• Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Justice Funmilayo Atilade, treading the path of worthy family merits to the seat of honour


Never in the history of  Nigeria has the record I am about to share with you been recorded. The father (late) a Judge, the first daughter a Chief Justice of Lagos (emeritus) and currently, the younger sister is the Chief Justice of Lagos state. Coincidentally, their maiden name is Williams so as America celebrates Serena and Vanessa Williams, we here in Nigeria have our Williams sisters doing us proud, a feat worthy of commendation indeed. Little wonder, at the swearing in ceremony of the current Chief Justice of Lagos, His Excellency, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola said “On July 10, when I received the notification from the National Judicial Council that Justice Atilade had been nominated to become the Chief Judge, I whispered to myself that history was being made and would be difficult to re-enact,”. I couldn’t agree less with the governor after all, the obvious facts speak for itself.

I was invited to a private dinner in honour of this great woman I am about to introduce to you and after all my research about her, I knew meeting her would sum it all up and it sure did.

The venue was the Chinese restaurant at Oriental hotel; the sumptuous array of food was indeed an alluring sight to behold but most importantly, the aura of love in the air, a sense of joy and celebration of a woman worthy of commendation and recognition.

The room was filled with the ‘who-is-who’ in the legal profession, people like The President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Austin Alegeh (SAN), one of the only two Nigerian Queen’s Counsel in England, Fidelis Oditah, (QC SAN), Funke Adekoya (SAN), Justice Ayotunde Phillips (Chief Justice of Lagos state, emeritus), Deputy Director General of Lagos campus, Law school,  Toun Oni-Adebiyi, Miannaya Essien (SAN), Boma Ozobia (OON) to mention a few.

I am sure you would be wondering how I felt in the midst of a sea of legal luminaries. It actually felt safe at least I wasn’t being sued for anything and trust me, I have not decided to switch professions…at least not yet, I love my job.

The dinner was in honour of Justice Funmilayo Olajumoke Atilade, the Chief Justice (CJ) of Lagos state and she is my ‘date’ for this week.

Justice Olajumoke was Principal Legal Officer at the Nigerian Ports Authority from September 1979 – December 1981 (2 years 4 months) engaged in legal drafting and litigation. She was senior/chief magistrate, Lagos State Judiciary from January 1982 – July 1996 (14 years 7 months) where she adjudicated over mostly criminal cases, landlord and tenant cases and prison visits. She was a High Court Judge at the Lagos State Judiciary, where she supervised judges in her district and assigned cases to them. She also supervised admin staff in the district and carried out all assignments given to her by the Hon. chief Judge. Still in that capacity, she adjudicated over cases and headed the general civil division. She did this from January 1982 till recently when she was made the Chief Justice of Lagos state in August 2014.

As the dinner commenced (and anchored by Boma Ozobia who did a fantastic job), and we were enjoying the meal and music underground, one after the other, the legal dons got up to celebrate Justice Funmilayo. First was Austin Alegeh (SAN), who congratulated her for the feat and wished her a successful tenure.

Justice Funmilayo Atilade
Justice Funmilayo Atilade

Next to speak was her sister, the immediate past Chief Justice of Lagos State, Justice Phillips. When she got up and started her speech wittingly, she continued with a firm tone that showed her respect to her younger sister when she referred to her as ‘My lord, The Chief Justice of Lagos State…’ we all laughed and clapped, it was nice seeing her pay respect to the ‘office’ of her younger sister. She was full of admonition for her sister and encouraged her to do her best to serve diligently and leave her prints in the sands of time.

Another remarkable speech was the one given by Funke Adekoya (SAN) who was bubbly throughout the event but gave seasoned words of admonition and observation “Justice Funmilayo is one of those women who have done well to encourage other women to believe nothing is impossible. I knew Justice Funmilayo when she was a magistrate and she would moan and groan about the legal system (which she is now going to do something about as CJ), and I would moan and groan about a woman in private practice and both of us will moan and groan about balancing a career and family together but the main thing is that we encouraged ourselves as so many other women do and today we are here to celebrate Justice Atilade who has risen to the height of the judiciary, who got this at a time when it is common place that you cannot become a Judge if you are a magistrate and if you want to be a Judge, you have to resign as a magistrate. I know people who resigned from the magistrate  because they wanted to become Judges but by hard work and perseverance, she got to where she is today.” Funke states.

It was time to hear from the celebrant and with a vivacious spirit and a smirk she begins “I give God all the glory for my appointment because without Him I would never have been here. Someone once said to me at work that to be the CJ you have to fight for it and I make bold to say I did not fight for it, I just went to God. I won’t say I did not have any fears but God allayed my fears and I owe all to Him. Stepping into my sister’s shoes is a daunting task but I wear size 44 and she wears 42 so I promise you all I will do my best to match her record and improve on it.” She speaks wittingly and continues “Luckily for me, she has kick started so many projects so she just opened many doors for me and all I have to do is step in and do my best.  Fortunately, I was right behind her observing and studying all she was doing, I don’t think it will be too difficult…auspiciously, my hair is grey already I would have said like Obama, ‘Í greyed  on the job’”. Justice Funmilayo says and again she makes us laugh and she concludes adding that “I look forward to the next three years and I know that with great people around me like you all and many others, and of course the support of God, my tenure will be successful. I thank you all for honouring me and as you have honoured me, God will honour you.” She quips.

Another great woman who was celebrated at the dinner was the Deputy Director General of Lagos campus, Law school, Toun Oni-Adebiyi, who had her experience to share.  “For four years, I was second-in-command to my boss, and then he went to Abuja. We had another, who is the current Director General; I was his second-in-command for eight years. All through this period, I was number two in name only. Sometime last year, I woke up and got a phone call from someone who said ‘congratulations’ to me. I was shocked and wondered what he meant; he said ‘they have asked the head of your campus to hand over to you’. The first person I called was my sister and she said as from that time, if I was giving 100percent of myself to work, I must increase to over a hundred. I did this yet there was no handover.  I would call my other sister and she would encourage me to pray. Months passed and I was later made the acting DG, the rest they say is history and I am happy I became the head of Lagos campus… after 29 years of active service, I can say with God’s help I have earned whatever He has made me today.”  Says Toun

I submit (now I am sounding ‘legal’) to you my readers, after enjoying the meal placed before me, and listening to words of wisdom from distinguished legal leading lights, that hard work always pays but patience pays off as well.  Justice Funmilayo is indeed a product of hard work and patience. I rest my case!