Bar and Bench Watch ICON: OLUWOLE OLADAPO OLANIPEKUN, SAN
For rising from his humble setting without the proverbial golden spoon to become a legal luminary of international repute and for deployment of his deep understanding of the law to handle complex legal issues of core national importance where there were scant judicial precedents, the determination of which formed locus classicus and averted serious constitutional crises in Nigeria; for demonstrating brilliancy, diligence, uncommon courage, enthusiasm, probity, conscientiousness and unparalleled patriotism to the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the downtrodden during his tenure as president of the lawyer association between 2002 and 2004, a period which remained a watershed in the history of the bar comparable only to the golden era of the late Alao Aka-Bashorun; for his silent but impactful philanthropy which had liberated countless hapless Nigerians from the grip of ignorance, abject poverty and hopelessness and for his superlative mentorship style which has produced Senior Advocates of Nigeria, judges of superior courts of record, university dons, secretaries and legal advisers of various blue chip companies and attorneys general of different states, Chief Oluwole Oladapo Olanipekun, OFR, SAN is the Bar and Bench Watch Icon for the week.
Chief Wole Olanipekun was born on November 18, 1951 at Ikere-Ekiti. He attended Amoye Grammar School, Ikere-Ekiti between 1965 and 1969 where he obtained his (Ordinary Level) West African School Certificate in Education (WASCE). He was exceptional in his academic activities and moral rectitude. No wonder, he was appointed by the school authorities as Senior Prefect (SP) in 1969. As the school’s Senior Prefect, he left a mark: he stopped the practice of senior students caning the junior ones because he saw through the wickedness of some senior students using the instrumentality of seniority to oppress the junior ones. Thus when Senior Prefect Olanipekun banned the use of the cane, the junior ones were filled with joy. This disposition naturally allowed the young ones to flow with him. Even after, and up till now, he fought and is still fighting injustice, cheating wherever he finds himself. No wonder, millions of Nigerians see him as a role model and mentor.
After completing his ordinary level secondary school education at Amoye Grammar School, Senior Prefect Olanipekun proceeded to Ilesa Grammar School, Ilesa, popularly called ILEGRAMS in 1970 for his Higher School Certificate in Education. The school was one of the top three in the whole of Western Region at the time while the student population then was about 1,000! The then Western Region comprised today’s Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti states. Although he was not made a prefect in ILEGRAMS by the school authorities, the student body of the great college saw in him what the authorities did not see. And there was ‘revolution’ in the school because of Olanipekun. How? At the time in issue, Ilesha Grammar School, though a secondary school, had a Students’ Representatives Council (SRC). Traditionally, the Senior Prefect was the automatic chairman. But in 1971, in an unprecedented manner, the students strangely insisted on electing their own representatives which was shocking to Chief Oni, the school principal at the time. School principals in those days were tough and would not brook any nonsense from their students. Curiously, however, Chief Oni allowed the students to have their way. To his surprise, the students voted for a person who was not even a Prefect as the chairman of the SRC! That person was Wole Olanipekun! He was also the Editor-In-Chief of the School’s magazine-The Spike as well as the President of the Dramatic Society in 1971.
As soon as he was done with his HSC programme in ILEGRAMS in 1971, he proceeded to University of Lagos, Akoka in 1972 to study Law. As usual, he didn’t just pass through the university. He left indelible footprints there. Chairman Olanipekun, in his undergraduate days at Akoka donned his toga of activism. It was not therefore long before he was noticed. While he was a little above one year old in the school, he was elected the Secretary-General, University of Lagos Students’ Union in 1973, a position he held till 1974. While he was on the executive committee of the Student Union Government of University of Lagos, he selflessly and courageously fought for the interest of his colleagues who voted him into office. His activism and uncommon courage to challenge authorities where the rights of his people were or about to be infringed upon, however landed him in trouble in 1974 as he was arrested and detained on the order of the then Head of State, General Gowon for daring to lead a group of students to reject militocracy in Nigeria.
Scribe Olanipekun recalled the encounter he had with the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon at the time thus: “When we were students at the University of Lagos, I led a group of student activists to University of Ibadan. That was on April 1st, 1974. We were going to Adekunle Adepeju burial ground at Molete area. We were chanting peaceful songs: Military must go, democracy we want! Then the police came and started throwing teargas at us. We retaliated by throwing pebbles at them. We were eventually rounded up and put in the Black Maria, about 20 of us. We were kept in the Black Maria for one night. From there, they took us to Iyaganku prisons. But we were sending out letters and relating with pressmen. The National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) mounted national and international pressure onnthe government to release us, alleging that the police wanted to kill us. We were held in that prison from April 1 to April 28. Then General Gowon made a national broadcast to announce that he had given us a state pardon.
“Then, I led the University of Lagos students to Dodan Barracks to protest what he meant by state pardon. I confronted the head of state, General Gowon. I said, what do you mean by state pardon? And he said to me, ‘my boy, do you want to go back to where I put you? You enjoyed the place?’ Then we started talking, and he accommodated us. He listened to us. But when we were going, Gowon said, you young men, you protested against the NYSC that I introduced, and you are protesting again. Don’t you know that you are the leaders of tomorrow?’ He pointed to me and said. “You in particular, you will be great because of the courage with which you addressed me.’
“Years later, I was flying to Cross River State to defend Gov. Donald Duke, and Gowon and I were on the same plane. I greeted him and he was just looking at me. After sometime, he said, ‘where did I know you?’ Then I reminded him. And he said, were you that boy I prayed for? And he said you have to come and pay me royalties,” he reminisced.
Courageous Olanipekun, on completing his Law programme at the University of Lagos in 1975 proceeded to the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island that same year (1975) and was called to the Nigerian Bar in July 1976.
According to him, his choice of Law as a profession was not accidental. Hear him: “A lot of factors have come to play. First and foremost, my background as a Christian, someone from Ekiti who was not born with the proverbial golden spoon, someone who has always hated cheating and injustice. Again my reading of the biography of my senior colleagues in this profession had also influenced me. When I ta1k of senior colleagues, I am not restricting that to Nigeria. I mean senior lawyers all over the world. What were lawyers doing? What did they achieve? The Gandhis, Clintons, Mandelas, Sapara Williams, Rotimi Williams, Gani Fawehinmis, Akinjides, and Afe Babalolas of this world.
“Of all the professions in the world, there is none that influences the human behaviour, the human interaction, the integration, the building of nations, the emancipation of the people like the legal profession. I have come to the conclusion that any lawyer who practices law, making money without contributing to the uplifting of the society, to his immediate environment, such a lawyer would have lived a void life, a life of minus, a life of substitution and I dare say it would have been better if that lawyer had not been born,” he said.
As soon as he was called to the bar in 1976, Barrister Olanipekun started practice. He worked as a junior counsel in the firm of Messrs Oniyangi & Co in Ilorin between 1977 and 1979. In 1980, he established his own chambers and became the Principal Partner of Messrs Wole Olanipekun & Co. The chamber which started as a small firm today has three fully functional offices in Lagos, Abuja and Ilorin with representative office in Akure and strong professional presence in 29 states across Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Fifteen years after he started his private practice, he was conferred with the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in July 1991 in recognition of his invaluable contributions to the advancement of legal profession in Nigeria. It is history today that as at then, he was the youngest of all the Senior Advocates in Nigeria. That same year he was admitted into the inner bar, he was appointed as Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice of Ondo State and served in that capacity for two years.
It was while he was serving as the Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice in Ondo State that the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) went comatose owing to leadership crisis. Little wonder then, that shortly after the duo of Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN ) and Richard Ahonaruogho-led Committee moved round the entire branches of the NBA in Nigeria to resuscitate the association, Senior Advocate Olanipekun was prevailed upon by those who knew his leadership values to contest for the Presidency of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in 2002. He agreed, contested and won the presidential poll. In August 2002, Chief Olanipekun (SAN), therefore, became the president of the NBA and was in office until August 2004, a period that has remained a watershed in the history of the Bar, comparable only to the golden era of the late Alao Aka-Bashorun. During his tenure, he displayed quintessential characteristics and took the association to an enviable height. He exuded brilliancy, diligence, enthusiasm, industry, probity, conscientiousness and unparalleled patriotism to the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). Under him, NBA identified and stood for justice, rule of law, constitutionalism and with courage, opposed all forms of oppression, repression, brutality, ruthlessness and injustice.
According to him, “When I was contesting for the president of the NBA, I knew what I was bargaining for. I had a vision and an ambition. I wanted my regime to be a watershed. I wanted to create some precedent; some people did not know me well: they didn’t know my background. In fact, a good number of people supported me. Two, three months when I got to the office, they said I was too hot and they never knew. I made up my mind that I would not abuse the leaders of this country but I would hold them responsible for their action; that the NBA must champion a revolution; that we are going to be the lights that foray into the darkest places of this country and that we are going to fight bad governance. Naturally I knew government would not come to me to patronize me. I also made up my mind about honesty in the NBA. I asked myself a pertinent question: if I go to the NBA to steal, to pollute the till, to collapse the treasury and the revenue, how would I open my mouth and criticize the government on corruption?”
That was the spirit with which he started his NBA presidency. He was daring and was ready to confront anybody including the most powerful president in the world as created by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He actually did confront and was highly hated by the authorities. Rather than taking sides with government, he chose to side with the people, fighting their battles through the courts. From Katsina to Abia, Lagos to Kano, Olanipekun took sides with the people to battle the lopsided federalism being practised in Nigeria. He challenged the enormous powers of the Federal Government in the federal arrangement. For instance, for daring to criticize the then government of the day and the ills in the society, President Olanipekun indeed paid a price. Hear him: “Government then saw me and NBA as enemy number one. I had very naughty experiences even with President Obasanjo. I respected and still respect him because he is my elder but he didn’t like my style, he didn’t like the NBA under my leadership. Even at a public function he virtually embarrassed me when he greeted other people and he didn’t greet me. But I went to him and said, ‘Mr. President, good afternoon’. Every other person was there, it was the conference of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) when (Adams) Oshiomhole was seeking re-election. I was there as one of the VIPs and he came to declare the convention open. So, I made up my mind that I … wanted the NBA to be independent of powers and principalities, as the case may be.”
The former NBA president would also not forget an encounter with the same President Obasanjo when he led a team of lawyers to Aso Villa. He reminisced thus: “Before we left for Abuja, my brother, Femi Falana called to caution me to be careful with how I addressed the president. I prayed and waited on the Lord before I went there. And when we got there, Obasanjo said, Mr. President of the NBA, can we send out the press? But I said, ‘they can’t misquote me. I have a prepared speech.’ I began to read my speech. The first thing I said was that the condition of the police was deteriorating. I said we have to address the situation. Then Obasanjo said, where did you get your facts? He said, ‘the money I spent on the Nigerian Police Force, I didn’t spend up to that prosecuting the civil war.’ And I said, ‘Mr. President, are you General Gowon?’ I didn’t say more than that, because he wasn’t the head of state during the war. And at a point, the president got angry and was banging the table. And he was really furious. He was talking and talking. But I didn’t say a word. But when it was getting too long, I stood up and said, Mr. President, can we take our leave? I said, ‘I didn’t bring myself here, and I can’t be talking back at you. You are old enough to be my father, and you are my head of state. And I said sir, I am very sorry to say this, my parents never harassed me. I am not used to being harassed. Can we take our leave?’ Then, there was pin-drop silence. Debo Akande started nudging me. Then after sometime, Obasanjo calmed down and said, okay let us continue. I understand that when we left, he was asking: Who elected that rascal as president of NBA? Then Kanu Agabi replied him and said, that is one of the most serious-minded, intelligent lawyers Nigeria has ever produced. He is not a rascal.”
Still on his experience for daring authorities, former President Olanipekun said: “I have been hunted, harassed and victimized. First and foremost, when Chris Ngige was abducted, I came out heavily as the president of NBA. I said it was barbaric and brutish and uncivilized. When the Igwe couple were assassinated in the most barbaric manner on the street of Onitsha and I led a protest to challenge the authorities, I received threat messages, telephone calls, people asking for where I was. During the Ngige time, I got letters in my office saying that I dared not go out, that they would eliminate me. I sent some of these letters to the police. Fortunately, my own very good brother, Sunday Ehindero, was Inspector-General of Police then. But nothing was done.”
Although it was a very big risk confronting the authorities, his activism, forthrightness, patriotism and love for the Nigerian Bar, the downtrodden earned him respect from all and sundry. What he lost in monetary terms during his presidency, he gained in terms of popularity and respect from Nigerians grateful for having a people’s advocate.
At various times, he has been a member of the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee, the Chairman, Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (1999-2002), National Judicial Council Committee (1999-2002), National Judicial Council (2004-2006). He is also a member of the International Bar Association, where he served as member of Council between 2002 and 2004, Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association (CLA), where he was appointed as member of Council between 2004 and 2006. In 2003, he was appointed the vice President of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU). In January 2007, he became a Life bencher, appointed by the Nigerian Body of Benchers. He was the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Governing Council of the University of Ibadan between 2004 and 2006. He is a member of the Nigerian Bar Association, International Bar Association and the Nigerian Body of Benchers.
His Legal Practice cuts across nearly all fields and areas of Law with particular emphasis on Constitutional Law, Banking, Business/Commercial Law, Land and Chieftaincy, Election and Electoral matters, Oil and Gas, Environmental Law, Arbitration, Maritime, Telecommunications, etc. He also engages in Transborder practice. He belongs to the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, both in the United Kingdom and Nigeria. He practices and appears in Courts in nearly all the states of Nigeria. He also constantly appears in all the divisions of the Court of Appeal in Nigeria, particularly Lagos, Ibadan, Benin, Ilorin, Port-Harcourt, Calabar, Abuja and Jos. He has been regularly appearing before the Supreme Court of Nigeria since 1985.
In the last eight years or thereabouts, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN has delivered more than 120 papers on Law, Economics, Politics, Literature and Corporate Governance in and out of the country and within and without several universities. He is always being bombarded with invitations from universities, other higher institutions, corporate bodies, public institutions, governments at all tiers to deliver lectures on contemporary legal, political, educational, economic, corporate and social issues.
He is above all, a philanthropist. He says giving is his own way of spreading the gospel of Christ. “The Bible says it’s more blessed to give than to receive,” he explains. “Every wealth belongs to God and God gives people money for a purpose – to contribute to making the society better. I once received text messages from two law students. I never met them. All they said was that they were in the Law School and in dire need of their tuition fee. I contacted the authorities there and paid their fees into the school coffers. When they were through, they sent me messages again, praying for me. When I clocked 20 years at the Bar, I instituted an endowment fund for young lawyers, both in Lagos and Ilorin. These are aside from the scholarship that I instituted in my state 16 years back. I recall all these among many others to convince privileged Nigerians that selfishness is no virtue in the eyes of God. As for me, I have chosen the path of selflessness because I spend from God’s pocket; no going back because it is my own way of spreading the gospel.”
He is happily married to Princess Omolara Olanipekun and the marriage is blessed with two boys and two girls, three of whom are lawyers.