Chief Ladi Rotimi-Williams, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and son of late Chief Rotimi Williams, speaks about his life to ELLIOT OVADJE and LANRE ADEWOLE.
HOW was your childhood?
My father, Bode Thomas and Fani Kayode found the first legal partnership in Nigeria, if not in the old British West Africa. Then, we were living in Lagos. Chief Alfred Rewane, my father’s client, introduced Chief Obafemi Awolowo to my father or the other way round and they clicked. He was taken to Ibadan as a minister and Bode Thomas became a federal minister for transport. When we left Lagos in 1954, I was eight years old or so. People used to make fun of those with tribal marks. When we got to Ibadan, I saw people wearing suits, wigs and gowns. We lived a protected life that even in school, my father had one American car then that used to take us to school, but because the other children were not wearing shoes, we used to remove our own just to be like them. That was where I acquired my Ibadan accent and I speak Ibadan dialect very well. Growing up then, that was where I saw abject poverty. We lived in the middle of Oke Ado market in 1954. My father was minister of justice, local government and chieftaincy. There was no GRA. It was when we got there that they began building Iyaganku GRA. Those were houses built by the British. Chief Awolowo never moved to government house. He was living in Oke-Ado. As Premier of the Western Region, Awolowo never lived a luxury life. His first expensive car was bought for him by his wife, Chief (Mrs) HID Awolowo, who was a successful trader.
Before you got to Ibadan and started seeing people with tribal marks, where did you spend those years in Lagos?
On the mainland mainly because when we were on the Island, I was too young. We were living in my grandfather’s house at Idumagbo Avenue. That was where I was born. Subsequently, we moved to Yaba, the building that was used by Thomas, Williams and Kayode for their law practice. Later, we moved to Ibadan. So my real childhood life was at Ibadan.
To project the free education policy, they had to move you from fee-paying to public school. How did you adapt?
In order to demonstrate to the people of Ibadan that we were not trying to make their sons and daughters go to inferior schools, they put us in free primary education school. My initial school was Children Home School.
So, all the children of those serving in the cabinet were moved to public schools as a demonstration of government’s commitment?
Yes, including the late Oluwole Awolowo, Chief Awolowo’s son. He was my senior in primary school in 1953.
One moment you were schooling with those up there, the next moment, you were with those who were not wearing shoes.
Yes. Those days, it was not what you wore that counted. It was whether you were obedient boy or girl that counted. Despite that, these free primary schools still produced good people. Many of them later went to good schools. I went to Kings College, Lagos. You had to write common entrance examinations. You just wrote your number. Nobody wanted to know your name. At that time, the Action Group (AG) was in the opposition, I could not even take advantage of politics to enter school. You must pass the examination well.
Was removing your shoes an act of solidarity?
No. We just felt like we should not be putting on shoes when other people were not. They would make fun of you. We were more concerned about making friends because putting on shoes or not did not stop us from mingling with others. We had to remove our shoes to feel among. Don’t forget most of the people were Ibadan locals. Ibadan was dominated by Adegoke Adelabu, the original Penkelemesi family. They didn’t like us and they did not hide it. We felt we could still make friends at our own levels. Till date, we still meet. We are still friends and none of us is less than 70 years.
Can you remember some of your primary school mates that were not wearing shoes then?
Many of them are dead now mainly because they did not have the kind of healthcare that I had access to. But I remember Funsho Onafowokan who is now a medical doctor and Kofo Ogunshola, now Kofo Rotimi. She is also a medical doctor. There is also Sadi Popoola. He was special adviser to the regional government on sports. Another is Moshood Bola. He was in the Navy.
How was life at Kings College?
KC was different because the educational background I had at Ibadan was very helpful. I never repeated a class. From there, I went to England for my A Levels, and from there, I went to University College, London, where I studied Law. I came back for my Law School, and since then in 1972, until my father died, I was working for him. I never worked for anybody. His office was at Ilupeju, but we are now doing exactly what he did. This building belongs to my wife and I. We are living upstairs. This floor and the ground floor are our offices. There are about 15 lawyers working here.
Kings College would have been well regulated, but boys would have been boys in those days. What about pranks and girls?
Well, we didn’t know about girls in those days.
Did that contribute to why you didn’t move so fast with wooing your wife when you met at the party?
That was her 18th birthday. I didn’t know how to talk to girls then. I needed the help of the late Oba Olateru-Olagbegi, the Olowo of Owo, who was like a big brother. His sister was almost same age with me. I told her, “come o, who is that girl? I like her o. What is her formula?” She called her brother, spoke in Owo dialect. You know that Owo dialect is so strong. So, the Olowo planned how to go about it. Already there was another man who was showing interest in her. But Olowo told me “don’t worry, we are experienced.” He was dancing with her and later winked at me. I moved to where they were and I danced with her throughout the party. That, of course, sealed it. The following morning, I was in their house but I wasn’t sure if their father was around, because their father, the late Louis Edet, the first Inspector General of Police, was very tough with his daughters. You had to be careful because he had dogs in the house. That was how the whole thing happened and since 1968, we are still together.
So your experience with girls despite your rich background was very limited?
I will say somewhat limited.
If your experience was limited, how did you express love to her?
We used to write letters. We used to write: “My love for you is burning like a Bunsen burner.” Do you know what a Bunsen burner is? It’s what they use in Chemistry lab. It produces non-luminous flame (blue flame).That is all. Also, they were satisfied with a card. Ladies then were more interested in what was in you, that is, your character.
What other side of London life did you enjoy?
Oh, we partied in those days. Chief Awolowo’s daughter, Ambassador Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu, I call her Toks. There were not many people who could call her Toks, apart from those of us who had known her for a very long time. My younger brothers could not call her Toks because she was older than them, but I could because I was older. We have been together from the 50s. In fact, I was telling her on one occasion that “Toks, we have been together for over 60 years and we’ve never quarreled” and she just laughed. My wife and Toks are doctors.
You wanted to be a teacher and a professor. You wanted to study something like history. So law was not by choice. Is that correct?
I remember when I was discussing with my father shortly before I was to embark on one of my A Level courses in England. He asked me what would I like to become? I told him a historian or a professor of history. He said why? I said because I like history. Then he said “but it is not a profession” and why didn’t I do something that was a profession? So, when I came home on vacation, I only came home once in seven years because in those days, you did not go by plane, you only went by boats.
Your first case was a bit funny. You were there to move a motion, but they asked you to start calling your witnesses.
Yes. A simple motion to amend a statement of defence or something like that. So the man, I think it was the late Justice Kazeem, not the one that went to Supreme Court. We used to call him Biafra Kazeem because he used to practise in the south-eastern part of the country. So he said “Yes, put your witness in the box and move your motion.” So I told him that there was no need for me to bring my witness because the other side did not file a counter affidavit. “What are you saying? Are you trying to teach me my job?” I said I am sorry sir. He then said “Sit down, your motion is granted.” I was scared.
We also learnt it was not a smooth sail sitting in the inner bar with your dad as the first ever father and son SAN.
As a matter of facts, I applied once and was given the rank. One of the senior lawyers at that time said why should father and son be SAN? So they were going to oppose me on those grounds. I think one of the senior lawyers said: “Are we considering his education or are we considering his father, which we are not to consider because the man has been there before us?” I just kept quiet and was doing my work.
Were you not worried that your father’s image would be a hindrance to your own practice?
Yes and no. I found out from him that in law practice, hard work is very rewarding. Good name is very rewarding. Don’t go around trying to bribe a judge. You will just ruin your name because there is nothing hidden. Eventually, people will know you as a lawyer that bribes judges. So you have to move away from them. It can also be advantageous because you will find people in responsible positions who will say your dad did that case for my mother, oh, your dad did that case for my aunt. If not for the case your dad won for us, I won’t have money to further my education. We have people like that. So, it’s a double-edged sword.
Since you have never practised elsewhere outside his chambers, it will be taken that you never stood on the other side against him. During in-house conferences, did you ever get to disagree with him.
Yes, it happened. We used to have different opinions but the disagreement was never a heated one. It is because his own view, what he was used to when he was my age, no longer applied in my own time. For example, we disagreed on the issue of payments. We wanted to pay for something and I told the cashier to collect my documents for me. The cashier looked at me and said “Mr. Williams, I cannot process your papers because you are five minutes late.” I looked at my time but I still had five minutes and he said he did not use someone else’s time to work. Then I looked at the wall clock but it was not yet time. I told him if we didn’t file it today, time would have expired. Anyway we talked and he reluctantly agreed. About a week later, I went back to thank him and gave him one pound. My dad was very upset over the fact that I went back to give him money. I told my dad that I did not give him the money before he did the job but it was after. He said, “yes but whatever it is, I don›t think young men should be taking money for doing their own job.” He was very strict about certain things. But we were able to get the job done because that was what was important to the client. When the client heard what I did to get the job done, the man came and gave me ten pounds.
When you were younger, were you afraid of him? Did he flog you?
No, he never used the cane. It was my mother that used to flog us. In those days, we had 58 people in my class. If you were not between the first and third, when you got home and she asked for your card, and if you were seventh or eighth, she would ask you if the father of the boy who came first had two heads and your own father, one. She had one red slipper that she used.
How did your father mould you into the man you are today?
He liked to talk to us, especially me because I was the first born. He thought that we had a soft life compared to his, even though his own father was a lawyer. They used to walk to school while we used to go in a car. In Ibadan then, if you walked too far, you would see snakes, scorpions and other things. Occasionally when the car was not available, we used to go in a taxi cab.
What is the most enduring memory of him?
His jokes. He had a sense of humour. I can recall two or three. On one occasion, we were in the Supreme Court in Lagos. He had been addressing the court for a long time on the Weight of Evidence. As he sat, the chair broke. While everybody was worried, he quickly got up and said, “My Lord, I have been addressing you on the weight of evidence, now you have seen the evidence of weight!”