He achieved many feats at a very young age; thus, becoming one of the very few to get to the peak of the “two worlds” in the legal profession. Given the opportunity, would he want to also achieve the third; becoming a jurist? What were the force behind his accelerated progress to the top? Was the fact of his father being a renowned and well-respected jurist a factor? How did he receive the news of his appointment as a Vice Chancellor and what are his sustainable development plans for the institution? These and many more are are contained in this DNL Legal & Style’s exclusive chat with the amiable and erudite Professor of law, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Vice Chancellor, Kwara State University Prof Muhammed Mustapha Akanbi, SAN.
DNL L&S: Tell us about your early life sir?
Prof Akanbi: My name is Muhammed Mustapha Akanbi, I was born about 5 decades ago in far away Kano State into the family of late Honourable Justice Muhammed Mustapha Akanbi and Alhaja Munfa’at Aduke Akanbi. My dad was a jurist and my mum was a house wife who occasionally engaged in petty businesses and poultry faming.
My parents gave birth to six of us; five boys and a girl. I am number three. Four out of the six are lawyers but I am the first lawyer amongst my siblings. The last and our only sister is a judge.
Growing up was fun even though we had very strict parents. My dad was a disciplinarian, who didn’t spare the rod. In fact, when he stopped using the cane, he resorted to giving frequent advice. Till his last days, he continued to advise us. We had no- nonsense parents who never treated us like “Ajebota.” Today, we are all happy for it. We are blessed to have had them as parents and I will continue to strive to live up to my father’s expectation even in his absence.
DNL L&S: Take us through your educational background.
Prof Akanbi: I cannot readily recall all that happened during my early childhood. In the early 70s, when my dad was still in active practice, I attended a Nursery/primary school in Kano State. Sometime in 1974 we moved from Kano to Ilorin where I also schooled briefly. I also recollect that by late 1974 my dad became a judge of the then Federal Revenue Court (Now Federal High Court) and was posted to Port Harcourt. That was how we moved to Port Harcourt, where I attended YWCA Nursery and Primary school. By mid-1977, my dad was elevated to the Federal Court of Appeal and was transferred to Ibadan and of course we moved with him again. In Ibadan I continued my primary school education at Bodija International School and later Sacred Heart Private school, Onireke, Ibadan. In 1982 I gained admission into Jericho High school, Ibadan, Oyo State for my college education, but that same year, my dad was transferred to the Jos division of the Court of Appeal. As result, my dad enrolled me for the Federal Government College, Common Entrance Examination, which I did and when the result of the interview came out, I was sent to Federal Government College Okigwe in Imo State, where I completed my college education.
In 1989, I got admission to read law at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile- Ife and graduated in 1993. I proceeded to the law school in 1994 and was called to bar in March 1995. I decided to do a master’s degree in University of Lagos, Akoka and rounded up in 1998. Between the year 2004 and 2006, I attended Kings College, University of London for my doctorate degree where I obtained a Ph.D. in Law with specialization in Arbitration. To the glory of God, in 2012, I became a Professor of Business Law, in the Faculty of Law of the University of Ilorin.
DNL L&S: As the son of a very respectable jurist, was your father the influence to study law?
Prof Akanbi: My father did not influence my study of law per se. Yes, he was keen on us studying professional courses but he did not emphasize law. There was a time he pushed me to go to military schools (i.e. Nigeria Military School Zaria and Command Secondary School Jos) but I didn’t have interest. The truth is that I was too young to witness my dad as a lawyer in active practice. I grew up knowing him as a judge that was respected by a lot of people and that may have unconsciously impacted me. What I easily remember is the fact that since my childhood I have always had the desire to become a lawyer. I think the late Gani Fawehimi SAN had considerable influence on me. Growing up, we read so much about him in the papers as someone who was a fiery lawyer and human right activist and I used to dream that someday I was also going to be in court pontificating in defence of the less privileged.
My dream changed when I went to the University, I met someone in the classroom who remains my mentor and role model till today. Professor Ademola Popoola was my guardian and lecturer back then in Ife. He influenced my decision to become a law teacher. I was so taken by his erudition and teaching style that I started seeing myself as a lecturer and I wanted to teach. I believe that it was the influence of Professor Popoola that changed my course. Even though I started out as a lawyer in legal practice, all I really want to do is to teach law. So, I think that it was not only my dad’s status as a jurist that influenced my decision to be a lawyer or go into academics. My love for Gani Fawehimi made me study law, However when I got into the university, my love for Oga Popoola redirected my course. Initially, I thought I could combine the two i.e. advocacy and academics but when I got into the university as a young lecturer, teaching took more of my time and the aspect of law practice began to suffer. But I don’t have any regret. At least I have been able to achieve the best of two worlds.
DNL L&S: Even though you started off your legal career early as a law teacher, you have also mentioned that you started out as practitioner, take us through your early career
Prof Akanbi: Immediately after school, I did my NYSC in Lagos at the Legal Unit of the Central Bank of Nigeria. After my Service Year in 1996 I had a very short stint with Wole Bamgbala and Co at Igbosere Street, Lagos, then moved over to Olawoyin & Olawoyin at Lapal House, on Igbosere. While I was with Olawoyin & Olawoyin, I went for my LLM in University of Lagos and immediately I got my LLM, I opted for academics and moved down to Ilorin in 1998. I joined the Faculty of Law, University of Ilorin as a lecturer (II). Over time I rose through the ranks to become lecturer (I), Senior lecturer and while I was teaching in University of Ilorin, I took a break to do my Ph.D. and in 2012 and became a Professor of Law. In 2018, I became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria via the academic route and recently became the Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University and that is where I am for now.
DNL L&S: Rising to become a Professor is not a mean feat. What were the challenges and what factors kept you focused?
Prof Akanbi: I became a professor of law at 41, is that a young age? I do not believe that. There are a lot of people that became professors at much younger ages, some while in their 30s, but then which of Allah’s favour can I deny?
It is important for me to say that I didn’t join the university to become a professor. I joined academics as a result of my love for teaching and the desire to stand in front of students and just impact them. But after I joined the university I realized that for one to move forward, one needed to do other things like engaging in researches, publications etc.
As a young lecturer, I was just doing my own thing and enjoying myself. In 2010, the then DG of NIALS – Prof Epiphany Azinge invited me to put in my papers for assessment as an associate professor. I was a bit excited because I saw it as a huge honour. I never knew someone, somewhere had noticed my industry. Unfortunately, when I told my dad about my intention to crossover to NIALS, he refused and insisted I stayed back at the University of Ilorin. According to him, he felt that I was still young and need not rush. Because I was also not keen and because whatever my dad said when he was alive was law, I stayed back and didn’t go. Incidentally, around the same time, an advert came out in University of Ilorin for the position of associate professor. My friends put pressure on me to apply. Reluctantly, I did but I was not diligent in packing and arranging my publications especially the international papers. However, I still applied to get them off my back but surprisingly I was invited for an interview. I remember telling a senior administrator in the school that I didn’t gather all my papers and that given the opportunity I will get all my papers ready for the interview for the readership position. He was crossed with me and said I was not serious. Of course I knew that I had a big hurdle to cross, but I still went for the interview. I didn’t spend 5 minutes at the interview. The Chairman of the panel and VC of the University – Prof. Ishaq Oloyede said to me: “sorry Dr Akanbi, you do not have enough international papers. That was when I realised that I could even make professorship because I had enough international papers, but unfortunately, I didn’t put in my all while applying. Having attained five year residency as a senior lecturer, the next time an advert came out for the position of full professor, I knew I was quite ready, I had upgraded my CV and I collated all my papers and put them together properly. My colleagues thought I was being over ambitious especially having just been refused readership. I put in my papers and was invited for interview and this time around I was ready for the panel. I was not surprised when I got a prima facie appointment for professorship, after which my papers were sent out for external assessment. On October 12, 2012 I got a call that I should attend the cocktail for the new professors.
DNL L&S: In 2018, you were again elevated to the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. What are the unforgettable highlights of that process for you?
Prof Akanbi: Most people may not know that I applied for silk four times from 2015. Many think I applied once and was immediately conferred with the rank. The interest to apply started during the investiture of a call mate who was made Senior Advocate in 2014. Right there in the chamber, a colleague and friend said to me thus: MM (the name I am mostly called by my friends) you can also be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Because I had never given it a thought, I waived him off and said I wasn’t interested and didn’t even know how to go about the process of application. He kept pestering me throughout the ceremony and at a point I said let us go find out from one of our big brothers –Mr Ibrahim Gold who is a staff of the Supreme Court about the process. He in turned directed us to the lady that headed the secretariat. When I met with her and told her about my mission, I noticed that she initially felt irritated and didn’t take me serious. She felt I was too young to apply for the status of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. She must have thought that the only credential that I paraded was being the son of a successful jurist. But when she realised that I was a lawyer of about 20 years standing and a professor of law, she became more accommodating and helpful. She gave me a short tutorial about the process and the criteria that I needed to meet. From her briefing, I realised that I had all it takes to take the silk via the academic route. This gave me relief! Even though she told me that I may not be awarded the rank at first attempt, I comforted myself with the fact that I was eminently qualified.
I went back to Ilorin and this time around diligently gathered all my publications. Having just gone through the process of applying for professorship, it was not difficult. So, I put in my application in 2015. Back then, only two academics were usually appointed from the list of applicants consisting of practitioners and academics. One from the north and the other from the south. It was a very small window. I kept my application confidential. A lot of people didn’t know that I applied for SAN and as God will have it, at that time, they didn’t use to advertise the names of academics. So, very few of my close associates knew. But by the time the names of the successful applicants were announced, a couple of people had gotten wind of my application especially because for a first timer, I performed very well. People started calling to ask if I applied. I was already advised that the zoning structure may not favour me at that time. That year I was not given. The next year in 2016, I applied again, the same negative result, I was told that it was not yet the turn of the North Central. So, I just assumed that if I continue to do very well, that I will get it automatically at the third attempt. But it wasn’t to be. Man proposes, God disposes! When the list of successfully applicants was announced in 2017 and my name was missing again, I became discouraged and vowed not to apply again. In any event, the rank is a privilege and it is God that gives privileges. Interestingly throughout the times that I was applying for silk, my dad never showed any interest. He did not support me at all. He refused to call anybody on my behalf. He was always writing recommendation letters for others but never for once put in a word for me. I recall that when I failed to get it the third time, my younger sister was very upset with him. He simply retorted that it was his inalienable right to support whomsoever he prefers.
In January 2018, a friend called to encourage me to apply again and I told him that I wasn’t interested again. First, because I didn’t know what else to do; the only reason that was proffered for not getting it in 2017 was that I was too young to take the silk and that I still have years ahead of me. Secondly, because the application fee kept rising and I didn’t have the means to keep up with the annual payment. I felt I could invest in some other projects rather than continue to invest in the yearly purchase of application forms. Then Pastor John Baiyesha SAN, a long time family friend and mentor that I really respect came to my house and asked if I had applied and I said “Oga, I am not going to apply”. He insisted I must apply again. I refused. He kept pestering me and I told him I didn’t have money and honestly I didn’t have N600,000 to buy the form at that time. But I know that if I had wanted to look for the fund I would have been able to but I just didn’t feel the urge anymore. He insisted and even promised to raise the money for me to apply. He kept preaching and actually gave me N200,000. He reached out to two of our mutual friends who also supported with N100,000. Yet I refused to apply. Suddenly, my dad who had refused to support my applications all these while, called me one night and asked if I was going to apply for the rank that year. I told him that I wasn’t going to apply and that I was tired of applying for a no- show and besides I did not have money to buy form. He then began to encourage me and that he heard I was doing very well. He insisted that I should apply and for the first time, he supported my application with the sum of N200,000. My sister also called to encourage me to try again. I had a template answer; “I don’t have money. She also sent additional N200,000. That was how I was able to raise the money for the application fee. I even had N100,000 extra and I was happy. I had no reason not to apply.
Well fortunately, that year I was given the silk but unfortunately before the announcement, my dad passed on. He died in June and the announcement was made in July. It really made me sad. Because it was the only time he supported my application.
After the announcement of the names of successful applicants for conferment of the rank, we were required to pay additional sum of N200,000 as acceptance and investiture fees. Lai Babatunde SAN, one of my mentors gladly paid for that. That was how I became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. It is a very interesting one. The only regret is that my parents were not there to witness the investiture. But I give God all the glory.
DNL L&S: Often time when a younger person apply for the silk and was not given, you hear something like, “go and wait you are still young,” however, in recent time, the likes of Atoyebi SAN were conferred quite early. In fact, he was just 11 years post call. What do you think would have been the dynamics that made his possible?
Prof Akanbi: The truth of the matter is that everybody that gets shortlisted for the rank is qualified. It means that person has met the advertised requirement, whether from advocacy or academics. But you know that the rank is also a privilege. The application is subjected to several filtration stages; the Privileges’ committee considers so many things. The guidelines and criteria for selection are usually released the year preceding, I may not be 100% correct but I believe that there are a lot of other dynamics that they also take into consideration ranging from federal character, gender, number of times that the applicants has applied, age etc. What is however clear, is that every name that gets to the last stage is eminently qualified to be awarded the rank because a lot goes into the filtration stages. I am told that people lobby to get appointed, but I can also tell you that for lobbying to be of help, one must have met the criteria.
I believe it took four attempts before I got the silk because of the zoning principle and the limited opportunity for academics. However, news from the grapevine was to the effect that I was denied the award because it was felt that I was very young at that time to be appointed.
In the case of a young man like Atoyebi SAN, I believe he must have put up an exceptional performance to get it at first attempt. It could also be that the committee considered him worthy in order to encourage other young lawyers to strive to distinguish themselves. It may also be that he led his zone effortlessly and there was no strong reason to drop him. It may be anything.
Mostly important let’s remember that the rank is a privilege and that is why I also ascribe some elements of spirituality to it. In my case, I also felt that God didn’t want my dad to be around when I got it, so that it is not attributed to his influence. It may be a combination of anything.
DNL L&S: You have recently been appointed by the Executive Governor of Kwara State as the Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University. Were you expecting the appointment and how did you receive the news?
Prof Akanbi: As I said earlier I didn’t become a lecturer because I wanted to hold high office in the university. I joined the university because I loved teaching and every other thing coming after it are bonuses. Incidentally, the added responsibilities even though lofty have distracted me from teaching because I am unable to go to the classroom to teach as frequently as I would have loved to do.
It was while I was on sabbatical at the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies in Abuja in 2019 that that the advert for the Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University Molete came out. I did not even know about it but friends started calling me to apply. The pressure to apply became intense. However, at that time I was just about seven years as a professor. Usually I know that most universities would ask for ten years. So I told my friends that I was not qualified to apply because I was not up to ten years as a professor. That was when they told me that the advert actually said minimum of five years. I still didn’t bother to apply.
During one of my weekend visits to Ilorin some of my close friends came around to pester me to apply. Honestly, I was not interested in becoming Vice Chancellor. The process leading to the appointment of VCs in public universities in Nigeria is more often than not laced with, rancour, bitterness and acrimony. Secondly, I am a lecturer and technocrat. I am not a politician; I didn’t know where to start or how to go about it. Being a professor and a Senor Advocate was distinguished enough for me. But they would not let it go. I eventually decided to give it a shot. It was easy for me to apply because I had my papers together having just recently applied for SAN. A friend of mine came to my house to pick up the documents for submission because I refused to go to Malete to submit. I begged my friends not to make the application go public. I didn’t want people to make it a subject of discussion especially since I recently just took silk. However, I informed my immediate family.
After about one month, I came down from Abuja to Ilorin for a wedding and it happened that the parents of the couple were both staff of Kwara State University, so a sizeable number of the guests came from Kwara State University. At a point during the ceremony I realized that a lot of people were focusing their attention on me. I began getting embarrassed by the unsolicited attention I was getting especially since I wasn’t the groom. One particular guy walked up to me and said “oga you applied for the position of VC in KWASU and you didn’t tell anybody. I replied; “is it part of the criteria?” He said; “you have been shortlisted for interview”. When he said that, my heart started racing. He said; “yes, five of you have been shortlisted for interview”. He advised that I needed to talk to people. I said “talk to who now?” He then said “why did you apply?” I said because people put pressure on me to. He then said well, he just wants me to know I have been shortlisted and that it is important that I move around. The truth is that I didn’t take his advice seriously. I didn’t know where and how to move around. When I got home, I told my wife and she said what do we do? I said I didn’t know. That same night, I got a text message requesting that I turn up for interview the next Wednesday. I was due to go back to Abuja on Sunday. But I put a call to my immediate boss in Abuja to inform him that I had something important to attend too back home. I didn’t tell him that I was going for interview for the position of Vice Chancellor. To be shortlisted for the position of Vice Chancellor is a big deal! I was happy that I made the list of 5. It meant that out of the five of us, three names would be sent to the Governor to choose from. I then decided that I needed to take things really seriously. I began to see the possibility of making the last three. Between the Sunday and Tuesday preceding, I placed calls to university administrators especially serving and former vice chancellors including management consultants, asking questions about university administration. I also went online to read up relevant materials. I also met physically with persons who gave me tips on university administration. On Monday, I informed my most senior brother, who came down to Ilorin to accompany me to the interview, I felt like a school boy. It was interesting preparing and researching about university administration. However, what I realised is that most times one does not know when God is preparing one for high office. Over the years, I have held several administrative positions in the university including Examination officer, Level Adviser, Sub-dean, Postgraduate representative, Head of Department, Dean of Faculty, Member of University Senate, and at various times served as Chairman of various university committees. I have been appointed Deputy Director, Centre for Research and In-house Training and later Director, School of Preliminary Studies. I have also held top positions in my professional career. For example, I was a member of Council of Legal Education for 4 years. I was once chairman of NBA Ilorin and at a time a member of the NBA Ilorin Caretaker committee. I also hold professional qualifications in arbitration and corporate governance. While preparing for the interview, I realized that the job of a VC is not too dissimilar from some of the tasks that I have been burdened with in the past. The responsibility is just on a bigger scale. I also convinced myself that since we have Senior Advocates that have become Vice Chancellors, like the current Vice Chancellor of Lagos State University, it was possible for me to follow suit. I felt being a Senior Advocate should be an added advantage.
On the morning of the interview, I went with my wife, two of my intimate friends and my most senior brother. They stayed throughout the period of the interview, encouraging and praying for me. I was in a very high spirit. I was grateful to Allah for the fact that I was even shortlisted. I felt that even at that stage, I had done myself proud. It is on record that I applied for the position of Vice Chancellor for the first time and got to the last five. That was a lot for me already! It was something I never expected.
At the interview, the first person that was invited in spent almost an hour. I was surprised. I didn’t find it funny. I started wondering what exactly the panel was asking in there. When they eventually called me, I didn’t spend 20 minutes. I think the serious session took about 10 to 15 minutes and we spent the remaining time discussing generally about university administration. I was impressed with myself, because I believe I did well at the interview. In fact I believe that I over prepared for it and did my home work really well. The truth is that despite my qualifications and wealth of experience, I have always been bugged with the “he is too young” baggage, thus I always ensure that I prepare well for interviews. I try to distinguish myself always. In deed among the five shortlisted, I was the youngest. But I knew that my performance at the interview was going to earn me a place in the last three. What I wasn’t sure about was whether I was going to be the Governor’s choice. Incidentally, there was no official communication to us about our performance at the interview. I picked the information that I made the last three from the grapevine. On the morning of April 1st 2020 after about 9 months from the date of the interview, I was appointed the Vice Chancellor. While waiting for the appointment, I almost lost hope at a point. Recall that I was on sabbatical in Abuja, when I applied for the position of Vice Chancellor. I was enjoying my time over there in Abuja. However, the waiting period brought a lot of distractions. I kept getting numerous calls and visits from people enquiring and advising on what they felt was to be done in order to get appointed. Even though, I tried to focus on my work in Abuja, it wasn’t easy at all. By January 2020, I rounded up my sabbatical in Abuja. However, as a result of my performance and good relationship with them, my employer offered me an extension. I asked that they allow me to go back to Ilorin to apply for leave of absence from University of Ilorin in order for me to take up the appointment. While I was in Ilorin sorting myself out, I got a call on the evening of Tuesday, 31st March 2020, that I should send my CV that His Excellency, the Government of Kwara State has appointed me the Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University. I kept the call to myself and did not inform anybody, not even my wife. I kept it to myself that whole night.
At about 7am on the morning of 1st April, 2020, I got a call from the Honourable Commissioner for Tertiary Education, congratulating me on my appointment as the Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University. After the Commissioner’s call, my phone took a life of its own. Over a thousand calls and messages streamed in nonstop over a period of three days or more. It was pure madness. I couldn’t even call out, because I kept getting incoming calls and messages. I was forced to switch off my phones several times during the period for me to attend to other matters.
Despite the fact the announcement was made during the lockdown occasioned by the Covid 19 pandemic, a lot of people still stormed my house to offer their congratulations. I was elated particularly because despite having just lost our parents, we were recording favourable achievements in the family.
DNL L&S: Did the status of your father as a former President of the Court of Appeal influence any of your attainment?
Prof Akanbi: Our dad brought us up very well. I believe his influence helped in shaping the man I became. Up till now, I have not been able to grow out of his shadows. I tell people that right now I don’t have a name. It is my father’s name that everyone knows. Very few people knew that I applied four times for silk even when my father was alive. I have had to work very hard to attain all the heights that I have reached so far. None came on a platter of gold. Sometimes I even used to think that my dad had enemies who vowed that they will block the progress of his children. One works so hard to achieve a goal yet one is denied for no concrete reason despite having a renowned father around. Unfortunately, when I succeed despite the stiff opposition, my success is attributed to my dad’s influence which he didn’t or refused to make available. People easily forget that I have a first degree from Ife, Master’s degree from University of Lagos and a Ph.D from King’s College, London. These are super schools that prepared me for greatness. My rise is a result of hard work and God’s grace. Okay, if my father had influence in Nigeria, did he also have influence at Kings College London? I did my PhD programme in two years. To complete a Ph.D. at Kings College London in two years is not a mean feat. People should at least acknowledge that I have over time held my own despite having a successful father. At the time I applied for professorship, I had more than enough papers. Even when I applied for silk I was always amongst the top candidates.
People may not believe that my father never helped get a job for me. Any time we go to meet him to get us a fantastic job or appointment, he would always reply that he hated to seek for favour from people yet he was always recommending other people for plum jobs. We look out for ourselves. My dad never got me a job yet he will oppose the one I struggled to get by myself if he feels that it wasn’t the best for me. An example is when Prof Azinge SAN invited me over to NIALS. I wanted to go but my father refused.
On the other hand, one is always happy when you hear people talk about him in glowing terms even after his demise. The fact that people always acknowledge his greatness has impacted positively on me. People are always excited when they get to know I am Justice Muhammed Mustapha Adebayo Akanbi’s son. Incidentally he named me after him. The down side however is that whenever people know that I am his son, they put me under pressure. They immediately begin to compare me with him and hold me up to his standards. If I do well, they say it is expected because I am his son. If I fall short, they say that I am not living up to expectation. The comparison puts a lot of pressure on us. For example, when I was in practice, anytime I announce my appearance as Muhammed Mustapha Akanbi Esq, the name immediately rings a bell with the judge and I am asked if I was his son and expectation becomes high.
As to whether his influence has given me undue advantage? I don’t think so, if it has, I would not have been a serial SAN applicant despite doing very well every time I applied. Despite getting to the last three candidates, when I applied for the position of Vice Chancellor, it took almost 9 months before I was called to take up the job. My father was no longer around to put pressure on anyone. Alhamdulilahi! So far so good!
Interestingly, during my father’s time as a judicial officer, children of judges used to think that our fathers hated us. We were not sure regarding what exactly they expected of us. We worked hard, we were diligent and respectful. Yet our parents kept demanding for more and even when we required their assistance for favours, they refused to use their connections. This attitude of theirs continued even after they were no longer in office. My dad refused to make phone calls on my behalf when I was applying for SAN. Rather, he would lobby for other people. There was a time I went in search of the FGN commonwealth scholarship to study abroad for my doctorate degree. On my own and unknown to my father, I approached one of his highly placed friends to help secure the scholarship. Unfortunately, my dad got wind of it and hell broke loose. My father’s reaction made his friend to immediately withdraw his support and I lost the opportunity. In fact, we used to wonder if he actually wanted us to succeed him. Do you know that my dad gave out his wig and gown (regular and ceremonial) as a judge to other people in his life time? This was a man that graduated four lawyers in his lifetime. When my sister was appointed a judge, I told her that I wished our father’s robe was available for her. He had given it out! But I am not going to do that. In fact, I have kept my wig and gown as a junior lawyer in a safe place. I cannot wait to present it to my daughter who is currently studying law. If Allah grants me long life, good health including my heart’s desires, she will wear it on her call day. As per my silk attires, I am also jealously guarding them. I pray that one of my kids also attains the status in my lifetime, I will gladly hand it over to the lucky one. I am not giving it out like my father did. His own generation was unique and selfless. He had this saying, that; “If I take care of other peoples’ children, God will take care of mine”. His words are gradually coming to pass. After his demise, my sister was appointed a Judge of the High Court of the FCT, I was elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and shortly after appointed Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University. A younger sibling of mine was also just recently appointed a Deputy Chief Registrar in one of the divisions of the Court of Appeal. The old man will be smiling in his grave now.
Of cause, as humans, sometimes we used to wish that he intervened with his influence especially when we were deserving of certain things and were denied. I tell people not to expect me to be like my father. I am charting my own part. I am not interested in going to the bench. It is not for me. Being on the bench requires a lot of personal sacrifices. Respected judges live a life of dignified solitude. They isolate and insulate themselves from the vagaries of the society. We saw our father do that. If you want to be a good judge you must be reserved. I am not going to be able to do that. When my father was active on the bench, we didn’t use to have lots of visitors except for his close circle of family members and childhood friends. Most times he was either at home or at work. I am not that kind of person. I like to be very free. That is one of the reasons why I joined lecturing. Lecturing affords one a lot of personal freedom. You are allowed to be yourself. For instance, you can speak your mind openly. You are not limited by a judicial code of conduct.
Unfortunately, since becoming Vice Chancellor I am daily being stifled. The other day, I was telling my wife that this Vice Chancellor status is curtailing my freedom. My aides now limit the places I go. I keep hearing them say: “Sir you are not supposed to go there”. Where am I supposed to go? Everyone has gone out now and I am the only one at home. So, it is quite boring. You want to go out they say you cannot wear this kind of cloth or that kind of cloth, you cannot use this or that. I remember I became a Vice Chancellor at the onset of the Ramadan and I used to stop by the woman that sells fruit at the junction close to my house. I used to haggle with her on the price of banana and other fruits. As VC, I was giving an official vehicle and on one of those days that we headed back home and I asked my driver to stop by the fruit seller. As usual I started negotiating prices with the lady to the chagrin and discomfort of my personal assistant. When he couldn’t stomach it any longer, he said: “oga you cannot be doing that.” I said doing what? But this woman will cheat me now. You know what? After sometimes, they started buying the bananas during office hours and anytime I tell the driver to park by the lady, they will tell me that they have already bought the fruits and I will reimburse them. I can’t even stop by the roadside to buy things again. I have been deprived of using my negotiation skills. The lack of personal freedom is a major reason why I do not want to be a judge.
DNL L&S: What are your sustainable development plans for Kwara State University?
Prof Akanbi: It is a young university, just about 11 years. The pioneer VC who has laid a solid foundation for the school has an American orientation. I have a British orientation because I schooled in England and I believe that majority of lecturers and non academics in Nigeria have British orientation. In Nigeria, we follow the British model to a large extent. I felt a need to return the school back to the British model that most are conversant with. I consulted with stakeholders and we agreed to change from the collegiate system to the faculty based system. The staff relate better with the Nigeria model. I believe the change has helped put a lot of things in perspective especially the governance structure. Secondly, universities are built on traditions. If you study the British, you will observe that they are meticulous in building blocks, platforms and structures to drive systems. I was trained in University of Ilorin as an administrator. This is a university that has over time entrenched solid academic culture in its operations. The University of Ilorin is a foremost university in Nigeria. For example, the use of committee system to run universities is non-negotiable. Thus, I am bringing some of the international best practices in Unilorin to KWASU. The Vice Chancellor cannot do everything.
One thing that I am passionate about is the creation of an enabling environment for teaching and learning. You have a situation where you have students in their hundreds, taking lecture in classrooms that cannot accommodate more than fifty or sixty persons. At the end of the day, some students will pass and others will fail. So, we felt, why not give access to as many students as possible by moving the large classes online. People have argued that it cannot be as effective as having face to face interaction with lecturers. My response is this: even when I was a student in Ife in the late 80s and early 90s, we used to attend large classes of over 500 in classrooms of less than 200 sitting capacity. Many students end up receiving lectures outside the classroom yet majority still passed by relying on lecture notes and handouts. Now imagine if the classes are online and all the students had access to the lectures online in addition to having virtual demonstration by the lecturers. Creating a virtual learning culture is one of the ways of providing enabling environment for teaching and learning.
We are also looking at the issue of welfare for both lecturers and students. Students are the most important stakeholder in the university. If there are no students there can’t be a university. My idea is to produce the total student for the society. What do I mean by this? You have a situation in Nigeria where a student graduates with first class, yet he still goes around begging for jobs. I believe a first-class graduate should not be begging for job. A first-class graduate should have several choices open to him or her. It’s demeaning for first class graduates to be ploughing the streets with their CVs soliciting for employment. It makes nonsense of the excellent certificates they parade. It also does not help the reputation of the institution that issued the certificates. Unfortunately, when the kids don’t get good jobs, they become frustrated and bitter. They become mundane in their thinking and utterances. They start to bash their country with so much bile and venom. They see nothing good in everything. I don’t want to produce these kinds of stranded graduates. I want to produce graduates that are total and prepared for challenges. I want to graduate students that are armed with survival kit for the 21st century. What I have in mind is a situation where a student who gains admission into Kwara State University gets the opportunity of learning a second international language. Most graduates understand and speak only English and may be their mother tongue. But look at Nigeria, a country surrounded by French and Arabic speaking countries. It means that we are limited. A graduate in Nigeria cannot even work in Benin Republic or Cameroun because he cannot speak French. The whole of Northern Nigeria is surrounded by Arabic speaking countries. So, we are looking at a situation where our students upon graduation would have basic proficiency in one international language. To wit: Arabic, French or Mandarin. This would afford them the opportunity of operating as global citizens; if you don’t want to work in Nigeria, you should be able to work in Benin, Togo, Cameroun or you may decide to go to Morocco Tunisia or even the Middle East. If you are proficient in French you can go to France and other French speaking colonies. Another innovation that we are encouraging is the opportunity for our students to pursue professional certifications while in school. You can be admitted to read law for instance and still have the opportunity to study for ICAN exams. This is possible because we have an Institute for Professional Studies that coordinates the professional programmes. We will encourage our students to acquire professional certifications in Taxation, Arbitration, Accounting etc. So that by the time the student graduates, he is already equipped. Imagine a graduate who studied Chemistry in KWASU and upon graduation has learnt to speak French and is a also a Chartered accountant. The chemistry graduate has options and choices. He may decide to pursue Chemistry as a career, he may decide to become a chartered accountant and he may even decide to join the diplomatic corps and become a translator.
Another aspect we are looking at is producing students that have entrepreneurship mindset, the school has a vibrant Centre for Entrepreneurship which I met on ground, a fantastic concept that we have rebranded and added value to. Our intention is to ensure that all our students register a business each at the Corporate Affairs Commission in Abuja. We do not intend to teach entrepreneurship in theory only. The essence of registering businesses is to help the students start small businesses while they are in school. Our students are into bakery and different types of vocational works. During the peak of the pandemic even though we were on a lock down, our students produced facemasks and hand sanitizers from the Centre. Some of them are into tailoring and stuffs like that. We ensure that you learn a skill or more irrespective of whatever you are studying in the university.
Another idea that I shall be pursuing vigorously, is to encourage as many of the students as possible to become IT proficient especially in the area of programming. Our Centre for Information, Innovation and Technology Resource will run IT courses for students. The idea is that by the time a student graduates from KWASU, he will be in a position to speak a second international language. He will be an entrepreneur and also have professional certifications in other fields. This type of graduate will not be a burden on the society. Rather he will be a creator of wealth. He will not go about begging for employment, rather employers will headhunt him. At KWASU, we believe that our products should be our legacy in addition to our vigorous push for infrastructural development.
I am also working towards strengthening the town and gown relationship. The so-called Ivy League schools are majorly funded by individuals, organisations and alumni associations. Successful administrators, entrepreneurs and captains of industries usually endow legacies in these schools. Since I took office, I have started reaching out to persons of substance even here in Ilorin to engage in collaborations with the university. We cannot wait for government to do everything and we cannot continue to increase school fees to run the school. We believe that such collaborations will go a long way. So much to be done!
It is important to reiterate that I took over a university that has a good brand and a solid foundation. The human resources are also fantastic. On my part, I intend to build on the solid foundation by bringing on board the good experiences that I have garnered over years from other institutions that I have attended or worked including OAU, Ile-Ife, UNILAG, Akoka, Kings College London and University of Ilorin.
DNL L&S: Apart from being a Professor of Law, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a Vice Chancellor, are there other milestones you anticipate in the future?
Prof Akanbi: It is God that has always ordered my steps. I told you that it took nine months before I was appointed Vice Chancellor after my interview. I cannot document in one day what transpired during the nine months. But there was a time during the waiting period that my family and I almost took a decision to pull out of the race. This was because all sorts of nasty things were being said or peddled on social media relating to the contest. Rumour fuelled anxiety. My family especially my wife didn’t find it funny at all. At a point I had to advise them to calm down. I said to them, that even if I did not become a vice chancellor, they must not define me with that. After all there are less than 50 people in this country who combine the status of a professor and Senior Advocate of Nigeria. That for me is enough achievement. I told them that if I die they must not remember me as a father who did not become a vice chancellor, but as a father who was a Professor and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. So, when I eventually got the position, I saw it as a bonus.
Now if you ask me what next? The truth is, I don’t know. It is very scary because when you have achieved so much at an age when you are expected to still be budding, it becomes a challenge. Any other thing after this may be considered as beneath what one has already attained. But I have always believed that it is God who orders the steps of man. And because I didn’t go all out looking for these positions, God must have a purpose for adorning me with them and I really believe in God. I may not be a cleric. I believe that God has been kind to me in giving me all the achievements so far. I believe it has been God and he prepared me for those positions. That is why any time I find myself in position I always try to ensure that I rise to the occasion and ensure that people will not have any reason to complain. So, what next? I don’t really know.
But I have a small law firm where we do more of corporate practice and arbitration on the side, I am thinking of going into partnership, since it is the most realistic way to go in legal practice. I am looking at corporate practice and I am looking at arbitration. If I get the right kind of people to collaborate with I would like to explore the area of partnership in corporate legal practice. I plan to retire early in life to give attention to an NGO that I founded with some friends for the less privileged. The Charity initiative was established about 5 years ago. It is called MMGIVIT Charity Initiative. I intend to run it full time in future. My late parents were known to be extremely generous in their lifetime. My mum in particular was always giving, my dad too. And I intend to continue with that. I pray that by the time I retire, all my kids would have graduated and gone their way and that my pension will be enough to sustain me. Back to the question what next after VC. I am a lecturer on leave of absence from the Faculty of Law, University of Ilorin, so it is back to the classroom. But don’t forget that as a professional I am also a technocrat and if I am offered another distinguished appointment after this I will take it.
DNL L&S: Assuming the laws are amended to allow members of the bar to be appointed to the Supreme Court bench, would you consider such appointment?
Prof Akanbi: Let me tell you. My dad did very well on the bench. But thank you, I don’t want to be a judge. Even as vice chancellor, my family and aides are trying to control and contain me. I say it as it is. I want to be myself. For instance, I have my friends and classmates, and I know how we meet and spend time together to gist and play. If I am appointed a judge, I would have to become reserved. Judges are expected to have this dignified aura around them. If I go out and dance, it would be in the paper; “judge caught dancing”. Why shouldn’t I dance? Do you get this? And of course what I also see now, with due respect, for those of us who grew up in homes of judges of my father’s time and who also see the judges of today, there is a big difference. I won’t want to be like that. My sister is a judge. She wanted to be a judge. We are happy that at least one of us is a judge. If she wants to come to Ilorin, she has to plan her visit and when she comes, she carefully picks where to visit. This is what you go through being a judge. Because she knows that she cannot depart from the path of rectitude that our father has blazed. She cannot be anything outside the way our father was. That is a huge task. Even those of us who are not judges are still held up to our father’s high standards, we still have people say to us; “be like your father”. How will I be like my father? He was a judge, I am a lecturer, how do you expect me to be like him? Then imagine if I am a judge, I don’t want to go through that at all.
I would have preferred to be more of an activist – lawyer but not a judge. It takes a lot, and I tell people it is about the person who holds the position it is about character, dignity, honesty, hardwork and competence. If you don’t have these attributes in a person, such a person should avoid the bench. You are not going to get it right. If you become a judge, there are some friends you would need to cut off because they would be bad influence, even if they are not bad influence, people will believe that they are bad influence. So, you have to cut off so many things and this is what those judges of old did then and that was why they appeared God- like. A life of solitude, I don’t envy them and I don’t want to be an ‘owambe’ judge. It is enough restraints carrying our father’s name. Imagine if I am judge, majority of yours questions would have centred on comparison between my father and I. Abeg! I want to be myself!
DNL L&S: As a Professor of Law who has spent over two decades training lawyers at their formative years, what would be your fair assessment of the Legal Education in Nigeria?
Prof Akanbi: Well for me, I have mixed feeling about it. People say standards have fallen but what I feel has fallen is the level of maturity. This has nothing to do with age. The graduates that are produced today are better armed for the society than the ones produced 20 years ago but unfortunately it is not translating to solid positive impact on the legal profession. Why I disagree with people who say standards have fallen has more to do with the stellar performances posted by Nigerian graduates of law when they go for postgraduate programmes abroad. While I agree that there is plenty room for improvement, the system has produced graduates that can hold their own anywhere in the world. For me, I believe the market for legal professionals to operate in Nigeria is very small and this is what has led to increase in ‘jankara’ or sharp practices amongst lawyers in Nigeria.
It is important that we grow the market. And how do we grow the market? It is the stakeholders in the profession that must attend to this including academics and practitioners. We need to redesign the law curriculum at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It should not just be about acquiring knowledge for knowledge sake only. It is should be more about application and relevance. I agree that lawyers are social engineers but in today’s world, lawyers must also see themselves as businessmen and entrepreneurs. This is the aspect that bothers me a lot. Every year we graduate lawyers in their thousands into a saturated market. It is important we re-orientate our law students and prepare them for the future. I believe we need to expand the curriculum in the university and make it more robust and dynamic. This is where NUC and Council of Legal Education need to intervene. The curriculum we currently operate in the university is too limiting. We need to develop a curriculum that allows law students to be creative thinkers. The curriculum must be one that makes a lawyer to think like an entrepreneur or a businessman, even if he wants to be an activist – lawyer. The late Gani was a human right law practitioner yet he also ran his practice like a businessman. He ventured into law related business enterprises. Seems we are still a bit conservative in Nigeria. Happily, some private law faculties in Nigeria are already preparing their products for new markets in the legal profession. Imagine a law student that is bilingual that is proficient in English and French languages? Such a lawyer will be able to practice in international and regional courts. Or imagine the one that has an entrepreneurial background? Such a lawyer will easily spot potentials in challenges. He or she will always find a way out wherever they find themselves. Except we produce law graduate that can grow the market, we would continue to have unemployable or de-motivated lawyers who can add no value to the legal profession.
Let me quickly add that the qualification to study law in Nigerian universities should be changed. The extant qualifications allows only candidates with Arts background to study law. The qualification should be thrown open. Students offering sciences and other combinations should be allowed to study law in the university. I was a science student back in college. I even did mathematics as part of my UME combination to study law. If you want creative minds in the profession expand the net. It is those who dare that can change the world.
DNL L&S: As an academic, one of your areas of interest is Arbitration. Would you consider Arbitration as an effective alternative dispute resolution mechanism? Say for instance in comparison with Mediation.
Prof Akanbi: There is no reason for comparison. People should not compare. These are procedures that are both unique in their own ways. Mediation essentially is built on gentleman’s agreement. A decision arising from mediation may be difficult to enforce if one party becomes recalcitrant. However, if you view mediation from a contractual basis then agreement must be obeyed based on the principle of Pacta sunt servanda. However, in the case of arbitration, an award is like a judgment of court. It is binding and enforceable like a court judgement. Actually the choice of mediation or arbitration depends on the nature of the dispute. For instance, if it is a dispute arising from a construction contract, it advisable for parties to opt for arbitration because of the binding and enforceable nature of the award. On the other hand, disputes arising from domestic relationship such as a disagreement between a couple or Tenancy agreements, parties may resort to mediation. Decisions of mediators are usually party driven. The best outcomes are always decisions that have the inputs of the parties. It shouldn’t be about which dispute resolution procedure is better than the other. It should be which procedure is better suited for a particular dispute. You will be surprised to hear me tell you that sometimes litigation may be the better alternative.
DNL L&S: Becoming a Professor of Law, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a Vice Chancellor at a very young age is indeed commendable. What advise do you have for younger ones who look up to you and your achievements for motivation?
Prof Akanbi: Some argue that there is nothing like luck, however, some others say that chance favours the prepared mind. If I was not eminently qualified for these positions, I won’t have been able to apply for professorship or seek to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria talk less of even applying for the post of Vice Chancellor. The point I am making is that the young ones should be focused. They should not allow anyone kill their dreams. They should be consistent and persevere in whatever they do. Take for example, what you guys are doing now as law journalists, you may not presently appreciate the impact that you are making. However in a couple of years to come, you will look back and be amazed by the volume of work that that you have done. If there is a request for persons with experience in law journalism, people will easily reference you. My advice is that whatever you are doing that is good, continue to do it and remain focused.
Secondly, be humble. When you are humble, people may take you for granted but it is also good because they won’t see you coming. My dad used to always advise us to be humble. My dad never tolerated an ounce of arrogance. He detested it with passion. Humility seems to be lacking today. Even those who do not know anything tend to exhibit arrogance. Being humble doesn’t translate to being stupid. Do not allow anybody take you for granted but do not be arrogant about your achievements. I recommend humility to go with being focused. If you are focused, hardworking industrious, you must complement it with humility. Humility attracts Allah’s grace. When Allah grants you grace, He will grant you ‘sakinah’ – tranquilly. When you are blessed with sakinah, people will continue to wonder why you are achieving so much at such a young age.
I always say to my children: “Gentlemen and ladies be humble. All that your father has achieved is by the grace of God.”
Thirdly, also make friends across the divides. Be cosmopolitan in your thinking, views and relationships. Your network is your net worth. If you stay put in an enclave you may not get the relevant connection. Stretch your hand across the divide and if perchance you don’t get opportunity from within, you may get it from outside. Our father encouraged us to be cosmopolitan. By virtue of his work we had the opportunity of living and schooling in several parts of Nigeria. I have several friends across the nation. I don’t exhibit prejudice and bias towards people or places.
DNL L&S: What do you do with your spare time?
Prof Akanbi: I am a home bird. When I am at home, I hold the TV remote control. I scan the stations for news, sports and wildlife programmes. I also do family time with my wife and kids especially when the kids are at home on holiday. I try to attend important social engagements of families and friends; birthdays, weddings and funerals especially now that our parents are late. We represent them. Even though I love parties, I don’t go for parties because I don’t have much time. I belong to ‘Just Lawyers Forum (JLF)’, a gathering of my classmates in Ife. We are over a hundred of us. When one of us has an event I try as much as possible to attend because when we gather, we let our hair down and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. We have come a long way.
We thank you for granting us this indulgence.