Law History Series: First Female Senior Advocates from the three Regions in Nigeria

Good day everyone, this is another edition of the Law History Series (August Edition). Before forging ahead, I must appreciate the positive feedback I got from our readers as regards the July edition and how it has been very educative. So, some of our readers wanted me to write about female icons in the legal profession since our last edition featured only F.R.A Williams and Dr. Nabo Graham Douglas who are of the male gender. So, to maintain the gender balance, I will be discussing the first female Senior Advocates from the three regions in Nigeria, primarily, the Western region, Eastern region, and the Northern region.

The first person I will be looking at is the first female SAN from Western Nigeria who also doubles as the First Female Senior Advocate of Nigeria — the person of Dr. Folake Solanke SAN.


Folake Solanke is the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). A woman whose trailblazing feats in the legal profession in Nigeria have inspired many women in the industry, her contributions in other fields of endeavour are equally outstanding. Asides being a legal giant, she is also a teacher and a public administrator of high repute. Her enormous career accomplishments have anchored a personality that is audacious. A second look at the subjects that she chose to study before she studied law—Latin and Mathematics—makes this evident. That at a time in history when educating women was neither fashionable nor encouraged by society, a woman would dare to pursue higher education, is remarkable. Yet more telling still is the fact that she chose to do so in areas of study that even men dreaded. It is no surprise therefore that Folake achieved for herself an enviable place in history.

Birth and Education

Folake Odulate was born on 29 March 1932 to Jacob and Sekumade Odulate in Abeokuta, Ogun State. Her father was the notable Nigerian pharmacist who patented the popular drug Alabukun and made a fortune by manufacturing drugs for the Nigerian market.

She started her primary education in 1937 at the Ago-Oko Primary School before transferring to Emo Girls’ School in 1940. There she completed her primary school education in 1944. In 1945, she got admission to the Methodist Girls’ High School, Lagos, where she regularly won first prize in English and Mathematics. She completed her secondary school education in 1949, having obtained a Grade One Certificate after her West African School Certificate Examinations. After a year at Queen’s College, Lagos, she proceeded to Newcastle University (formerly University of Durham), England, for her Bachelor’s degree in Latin and Mathematics. Upon her graduation in 1954, she immediately undertook further studies in Education (as a discipline) and obtained a diploma certificate in 1955 with 2nd Division. After obtaining her diploma in Education, she got employment as a teacher at Pipers Corner School, Great Kingshill, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, where she taught Latin and Mathematics for 2 years. She later joined St Monica’s High School, Essex in 1957, also teaching Latin and Mathematics for one year. Folake’s career trajectory took a new direction at this point when in 1960 she enrolled for a degree in Law at Gray’s Inn, London, completing her studies in 1962, and thereafter returned to Nigeria to practice law.

Career as a Lawyer

Interestingly, upon her return to Nigeria, Folake’s first job was, once again, as a teacher of Latin and mathematics at the Yejide Girls’ Grammar School. Side by side teaching, she also worked as a lawyer with the chambers of the Honourable Justice Michael Adeyinka Odesanya, who was her brother-in-law, in Lagos. In May 1963, she moved to the chambers of Chief Frederick Rotimi Akintola Williams in Ibadan as a junior counsel. In the same month of May in 1963, she was called to Bar in absentia in the UK. She rose steadily at Chief FRA Williams Chambers to become a senior counsel before she left to establish her law chambers, which she named Alabukun Chambers in honour of the memory of her father’s remarkable work in formulating drugs for the Nigerian market, particularly the patented popular drug of the same name. She had since been running her chambers but at a few times, she took up other appointments. In 1972, she was appointed a Commissioner of the Western State of Nigeria. She also served as Chairman, Western Government Broadcasting Corporation Television and Radio Network Service.

Notably but hardly surprising, the idea of becoming a senior advocate never occurred to Folake until her former boss Chief FRA Williams suggested that she apply for it. This was during a visit to the famous legal icon. Subsequently, she began to work on the criteria she had to fulfill to be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and later applied. One day, while working in her chambers, she received a call from Dr. Graham-Douglas who was a member of the SAN committee that her application was successful. In 1981, she was named a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, becoming the first female to reach that milestone. The Yeyemofin of Ife, a title conferred on her by the Ooni Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olabuse II, has held many positions in various institutions and associations covering a wide spectrum of activities. In 1986, she sat as a member of a tribunal that reviewed politicians’ court sentences. In 1987, she was offered a position by the President of the Court of Appeal as a judge in the Court of Appeal. However, she turned down the offer due to her strong involvement in the activities of Zonta International, an international women-interest service organisation based in Illinois, USA. On 21 July 1994, she became the 42nd president of Zonta International, on the fourth time of asking. It was another first for Folake as she became the first black woman ever to head the century-old organization founded in 1919.

Folake Solanke was awarded the International Bar Association (IBA) Outstanding International Woman Lawyer Award in 2012 at the IBA 5th World Women Lawyers’ Conference in London in recognition of her professional excellence and contribution to the advancement of women in the legal profession. She is the author of two books, Reaching for the Stars (2007) and A Compendium of Selected Lectures and Papers (2012). She has written numerous papers and publications covering vast areas including law, women’s rights, Zonta, and the Christian faith. Solanke has received numerous awards, including the National honour of the Commander of the Order of Niger.

On January 17, 2015, Solanke was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Sun Newspaper at a ceremony held at Eko Hotels and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos.
Chief Solanke had a remarkable career and I hope the youths, especially the women in our society, will get inspired by her story and look up to her as a source of inspiration.

Now, the second female legal luminary on the list is the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria from the Eastern Nigeria in the person of Late Chief (Mrs) Phoebe C. Ajayi-Obe SAN.


Chief (Mrs.) Phoebe Chiadi Ajayi-Obe, SAN (nee Erinne) was the third child and first daughter of ten surviving children of her family. She was born on March 21, 1928, in Okija, Ihiala L.G.A., Anambra State into the devout Anglican family of John Ebulue and Christiana Enyebinwa Erinne. Her father, John Ebulue Erinne, was a renowned Catechist/Evangelist with the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). She had her primary school education in various schools at the different church stations where her father served, mostly in present-day Imo and Anambra States. She later trained as a teacher from the famous Women Teachers College (WTC), Umuahia in 1950 and was posted to teach at St. Monica’s College, Ogbunike, near Onitsha. In 1954, with the active encouragement of her eldest brother, late D. C. Erinne, who was an outstanding educationist, she won a scholarship from the Eastern Region to study in the UK.

While abroad, she married Dr. Oyedokun Ajayi-Obe a native of Ilesha, Osun State in Edinburgh in 1957. Her family was initially opposed to her desire to marry a Yoruba man and so her father-in-law – late Chief J.M. Ajayi-Obe the Lemodu of Ijeshaland and a federal senator in the First Republic under the NCNC political party enlisted the help of the late President Nnamdi Azikiwe as a mediator. President Azikiwe together with the late Chief Michael Okpara visited the Erinne family and ultimately convinced them to allow this inter-tribal marriage. To the glory of God, the marriage became a great success story.

Returning to Nigeria in 1958, Mrs. Ajayi-Obe worked with the Western Region as an Education Officer for many years at many locations where her husband, then a Medical Officer with the Western Region was posted to. One of those locations was notably the famous Queen’s School, Ede, and later Ibadan. Mrs. Ajayi-Obe lost her mother very early in life, in 1939 at the age of 11 years. This event in addition to the subsequent demise of her father in 1950, thrust responsibilities upon her shoulders at a very tender age. These early experiences, no doubt, prepared and equipped her for the roles she subsequently played in both the Erinne and Ajayi-Obe families.

The late Chief (Mrs.) Phoebe C. Ajayi-Obe (Nee Erinne) was called to the Nigerian Bar in July 1969 after she attended University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife and it was revealed that the late SAN was equally the first female to have graduated from Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She indeed carved her niche in the legal profession. She had a brief stint working at the chambers of Agbaje & Agbaje and subsequently founded her chambers – P. C. Ajayi-Obe & Co, which flourished into a very successful practice.
She was admitted to the Inner Bar in 1989 making her the first female Senior Advocate from the old Eastern region and the second female legal practitioner in Nigeria to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). She had been in the law practice at Ibadan, Oyo State for a long time, and on the 21st of March, 2018, she launched her book titled: “Icon on the Niger” at her 90th Birthday celebration.

In the 1980s, she was the very first female jurist to be appointed a member of the Federal Special Appeals Tribunal, and she was also a member of the Nigerian Federal Constitution Drafting Committee. In addition, she was a founding executive member of the National Chapter of the International Federation of Female Lawyers – FIDA.
Mrs. Ajayi-Obe practiced law in Ibadan for over 50 years, even almost up until her passing away. Many indigent clients testify to her kindness and willingness to represent them pro bono when she realized that they had no money and no other recourse for justice. She frequently laughed about how she successfully defended a widow in a land dispute and the payment for her legal fees was a basket of freshly harvested yams. In another successfully defended criminal matter, the payment for her legal fees was two large bunches of huge plantains and two live chickens.

Though she claimed to be retired, members of the legal profession would frequently visit her at home to seek her counsel on legal matters. Earlier this year, she still prepared contracts and wills free of charge for family friends upon their request. She was a very disciplined, hard-working, and self-motivated person who was not intimidated by the challenges of life, even as she excelled in a male-dominated career. She faced many challenges with her very pragmatic and wise disposition, never giving up and always eventually overcoming by God’s grace. At the same time, she was very kind, generous, and helpful to everyone who came her way.

After the end of the Nigerian Civil War, for many years, Mrs. Ajayi-Obe became an adopted mother and mentor to numerous Ibo students who returned to the University of Ibadan to complete their education. After attending the church service at the Chapel every Sunday, many of these students would visit her house unfailingly for their Sunday lunch of pounded yam and/or jollof rice. Then they would spend a few hours relaxing, reading the newspapers, discussing, playing Ludo, and receiving advice from her and their peers, etc. before having their dinner and returning to their campus hostels. She passed away on June 28, 2020, and she is survived by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

The last female legal icon I will be discussing is Safiya Umar Badamasi SAN.


She was born on June 12, 1968, at Malumfashi town of Katsina State. The erudite lawyer rose through the rank to become the Solicitor General/Permanent Secretary of the Katsina State Ministry of Justice in November 2018. She began her primary education at Aya Primary School, Funtua, and obtained Primary School Leaving Certificate in 1980. She then proceeded to FGCC Bakori, Katsina State between 1981 to 1985. In 1985, she commenced the study of law at the then Kaduna State College of Legal and Islamic Studies, now Hassan Usman Katsina State Polytechnic, and obtained a Diploma in Law in 1987.

She attended Bayero University Kano between 1991 and 1995, where she obtained LL.B (Hons). She proceeded to the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Nigerian Bar as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1998. Mrs. Badamasi began her working career with Katsina Ministry of Commerce and Tourism briefly between 1989 and 1990 as Assistant Tourism Officer.

She later transferred her services to Katsina State Ministry of Justice where she rose from Litigation Officer to her current position of Permanent Secretary/Solicitor-General. Before becoming the Solicitor-General, she was Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Katsina State between 2007 and 2018. Safiya Umar Badamasi SAN was the first Hausa-Fulani woman to take the silk. She also went on to become a Judge of the High Court of Katsina State.

This is an unusual appointment in the Nigerian legal community owing to the fact that she is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and SANs do not always aspire to be High Court Judges. Safiya Umar Badamasi is not only the first Hausa/Fulani Muslim woman to become Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, but also the first lawyer to attain the exalted bar position in the whole of Katsina State. She has to her credit four Supreme Court judgments as well as may Court of Appeal and High Court judgments.

That will be all for the August edition of our “LAW HISTORY SERIES”, we hope this will not just educate our readers but inspire them to be hardworking and work towards achieving greatness in their various fields just like the above-mentioned heroes had already done.


  1. Reaching for the stars by Folake Solanke SAN
  2. “An Interview with Chief Olufolake Solanke SAN”. Who’s Who Legal, March 2013. Retrieved 16 July 2019.
  3. “Folake Solanke”. Wikipedia. Retrieved 16 July 2019.


Toheeb Mustapha Babalola is a pupil of law, a blogger, a student of Faculty of Law, Bayero University Kano, the founder of Lex Updates Publications, and currently, the Deputy Director, North West DOPP, Law Students Association of Nigeria (LAWSAN).
He is also the Litigation Secretary of Libra Legal Consultants in Kano State.
He is interested in advocacy, academic writing, legal writing/history, activism, and a plethora of positivism. To reach him,, or contact/Whatsapp:08106244073.