Pa Tunji Gomez is 90 today. We join the Nigerian Legal community to celebrate the man who has made tremendous impact in the Nigerian Legal system. The Veteran Activist and Life Bencher who defined his principles and lived by them. We spent memorable times with this awesome nonagenarian who said to us “forget my frail body, my brain is still as sharp as when I started reading and writing and I will prove it to you”. And he indeed proved that he is the typical definition of an old wine that tastes better with age. Enjoy this interview with him by DNL Legal & Style.
DNL L&S: Tell us about your background from the very beginning.
Pa Gomez: Am Tunji Gomez, I am a Lagosian, and my parents are Lagosians. My mother comes from the great Doherty family while my father comes from the great Gomez family. The families are very close. We all move together, work together. The Doherty family is also closely knitted and we are about three hundred or more siblings and counting at the moment. My mother’s family is one of the most prominent families in Lagos.
My early school days were very interesting. I attended about eight schools because I was a rascal, so they kept changing my school. If I were to attend every old boys, I would attend at least eight. They kept pushing me from one school to the other, but it was fun because I made friends from different parts of Nigeria and learned a lot; good and bad. Put together, they are the experiences that pushed me to the point of appreciating what human beings are. I can mix with any crowd; up, down, low, high and regard everybody as the same.
DNL L&S: What are the significant moments you would like to recall in high school?
Pa Gomez: There are many of those significant moments. Funny enough, I still have very fresh memories of my school days. Prominent among the schools I attended were; Abeokuta Grammar School, Lagos Grammar School and Kings College. I was also at the Baptist Academy. At Abeokuta Grammar School I still recall that I met the likes of Dr. Kuti and his sister. Kings College for me was the best of all. I met most of my Igbo friends in Kings College the two Ojukwus, Dr. Ekueme who was my junior, Okoye, I met Ayedan and Okafor too, Ovie-Whiskey who became a Judge, I am not forgetting Umoh from Calabar. In Lagos Grammar School I met the likes of GOK Ajayi and Dr. Elebute. It was the only school that had no discrimination even though it was so European, but it afforded us the privilege of speaking Queens English, you are independence, not parochial and not tribalistic. if every school were like Kings College, Nigeria would have become a better place because you don’t even have any discrimination among yourself. This is what should be done, to get the country together. But instead, we have these “know all” politicians who don’t know anything except money.
Anyway, I entered Kings College in 1944. It was a strategic and lucky moment for me because it afforded me the opportunity of participating in the two prominent strikes; the 1944 which I participated in and the1948 which I led. The 1948 strike I led was very successful. Because of the 1948 strike, Kings College changed. The 1944 strike was also good but I was young and was only following the seniors to attend meeting with important Lagosians who were trying to help resolve the strike. It helped me because, in 1948 when I led the strike, I knew and did all the planning. The outcome of the strike was that students welfare were taken seriously. Also, many had the opportunity to study abroad through scholarships because of the strike.
DNL L&S: Where did you have your tertiary education?
Pa Gomez: I was in London. I went to University of Dublin and did my law in London. I qualified as a lawyer in London and I was called to bar in 1961 after which I started in the Chambers of Mr. M.A Odesanya.
DNL L&S: At what stage did you decide that you were going to study law? Do you recall any motivating factor?
Pa Gomez: During the 1944 strike by Kings College, the Principal was so annoyed that he got the Government on his side and they did what they wouldn’t do in England. They not only dismissed the leaders of the strike but they charged them to court. So, there was this lawyer, J. Alex Taylor who was the leader of the bar. (The father of the popular Justice JIC Taylor). Alex Taylor decides to defend our leaders free and we all attended courts and I became impressed with the way he conducted the matter and eventually got everybody discharged. There and then, I decided, that I would be a lawyer to help and defend people against injustice and to make sure that their wellbeing and safety is guaranteed. That is the primary job of a lawyer not to make money you have to first be ready and willing to defend the right of the people and do it properly. Unfortunately there are now some “not too legal minded” lawyers that are doing fraud all about and unfortunately too they are supposed to be the ones that know the law. Some of them are even Senior Advocates of Nigeria. That was what made me to study law. Because without him all our leaders would have been sent to prison.
DNL L&S: When you were called to Bar in 1961, you did your pupilage in the chambers of Oxford-trained lawyer, Michael Odesanya. How was the experience?
Pa Gomez: I was in Odasanya’s chambers with Simon Olakurin SAN, and late Fola Sasegbon. Odesanya taught us strictly to go by the rules. He was one of the best lawyers. He would say to us “when you are right, you don’t make concessions, if your client is not satisfied, let him go”. In the chambers, we had a lot of experiences in land cases, debt cases, contracts and then of course the Chief Awolowo’s treasonable felony’s case that transported us right to the fore front. One of my good cases came as a result of that. Maybe I should honestly say it was luck that gave the case to me because I was still junior then.
It is an interesting story. Some people came looking for lawyers to go and defend a minister in the Cameroun. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for me, they didn’t meet all the lawyers they came to see. They went to Ibadan, and was told the lawyers had gone to Lagos for a big function. They came to Lagos and couldn’t find them and the case was on Monday while they came on a Friday. They became desperate. So, on Saturday, even though offices don’t open, our office opens and I was in the office when a Cameroonian lady that I cleverly got out of a case who happens to know them brought them to our office to meet me. The lady said to me, “these are my people, they need a lawyer but they want you to Cameroon tomorrow because the case is on Monday.” They said it was a case involving an ex-minister and they needed me to travel with them the next day. They had everything ready. Hotel, flight, money. So, I called Fola Sasegbon and told him everything and he said go. We packed all the books in the chambers (two boxes of books). They paid my money, put me in imperial hotel which was the best. They paid us high. I must confess I never had that kind of money then said all I need to do was just come with them and attend the matter.
We used Odesanya’s profile. When the plane landed reporters were there to receive one of the members of the team defending Awolowo. So, I also had to act like I am very important. The newspaper covered all these. The man was a minister who fell out with Government and they cooked up an event and he was sentenced to six months with no option of fine. They sort of finished his career. And because he was fighting the government, he could not get a lawyer in Cameroon to defend him.
But once they told me it was a big case, I did what we call the lawyer’s technique. With my two boxes all filled with books, I landed on Sunday and was taken straight to my hotel. What I did was; I stayed in the lounge of the hotel after my breakfast with my two boxes, I sat down there and opened the books and didn’t leave the lounge until 9:30 pm. I went for lunch and dinner from the lounge. By the time it was morning, the news had spread that the lawyer for Odesanya’s Chambers didn’t sleep. He was here all day preparing for the case.
You know what they did? The case that was being handled by the DPP, they came to court to announce that the Attorney General would take over the case. So, the matter was adjourned. I returned to the hotel and continued by routine. I stayed at the lounge reading again until the next day and the news kept spreading.
The next day, when the matter was called, I addressed the court for three days. On Thursday when it was the turn of the Attorney General, he took adjournment. So I told the clients I must go home. I flew home and then had the opportunity to consult Odesanya himself who gave me authorities and guided me adequately. By the time I went back I was armed with so many authorities. We finished the matter and I travelled out. When I returned I was told we won the case. I think the judge was so impressed.
You know, looking back now, I recall a funny incident. I led my seniors in the matter. Cameroonian lawyers who were much senior to me but didn’t know and I led them because they came to get a bigger lawyer and I could not tell them I was a junior lawyer and the fact that I was from Odesanya’s chambers. That case was one of the best cases I did and it was good because it gave me a lot of leverage and money too.
DNL L&S: When did you start your private practice and how has the journey been?
Pa Gomez: I did about two or three years with Odesanya before I started up my own practice but I didn’t leave his chambers. I started my own office but still went back there because my friends were there. I also needed his guidance. So, I was always at his office, even to chat when I had time. I stayed there for a while because I was enjoying the time with my friends.
DNL L&S: Do you still go to court?
Pa Gomez: Yes I still go to court. You see, one mistake we make is to leave our brains idle. The brain once it becomes active must be fed just like you exercise the body. That is why most judges die immediately after they retire because they have nothing else to do and the brain becomes idle. So, I still go to court and it is still exciting. I remember recently, I appeared in court and I was giving evidence and was trying to remember something. The judge made I remark “o ti gbagbe ni yen” “he forgot himself.” I pretended I didn’t hear and I said “my Lord I am trying to remember”. After a moment, I did remember and when I started he was surprised.
DNL L&S: How has the clientele been?
Pa Gomez: It has been good. I was the first lawyer in Nigeria to take the militant Government to court I was taught and my experience as an activist from school helped me. I am not afraid of anything. You will have to die if you have to die. Everybody was afraid. The client was a 70yrs old lady and I was a young man frankly she was my aunt but even my family was afraid. I did the matter and nothing happened. After that I also took Government to court severally on other matters. So, practice was and is still good.
DNL L&S: Talking about taking the military to court, was there any harassment from the military during the period especially knowing that no one had ever dared them?
Pa Gomez: I think they themselves were surprised. Probably thinking what is giving me the strength, because, like you righty said, everybody was afraid of the military and here you have this junior lawyer coming to challenge them. But that is the job of a lawyer. If you have to throw your life on the line, then so be it. In London and those developed places, whatever they have that we envy, they paid for it. Women in London fought to be allowed to vote for instance, so, we must be ready to pay the price. It was good.
I remember when I was doing the matter, the Military Governor himself sent the Attorney General to tell the judge to ask me to withdraw against the Military Government. But the judge was a straight forward judge, so what he did was, he came out, sat down and said, “Mr. Attorney General, yes, repeat what you said to me in chambers”. The Attorney General repeated that the Governor will like his name remove from the suit. The judge said, “yes, Mr. Gomez what do you say?” I said, his name is there, if I lose, he is entitled to cost against me, but I can’t remove his name. The judge said “Mr. Attorney General, you heard him” Justice Taylor was the son of the man who inspired me to study law. Like his father, he was very straight forward.
DNL L&S: Has there been any client that left because of your age?
Pa Gomez: No. Because they found out that my memory is still as sharp as ever. My body might be frail but I can remember almost 90% of what happened since I was able to read. So, why would they leave?
DNL L&S: So, it means you are not considering retiring?
Pa Gomez: I sat down there all day and ask myself what would I do if I retire? If I sit down, what will stimulate my brain? Legal Practice was never work for me. You retire from work but not from what you love enjoying doing. Although I don’t have to take many cases now. I only take what helps me to stimulate my brain. That is one thing about law. It stimulates you. Although advocacy which was the beauty of legal practice is no longer there because now you front load everything and even when you want to adumbrate the judge would refuse. One day I told a judge that I have twenty minutes and she said. “ I give you ten” and I responded, “I have twenty minutes.” She was annoyed but I said “no, you don’t have to be angry, it’s my twenty minutes.” Now they just say “adopt, adopt I will read.” But I think if I ever retire, it would be to start writing a book, because most of my comrades are gone. One thing Kings College gave me is that ability to mix with the young and the old. It would have been very difficult to mix with the younger ones now. I doubt if I would retire though.
DNL L&S: You have been very critical of the Senior Advocate rank. You are known to be the loudest voice canvassing for the abolishment of the rank in Nigeria. Some people have argued that it is because you do not have the requisite qualification for the elevation that is why you want it abolished. How would you react to this allegation?
Pa Gomez: Let me start by saying I never applied and why I didn’t apply was that a few of us’ me, Fola Sasgbon, Aka-Basharun and others. Some eventually bowed to the pressure and applied I don’t want to mention them so it won’t embarrass them. But we were about ten who said we will never apply. One of the most brilliant lawyers then, Mr. Cole also refused to apply. It was not about not having qualifications. Never. It is because we realized that there is no merit in the appointment. Although, a few of us when the going got tough bowed to the pressure and started applying and getting the rank. Some of us stayed through and have no regrets. One said a SAN embarrassed him in court so he wanted to also apply. I said to him I wish you luck.
So what are my reasons for the fight against the rank? One, there is no merit at all. Two, there is no transparent procedure. Three, you don’t have in a Republic like America the privileged class and four, the thing itself is oppressive. It deprives the juniors the opportunity of earning good living. The whole thing is oppressive. Sometimes if your opponent has a SAN, your client will tell you to better get a SAN or give back the brief. So, the briefs of the junior ones are being taken over by SANs and in a society like ours. It is not your performance but the privilege they give the SANs. When you get to court and the SAN just walks in and call his case, you have been in court since 9 am, he comes in about 11am, they call his case and he goes away, your client would be wondering. Even though they won’t be superior to you, but the ordinary man doesn’t know who is who. My son who is practicing in London tells me “daddy this your system!” I say that’s how we met it. The SANs don’t know more than you. It’s the same books you read same authorities, but they have the advantage because the judge gives them more respect. So, you take a long fight to defeat a SAN. Another thing is the conferment. The way they give the title is not appropriate. There is no process. I intend to publish something detailed after my birthday. I am not speaking much on it till after my birthday.
When a lawyer comes to court, the public is watching and they are making decisions. If you go to court today and you are there for two or three hours and a Senior Advocate comes in and calls his case and is out in a few minutes, your client may be tempted to ask why you are not mentioning your case like them. What would you tell him? That you have what it takes but you can’t have the rank because you are not privileged to, what would you do? How did we start the movement? I got to court one day, I saw a lawyer getting down from a motorcycle I said what? A lawyer on a motorcycle. It was not an emergency. During my time ones you are a lawyer, your parents will buy you a car and if your parents cannot buy you a car your firm will buy you a car and you pay back gradually. Some firm will even say take. But now, you see a lot of them on a motorbikes because even the bar association is not taking care of them. They are just collecting our money.
DNL L&S: You also recently lend your voice against appointment of Senior Advocates of Nigeria as Supreme Court Justices. Is it to maintain you consistent condemnation of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria or there are genuine reasons for your position.
Pa Gomez: My opposition has nothing to do with abolishment of SAN. It has all to do with integrity and experience. If you have a Judge sitting from the High Court to the Court of Appeal, by the time he gets to the Supreme Court he is very experienced. Now if you get a SAN whose father happens to be the senator and he is transferred straight from the bar to the Supreme Court, what experience has he got? Secondly what is the justice in going to the government? Your future what is the justice in wanting to be in government as a professional Judge all your life.
Then a person spends all his life as a judge; ten years High Court, ten years Court of Appeal then when it is time for the Supreme Court, someone without experience replaces you. What country does that? Our system is different.
You have what I call political Judges, because in Nigeria it is rub my back I rub yours. If the people in power project you and make you justice of Supreme Court when they have a case before you, it would be payback time. Those are my reasons. It’s not justices, I won’t like it, you won’t and many others. This J.I.C Taylor that I have mentioned earlier was a judge, Kayode Eso, Oguntade were all justice of the Supreme Court who rose through the ranks. All of these fine brains would not have been there. I have many reasons. I have decided to keep opposing such even if others keep quite. I thank God that when I spoke, others spoke and it was stepped down hopefully. And because they also see that it would affect them. political judges would find it difficult satisfying everybody.
DNL L&S: What do you propose would help solve the issue of remuneration of young lawyers?
Pa Gomez: I was one of the people agitating for minimum wage because young lawyers should be encouraged. The big firms should be made to pay minimum wage. There is a way it can be worked out. They know the big firms. Not necessarily the SANs because some SANs are also not making it. They just have the name. But a big firm should pay minimum wage for now. If the economy is good. I don’t agree that a secretary should earn more than a lawyer which is what is happening now. I will speak further on this later. But the point is, they must see it as an obligation to provide adequate opportunity for junior lawyers. These are the lawyers of tomorrow; they are the ones that must be trained to take over from us. If you don’t take care of them, they will start doing what the SANs are doing. Using the not too straight means to get money. So, if you provide for them, then they would do well to take back the cases the touts have taken over, like bails and the use of artificial surety going on.
I remember when I first came, we were not paid but we were getting our own jobs but could leave with that. You get your adhoc cases, what they call charge and bail now. Then you get some money in your pocket leave something for the juniors. I suggested this a long time ago. Get a register in the branch, some seniors that want jobs done but think such jobs are too small could pass it over. Only that the organizer may also take all but then you can set up a committee to check it.
DNL L&S: Tell us about your immediate family.
Pa Gomez: I was married when I was in Europe. My wife is Scottish but she passed on. I had a son and a daughter. My son went to Oxford and he combines the two professions. He was called as a barrister and also as a solicitor but because you can only practice one, he is practicing as a solicitor. My daughter is also a lawyer. My granddaughter is a lawyer too. We are all lawyers. My wife was secretary to the World Health Organization. I met her at the Irish Embassy. Aduke my daughter is home here in Nigeria but my son decided he won’t come back home. He has written two books and is also doing well. My daughter was special secretary to Fashola. We are doing just fine.
DNL L&S: When your wife passed on, did you ever think of remarrying?
Pa Gomez: I was frightened because, I thought the woman may one day ask me to choose between her and my children. Having handled a lot of Divorces, I decided I don’t want to take chances with my children. So I stayed for them. I didn’t want to be left to choose between them and another woman. If you are married before with children, it would be your ticket to early grave to think of marrying again. This of course is my personal view.
DNL L&S: How do you relax?
Pa Gomez: I relax by meditating, reading philosophical books and trying to find what constitute happiness? What is man’s philosophical needs? I have over a hundred philosophical books and reading them makes me relax and wonder about the mysterious creation. What is man? what does man consists of? What is his power and limitations? That is how I relax. I intend to publish those thought.
DNL L&S: What would you wish for on 90th birthday?
Pa Gomez: I wish for nothing now but wisdom, I have read enough. More than many people. I have read about different religion and I found out that there is nothing bigger than wisdom, not even knowledge. I pray for more wisdom not because of Solomon but because in my short life, I have come across different philosophies. I was born a Christian, I am still a Christian but I have been investigating Yoga, I have investigated Buddhism and the likes. I have been to the Himalayas, I have seen Christians, spiritualists, priests who have done a lot of mysterious things. I just wish for wisdom because wisdom is the most important.
Photos: Late Mrs. Gomez, Children of Pa Gomez and Grand Child.