By Bashir Adefaka and Seun Oyewole
He has occupied some of the top offices in the legal profession. In the 80s, he was the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the prestigious umbrella body for lawyers in the country. From that office, he served as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) under the Babangida administration. He was later appointed to the World Court, the Hague, Netherlands as a Judge. Don’t forget also that Bola Ajibola is a prince of Owu Kingdom and the founder of Crescent University, Abeokuta. In this interview, the legal luminary (85) speaks on his life, the university he established at age 70 and the judiciary among other issues.
Let us start from our independence anniversary sir. Nigeria is 58. How do you describe our journey as a nation? Many people think we are not moving forward?
You cannot say Nigeria is not moving forward. It is not correct to say that. Yes, before now, many would say things were hard but if things were hard, we need to find out how, why and then join hands together to put things in order and make the country better. That is what is required of us as Nigerians, the leaders and the led.
But talking straight to your question, Nigeria is now taking good steps forward into 59 and the evidence is there. Is it in terms of the image problem of the past that is now restored due to the leading role President Muhammadu Buhari, assisted by his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, is playing against corruption and insecurity, not only in Nigeria but more extensively globally, or in terms of the fact that the problems we had lived with for so long, thinking they were so complex to find solution to but which are now being systematically identified and tackled?
I think the important thing for us, as a nation, is to give thanks to Almighty God for seeing Nigeria now reclaiming her lost glory at 58. So, I can tell you that Nigeria at 58, in spite of whatever challenges, is worth to be called a country and we must join hands together, regardless of our political, religious or tribal leaning, to make the country great again.
Given all that you have achieved in your career and also being a royalty, you seem to live a simple lifestyle. How have you been able to maintain such lifestyle?
I believe my simple approach to life is ordained by God and also part of the lessons I learnt from my father who was a diligent and upright policeman, and later the paramount ruler of Owu Kingdom during his lifetime. Most of my actions stem out of living my life with simplicity. I don’t do anything beyond what the ordinary Nigerians can do. It has become part of my life and it has helped me not to look down on my fellow men and women. All my achievements so far came as a result of grace, so I don’t seek to appear rich or pompous.
I have done a lot of things which, to some people, seem incredible but the justification is my longevity. I am almost 85 years old and God has kept me moving on. I comport myself with simplicity and this has earned me respect all over the world. When you are simple and humble, it will take you to great heights but you must work hard and be honest to get the achievements you desire. Don’t present yourself as the best or most knowledgeable, just be simple and you will attain your goals because, your character is important to your growth in life.
You were hosted to a presidential treat by the King of Jordan some years back. Can you tell us how it happened?
I have travelled far and wide but my visit to Jordan was a humbling experience and it happened as a result of my character which encompasses simplicity and humility. The truth is that when you are upright in character, a lot of good things will come your way, not just that, you will be celebrated by people who don’t know you.
I was on a visit to Egypt and I met an American who is also a Muslim. He was happy to see me and he started telling me all he had heard about me. He then went to tell the King of Jordan about me, especially how I have used my money to run Islamic Movement for Africa (IMA) and Crescent University. To confirm all he said about my exploits, the King sent some people to Nigeria to confirm all that I have achieved through IMA. They were surprised with all they saw and they remarked that they never believed there is an honest person in Nigeria based on all they have heard about Nigerians until they met me. Upon their return to Jordan, the King sent me an invitation. I was given a presidential welcome and an award involving $50,000. I was then sponsored on a trip to Jericho and Jerusalem before I returned to Nigeria. It was an experience which I will never forget.
Crescent University has become an institution to be reckoned with in her 13 years of existence. What informed the establishment of the university?
I never had the dream of establishing a university during my years of active practice. I was already 70 years old when I had the intuition to establish an institution where young Nigerians can study together and relate with each other irrespective of tribal or religious affiliations such that, in future, they will not disrespect themselves nor disregard themselves and they will be happy to work together at all times, but I didn’t make a move. As old boys of Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and I were invited by the Nigerian Baptist Convention to assist in the building of Bowen University. During that time, I discussed the idea of starting a university with Chief Obasanjo but he told me to forget about the idea, that there were enough universities in the country already.
I later consulted with another influential Nigerian to undertake the assignment but he told me not to try it, that himself and another influential Muslim had tried it and they failed, so I should not attempt it at all. That was the second time I was discouraged but I kept having the urge to do it, so I braced up for the challenge with the belief that Almighty Allah will see me through. I started collecting documents and I approached Prof. Adedipe who I had known for a long time when I was part of the committee that helped in the establishment of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB). He gladly accepted my request and that was how we started compiling the necessary documents for onward transmission to the National Universities Commission (NUC). Initially, he wanted me to name the university after myself but I told him that the institution will stand in the name of our religion, so we came up with Crescent. We received our license on June 5, 2005 and we commenced work immediately.
Did you encounter any impediment prior to the kick-off of the university?
Initially, we had plans to establish the university at Wasimi but, unfortunately, there were some people who opposed our idea of bringing a university there, so we jettisoned the idea of setting up at Wasimi. Along the line, someone reminded me of the fact that I have a landed property where the university is now located. We took Prof. Okebukola, then Executive Secretary of NUC, and his team to the site and we got an approval to establish the university there.
While construction was still going on, somebody came from Lagos on a Saturday with a number of bulldozers which were used in blocking the entrance to the site. He said the land belonged to him and he was to start an industry there. He said the bulldozers were brought to pull down all the buildings we had constructed and that work will start the following Monday. Immediately, I went to the police with all necessary documents and they were getting ready to meet him on Monday but he didn’t show up because he died on Sunday. I never met him and that was the end of that problem. Besides, we have had issues with the accreditation of courses but we have been able to overcome those challenges.
God further proved that He was a part of the process of making the university a reality, by providing the necessary support to commence work immediately we got our license because we never knew that the NUC had already decided to revoke the licenses of those who had not put the necessary structures in place as of December 2005 when we opened the university for admission. We had no knowledge about the plan but we were able to start prior to the NUC deadline.
How do you describe your fulfilment in grooming young Nigerians through IMA International College and Crescent University?
I will describe my fulfilment as prayers answered by God to assist these young ones with all my aspiration and dedication towards achieving the desired goal. Today, we have students from all the 36 states of Nigeria at Crescent, things are moving on in the right direction and we are doing very well.
You have a scholarship project which has no doubt helped a number of indigent students. To what extent has the scheme achieved the desired objectives?
The scholarship scheme is part of the urge to inspire young Nigerians because we are perfectly aware of the fact that there are some brilliant students deprived of education simply because their parents cannot afford to pay, so we created room to cope with such needs at Crescent University.
I will share the story of a student who was given admission to study at Crescent, but for one reason or the other, her father said he wasn’t prepared to sponsor her education. The Vice Chancellor got wind of the development and, after checking through her records, he decided to pay the father of the girl a visit but he refused to see the VC. So I took it up immediately to give her a scholarship, and she broke the records having finished ahead of every other student with a CGPA of 4.95 in the history of Crescent University.
Another interesting story is that of Rafiat Gawat, whose family has been grateful for all that we have done for them. Rafiat is the only girl among three children, his elder brother Jubril Gawat is also a success story of the scholarship scheme. Rafiat finished with a First Class in the Department of Mass Communication and she was given a scholarship by Lagos State Government to study at Robert Gordon University, Scotland where she also finished top of class with a distinction in corporate communication and public affairs. We have invited their mother to speak at our forthcoming 10th convocation ceremony because we have also given a scholarship to the third child of the family. We have had a lot of happy moments and good times with our students in our university and we thank Almighty Allah for assisting us to achieve all that we have achieved.
Given all that you have achieved in your career which is evident in the legacy you have built, what is your advice to those in leadership positions today?
The most important thing I will urge all our leaders to do is to work hard, to be honest and diligent. It is important that they should work relentlessly in achieving good goals and never be fraudulent by shunning corruption in all forms.
The judiciary has often been accused of not fighting corruption adequately. What is your advice to judges and other legal practitioners?
Things are not what they used to be. When I was serving as Attorney General and Minister of Justice, I laid the foundation for honesty at work. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo worked with me and I taught them the importance of being punctual to work, honesty and selflessness. I was the timekeeper at the Ministry of Justice because I would always go round to check for those who were absent or late to work and there were sanctions for defaulters.
People would come to me with different kinds of gift but what I did was to put them together for quarterly sales at the ministry and send the proceeds to the Federal Government. I never collected monetary gift from anybody and I ensured my salaries were returned to the account of the Federal Government. I did that for six years as the longest serving Attorney General in the history of Nigeria. As a matter of fact, I paid those who I employed for doing government work. I lived on my investments in stocks and shares in blue-chip companies and I was satisfied.