‘We don’t fight for our rights in this country;We must be determined to challenge Injustice’
Pa Tunji Gomez is a Bar leader, veteran activist and Life Bencher who had practised the law profession for close to 60 years. Born on March 16, 1928 to the Doherty and Gomez families of Lagos State, he was raised in Lagos and attended CMS Grammar School, Abeokuta Grammar School and Kings College Lagos. He led the 1948 strike at Kings College that turned around the fortunes and prestige of the institution and it was in the process of defended the case filed against the students who led the action that he was influenced to study Law by the European lawyer, Mr. Alex Taylor, who represented the students in court (pro bono) free of charge. Gomez was called to Bar in England in 1961 and joined the Firm of M. A. Odesanya & Co on his return to Nigeria, where he had his pupilage with the likes of Simon Olakunle (SAN) and Fola Shasegbon before setting up his own practice. As a junior, Gomez was in the team of lawyers that defended the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the celebrated treasonable felony case of 1962. He spoke to GODWIN DUNIA on life as a lawyer, practice, SANship, fighting for our rights, longevity, etc
What influenced your choice of the legal profession as a career?
I got the inspiration while in Kings College, Lagos. Before then, I went to other best schools then, such as Baptist Academy, Lagos; Eko Boys High School, Lagos and Abeokuta Grammar School. In those days, the reputation of schools matter a lot to parents, such that when you were in a school and they realised another school with higher reputation, they transfer you there.I got the inspiration to study Law in 1944 in my days as student in Kings College when I came in contact with one of Nigeria’s best lawyers then, Alex Taylor. He was the leader of the Bar and at that time, there was a case that he took up and defended free of charge. I was so impressed that I made up my mind to be a lawyer in order to defend the people, just as Taylor had done. I was called to Bar in 1962 after my studies in London.
Coming to the practice of the law profession then and compare to now, there are great differences. As a lawyer then, you walked the streets as if you owned it with prestige and there was no cause to go into other areas, such as estate agency, trading and so on, as obtained in the profession now.In those days, lawyers were fearless and were not associated with funny things, such as bribery and corruption. In those days, it was a great reputation to be a lawyer and you don’t have any cause to be involved in any other practices. But nowadays, lawyers are into several business activities that as a matter of fact, are not in the interest of the profession. This must be why some of them got into trouble.
Sometimes, I feel ashamed when I read in newspapers that lawyers are facing charges of corruption, fraud and bribery. Most painful is that some of them are Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs).I think something is wrong with law practice today, maybe after my birthday, I may then speak about this. However, we still have good lawyers with reputation, just that once a bad egg is always a bad egg.
As an advocate for the abolition of the SAN title, what is you position on the criteria for appointment of senior advocates?
I have said earlier on that I want to maintain peace during this my 90th birthday anniversary. For now, it is left for all lawyers to take responsibility for what they want. Whether they want its abolition or reformation of the SAN award.Until I finish with my celebration, I would not quarrel anybody. However, this does not suggest that I support the award of the SAN. And again, you know an adage that says, ‘when you are old, you stop going to war.’
So far, I have shown the way and the light, let the people find the way. All I can say now is that the rule of law must be follow in all professions and indeed, the law profession. Nigerians must rise up to fight for their rights. It is very important because if we don’t fight for our rights, people will trample over them.Also, the judiciary must be protected, no matter what happens. Those that are bad ones among them must be made to resign or dealt with.
What is your position and advice on the allegation of impropriety against the judiciary?
The assault seems to be a ploy to bury the rule of law. And when the judiciary is rubbished, the lawyers are nothing. If we allow our Judges to be rubbished, we put ourselves at the will and mercy of the government and politicians, and we must not allow that to happen, no matter what.
What is your position on the rot in judiciary?
Can you tell me any sector in Nigeria that is not corrupt? Apart from the President and his Vice president, how many of the government officials are not corrupt? This is a country where past and present governors and ministers are corrupt to the extent that a former minister has acquired so much money to herself that can even be use to run a country.
What has kept you going in law practice?
Dedication and love of the profession. It has given me opportunity to fight for those who could not defend themselves, and there are lots of people who could not defend themselves in this country. To me, lawyers have not been doing enough or maybe there are too much of people who cannot help themselves or too much lawyers afraid to help them. What I have observed so far is that we don’t know how to fight for our rights in this country.
The late Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano, etc only spoke grammar; they did not actually fight in their days. So, we as a people don’t know how to fight and it is affecting us, because if we know how to fight, a lot of things and government policies would not be taken for
How do you think we should fight for our rights?
You have two options- mass protest and the court of law. We can also apply both, depending on the situation. In most times, the late Gani Fawehinmi used the court, and you saw a lot of things he did. For instance, the registration of multiple parties today was due to his fight through the court.
At the time, the government had wanted to restrict the numbers of political parties to two. Fortunately, the judgment said no, that the government could not restrict political parties. You cannot just sit down and expect the government to do the right thing always. In my time, I took both the military and civilian governments to court. I took the military government to court over acquisition of the land now known as Campus Stadium, where most important Nigerians, including Ajayi Crowther, the first Nigerian lawyer, Ishapara and others were buried.
The government then wanted the place for state secretariat and I kicked against this. Though it was difficult getting those affected involved in the fight, because they were scared of the military regime, but glory be to God, at the end the presiding Judge, Justice V. I. Taylor, gave an injunction, which never allowed them to build on the land until after some years.I don’t know if the affected families were pressurised or compensated. But before then, the government had moved the secretariat to Alausa, Ikeja.
I also took the civilian government to court over the acquisition of another land in central Lagos. Though the case lingered from the Lateef Jakande government to Bola Tinubu’s administration, but the fact is that I won the case. The people need to know their rights and that there is a provision in the constitution for contempt against any government officials who failed to obey the laws or court orders. The point is that we are afraid to fight for our rights. Look at all the activist lawyers we used to have, how many of them are still activists today? Most of them are now pro-government.
As the oldest practising lawyer in Nigeria, what are the challenges you have faced in the course of the profession?
The most annoying and frustrating challenge is the length of time it took a case to conclude. You go to court and get three months adjournment and what will you do, because there are lots of cases. There is need for more Judges. We have a system that needs to be improved and that is the system of appeal. I don’t know how this can be done. Probably they need to call in experts and any attempt to review it must include the junior lawyers, who suffer it most, and not the SANs, because the provision that when a case is on appeal, and that could be apply for a stay, means the case is hanging for the next 10 years.
If you go to the High Court and you win, you go to Appeal Court and get a stay, which could last for 10 years and you know the implication of this, whatever you were trying to prevent would have happened.
Can you recall your first court appearance?
I remember my first day in the lower court in 1962 at Yaba, Lagos and my first day at the High Court.At the lower court, I still remember I got up to address the Magistrate and maybe he knew the people at the other side, so he was hostile at me and queried the type of English I used.I responded that it the Queen’s English and that I schooled in London. At this point, I was gentle and respectful, because there were ways to give it back to a Judge without insulting him or her.
How come you are not a SAN and how do you feel about it?
I had never applied for it. You see, there were few of us, about 10 in number, myself, the late Shasegbon, Alao Aka-Bashorun, three others I won’t want to mention, decided we were not going to apply, because we considered it insulting. After some time, one of us decided otherwise due to his personal experience he had with an SAN, who happened to be his junior at the Bar. But the rest of us did not apply.
The privilege they are giving to SANs is to say the least, incompatible with democratic practices or the rule of law in this country.There are no ways to determine that lawyer ‘A’ is qualified and lawyer ‘D’ is not. There is no examination, like is obtained in other professions. All they do is to give ridiculous conditions and that is all.
And with due respect, those who give the award are even indifferent to the fact of whether the people wanted it or not. They had also refused to enforce the resolution passed by the Kaduna NBA (Nigeria Bar Association) that suggests a call of meeting of stakeholders to decide if the SAN should be abolished or reformed.
What do you think is the way out of corruption in the country?
Fighting for our rights. Something must be done to start getting accelerated hearing and judgment in our courts. There must be a review of the time spent on cases. If it is inadequate Judges, we should appoint more Judges to handle cases. I was at a function recently and a retired Supreme Court Justice was forced to lament what time it takes for a case to be heard or concluded. Honestly, the Nigerian Judges are good; it is the process that is bad. I don’t know of any democratic country where a case will take 10 years to conclude.So, one of the solutions to corruption in the country is to fight for our rights, challenge government officials and also a speedy judicial system.
As a 90-year-old lawyer, do you feel fulfilled?
Oh yes! But my only worry is activist lawyers and the fact that their activities at the NBA are reducing in number and if you don’t get voice of opposition, the government will do what it likes. The executive arm of the NBA has to teach younger lawyers that money is not the reason why the profession is called the protector of the masses.
I wish the country a great judicial system and the Bench and Bar must work together and not allowed to be destroyed by the assault levelled against them. They must work together to preserve the rule of law.
How would you assess the NBA in the discharge of its mandate?
I have said earlier that in this my 90th birthday celebration, I will not offend anybody. Just to celebrate peacefully.
Any regret as a lawyer and what are your best moments?
No regret as a lawyer and my best moment is when I win a case for the less privileged, the poor and the weak. Unfortunately, there are lots of poor people in the country. The late Gani Fawehinmi did a lot for the poor during is time. The question now is: how many of Gani do we have around? By now, I expected to see a lot of lawyers emulating him.
How is your typical day like?
It starts between 6a.m. and 6.30a.m. when I have to review cases we have in court and if there is need to go to court. When I was younger, I didn’t go to bed earlier than 12 midnight, because I love watching television. I still go to bed late, but not as before.
What is your best food?
I don’t want to sound as an African; I have to say the truth. I love Chinese food/cooking. Though they are very expensive and they take time to use better seasoning on their food, they do not constipate and are easily digestive. In our own food, I love Jollof-rice cooked in old fashion. You expect me to say amala? I don’t like amala even from childhood. I prefer iyan, eba, rice and dodo with chicken.
What is the secret of your longevity and how would you want to be remembered?
My longevity is the blessing of God, physical exercises, respect for the body, as well as the mind and the body working together. I want to be remembered as Tunji Gomez, father of the oppressed. I have been fighting for the people’s right from my childhood.The fight for the oppressed also propelled me into the law profession. If every lawyer does his/her bit of fight for others, the country would improve. God cannot come down to help you; it is when you help yourself that God would help you. We must be determined to challenge every injustice.
How is your family?
My family is fine. I met her when I was an undergraduate in Dublin. We are blessed with two children- male and female- and they are doing fine as lawyers.
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