Life in automatic gear

First published in The Nation, Lagos 

Timothy Abiodun Olatokunbo Tugbiyele’s life appears to be an uncharted path. He has moved from one point to another in life – into law, teaching, writing, publishing and organising seminars – without necessarily consciously preparing for the next level. He shared his life journey with The Nation Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE


“They say people go into Law because of ambition,” Timoty Tugbiyele stated candidly, “honestly I did not have any ambition of studying Law. I never consciously planned to be a lawyer. I wanted to study Mass Communications.”

Young T. A. O. Tugbiyele’s life was on a roll from the start. Encounters and accidents – in the realistic and metaphorical use of the word – shaped him into a successful law career. Born in the United States of America in 1955 where his parents were students, he did not grow up there. He attended primary and secondary schools in Nigeria attending the famous Christ School, Ado Ekiti and Igbobi College in Lagos. It was at this point that fate took over the shaping of his life.

“I grew up in an academic setting,” he told The Nation at his Yaba law chambers office with expression of explaining the obvious. “In the academic setting, it was just normal that you went to primary school and from there to the secondary school. From there you naturally proceeded to the university.

“I wanted to study Mass Communications. It was then being offered only at the University of Lagos while University of Nigeria Nsukka offered Journalism. I could not secure admission to UNN. Unilag on its part did even consider me as my A level grades were not good enough. Mass Communications and Law were the most competitive courses in Unilag in those days.

“There was no JAMB then. You had to apply to individual university on you own. Now University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, had the system of preliminary concessional admission. I obtained the form and applied for Law. I applied to study Law because it was the best course an arts student could apply for. They granted me admission and that was how I went into Law.”

Without any interest whatsoever in the field of Law, Tugbiyele confessed he was not a serious student in the university. “I was not a serious student at the university o,” he said with the chuckle of a mischievous child. “Because I was not interested in Law, I just passed through the university playing the normal youthful student.”

That was to change when he entered the Law School after leaving Ife in 1979. While at the Nigerian Law School, his legal epiphany occurred. While on law office attachment, he discovered what law practice was all about for the first time and fell in love with it. Since then he has been pursuing its teaching, practice and publishing all of which he has done rather successfully.

After he was called to Bar in 1980, he served the compulsory NYSC in Bauchi State. Thereafter he worked with the firm of Barrister Niyi Oyetunde in Jos, Plateau State for about three years before returning to the Nigerian Law School, Lagos – this time as a lecturer.

Again fate dealt him another hand he did not plan for. His plan was to remain at the Law School as a lecturer for as long as possible. Both his parents were teachers. The father retired as a professor from the Education faculty of Unilag while the mother retired as a secondary school principle. So, it is jus understandable that the first son of the family of five siblings would take to teaching.

One and a half years into his teaching career, the then military junta led by Buhari and Idiagbon issued a decree banning civil servants from private practice. Rather than foregoing the courtroom confined to the classroom, Tugbiyele opted out of the Law School and opened his own chambers. He has not looked back since then.

Despite his childhood dreams of going into the field of mass communications, Tugbiyele never planned going into writing. He recalled his sojourn into writing: “Right from when I was in Jos, we have been involved quite a good number of debt recovery. So, I thought the experience I had gathered could enrich others. That was what led to my writing my first book entitled Debt Recovery Through Summary Judgement first in 1996 before it was repackaged and released in 2007.

After publishing that one book, Tugbiyele went back to focusing his attention on the practice of law organising seminars for lawyers and corporate bodies on the sideline – the teacher in him simply refused to be buried. Without seeking his approval, the hand of fate again shifted the gear of Tugbiyele’s life. In 2004, he fell sick.

“I fell sick in 2004 and my movement was restricted. Although I am okay now, the result of the sickness is my publishing six books between then and now because while confined to my house, I turned to writing.”

Debt Recovery Through Summary Judgment  deals with “short cuts” to obtaining judgment in debt recovery matters and is a practical handbook for judges, lawyers, law students, businessmen and all who are interested in that aspect of law as debt recovery without the rigours of trial is a must for debt recovery practitioners.

A specific case is the focus of Debt Recovery Mareva Injuction and Anton Piller Orders released in 2006. Law of Banking and Motor Vehicle Accident Claims, Defamation Laws, Practice and Procedure were published in 2007. These are all purely legal books for lawyers and law students. An interesting exception the Tugbiyele’s collection of books is his biographical work, F. R. A. Williams – The Legal Icon. It was published in 2005 after the passing on of the father of legal practice in Nigeria.

Looking back with the hindsight of someone with 27 years experience in the field, Tugbiyele assessed the state of legal practice in Nigeria and gave kudos to the rulers of the past eight years of civilian dispensation.

“Take Lagos State for example,” he said, “new court rooms built by the Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu regime. Most court rooms are air conditioned. They have power generators. They are equipped with computers. Magistrates and judges are better paid and they have good cars with some of them even riding jeeps. It is quite a positive development in the legal system.”

Beyond these provisions, Tugbiyele also assessed the dispensation of justice itself saying, “In those days, it was believed that you could frustrate someone by pursuing a case up to the Supreme Judge level. But look as what is happening today. Take for instance the Ladoja and Rotimi Amechi cases whereby the Supreme Court took care of the cases within one year.

“Another thing you have to pay attention to is that civilian rulers obey court judgments – although many people correctly pointed out that Obasanjo disobeyed court rulings. It was  not so during the military. They ruled by decrees and flagrantly disobeyed court rulings. The judiciary suffered much under military regimes. I think the civilians have tried. To me, Obasanjo tried. At least we have democracy. My quarrel with him is that he was busy selling Nigeria. Had the third term bid succeeded, he would have sold the entire nation into the hands of foreign interests.”

Taking a look into the state of things at his former primary constituency, the Nigerian Law School, Tugbiyele commended the state of affairs there. “The present Director in my view has good intentions. The issue of backlog is over. According to information available to me, the Law School has been computerised. Every student is now expected to have a laptop. The days of writing on the board with chalk is over. That is a good development as computer literacy is the trend all over the world.”

He however frowned at the cost of obtaining law training.

“I learnt that the school fees at the Nigerian Law School is now 220,000,000 naira.” He should know – his first born is due to resume there in a few days. “Apart from this, the student is expected to acquire a laptop computer that goes for between 120,000,000 and 180,000,000 naira. Then he or she has to have two to three black suits, black shoes, white shirts and ties. So, anyone planning to send his ward to the Law School now has to be thinking of about one million naira. How many Nigerians can afford that? What that means is that only the rich can have access to legal training. That is wrong in a society where egalitarianism should be the order of the day.

“If the cost of Law School is this high there is the need for the Council of Legal Education to have a rethink. Maybe it is time they allow private law schools. That is what is obtainable in the United States of America. Even in the United Kingdom there are four inns through which barristers can be called to the bar while there is Society of Solicitors where solicitors qualify. There should be private law schools with the same Council of Legal Education setting the examinations and marking the scripts. One can then be able to choose whether to go to an expensive law school or a cheap one.”

Apart from writing, Tugbiyele publishes and markets his books. Assessing this area of endeavour, he concluded: “I have not found publishing economically rewarding. I did not study publishing or marketing. The first thing I observed is that the cost of printing is very exorbitant. The second is that Nigerians are very dishonest. Give a bookseller books on sales on return basis, when you go back to collect the money, they would claim the books are not yet sold. Okay, bring the unsold copies and they would tell you they had given them out to other booksellers.”

In Tugbiyele’s opinion, Nigerian law books are of the same quality as imported books. “The only problem is that the quality of printing out there is better than ours. That is why some writers in Nigeria prefer to print abroad. I have not done that. I print my books here which makes their prices reasonable.”

That took us into the area of the high cost of legal books.

“Law books cannot be cheap. The legal practitioner is not a writer. So when he goes into writing, he is going out of his normal schedule. So you have to pay for the time he is taking off to write. Another point is the cost of doing research. There are law books in my library here that go for as high as 80,000 a book and 100,000 a set. We also have to buy weekly law reports some of which go for 1,000 naira. So, the cost of putting together law books are high. That is why they are expensive.”

His next project which is expected to see the light of day in the first quarter of 2008 is an effort at making legal materials readily available at cheaper prices. It is going to be an annual publication, a digest of Supreme Court, the Appeal Court and high courts judgments.

Apart from this, Tugbiyele is working on some new books one of which is co-authored with his father who passed on in April this year. It is a collection of papers presented at a seminar where they were both facilitators.

Tugbiyele took a swipe at some of his colleagues when asked what the value of an average lawyer would be. He said the problem of many of them is that rather than invest in their law libraries a good number waste money on buildings, flashy cars and cloths, jewelleries and wining and dining. An average lawyer of about 15 years practice, he said, should have a library worth some five million naira. He however pointed out other research avenues are rendering book filled shelves obsolete as books have short lifespan. CDs and online research are taking over.

Asked what his typical day looked like, Tugbiyele said he wakes up around four o’clock every morning. “I live at Ikotun,” he said. “If you live at Ikotun, you have to wake up early as you would need about two hours to get Yaba or the court on the Island. Ikotun is a terrible place. There you would find people who had taken over one side of a two-lane road selling TV which prospective buyers gather to watch right on the road. If you as much as move too close they would fight you for encroaching on their territory. I waste average of five hours a day as a result of hold up. I have written the Alimosho Local Government Chairman but he has not even acknowledge the receipt of my letter.

I hope Governor Babatunde Fashola, who incidentally is building on the good foundation laid by Bola Tinubu, would do something about Ikotun area. The Chairman there is not performing at all. Look at Musin, it is cleaner now than it was two years ago which means the government is doing something there.

Lagos generally is a dirty place. It is polluted. What with all the fumes coming out of the exhausts of the molue and other automobiles. If you have asthma you will soon drop dead in Lagos.”

Although he plans by a bicycle for riding toward the end of the year, Tugbiyele does not believe in hobbies neither does he belong to any social club. “Work to me is not work. It is a hobby – whether I am preparing for court or I am writing. The only thing I call work in Lagos is the tress on the roads.”

Tugbiyele is a Christian, a status fate bestowed on him in another accidental encounter.

Hear his story: “When I was in the university, I was like any normal youth. I drank and smoked. I enjoyed riding my power bikes. I was not a womaniser but I had what we called general fun. My father was a deacon in the Baptist church but never compelled any of us to take religion seriously. Meanwhile while I was at Christ School, it was a matter of going to church sometimes three times a day which turned me off. So I stopped going to church.

“In 1976 I had a really nasty accident right on campus while riding my bike. That sobered my up and I started attending church. On January 1, 1979, I prayed saying, ‘God, if you are in this church I want to stop drinking’ and the Lord granted my request. On April 18 that same year I got born again. I am not saying I am perfect o. I fall and rise. But I am reconciled with God.”

Tugbiyele’s word for upcoming lawyers is to pursue excellence through diligence. Not all have to necessarily become litigators. And you don’t have to stick rigidly to some view points. The important thing is to be diligent.”


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