became very useful to him because he had a lot of properties, so I helped him manage them. I also used to help him draft his leases on the properties and he would pay me for my services.
Being the favourite child of your father, did he pamper you?
No, I was not. My father was nice but strict. When I was about 12 years old, during Christmas, he sent his youngest wife to buy me a Christmas present and she bought me a lace material which was about 12 Shillings per yard. My father refused to pay for that. He said that if I wore that at 12, what would I wear when I grew up. I was very angry but looking back, I understand because he could afford it.
When I got to England in 1960, federal scholars were being paid £30,000 per month but my father said he did not want me to starve, so I was given a monthly allowance of £60,000, he bought me a car as a student but when I returned for my law school, I sold the car but my father did not demand the money from me. Instead when I got to Lagos, he asked his friend to get me a new car. The course in the law school was about nine months and when I finished, I sold the car and kept the money again, then I returned to England. When I got to England again, he asked his UK agent to get me a car.
But when I got to Nigeria finally, he said that he would not get me a car, instead I should get a loan like my peers. I thought it was illogical but he said when I was studying, he did not want anything to disturb me but since I was fully in Nigeria, I should live like my colleagues. That was another lesson I learnt from him.
Were you tempted to stay back in England after completing your studies?
I did not want to come to Nigeria. I got a job with World Bank and a university in America to teach African Studies because that was the time African way of life began to gain momentum in America. Most of my friends who did Ph.D in Cambridge and Oxford went to America to work for World Bank or IMF. When I got the job with World Bank, I was so happy so I wrote my dad. When he replied me, he congratulated me but reminded me that I would always remain a foreigner abroad but in Nigeria, there were immense opportunities for me especially with my connections. He advised me to come to Nigeria; then he added that the reason why he sent me to England was because he was getting old and he wanted me to look after his affairs for him. As soon as I got the letter, I gave up the appointment and I came home.
Why did you venture straight into lecturing instead of setting up a chamber on your return to Nigeria?
I have always liked teaching. I was a member of the literary and debating society in school. I enjoy talking and when I was in England, I was doing part-time lecturing for people who did A and O levels in law at the college of education in Oxford. That was when I knew I had a talent to teach because the British people there saw this trait in me, they encouraged me to teach, so I was teaching while I was doing my Ph.D.
At what point in your life did you first have a serious relationship?
I got married in my first year in England. I was living in a hall of residence in England and on this fateful day, I was going out on a date when I saw three young beautiful Afro-American ladies who were going into my hostel to see my friend. They asked me for directions to his apartment and after answering them, I told one of them that she was going to be my wife, then I left. I had forgotten about the incident till I attended another party some weeks later and met the girl there. We struck a conversation, danced and she agreed to go to the movies with me two days later which was around Christmas. I went to the movie theatre and waited for about two hours while it was snowing but she did not come, so I went back to my hall of residence. About four months later, I met her at another party and asked why she stood me up but she was very apologetic about it and from there, we started dating. She was only 15 years and six months old at the time while I was about 18 years old. When she turned 16, I married her and we have three beautiful children.
When my father heard that I had got married in my first year in school and even had a child, he was upset but he had two friends who I asked to help me beg him. My mother also spoke to him on my behalf. They spoke to him and he said he would give me a condition for him to forgive me. His condition for forgiveness was that I must make a first class or second class upper in school. We did not inform my father till I was almost done with my three year course, so by the time he gave his terms and condition, I was relieved because I knew I would achieve it.
When we came back to Nigeria, my father’s heart melted when he saw my wife and children.
How were you able to cope with your academics and being a family man?
To be honest, I don’t know but I think it had to do with discipline. I have always known what I wanted as far as my studies are concerned. One good thing about me is that I never read for more than three hours a day but it was consistent.
Considering your wife’s age at the time, was there any resistance from her family?
No, her parents were in America and they gave us their consent that we should be married. Back then, if you were below the age of 18, you had to get parental consent before you got married. I had no issues with her parents.
Is that marriage still intact today?
No, it is not. I met her when she was very young and she did not have time to have fun before she became a wife and mother. Nigeria is a difficult place to live, so when I brought her here, she found it difficult to stay. Things changed, we had some misunderstanding and then, we divorced. Later I married one of my students at Lagos Law School.
Was it easy convincing your student to marry you?
I knew her before she became a student. My driver was driving me into the school in my small car during the holiday around July when I saw a pretty girl coming out of my boss’ office. Apparently her father had sent her to see the head to give her an accommodation. I gave my driver my card to give it to her, informing her that I would like to see her. There were no students around at the time and I did not know she was. It took a while before my driver came back but when he did, he said he did not see the lady. I forgot to ask for my card from him and that was how that ended.
When the session started, I could not remember the lady anymore. About six months later, my friend’s sister and a lady walked into my office at the law school and asked me to sign their bursary form. I told the lady that I knew that I could not sign two forms, so she should go to my colleague while I signed for the stranger.
Shortly after my friend’s sister left, the young lady began to smile and when I asked her why she was smiling, she responded, ‘can’t you remember me?’ I told her no and she reminded me that I had earlier sent my driver to her with a card. Then I told her that my driver said he did not see her. It was then she told me what happened. She said that she tore the card and told the driver to inform me that it was not an appropriate way to woo a lady. After we chatted for a while, I took her out for lunch. At that time, I had divorced my first wife, but six months later we got married.
You were among the 50 men who drafted the Nigerian constitution, how did you get involved in the project?
My Ph.D. thesis was the ‘Control of the administration by parliament’. There were people who were officials in the government who knew about my topic and they recommended me to the government that I should be one of the members.
In my work, I advocated that the British system of governance would not pay Nigeria because the system is all about winner takes all. If you win an election, you form the government and care less about the opposition. I went to America on a scholarship to do a research on their system and I saw them use public hearing on policies, they use specialist committees to interview ministers or government officials like we see on the television and we would have legislators tear the nominees apart with their questions. I was impressed with what I found out and in my thesis; one of the things I recommended was the use of Ombudsman in our system and also the advantages of using committees in a presidential system. It just fitted in that it was what I had researched on and based my thesis on. Nigeria was yearning for something like that at the time.
Do you think the constitution has served its purpose?
It was misused but what I have learnt from that constitution is about our attitude. It is the way you work because a constitution cannot take care of everything, it is the attitude of the people to the constitution, to governance that would actually determine the development of a nation.
You appear to be a very busy man; do you ever have time to socialise?
I am a very social person and I enjoy myself immensely. I like going to nice restaurants to eat and I like going to classy parties. I have toned it down a bit. I used to go to Ghana just to have lunch. I would take a plane in the morning with a friend, have lunch and dinner and get back to Nigeria the next day.
I am 77 years old now, so I have toned down in most of these things. Most times I just swim in my pool at home. I have eleven grandchildren. When I was 75 years old, I took all my children, their spouses and my grandchildren to Dubai for two weeks, that is about 23 of us and that is the sort of thing that I like. I have a picture in my house that shows the 23 of us, there is nothing more memorable than that.
How did you feel when you bagged a national award?
I am a member of the 50 wise men who drafted the constitution, vice-chairman of the Nigeria promotion board, chairman of Ibile Holdings, Lagos State. I guess my contribution was what prompted my nomination.
For 36 years I taught lawyers which include attorney generals, I can tell you that there is hardly anyone in the judiciary today that I have not taught.
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Source: The Punch