A 91-year-old former judge in Ogun State, Justice Gabsiyu Bakre (retd.), tells DAUD OLATUNJI about his youthful years, careers on the bench and life in general
What childhood memories do you cherish?
I was born on July 14, 1931. I will be 92 years old this year. My parents were Muslims, I am a Muslim. But in our days, there were few, if any, Muslim schools. Then, Muslim students were marked as bad, so, most of us avoided being called our Muslim names.
I went to Oduduwa College in 1945, and the name I gave was Gabsiyu Bakre and then I was asked, “What does that mean? I know you have a Yoruba name?” That was when I said I was also called Demola, but most people call me Gabby. As a result of that, on my record, I used Gabby Demola Bakre. I didn’t put my Muslim name on register until my final year when I was going to check the Leaving School Certificate in 1952. That was when I used my full names, Gabsiyu Demola Ayinde Bakre.
A few days ago, somebody gave me a diary with Ademola Bakre written on it; and he came to apologise for writing Ademola instead of Demola. I said it didn’t matter because Ademola is the correct name, but people call me Demola for short.
Which schools did you attend?
My father worked with the Nigerian Railway Corporation. He was a station master. There was no school around, the nearest school was at Opeji railway station, we had Methodist church and school. The same building that was used for school during the week was used for church on Sunday. So, I went to school in Opeji with my late brother. He used to take us to school on his bicycle. There was an occasion on which we had an accident. Our bicycle tripped on a stone, I fell, while my brother rolled into a bush. If he had fallen to the right, he would have fallen down the bridge and broken his head, maybe. Hence, we stopped going to school at Opeji. We were very dear to my father, who had suffered from infant mortality. We were very precious to him. So, we were transferred to St. Pauls Catholic School, Ebute Metta, in Lagos.
We were in St. Pauls for a few months when my father was transferred to a railway station in Offa, Kwara State. So, we moved to a school in Offa. Later, my father was transferred to a railway station near Ibadan. We moved again. Then, he later got transferred to another railway station in Oshodi, Lagos. So, I moved to Oshodi Methodist School.
From Oshodi Methodist School in 1942, we moved to Lalupon Railway Station, and I attended St. James School, Lalupon. From there, we took Common Entrance to SMS Schools (State Missionary Society Schools), and we all sought entrance to Mapo Central School, which didn’t have Standard 6; instead, it had standard 5 a, b, and c. Most of the girls were in Standard 5a, the big boys were in Standard 5c and the young ones, like me, were in Standard 5b. Many people like Chief Sokunle, Olagunju, Prof Akinola and others, we were all classmates. I left Mapo High School and moved to Oduduwa College in Ile-Ife with my brother.
Did the constant transfer and change of schools affect your education negatively?
At a time, it was more like an advantage, while at other times, it had its disadvantages. For example, by the time we were in Oshodi Methodist School, they had not started teaching us decimals and arithmetic but on getting to St. John’s School, Lalupon, we realised they had already finished teaching decimals. So, my mathematics background was affected.
I remember when I was in Form 4, I must have been in the second or third position but in mathematics skill, I went to the ninth position, because I was very poor at mathematics. I used to manage to score 150 over 300 while other boys could get 290. I remember being teased on my poor performance. I hated mathematics. I had an attitude of arguing with numbers and facts in mathematics. I would question why 2 plus 2 had to be 4 all the time. I would ask why triangle wasn’t called three-angle. This attitude made me to be poor at mathematics. But I loved History very much.
When I got to Form 5, I dropped mathematics, because it was not compulsory then. I initially wanted to read Industrial Administration but I dropped the ambition on realising mathematics was required. I tried my hand at shorthand and typing, I tried CIS, but because of mathematics, I had to do the preliminary, which I passed. I had two A Levels, and I took the University of London examination. I matriculated as an external student to read Law.
How will you describe the kind of home you grew up in?
Like I mentioned earlier, my father was a Station Master in the Nigerian Railway Corporation. We were the oba (kings) in the villages. When people had quarrels, they came to my father’s house. My father was very liberal about religion; he was a Muslim but he attended a Christian school in Lagos. At school in the morning, we were taught Christian Religious Study; on returning home in the afternoon, we went to Arabic school. But my Arabic was very poor because I preferred to go see the masquerades. At a point, I was thrown out of the Arabic school. What I never considered was converting to a Christian.
My father was a tennis player. He bought his first racket before I was born. When I got to college, tennis became my interest. Also, I used to run 100 yards, 220 yards relay race and do long jump, vault, shot-put, a bit of hurdles. I also played football, I kept almost all wings except the left wing. Sometimes, I played as the goalkeeper. My studies were affected.
At the boarding school, some of us didn’t like having a bath.So, on waking up, we would quickly go to the tap, wash our faces and pretended that we had had a bath.
Can you recount your journey to becoming a judge?
At first, I didn’t want to become a state counsel or serve the government. But my wife had cause to treat the late Honourable Justice Ademola Johnson at the hospital. We got talking and I told him I read Law. He filled the civil service form for me but I didn’t get any invitation.
Before I went to England for studies, I was Secretary to the Western Region Tennis Association and while in England, I studied tennis coaching. So, on returning to Nigeria, I was engaged to train the governor in tennis. And I used to play with three big men — the governor, the late Dr Peter Odumosu, who was the Head of Service then; and the Commissioner for Western State, Emiola,
One day, after we finished playing, the Head of Service said to me, “Demola, don’t you want to be a state counsel?” I told him that I had applied but that I wasn’t invited for an interview. So, the governor asked Peter to look into it. The man told me it was a very competitive process because there were only four vacancies with 72 applicants. He said he would try and shortlist me, and the rest was left to me.
So, 22 of us were shortlisted. At the time, I had already opened a small chamber in Ibadan. I called it Bamai Chamber. Bamai means nobody, but God, knows how to do it. I was driving a G-Wagon, which I bought for 19 pounds.
I went for the interview. The late Dr Aguda was the consultant; there were great questions and I was relaxed and confident. I didn’t care whether or not I got the job. I answered all the questions but one. I think I did well. About four days later, I saw the late Dr Aguda entering the tennis club. He asked me when I was going to start work. I said, “Start work?” And he told me I was the only successful applicant. So, I was appointed a state counsel in 1968. I worked there for years.
At a point, I taught Governor Razaki tennis in Ibadan. One day he told me he wanted to make me a Permanent Secretary, but I said I didn’t want to be a Permanent Secretary; that I preferred to become a judge. He couldn’t jump over my boss and make me a judge. So, he listed six of us, with my boss at number three and me at number four. God answered my prayers, I was appointed a judge on December 28, 1988. I served for 11 years before retiring about 23 years ago.
My advice to young men is not to be overambitious; just do your best and leave the rest to God. There is no way you can clear the way for yourself. The Almighty Allah, the creator, is the driver; so you have to leave everything to God.
How did you meet your wife?
I was lucky to have met my late wife. I knew her when she was a young girl. Having lived in the North up till 1954, I wanted to marry a Muslim. I had a friend, Sade. She was the one who introduced me to my late wife. Sade and I used to walk together in the evening, and she’d tell me to get ready for us to visit my late wife.
So, we went and visited my late wife. She treated us well. The following day I wrote her a letter and sent my younger brother, who is now 76 years old, to deliver the letter to her at her mother’s shop. When my brother gave her the letter, she told him to tell me to come for a reply two days later. It was positive! In December 1958, we got married.
God did it, the Ministry of Education arranged for her to go overseas and my late friend and best man, the late Chief Edward Adigun, and I arranged to get a passport. At that time, we didn’t need a visa to visit Britain.
In 1960, I went to Britain too. She came back to Nigeria in 1964 while I came back in 1965. I went to practise with my late boss, Honorable Justice B.O. Babalakin with the late Honorable Justice Moshood Adio. Babalakin went up to the Supreme Court. Babalakin and my wife passed on the same day, December 4, 2021.
I was lucky with my wife. We courted for four years and were married for 63 years before she passed away. In all those 63 years, I never had a cause to as much as tap her on the nose for any offence. We used to quarrel, but we never raised hand against each other. When she annoyed me, I would just go inside, put on my shirt and went off till night. By the following morning, I would have forgotten about the matter. So, I advise young men, don’t beat your wife. No matter who or how big you are, be you a an oba or a judge, you’re simply a partner to your wife. When I became a judge and everybody was addressing me as My Lord, my wife would call me “My Lord in bed.”
As a Muslim, your religion permits you marry to more than one wife. Why did you choose to be a monogamous?
I have been a monogamous all my life, but I don’t believe in it; I do not believe in monogamy. A man is born to have many wives; a woman is very easily satisfied with one man, once you are nice and everything, she’ll be sincere with you. But men are not born to be sincere; men are the most dishonest when it comes to man- and-woman affair. They will misbehave. As far as I’m concerned, polygamy is a lot better than monogamy. Women are satisfied, they are highly contented with a good man. But no matter how good the wife is, a man is not contented, and I always tell people that monogamy is an aberration. They should change that law. If you can afford to marry more than a wife, marry more than one. Civilisation has affected us, women are now telling their husbands not to take more wives. But men are polygamous in nature, and I will advocate it anywhere.
But why did you marry only one wife?
I was lucky with the type of wife I married. She was domestically near perfect. If you wanted a bad judgment about me, go and report me to her. I could never lose. If it was Demola Bakre and Laide, I could never lose; she would pacify you, but I would always be right.
As I said, women are made patient and tolerant, they can accommodate their husbands. We have to forget the English law and try and localise our marriage law. Take the Islamic tenet, for example, it says marry more than a wife, maximum of four, if you can be fair and just to all of them. Treat your wives, children, equally, show love to all of them, be fair to them. But I must confess, it is very expensive.
My father was an extreme polygamist. I know that he had more than 20 wives. By the time he died in 1960, he had got 19 children from 10 women. That record is not likely to be broken by any of us, because I had only one wife; she passed on a year ago, and since she passed on, I have not thought of another marriage. But I think we should have a rethink, man is born polygamous.
There are allegations of bribery in the judiciary today. Has it always been so?
I get really bothered when I hear people saying some judges are corrupt. It is unfortunate. Judges in Nigeria are well taken care of; so, to take bribes is a sin.
I’ll tell you a story about bribe; I always tell people my experience. My father worked in the railways, and sometime in 1953, I was a railway clerk. My salary was 10 pounds, six units and eight pence, a month. One particular Saturday, at the close of work, somebody gave me eight pounds for the weekend. On getting home, I told my father about it. He asked me if I signed a voucher for the money. I said I didn’t because it was my boss who gave me the money. My father then asked me: “Do you sign a voucher when you take your salary?” I said yes, I did. So, he told me, “You have taken a bribe.” The following Monday, he followed me to the office and asked that I be transferred to another department where I wouldn’t have contact with money or get a dime outside my salary.
That was in 1953 and that event guided me all my life as a state counsel, as a judge even as an occasional special commissioner.
Are there actions you took as a judge that you regret, looking back?
It is difficult to say that all has been peaceful, but if you are honest, all will be well. I sleep peacefully and nothing bothers me. I have been independent all my life. If I look back, maybe sometimes, in some cases, I was too harsh on lawyers. There is no way you can work honestly and not step on toes. You couldn’t come to my house without my permission. If you did, I wouldn’t attend to you. Some people might have taken my strictness for wickedness.
Some years ago, I wanted to be the president of Abeokuta Sports Club but some people campaigned against me; they said I wasn’t a good candidate because I was stingy and didn’t buy drinks for them. But I can’t give what I don’t have.
As I speak with you now, I have no house. The one I had in Ibadan and the one here (Ogun State), I sold them and shared the money among my children. Now, I live with them and all I do is to eat, sleep and enjoy myself. As an elderly person my wants are limited.
When you have power, you must pray to God to guide you. When I became a high court judge in 1988, I would pray to God to give me the wisdom of Solomon. I tried to be the best that I could be, to satisfy my conscience, so I could sleep freely. No one is above mistakes. Even Jesus Christ was not perfect. At the time of agony, he cried and asked God to let it pass over Him.