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Lessons Learnt From Celebrating Aare Afe Babalola


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Afe Babalola surrounded by family, wife during his birthday celebration.

AS the world celebrates Aare Afe Babalola who was honoured last Wednesday, 11th March 2015 in London with the historic award of the Honorary Degree in Law by the University of London, we should try to identify some of the lessons that the life of the distinguished legal practitioner, founder and proprietor of a university, community leader, teacher, administrator, philanthropist and patriot teaches. We may then learn how to make the best choices in the course of living and hopefully making an impact during the period of our existence on earth, leaving a legacy for all time.

The story of Afe Babalola is most dramatic and remarkable and looks more of a fairy tale. Here is a man who was born in Ekiti, a remote region in the hinterland and one of the poorest states of the Federation of Nigeria where the first secondary school was established only in 1933, almost a decade after the first secondary school was already founded in Lagos in 1859. Emmanuel Afe Babalola began life in poverty and for all his youth and early adulthood lived in poverty. As he recalls, in his days he lived in “an unplastered mud house” and “water was a rare commodity.” He further notes that he did not wear shoes to school. On Sundays he wore the white tennis bought for him by his mother. He adds “on my return from the church I used to clean my tennis shoes, wash them, apply white Nugget, dry them and keep them till the next Sunday.” He could not attend any post-primary education institution school even after he passed the entrance examination to them. For example, he was rejected at the interview level for admission to St Andrew’s College, Oyo, because he was pronounced “too young and inexperienced.” He could also not proceed to Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti, the only secondary school in his Ekiti those days, for lack of funds.

The constantly struggling Afe Babalola took to teaching, but again here he faced considerable challenge because teaching was considered an inferior profession to pursue. Under these difficult circumstances, he had decided to enrol for the Senior Cambridge School Certificate examination by private study with the help of tuition courses, which he ordered from the Wolsey Hall, Oxford. He also packed his luggage and left Ado-Ekiti for Ibadan on the morning of January 5, 1948 with the vow never to return to the town until he had passed his own degree examinations.

He later passed the Senior Cambridge School Certificate examination and applied for scholarship to study at the University College, Ibadan. Again he was turned down as the Scholarship Board of Western Nigeria decided to give the only opening for Ekiti Province to a less qualified candidate who was the son of a Party Leader in the Province. Afe Babalola returned to his private study and passed the BSc degree in Economics. In the meantime he had again applied for scholarship to read the Master’s degree course on the completion of his first degree in Economics.

Again his application was rejected, but was offered scholarship to read for the Diploma in Estate Management at Enugu College of Technology after successfully completing his BSc degree examination. He rejected the offer and wrote to the awarding authorities that the award was an insult to his intelligence. Again, he returned to his private study and began to study for his degree examination in Law of the University of London as an external candidate. He passed the examination, travelled for the mandatory stay at an Inn in England and returned to Ibadan to establish his legal practice. He had chosen Ibadan, a provincial capital, and not Lagos where there were more opportunities for the practice of Law in his early days.

Here was a lawyer who just managed to establish his private practice, but who rose to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the highest office that can be reached in the profession of lawyers. The Emmanuel Chambers, which he founded, has trained over a thousand of eminent lawyers, more than twelve of whom became SANs, and four of whom became Attorney Generals and Ministers of Justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Afe Babalola has also successfully handled many landmark cases many of which could have scared away the cowardly, during the period of his practice. Again, he was always sensitive to the need of the downtrodden. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the cases that gave him satisfaction was the defence of the Federal government against the legal action instituted against it on the introduction of communication with cell phones. He had responded to the invitation to defend the decision, filed action at the Abuja Federal High Court and his success “paved the way for the exercise which gave birth to the use of the GSM” which in turn has transformed communication in the country, saving many lives on the dangerous roads and the reckless and inconsiderate drivers.

Afe Babalola was appointed Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the University of Lagos, but was removed from that position before the expiration of his tenure by a succeeding Administration, in spite of his being pronounced for two consecutive years as the best Pro-Chancellor in the country. Afe Babalola left UNILAG to found his own University, which unlike most new universities, began its programmes on its own permanent site where an impressive set of buildings were built before the first set of students were recruited. The University employs thousands of people at all cadres of administration and management, including some of the best world-class professors. A former Minister of Information, the indomitable Dora Akunyili, described the University as a manifestation of a huge investment in education. Here then is a man who terminated his formal education only at the primary education level, but who moved on to acquire the School Certificate, and later the Bachelor of Science Education in Economics and the Law degrees as private student. The man who never studied at any university has proceeded to establish one of the best private universities in Africa. Here is also a man who went through real suffering, pain and oppression, but whose smiles remain broader than those who have never known any challenge of hardship want or squalor in their lifetime.

Aare Afe Babalola has given us the secret of his life, and captured his life story in his fascinating autobiography, which he appropriately titled Impossibility made Possible. In the book, he states that his parents taught him the virtues of not giving up on a dream, industry, self-reliance, hard work, contentment and honesty, which became the hall mark for which he and his law firm became known. He was guided by the principle of keeping on and faith that a person can surmount the challenges of life by dedication, commitment and the dogged pursuit of a goal, not allowing circumstances to serve as a distraction. He refuses to be slowed down on his journey in life by the myriad of challenges, including, injustice, nepotism, favouritism and denial of his basic rights and entitlements, trials, frustrations, and set back, choosing to consider theses as inevitable and temporary. In the course of surmounting the obstacles, he avoids any opening in his heart capable of producing bitterness, despair, frustration, depression, resentment, revenge or non forgiveness, which could have made his heart become a potential breeding ground for demonic activity and thus arrest his potentials for breakthrough.

Afe Babalola believes that there is a powerful hand that guides the destiny of a person and after reflecting on how he has overcome all the tribulations of life, declares that he gives glory and honour to Almighty God for making impossibility possible in the course of the perilous journey through life. He calls his wife an Evangelist, appreciating the many hours she spends on her knees lifting the family up to the Almighty God. It is clear that there has been Divine intervention in the fortunes of the hardworking lawyer, economist, seasoned administrator and educational strategist, Afe Babalola. One respected Englishman who is a specialist in the sociology of religion has marvelled that Afe Babalola had not been awarded a Fellowship of one of the constituent Colleges of the University of London, but had received the commendation at the highest level of the University of London that had been founded as far back as 1836. The conservative university professor had declared: “To Almighty God, who is the only author of all good things, be the praise and glory. Amen.” That was a clear admission of Divine favour.

The life of Afe Babalola, like that of the famous refugee Bible character, Joseph, who was betrayed by his brethren who sold him to Egypt, where he rose to become the Prime Minister of Egypt, teaches that no one can stop a person from reaching the highest point mapped out by Destiny. Indeed, all the obstacles on the path of such a person will constitute steps for the advancement to that highest point. All opposition, manipulation and treachery will end up working for the person, by no means against the person, slowly but also steadily preparing the person for the glorious and higher level.

The life of Afe Babalola, therefore, provokes encouragement and generates hope for the feeble and weak minded who is unable to appreciate that the frustrations and despair of life are just avenues for building courage, steadfastness, determination, faith, boldness and fearlessness, attributes that will later become useful for the building of a successful and triumphant life. It is interesting to note that the Scriptures promise a similar glorious ending in the passage contained in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 43 and verse 2: “When you go through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not go over you: when you go through the fire, you will not be burned; and the flame will have no power over you.”

One of the secrets of the life of Afe Babalola is that he stayed focused on his goal of achieving his dream to rid himself of extreme and abject poverty. He denied himself all luxury and invested all his time, talent and treasure to ensure that he got in life what he considered a priority, excellence, recognition and success. He frequently resigned his jobs, forsook the security of the appointments and took the risk to jump from one job to the other and moved from one office to the other. In the process, Afe Babalola moved on to a higher height of achievement and performance.

Another secret is that Afe Babalola refuses to allow the memory of his past to negatively influence his choice of what to do. Thus, Afe Babalola gives generously as if remembering what he suffered as a poor man. Here, then, was a man who could not enter the walls of the university to study, awarding scholarships worth N28.5 million to his students during the 2013 Founder’s Day celebration of his University. Each of the eleven most outstanding students of his University also received five hundred thousand naira with which to pursue their studies. Afe Babalola has not allowed his bitter experience as he grew up in poverty and neglect to influence his choice to become a major philanthropist, caring for others.

Aare Afe Babalola is always quick to seize the opportunity provided for progress and advancement. This was why he was able to explore the factor of colonial rule, which guaranteed security, peace and opened avenues for personal development and upward for those who worked hard. Afe Babalola had no godfather, no well-placed person to turn to for assistance. His only choice was to decide to excel by self-discipline, industry and commitment to a worthy purpose. He joined the institutions and individuals who benefited from the role that has been played by the University of London in the course of the development of higher education in Africa. For in addition to grooming many of the younger universities from the status of University College to autonomous universities, the University of London has offered to Nigerian students opportunities for the acquisition of the degrees of the university. Among those who have received the doctorate degrees of the University of London are Kenneth Dike, founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Tekena Tamuno and A.B.O. Oyediran, former Vice-Chancellors of the University of Ibadan; Saburi Biobaku and J F.Ade Ajayi, former Vice Chancellors of the University of Lagos, Emmanuel Ayandele, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calabar and a host of other professionals all over the country. There have also been products of the University who benefitted from the provision for external students.

And now the University of London has extended its recognition of distinction to Nigeria at the highest level of educational attainment by the award of the honorary degree of the Doctor of Law to an icon of the legal profession, Aare Afe Babalola. The award makes Afe Babalola belong to the elite class of honorary recipients of the degree of the University of London, having been preceded by only two Africans in the history of the University: the former South African President and illustrious civil rights ambassador, Nelson Mandela, and the fearless and courageous South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is true that Afe Babalola has already received many honours, distinctions, awards and Fellowships all over the world, including eleven honorary degrees of universities. The latest award from London makes Aare Afe Babalola a real legend: a symbol of victory over all forces that hinder growth, a real demonstration of the point that one can make it to the very top by perseverance, and without the initial advantage of rich parents, powerful contact and connections, and even against all odds, the limitation of wealth and the disadvantage of place of birth or ethnic origins. The award also offers the recognition for the investment in neighbours and the wider society of kindness, sensitivity, and passion for the pursuit of excellence. Aare Afe Babalola thus leaves a legacy of the accomplishment of a “mission impossible” of which the entire world must remain proud.

Omolewa, educational historian and emeritus professor at the University of Ibadan, was President of the 32nd session of the General Conference of UNESCO and a Gold Medallist of the organisation

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