Idowu Sofola SAN: An affectionate remembrance
March 24, 2020 makes it exactly two years since the body of Chief Idowu Sofola, MON, SAN, was lowered into mother earth. Raging against the dying of the light, he made death seem so unimportant. And then quietly, true to his genial nature, went gently into that good night.
In the field of law, the late Sofola was an icon and a colossus, looming larger than life. A gentle, soft-spoken, and unassuming man you are likely to have encountered, without knowing it. He worked assiduously and packed a lot into a rich, fulfilled life, garnering professional accomplishments, including, amongst many others, the preferment with the Senior Advocate of Nigeria rank in 1989. Chief was also at one time, the Chairman of the Body of Benchers, and the first Nigerian, the first African, and indeed the first black man to become the Secretary General of the International Bar Association (IBA).
Away from the rank and file of titles and professional accolades, I saw Oga up close and personal in his private life. He easily exuded the virtues of integrity, humility and leadership. A typical day in the office was not complete without him issuing a letter of introduction or rendering some other form of assistance to a job-seeker, or someone else in need. He was a man of the people. He genuinely loved his people, and his Ikenne ‘homestead’. Weekends never saw Oga in Lagos. He was sociable, and equally made out time to find a balance between work-life and socials.
I remember court appearances as a junior to Oga. Going to the Court of Appeal, Lagos meant many things for me. We would make it back to the office (then at 5th Floor, Elephant Cement House, Alausa-Ikeja) but not without first stopping at the Island Club for lunch, richly interspersed with colourful anecdotes of the Lagos of old, law practice in the 60s, and 70s (Chief was a court registrar before travelling abroad), and how grateful he was for the pupillage and fatherly care his brother, the much-more famous Kehinde Sofola SAN, gave to him.
And when it came to courtroom advocacy skills, he delivered his blows almost without being seen. He didn’t wear a particularly serious mien; soft-spoken and disguisedly empathetic to the man in the box, he did not barrage and harass witnesses being cross-examined. Yet, he effortlessly extracted all he wanted; and that devastatingly played out time and again in his masterful weaving of pleaded facts and evidence during trial proceedings. All of this only became more evident, at the final address stage. He made no fuss about his achievements or status anywhere. Quietly advocating slightly above a whisper but getting loudest ovation (for his results) in the long run. They just don’t make them that good anymore.
Despite advancing in years, it was a delight to watch Oga rise majestically to cross-examine for hours on end, several witnesses called by the petitioner in the Jang v Dariye election petition in 2003. In the wake of legal skirmishes that followed the 2003 elections, I was a junior in the team ably led by Chief Sofola, to defend the election petition brought against the election of Governor Joshua Dariye as Governor of Plateau State. As was characteristic of most elections petitions, our team was comprised of hardworking lawyers from different law firms, who had all been briefed to conduct the defence. The contestant to the seat, who had lost and brought the elections petition, was Air Commodore Jonah Jang (rtd.). Incidentally, he later went on to become the Executive Governor of Plateau State, after Dariye’s term in office. The hearing of his petition lasted for weeks. If there was ever a time I saw the indispensability of forensic advocacy to applying the rules of evidence, that was it.
In 2014, I was midway through editing a galley proof of his biography (set to be released to mark his 80th birth anniversary), when I realised there was a gap lurking in some recollection. I went back to Oga to fill in the details. He gave me a long, probing stare before launching into the details. I had never seen him that overwhelmed with emotions, and thus could understand his wanting to keep details out of the book. Looking back though, all I can say is that his resolve to do so, much against the grain and despite the positive reflection on his person which the narrative could have availed him, was a study in benevolence.
Oga was generous in spirit, and kind in heart to the very end. He would go on to endearingly write of me in the same biography (‘My Life, My Work, My Passions’ by Chief Idowu Sofola MON, SAN, published 2014): “Afolabi Kuti, LL.B Hons (Ife) B.L, LL.M (UNILAG); an alumnus of Idowu Sofola & Co of whom I am proud of at all times..’ I still remember reading those simple words at the time. They never fail to evoke in me, till this day, a sense of great emotion, and a feeling of fortune that my path had been so blessed to cross that of this great man all those many years ago.
While accepting Oga’s death as the inevitable destiny of all mortals, I cannot help but note with a rueful smile that he went as quietly and gracefully as he lived. May his soul continue to find rest with his Maker.
Kuti is a partner at the law offices of Perchstone & Graeys LP.