By Onigegewura Olanrewaju Tasleem Akinsola
It is not uncommon for senior legal practitioners to lament the dearth of juniors who are self-driven, self-motivated, and passionate about the profession. If you come across two or three senior counsel having a chat in the lobby of any court, more of often than not, one of the issues they are likely to be discussing is how the standard of legal practice has fallen from ‘those days when we started practice’.
One of the young lawyers I was privileged to meet and who proves to be an exceptional exception to this seemingly general trend is Tolani Rafiu.
To bridge the employment gap in Lagos State Ministry of Justice, it was decided that Project Staff position should be created. The position is a sort of ‘mezzanine’ placement where qualified legal practitioners are employed and engaged as Counsel but not as a full-fledged State Counsel. It provides an interim job opportunity for lawyers who otherwise would have been without employment and also provides staff support to the State Ministry of Justice.
Tolani was one of the young lawyers we recruited as a Project Staff Counsel in the Ministry of Justice when I was privileged to serve as the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor of Lagos on Justice Sector Reforms. If my recollection is correct, Tolani was personally recommended by my Lord, Justice Olubunmi Oyewole, JCA [His Lordship, by the way, wrote the Foreword to Onigegewura’s bestseller, Echoes Across the Niger].
The first time Tolani worked with me was when a Learned Senior Advocate instituted a suit against the Attorney General of Lagos over the issue of fiat to a private legal practitioner. Tolani was one of the young associates with me on the assignment. From that initial encounter, it was crystal clear to me that Tolani was destined for the top of the legal profession. He was passionate, focused, diligent and self-motivated. Whilst many of his colleagues were focused on the challenges of being a Project Staff Counsel, Tolani was more interested in taking full advantages of being a Project Staff Counsel to develop himself. And at this he succeeded.
To be fair to his colleagues, being a Project Staff Counsel was indeed a challenging role. They all wanted to become full State Counsel. The challenge from our own side was how to employ all of them. They were indeed many! To solve the jigsaw puzzle and to give every one of them a fair opportunity, we decided to conduct an examination for all of them and others from outside the Ministry.
Onigegewura was given the task of conducting the examination by the then Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice (who is now the Deputy Chief of Staff to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Mr. Ade Ipaye), and the Solicitor General, Mr. Lawal Pedro, SAN. As a trained teacher, setting the questions was not difficult for me. I was assisted in this regard by my two super brilliant colleagues, Gbolahan Adeniran, a first-class brain who later served as the Attorney General of Ogun State, and the cerebral Iyabode Oshodi who recently became His Lordship of the Lagos Bench.
We had the examination at Magodo and the conduct was hitch-free. The trio of us – Gbolahan and Iyabo marked the close to two hundred scripts the same day. Anytime we came across any script with an exceptionally high score, we gave it to others to cross-check and confirm that the marking was correct. One of the scripts that we singled out that Saturday evening was that of Tolani Rafiu. Mind you, his name was not on the script as I ensured that I gave all the candidates a unique number to prevent undue influence. Thus, we only discovered the identity after we had matched the names with the numbers.
Tolani was one of the best candidates in that examination!
This was not surprising at all. To encourage diligence and professionalism among the crop of Project Staff, we had earlier instituted an Award for the Best Project Staff Officer across the Directorate. Guess who was one of the Prize Winners? Well, Onigegewura is not going to give you any prize for correctly guessing that Tolani Rafiu was the prize-winner for the Most Outstanding Project Staff State Counsel in the Directorate of Public Prosecutions under the then DPP Mrs. Olabisi Ogungbesan [Now My Lord Hon. Justice Ogungbesan]!
One of the Project Officers who failed the examination later came to me: “I knew that if five people were going to pass that difficult exam you set for us, Tolani would be one of the five. Omo yen mo ìwé gan-an.”
The rest is history…
Today is Tolani Rafiu’s Birthday. Tolani is a breath of fresh air. By his diligence and industry, he has etched his footprint on the rock of our consciousness. I have no doubt he will go far in the legal profession. He has added value to every assignment he has undertaken.
My dear Aburo, as you mark your birthday today, I want you to say Amen to this ever-living promise of Almighty Allah in the Noble Quran 93:6 “And your Lord is going to give you, and you will be satisfied.”
Onigegewura Olanrewaju Tasleem Akinsola
FCIArb [UK], FCIT, ABR
05 March 2022