For about 50 years, Robert Clarke (SAN) has practised as a lawyer. At 81, he shares some of his fond memories with ADEMOLA OLONILUA
To some people it might seem odd that a man that is 81 years old is dressed in the native attire with sneakers, which is how you are dressed today. Is it right to describe you as a nonconformist?
Throughout my life, my way of dressing reflects the society, especially what the young ones are doing. The shoes I have on now, Yeezy sneakers were formerly used by my son. I took the shoes from him when he outgrew them. Anytime people see me wearing them, they ask me questions. I am happy to wear them because I am always young at heart. Even though I am 81 years old, I always relate with the younger ones. It could be because of my background as a trade unionist which is still part of me even though I have been a lawyer for almost 50 years.
In this part of the world, it does not happen often that a father would use his son’s used shoes. Have you always shared this kind of bond with your children?
I have been blessed with three children and one adopted daughter. My eldest daughter is a practising lawyer in England and she has been called to the bar for over 13 years but she has refused to come to Nigeria to practise law. I have another daughter who did not read law but she has a master’s degree in Business Administration. When my eldest daughter did not come back to the country, I adopted one of my grandnieces from the village. I brought my son back from England to Nigeria in his primary school days because I wanted him to have a feel of the Nigerian life. It was at that point I also brought my grandniece so that they would both grow up together. My son is 19 years old now. He is in the University of Nottingham and he is everything to me in terms of relating to people because the age difference between us is so wide that I find it so good. It makes me remember myself when I was at his age and I always made him understand what I was doing at his age and what life should be at his age and it has been a good experience for me.
Why did it take you so long before you began having children?
Let me be honest, I was a playboy. I am not saying that I was a very handsome man but being a person of mixed race, we were very few in Nigeria in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; so Nigerians of mixed race were a rare species. Therefore, I do not know whether it was by design or accident, I had so many young girlfriends. To be honest, after about five years that I was called to the bar and was not married, my mother grew so worried that she feared something might be wrong with me. I was almost 40 years old when I got married. I met my wife who was a young lawyer from the Okorodudu family. Her father was a Queen’s Counsel and he was giving me briefs and that was how I met my wife. Her father wanted us to get married because they felt that I was a very brilliant lawyer. So maybe meeting my wife allowed me to be serious about relationships with women. However, the reason why I did not marry on time, to be honest, is because I was a complete playboy and I have no regrets. The only regret I have, I can tell you, is that if you do not marry on time or have children on time; when your mates are done paying school fees, it is at that age that you still would be paying school fees. Right now, my son still has another two years to spend at the university and I am still paying school fees.
But the good side of it, which I always tell my friends, some of whom are retired judges, whenever I go to their houses, is that their houses are hollow and silent. Then you ask them where their wives are and they say they’ve travelled abroad to stay with the kids. You can find loneliness in those houses. However, when you come to my house, it is bustling and you will hear people shouting; my children would throw my door open and jump on my bed so I still have that relationship with the young children.
Does your relationship with your young children also make you feel young at 81?
What I can say is that companionship at my age is so important. One of the basic things that really kill people who are old is loneliness. I do not have that loneliness now because I have my young children surrounding me. My adopted daughter is at the University of Ilorin reading law and she is very brilliant. My son is also very brilliant and he is also a footballer. That freshness of being around younger people helps a lot; I do not know whether it has a medical benefit but when you are happy all the time, it would reflect on your health and other aspects of your life.
It is often said that the apple does not fall far from the tree.
When you were your son’s age, were you into sports as well?
I spent two years at Abeokuta Grammar School. I was at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos as well. I started representing CMS Grammar School in cricket. I was playing adult cricket and representing the school. I was a good footballer but because of my smallish stature, I could not play football for the school. I was so smallish that people beat me around. Maybe we did not eat the type of food that these young ones are eating because my son is 6ft 2inches now at his age. He is a good footballer so I sent him to Leister Football Academy where he spent two years before going to Nottingham University.
When I was in school I also played table tennis and I represented Abeokuta Grammar School with Beko Ransome-Kuti and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who were my classmates. The three of us represented the school in table tennis but at the CMS Grammar School, I was a first-class cricketer.
In those early days, you lived with clergymen. One would have thought you would toe that path but you chose law. Why?
Law has always been my number one focus. When my father died, I was four years old and the only good thing that happened to us then was that my father took up a life insurance policy for £150 in 1938 and when we all left secondary school, we distributed the money among ourselves but my elder brother and sisters needed the money more than me so I handed it over to them, believing that I could study my law privately.
I took my GCE Advanced Level in 1959 and passed my two subjects to give me direct entry to the university and I never got anybody to sponsor me. I did my London Intermediate Level and I passed it in 1962. After that, I could not progress, I was a trade unionist and I got to the highest level in my trade union movement which was the general secretary of my union. Around 1967 when I returned to Nigeria, I discovered that my friends who studied law with me arrived in the country as full-grown lawyers, so I told myself that if they could do it, I could too. I decided to abandon the trade union movement which I had built for almost 13 years to go and study law. When I was 32, I went back to the University of Lagos in 1970 to study law. Although I was not the best student, I represented the Nigerian University Students in an international symposium in America called Phillip Jessup competition. I came first in Nigeria and second in the world. Law has always been in my blood. Advocacy is a forensic art; you do not get it except it is in your blood no matter how hard you work. Advocacy is a gift and it is in the blood and I love it.
Being someone of mixed race, how was your relationship with your male peers?
Let me summarise it this way, when the boarding system of the CMS Grammar School collapsed in 1954, I had to look for a boarding system so I went to Abeokuta Grammar school. I had an incident which I would not want to call nasty. First, my friends, the late Dr Beko Ransome Kuti, the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, among others were all eager to see my nakedness and I always wore six pants whenever I was going to bed because they would be dragging me. They just wanted to see my nakedness because like I said, I was a rare species. The boys were always eager to know what made the girls run after me, especially in Abeokuta Grammar School, which was a mixed school.
You lost your father at a very early stage in life. How did that affect your childhood?
At that age, I knew nothing. If I see my father physically, I would not recognise him. I just have his picture in my office. It never affected me because I never knew anything.
But when your peer’s fathers came to visit them in school, did it not make you wish your father was alive?
I was fortunate to have foster parents. Luckily, all my father’s friends were ‘oyinbos’ (whites) but one of them knew Bishop Jadesimi, who was my first foster parent. It was one of the best times of my life as I did not feel the loss of any parent. I was properly taken care of and when they were transferred from Lagos, I had another privilege of staying with Bishop Kale. When I was a teenager, I was fostered by Mr and Mrs Bukor. Today, there is a great bond in the family of the Bukors and I am even the head of the family. That shows that I never lacked parental care but whenever I am praying, I pray for my father who died relatively at the age of 48. I never felt his absence so much because I was being catered for by my foster parents.
But your mother was still alive when you were living with foster parents. Why did you not stay with her?
My father was British. When he died, my mother was a young Hausa-Fulani woman. She married at the age of 16 and had three of us. When my father died, his friends called her and asked if she would love to stay and look after the children and they would build a house for her but she said no because she was relatively young. Then they asked if she would love to remarry and she said yes. So after weaning me at 18 months, she remarried. Today, I have three other half siblings from the husband she later married. My mother and I were so close. I sent her to Mecca and built a house for her. Today, I look after all my half siblings.
Was it easy setting up your chamber?
When I left the law school, I went back to the ports authority and after two years there, I decided that I wanted to practise advocacy. There was a day the late Chief Remi Fani-Kayode saw me in court while I was there for ports authority’s matter. He was in court and I had to argue on an application. After that, he called me and asked what chamber I represented and I told him that it was the ports authority. He asked how much I was being paid; I was being paid N400 per month as an assistant legal officer. He then told me to come to see him and also work for him and that he would double my salary. I thought he would pay me N800, I never knew it would be £800. I felt that since it was a good opportunity, I should join him.
I started my practice with Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo Chambers. I was there for six years and in 1980, I decided to set up my own chambers and I can assure you that since then, by the grace of God, we have been having a steady practice.
Does it mean you never encountered any challenge?
Of course, there were challenges, in terms of the briefs you get. I was fortunate and I always advise young lawyers who are leaving the law school to get themselves a reputable law firm because some of them feel they can get more money by being a charge and bail lawyer. After you spend five years with a chamber, if you want to continue with them, it is fine; if not, you can start your own private practice. The sky would be the limit but the problems are many. I was fortunate. When I was with Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo Chambers, they immediately exposed me to the system. Maybe they saw the brilliance in me but I was able to traverse the whole of Nigeria and I met a lot of people, especially in politics as Fani-Kayode was a top politician. So I went to court to represent a lot of his friends and they saw how good I was. They came to even give me briefs outside the chambers. In 1980, some of them even advised me to move out. I was troubled and told them about my concerns on getting briefs and they said that I should not worry. Mine is not a case that one should take for granted because I was lucky as any other young man might not be that lucky. I was lucky but my luck is coupled with the fact that I was very hard-working, so if you want to look at success in the practice, it involves a combination of luck and serious practice. What some other people regard as luck I refer to it as the grace of God.
Did you ever consider becoming a judge?
It is a very restrictive area. When you are a judge, everything is restricted and you are put in a cage. As a judge in those days, you could not go to parties and do many other things and I was not that kind of person. I was a happy-go-lucky fellow and that was why I married at the age of 40. I cannot see myself becoming a judge so it was never something I considered. Also, during my early years of practising, I was exposed to big briefs. I was Shehu Shagari’s (former President) lawyer in 1979. I was the sole counsel for the National Republican Convention, Tom Ikimi and others in the 1990s. So I have been exposed to many big cases and that was why the thought of being a judge never occurred to me.
At 81, do you still attend parties to unwind?
In those days, we organised what was called the Special Friday Groove. It happened every Friday from the late 80s up to when most of us became old men. Serving judges and top lawyers all convened in my office and we drank and ate. When Justice Oguntade was the judge at the Court of Appeal in Lagos, I invited him to the groove because he was having problems with being appointed to the Supreme Court because they felt that he belonged to a group.
I invited him over and told him to come and relax. A lot of judges came here and we all enjoyed our lives but one thing we never did was to discuss cases but many people thought that we did. When Justice Oguntade was having his 60th birthday in 2000, he was the presiding judge at the Court of Appeal so we used that opportunity to write to the Chief Justice of Lagos State and all the judges inviting them to his residence. When they honoured our invitation, we were able to inform many of them that what happened during the Special Friday Groove had nothing to do with legal matters because we never talked about the law or cases. We made them know that it was just an avenue to unwind; while many of them believed us, many did not believe us. But I am stating it that we were just unwinding so that every Tom, Dick and Harry would not have access to us at public parties.
You have witnessed many facets of Nigerian history from the colonial era to the military era and now the democratic era. How has it been?
I enjoyed every transiting period of my life. From the time I left secondary school to 1960 during the colonial era. By virtue of my activities in the trade union movement, I was exposed to many things. When we got independence, the first group (of leaders) we had were God-fearing, unlike the politicians that we have nowadays. Not that there was no bribery and corruption but it was minimal. So things were normal then. Nigeria changed for the worse when the military took over. Certain individuals who knew a military officer would get something that others could never think of getting within the next years, so we had what we called the nouveau riche (new money or new rich) being created overnight and it did not augur well for Nigeria.
We transited into a so-called democracy and it was aborted by the military but when this transition came in 1999, we were very unlucky to have Nigerians who were very selfish; they sat down and formed what is called the 1999 Constitution, basing it on the American system. A Nigerian who had stayed in America for years came home and told me that we copied the American system which is being operated by normal human beings but the Nigerian system is being operated by vagabonds. He said that was the difference and it can never work and it has not worked.
This is a constitution that allows a governor to sit down and say that he needs N7bn for security vote. A governor awards all contracts without a tender board. If you are a commissioner, you cannot award a contract, a governor must do it. We have a constitution which also dictates that by virtue of Section 5, all executive powers vested shall be vested in the President. We have seen circumstances whereby presidents in Nigeria misruled this country. Nigeria has never had a leader and we are praying to have starting with President Muhammadu Buhari, who is trying to stop corruption; which I believe he cannot do. But he is trying. Corruption is the greatest bane of our society. It is not that there is no corruption in other places because it exists in America and England but when it comes to corruption in Nigeria, there is this effrontery that if I do it, nothing would happen to me; and even if I do it and I am exposed, people would not say anything. I am not a politician and I do not believe in politicians because when you see those who are canvassing for votes today, many of them who had served in different positions should be stoned but they are the people asking us to vote for them today. Governors have been imprisoned today and are receiving salaries in prison. Many of them go to the Senate after leaving their governorship position and they are earning basic salaries at the Senate and getting pensions as being governors. These are the people that are still asking us to vote for them. If I were God, I would send thunder and fire on all politicians in Nigeria so that we can start all over again. Or I wish that by the grace of God, something should happen and the system is destroyed – not the people but the system – and there are people who can bring in a new system, I would be so grateful.
How did you feel the day you became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria?
I had been due to become a SAN well over a decade before I got it in 2006. The Chief Justice of Nigeria then was close to all my friends so I thought I had no problem. When I did not get it in the first year, I went to some of my friends who were the CJ’s friends as well. They went to him to find out what the problem was and he told them not to worry as he would do it the following year. After four years, he did not do anything then the president of the old students’ association of his alma mater went to him to let him know that they had come to him several times because I was due for the position and he said he would do it. For over seven years, I was being bypassed and I know why but I would not state the reason.
When God says it is the time for you, it would happen because when the CJN was changed, one of my friends that were close to him and had been telling him about me just took me to the new CJN. When he saw us, he simply said that he knew why we were there and they were sorry because three of his colleagues, who were my friends, also came into his office. He started apologising that they were sorry. But if you think I was made a SAN and became elated because of that; the answer is no, because I knew the system denied me of it as and when due. I was doing a case in 1997 and there were three SANs on the other side, I was just a lawyer but at the end of the case, I knew that I had floored the three of them. When they entered, the presiding judge had to ask them if they saw what he had seen in court that day. They appointed those three people as SANs but he had to ask if they saw how I floored them. He asked one of them to come and see me and ask what was really wrong. He had to ask if I had not been applying and I told him the situation of things. But I was never really excited when I was made a SAN because inside of me, I knew I deserved it about ten years earlier but didn’t get it because of the system. In Nigeria, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for some people to become SANs. Like I always say, not all SANs are good lawyers and not all lawyers are bad lawyers, so there are many good lawyers among ordinary lawyers. It is the corrupt system that is causing all these things.
Tell us about your love story?
My wife was my senior at the bar and her father was a top lawyer in Nigeria. She came from a very good pedigree so at the age of 22, she was already a lawyer and that was a great feat in those days. I met her at Fani-Kayode and S owemimo Chambers because her father felt she would learn more there than working with him. I was a playboy but the good grace of God made us come together but we have never allowed the legal background that we have to determine our relationship in the house. We know where we go wrong, we know when to shout. Today, she is not only my wife but my best friend.