Law History Series: First Senior Advocates of Nigeria

A few weeks ago, I started researching lawyers who became Senior Advocates of Nigeria at an early age. The positive responses I got pushed me to dig deep and discover more interesting facts about the Nigerian legal profession. After carrying out some surveys aimed at ascertaining how much our law students and the general public, especially the younger generation, know about the history of the legal profession, it was discovered that the majority know little about what had happened in the past when it comes to the legal profession. Some are not even aware of the existence of legendary lawyers both dead and living who had created a niche for themselves. It is important to know that this will be an avenue to start educating our law students, lawyer, and law enthusiasts respectively on issues like this.

These works will be titled LAW HISTORY SERIES. It will be published at least once every month and it is imperative to know that this is another series which is powered by Lex Updates Publications led by Toheeb Mustapha Babalola.

The first-ever edition of this series will focus on unearthing the first individuals to be conferred with the prestigious Senior Advocates of Nigeria, their backgrounds, the events that trailed their careers, and the interesting facts about them.

In Nigeria, the title was first conferred on April 3, 1975. The recipients were Chief F.R.A.Williams and Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas. One of the two first honorees of this title happened to be a popular lawyer of blessed memory while the other was the Attorney General of the Federation during that time.

CHIEF FREDRICK ROTIMI ALADE WILLIAMS

Popularly known as Timi The Law, Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams, QC, SAN (born on the 16th of December 1920) was a prominent Nigerian lawyer who was the first Nigerian to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Very few men become legends in their lifetime. Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams, or ‘Timi the law’ is one of such rare gems. An astute legal luminary and a gift to the law profession, this doyen of the Nigerian Bar who took to his father’s trade is one of the greatest lawyers Nigeria has ever seen. His over five decades of meritorious service to his chosen vocation has remained indefatigable; and like the proverbial rock of Gibraltar, he stands like a colossus on the pedestal of law in Nigeria.

One interesting fact about him was that despite being given a full scholarship to study mechanical engineering at Yaba Higher College, he chose to become a lawyer. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1942 and was called to the Bar at the Gray’s Inn, London in 1943. FRA Williams was the first Nigerian to be conferred with the Queen’s Counsel (QC) title, barely ten years after he was called to the Bar.

Chief FRA Williams was not just a Legal Luminary, he was a pacesetter. He set up the first indigenous Nigerian law firm in 1948 with Chief Remilekun Fani-Kayode and Chief Bode Thomas. The law firm was called “Thomas, Williams, and Kayode.”

The year 1958 marked a turning point in FRA’s career. He made a grand entry into politics and was appointed the first Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Western Region. It was while on this beat that he got the appellation ‘the law’ from the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who admired FRA’s assiduity. He served as a member of the Nigerian Council of Legal Education where he advocated that law students should be allowed to use law books in solving examination questions. Imagine if that was implemented, it would have changed the legal education for better!

His appointment into that council coincided with his election as the first President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). He served in that capacity for ten years (1958-68). He once served as a legal counselor to the defunct Action Group (AG) under the late sage, Chief Awolowo. He was at various times the acting Premier of the Western Region and the secretary of the defunct Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM).

CONTROVERSIES

His career as a successful lawyer was not without criticism. Some of the cases he had handled were as celebrated as they were controversial. The constitutional lawyer, whose brilliance places him among the first, holds the record of having the unequaled ability to take different positions in cases involving the same persons. For instance, FRA once represented about nine Supreme Court judges in 1994 in pressing for 450 million naira as damages against Concord Press Limited, owned by the millionaire publisher Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (MKO). As the suit dragged on, ‘Timi the law’ was reportedly sought out by Abiola’s family to handle the treason charges against their breadwinner and the acclaimed winner of the June 12 presidential election. The ‘out of court’ legal tussle that ensued between FRA and Chief G.O.K. Ajayi, another bright legal luminary over the authority of representation on that legal matter formed another chapter in the chronicles of law practice and procedure in Nigeria.

‘Timi the law’ was criticized for accepting to hold brief for the convicted erstwhile speaker of the Federal House of Representative, Alhaji Salisu Buhari. Though most legal practitioners argued in favour of FRA, this argument generated a lot of debate in the media. At the age of 80, FRA still appeared in court to personally argue and defend cases on behalf of his clients. He is known for his short temper, especially if interrupted in the process of presenting his arguments. Standing at over six feet and with a bulky frame, ‘Timi the law’ during his lifetime has the distinction of being the only lawyer in the country who addresses the court without standing. The Egba legal giant is an accomplished, lucid, enormously effective advocate who remains a winner any day and whose reputation is as intimidating as his towering height and frame. It is a common saying in legal circles that the mere mention of FRA’s name alone can win cases. That says something about this legendary lawyer who remains the undisputed doyen of the Bar, the best constitutional lawyer in Nigeria, and one of the best legal minds of our time.

He was the:
• FIRST NIGERIAN TO BE AN ATTORNEY GENERAL.
• FIRST NIGERIAN TO BECOME A SENIOR ADVOCATE OF NIGERIA.
• FIRST NIGERIAN SOLICITOR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF NIGERIA.

Throughout his career, he was involved in some memorable and important court cases, such as E. O. LAKANMI & ORS V. THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL (WEST) & ORS (1970) LPELR-SC.58/69, which set the precedent that a military government could not use its power to make laws that will appropriate an individual’s property.

Luckily for him, he had children who followed his footsteps by becoming lawyers and his eldest son is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, which made the family one of the most popular dynasties in the legal profession. Chief Rotimi Williams died on the 26th of March, 2005.

DR. NABO DEKINBO GRAHAM DOUGLAS

The second legal luminary who was conferred with the Senior Advocate of Nigeria title alongside F.RA Williams is none other than Dr. Nabo Graham Douglas. He was born in Rivers State and is a member of the prominent Port Harcourt family. As at the time of his conferment, he was the Attorney General of the Federation and doubled as the Federal Commissioner of Justice during that time. He is regarded as the most distinguished legal practitioner that Rivers State has ever produced. The Abonema-born legal practitioner was also the Attorney General of the defunct Eastern Region.

His law library was touted to be the biggest in West Africa before it was destroyed during the civil war. His contribution to the legal profession and legal education was extraordinary. He was known for his bravery as exhibited in his time as the Attorney General of the then Eastern Region as he had so many disagreements with the then Military Governor, Ojukwu, on certain principles. He was one of the most recalcitrant Rivers officials on the return of Ibo property – possibly due to the destruction of his home and law library during the civil war.

That will be all for the first 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 respective fields just like the above-mentioned heroes had already done.

References
  • Biographical Legacy and Research Foundation, https://blerf.org/
  • Scholarship and Commitment: Essays in Honour of G. G. Darah
Author

Toheeb Mustapha Babalola is a student of the Faculty of Law, Bayero University, Kano. He is interested in advocacy, academic writing, legal writing and activism. You can reach him via email:toheebmustapha15@gmail.com or contact/WhatsApp:08106244073.

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