Chief Babatunde Olusola Benson, SAN, will be 79 on the 4th of July, 2011. As Secretary-General, Nigerian Bar Association, he mooted the idea of forming the African Bar Association, ABA.
The body came into fruition and he went on to run its affairs, paving the way for him to emerge as President, NBA (1978-80). He established his B. O. Benson Law Office in 1982 and was elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, in 1983. He told BASHIR ADEFAKA at his Ikorodu, Lagos State residence how he became motherless at age of five. Excerpts:
You have been around for close to 79 years. How would you compare your younger days and now?
To compare the past and the present might be a bit hard. Take for instance in our own days, like President Jonathan said in his inauguration speech that he used to go to school without shoes, so it was with some of us.
But then if you compare that with what happens these days, there is difference. Because then, there was security of life and property: you could walk from here to Lagos and there would be nobody harassing you. There would be no kidnapping, nothing of the sort.
Now you came into this place to interview me. When I used to stay with my grandfather, it was in four-bedroom bungalow and about five of us would sleep in the same room, naked. But these days you see mansion where our children don’t share the same room and they are living comfortably.
I later moved to stay in Yaba with my uncle, TOS Benson, whom I would always remember. His car would take us to the CMS Grammar School in Lagos but in the life I lived before that, in those days in Ikorodu, oh, you had to trek to school.
So things are completely different. I remember even when I qualified as a lawyer over 50 years ago and I took over my uncle’s chambers, I found that everything ought to change. At that time it was manual typewriter and I thought well, we should look for something else.
As at 1959, the computers were not there but there were certain attachments to the manual typewriters and, you know, we had just returned from England with all those ideas. It’s like a printing machine. When you moved from that into the computer age, everything became computerized and that was not happening before the advent of computer. Now, this thing in your hand (tape recorder), you can put in your pocket and so, when you are talking you are recording everything. We didn’t have that in those days.
I can tell you that life itself is fantastic because, in those days when we were much younger, our parents gave us adequate attention and they looked after us. I was just writing about my father, who died about 10 years ago at the age of 98. He was taking so much care of us.
I and my younger brother were staying with my maternal grandfather then and he, my father, was coming in every weekend to come and see to our welfare. Whereas, these days, it’s not as easy as it was then. I remember when I was in active practice, oh la la! I used to travel from Lagos to Benin to handle cases. From there to Warri, from there to Owerri, and from Owerri to Asaba and so on.
Where, then was time to come home to look after my children? My wife was marvelous in that area however. So, it’s rather quite different.
But then, that doesn’t mean that the children are not being looked after but in some other ways. I mean children are now put in the boarding house and you get private tuitions for them and things like that. But what is completely different is the question of behaviour of children nowadays. I was reading in a newspaper, recently, that a father decided to bring his child to Nigeria against training him in England.
The English court thought it was bad and I think the man was sent to jail. If you beat your child these days in England, you are in trouble. He will even take the telephone and call the police. So it’s quite different.
So, the difference in several aspects of life in the past and present, the gap is so wide that there is nothing you can do about it.
My daughter lives in Canada and we talk to each other on phone as if she is right in front of me. And that is it. So if you talk about comparing the past and present, we would just go on and on.
Looking back to your upbringing, how would you score your parents in influencing the direction you took?
Oh! Well, incidentally, I’m just writing my father’s history. Unfortunately my mother died when I was at the age of five.
And I was describing my father as a fantastic man. I just got a letter from my Kabiyesi whom I asked to write the foreword to the book and he wrote, “He’s a father in a million. You cannot compare him with just any father.”
How was it growing up a motherless child?
I lived with my maternal grandfather here in Ikorodu and let me say that being motherless children, I and my junior brother, the whole community was taking care of us. In those days I remember one particular woman, I had always cherished her and we called her Iya Olobe.
She was selling Eba with soup to people in the market. She was just a neighbour to my grandfather and she would give us food; three meals! Food! She took care of us: gave us our baths and things like that. This is difficult to do these days. If you even want to try it, it’s possible the parents will misinterpret your intention. You don’t even have the opportunity of rendering that kind of help to children in your neighbourhood today. It’s sad!
But still much concerned about the need to do something to give back to the society from what the society had given to me, when I was 60 years of age, I asked myself: “How can I bring it alive again?” I said well, “I have money, I thank God for that.” And I set up what I called B. O. Benson Education Foundation.
Why did you think an education foundation was what you needed to do for the society?
The best way you can help people is by giving them unhindered education. I knew a number of children didn’t have the required education they should have. So, instead of buying and amassing cars, I decided to spend the money on that project and I started with about half a million naira; then I set up the foundation. I registered it and appointed trustees. As of now, we have trained no fewer than 20 graduates through the foundation.
We started about 19 years ago.
Was lawyer what you actually set out to be in life?
Ah, I think you are right there. No! my main aim was to be a medical doctor. In fact, I just liked the idea of being called ‘Doctor’. But then, I was living with my uncle, TOS Benson. His friends like late Justice S. O. Lambo, a good number of them, reasoning with them made us to change our minds to say, ‘Ah, this is beautiful. You see G. I. C Taylor, a lawyer, in his sport car.
How many doctors do you find in things like that?’ And then, of course, my uncle encouraged me to read law and that’s how I became a lawyer. I was twice offered to become Judge but I declined.
The peak I wanted to reach in the profession was to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. I worked towards it and I got it. I have, however, told one of my sons to look up to becoming a Judge and he’s working towards it. (Laughs).
How did you become NBA President?
I told you how I became a lawyer, how I went to England and then came back. And that I had the opportunity of heading my uncle’s chambers, T. O. Shobowale Benson & Co and, instead of going into politics, I went into Bar Association politics. I was treasurer, later secretary_general and then I became the President.
And once you have been in that line, your colleagues would see that you are the better person to be made the President rather than anybody who thinks he should be there because he has money.
Name: Chief B. O. Benson, SAN.
Date of birth: July 4, 1932.
Place of birth: Lagos State.
Present position: Investor.
Strength of character: Godliness and producing opportunities.