BY Dayo Benson (Assistant Editor)
Justice Dolapo Akinsayna (rtd), turned 70, last month, five years after she took a bow from the bench of Lagos State judiciary. She is mostly remembered for reasoned judgement that stripped Chief Ernest Shonekan-led interim national government of its legitimacy in 1993. Late Head of State, General Sani Abacha, had cashed-in on the same judgement to shove Shonekan out of of power. 18 years after, she still relishes her show of courage in the landmark judgement which has earned her several admonitions.
In this interview, she spoke on life at 70, her days on the bench and the judiciary. She argues that judges are well paid enough for them to be contended except those who are greedy.
She also spoke on life outside the bench. Obviously, Justice Akinsanya is retired but not tired as she still engage in alternative dispute resolution, that is, arbitration.
What is it like being 70?
It is a fantastic age of wisdom. Looking back, one is joyful that one reached that age because my father died at 71 but my mother died at 84. To stay healthy, I make sure I don’t add weight. At 70, if I remove my wig, you will see my grey hair. So, it’s a glorious age of wisdom and people respect you. I must give credit to former Lagos State governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu because he was so wonderful to me when I retired. I remember he specifically asked me what I wanted and I told him I needed Orthopedic bed; he also gave me fridge-freezer. Looking back, I think I like former governor Tinubu and also our current Governor Babatunde Fashola.
How would you describe your days on the bench?
I had respect for my job. I used to get to office on time, so you could see the late comers rushing in. If you are punctual and responsible, things would come your way. My late father, Prof. Sanyadojo Onabamiro taught me punctuality and also my grandmother. She was a palm-oil and cocoa farmer. My parents and grand-parents exposed me and my siblings. The experience with them were wonderful especially when I was in school. I attended St. Anne’s School, Ibadan and Ibadan Grammar School for my HSC. After that, I went to England. Because my father was then in Manchester. I attended Manchester University. My father believed that if you have girls and keep them together, you would not have problem. My mother was a registered nurse.
Looking back at the course of your career, is there anything you would do differently if you have an opportunity to replay that period?
I would give respect to the people I gave it to and I would be punctual. I enjoyed my days on the bench. I never had cause to be rude to anyone. Still on the judiciary, when I had so many cases to be attended to, I used to ask some of the lawyers to stay back so that I could attend to their cases especially the elderly and the senior lawyers.
Do you have any regret?
I have no regrets, none at all.
Would you say you were fulfilled when you retired?
In our own time, seven of us were appointed judges. Among them were late Justice Oduneye, who died recently, late Justice Kessington and the current Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Inumidun Akande. I felt so sad when I heard that Oduneye died. I was close to Kessington and I was the only one he could listen to whenever he was angry. I used to call him Kess Baba. There was a day I saw him along Nnamdi Azikiwe Street in Lagos when he wanted to fight another motorist, whom he accused of driving rough. He had already rolled up his sleeves when I sighted him from my car. I quickly stepped down and pacified him and he listened to me. I missed him because he died early.
Would you want to recall some of the landmark judgments you delivered?
The one that could have shaken me was that of the Interim government but I showed courage. Chief Ernest Shonekan and my husband were classmate, even his wife was my head girl at Ibadan Grammar School. They kept away from us after the judgment, but I opened up to them and I would always greet them. On the day the judgment was delivered, the court was filled up to the extent that Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs stood in the dock. Women traders also thronged the court and they were all over the places. I was surprised that everyone was so much interested in the case, but one had to show courage. Thank God I did what I had to do then and here am I enjoying my retirement.
Would you have delivered the same judgement given the same situation all over again?
I would do it all over again because truth never changes, it is constant. I received many accolades because of the judgement.
You know if people praise you, it means you have done the right thing and what people expected. One particular high chief in Ikorodu walked up to me one day at a function and asked whether I was the one that delivered the interim government judgment and I said yes. He prayed for me earnestly and I was so happy.
You retired as High Court Judge, would you have loved to make it to a higher court?
To be a judge is more prestigious than running around taking briefs and judges are respected all over the world. What suits my psyche is mediation and that is what we are doing now. It is quite profitable and people are paying, but I don’t charge much, because you are reconciling people, the charges should not be heavy because the work is not tedious.
Would you have loved to have risen to the position of Chief Judge?
I think I would have wanted something different. As we are ageing, we have grand children and they are brought to you to take care of and you cannot refuse.
You said you would have preferred something else; like what?
Like the mediation that I told you about because that is the passion these days.
Would you say being appointed as higher court judge have some political considerations?
I did not want to leave Lagos because you would be transferred all over the country with your briefcase, I didn’t want that. If my husband had made so much sacrifice, I should stay with him.
What is your assessment of the judiciary especially with so much controversies trailing it?
Well, it is not as manifest as in the magistracy because integrity goes with being a judge. If you are prone to be corrupt, you will be corrupt. I think we earned good salaries which should be sufficient for us, so there is no reason for anyone to be corrupt except you are greedy.
What do you think predisposes judges to corruption?
I can vow for the female judges and I believe they are contented. But in a situation where a male judge is married to four wives, there is a possibility for him to be corrupt.
How would you describe the face-off between the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami?
There must be a hidden agenda because both of them are successful. It is possible somebody has been bribed and all these things happen in Abuja.
I don’t know the CJN well, but I know Salami very well. So, I believe there is a hidden agenda and it would not be palatable the day the bubble will burst. I feel sad to see such a thing happening at that level.
In your opinion, how do you think the bench can be sanitised?
Well, individual will be judged by his or her conscience. So, it is better not to do it at all because nothing can be hidden for too long.
Do you have any worries over April general elections, considering some conflicting judgments being delivered by some courts over the poll?
The law is consistent and it does not change. If a judgement goes one way and there is an earlier authority, one should know the reason why that judgement depart from the authority.
Is it possible for Supreme Court to reverse itself and under what situation can it do so?
The law ought to be consistent, but if there are situations where it is not so, one should research to find out why.
What is your assessment of the Lagos State judiciary which you left behind five years ago?
The standard has not dropped and the Chief Judge is very hardworking. She has been trying to make improvement in the Lagos judiciary. She is always telling people around her not to receive anything on her behalf because she would tell you that she is satisfied with her salary.
So, what is your advice to judges?
They have better opportunities because when I was retiring, I had to rush the case files in my hand. That is why Information Technology is very good because a lot of them work on their laptops.
What would you describe as your lowest moment on the bench?
I just want to thank the then Chief Judge, Justice Ade Alabi, he did his best. The current Chief Judge, Inumidun Akande is also doing her best, even though we had quarrels but we settled them.
At a point, we dragged ourselves before the Ayangburen of Ikorodu but we could not resolve the differences, we later settled it in our own way and now, we are best of friends.She is very firm and she would do what she has to do.
So, when would you describe as your highest moment in your career?
That was the time I became a Judge of the High Court of Lagos State and the way I was celebrated when I retired. It was very hilarious. People wore Aso-ebi and we danced.