Ninety-year-old lawyer, Pa Tunji Gomez, shares the story of his life with TOLUWANI ENIOLA
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Lagos on March 18, 1928, to the family of Gomez and Doherty of Lagos. I attended many elementary schools, like the Baptist Academy, Obanikoro, Lagos, and Eko Boy’s High School, Lagos. I also attended Abeokuta Grammar School, Abeokuta. Then I was so rascally. I had to be taken to Abeokuta Grammar School, which had the reputation of sobering tough children. I was there for some time and came back to the Lagos Grammar School in 1940 and then King’s College, Lagos.
Where does the Gomez family come from?
The Gomez family has an interesting history. They were supposed to have been originally from Abeokuta but were taken to Brazil as slaves and then they led the slave revolution in Brazil and the Brazilian government decided to get rid of them. The Gomez, Fernandes and a few others were among the leaders of the revolution; so, they were sent back to Nigeria.
Tell us about growing up in Lagos.
Lagos was like a big community and almost all families knew one another. It is not like now where we have all sorts of Tom, Dick and Harry and the nouveau rich spoiling the city. Lagos was clean and accommodating.
An important feature then was that people respected one another. If you saw your neighbour’s son misbehaving on the streets, you were at liberty to correct him without even telling his or her parents. Nowadays, I don’t think you can do that. If you correct a child in public, the parents might come back with a stick to attack you.
In terms of development, Lagos has changed completely. It has become a society without a life; all our minds are focused on chasing money. The dirty environments give me concern. The people in government no longer care for the middle class. They only care for the very rich. In a society where you have the super rich and super poor, there is going to be an explosion one day.
You said you were a rascal as a child. What accounted for that?
I will attribute that to environmental influence. For instance, if you were standing by your house and someone shouted, ‘thief, thief’, you automatically joined the race, whether or not the claim was true or not. Also then, we used to have wrestling matches from one neighbourhood to another, we challenged one another. I participated in wrestling. I was about 11 then. The wrestling fields were a good avenue to display your strength and potential. I don’t know why people no longer do wrestling in Lagos.
What were your most memorable moments at King’s College?
Those moments were those I shared with many great Nigerians like the later Biafran warlord, Emeka Ojukwu, and a host of many others. Ojukwu and I were classmates when I enrolled at King’s College, Lagos. Ojukwu was my friend and he used to sleep beside my bed.
My most memorable moments were the student’s strikes of 1944 and 1948, which I took an active part in. In 1944, I was a junior student at the school who went with other student leaders to see the elders in Lagos to intervene in our cause, which had to do with welfare complaints by students. We followed the orders of the senior boys. We boycotted classes no matter what the principal said.
What kind of person was Ojukwu at Kings’ College?
Ojukwu was a nice friend at King’s College. He was very jovial and participated well in school’s activities. He was always speaking out his mind. He was one of the people you could rely upon. He did not go back on his words. That is one thing I found peculiar about the Igbo. This attribute enabled the people to follow him during the Biafran war.
One thing I found peculiar about the Igbo is that if they tell you they will go inside the fire, they will go, as long as you are leading them. But for my people, when you lead them, they may agree to enter the fire but when they see the fire, they will turn back. I cherish Ojukwu for being courageous.
The war was a mixture of miscalculation and wrong advice from both sides. The Federal Government was lucky because the British Government was on its side, otherwise, the Igbo would have defeated Nigeria.
See what Ojukwu did during the war. He got his people to manufacture tanks, armoured cars which they never made before and he geared them up. He inspired them to be resilient to bear hunger and still be smiling. He gave them the courage. If you have a leader that can infuse courage in his people, then there must be something good in him. When you study the written history of the war, you will see a lot of mistakes on both sides. But tribalism crawled in and it was a pity. Tribalism is still with us and except we can get rid of it, we won’t make progress.
When and why did you decide to study law?
I made up my mind a long time ago to study law during the Kings’ College strikes. A European lawyer, Mr. Alex Taylor, who represented the students of King’s College in court on gratis inspired me to study law. Taylor was the most senior lawyer then in Lagos and he defended the students pro bono (free). I realised that there must be something good about this profession. From that moment, I desired law. I studied law in London and qualified as a lawyer in 1961, just after Nigeria’s independence.
What was the first case you handled?
The first case I handled was not a funny case at all. I was working as a lawyer at the M. A. Odesanya’s chamber. Odesanya was the lead counsel for the late Obafemi Awolowo during the treasonable felony case.
Some clients came from the Supreme Court and said they were calling their case for hearing but that they could not wait for their lawyer. Then I was assigned to take up their case without being told before, although I had studied their file. Odesanya was called from the Supreme Court for another case. I didn’t even know where to start. I was terribly shaking in court. But since I had studied it, I was able to say some things which I continued to say for about 30 minutes. When Odesanya came back, he saved the situation. The 30 minutes were hell.
You have been advocating that the SAN title should be scrapped. Has your position changed on this?
I said during my 90th birthday anniversary that I would not talk about SAN for now. I will simply say this: The British man says you cannot bury the truth. The truth buried a thousand times will always spring up again. Take the Biafra case for instance. See what is happening now. You cannot subject a people permanently to slavery. South Africa did that and people were killing others but it didn’t get them anywhere.
If you are fighting for the truth, keep fighting; one day, some people will ask, “What is he fighting for anyway?” and they will join him. Look at the case of the Leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu. He came to fight for his people but he has run away. But another crusader like him will come. They will keep coming back until justice is achieved.
You seem to have a soft spot for the Igbo?
Yes, it is because in King’s College, there was no discrimination against anybody. Ojukwu was my friend. There were other Igbo boys who were my good friends at the college. I am sad that there seems to be nobody we can really say is credible enough to be our president or leaders.
Look at the controversial looters’ list. Who can we trust? In a civilised country, looters won’t stand for election. Unfortunately, we are voting for looters. There are looters in the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party. Nobody is questioning them. What pains me is that Nigerians don’t fight for their rights. I think they are seeking to get out of the problem but they don’t want to rock the boat.
What was the most memorable case you handled?
It was when I took the then military government to court when the government decided to exhume the bodies of prominent Nigerians like Sapara Williams and Bishop Ajayi Crowther at the Ajele Stadium which was then used as a burial ground. I was able to secure an injunction against the government from going ahead with its decision at the time.
I told them I had never heard of dead people been moved from their burial spots. People were afraid of the military because they said if you sue them, they would kill you. I said if the daughter of the late Williams was willing to go to court, I would go. “If they kill us, they kill us,” I told her.
She looked at me and said, “I am 70, you are not even 23 and you are not afraid to die. If you are not afraid to die, why should I at 70?”
So, I sued the government on her behalf and the family deserted her. I got an injunction to stop the government. It lasted for long that by the time the injunction was removed, they had found another land for their plan. It was a striking case because there was no precedence.
Tell us about your wife.
My wife is dead. She is in heaven now. She hailed from Scotland and also British. She has a dual citizenship. Her parents were from Scotland and she was born in Ireland. She studied music and graduated from an Irish musical school. We met at one of the dancing halls in the university.
How did you get your parents to support your marriage since your wife was white?
My parents said no to the marriage. Her parents too had reservations that their daughter wanted to marry a Nigerian. I first had to go and see her parents. They called in a priest and he told them everything about Africa. They said I must explain it to them what Africa was all about because they cannot allow their daughter follow me without knowing anything about the place.
I went to them to explain and explain until they gave their blessing. But my parents were mad at me. They said, “Did we send you abroad to get married?” I didn’t get my parents consent; so, I got married abroad. They then asked me to come back home. I told them that if they wanted me to come home, I would have to come with my wife or I wouldn’t return home. I said, “It’s as simple as that.”
They asked me to leave her there for sometimes, I said no. She was willing to come to Nigeria with me. They said I should come to Nigeria, when they realised I wouldn’t change my mind. She died some years ago. I really miss her.
Why didn’t you remarry?
It’s a difficult decision to make. People have asked me many times why I didn’t remarry. I always told them this, “You can get married again but if you had a good marriage, you won’t like to spoil it by having a second one which might not be good.”
If you opt for a second marriage, you might not be lucky because your new wife might not like your children. It will be a tough choice because you can’t take a new wife on the condition of abandoning your children. That was why I didn’t remarry. Marriage is not a bed of roses. When you are in love, you would enjoy saying to your wife, ‘Darling, darling’ but when the chips are down, you will realise there is no darling anywhere.
It’s all self-interest. We are not like Europeans. If a Nigerian woman marries you, she has an ulterior motive. I know so. There are some exceptions to my findings though but very rare. Look at society weddings; they don’t last for many years. It all depends on whether they are marrying you for love, position or name. In my case, they were not marrying us for anything, we were just students. They knew we had nothing. In Nigeria, even when you are qualified to get married, they will ask, “Whose son is he? Make a research and come and tell us before we give our consent.” This is terrible.
How did you feel at 90?
I never knew I would attain this age because life is a gift that only God decides. It is by the grace of God. You can pray but He gives long life to whoever He wants. You can’t demand it. I am an Anglican. It’s amazing the work of God. He gives life as He wills. You can’t complain. You can’t sue God.
What do you do now?
It’s nice to be 90. I have always been close to God. I say my prayers every day and anywhere. There is always one thing in life that I have learnt: You will reap what you sow, no matter how long. I know of someone whom I won three cases against. Three courts and three judges ruled in my favour, yet the fellow refused to obey the law. It’s terrible. People asked me to forgive but you only forgive when the person repents. If he does not repent, you cannot forgive. Yes, it is true that Jesus said if they slap you on the left, turn the right, but in Lagos, if they slap you on the left and you turn the right, they will slap you. Even if you turn your back, they slap you more and keep slapping you. This is my experience. So, you have to defend yourself. Why won’t you?
What is your advice to the youth?
They should speak up, no matter whose ox is gored. Get up and fight for your right. Fight more. Keep fighting if you know it’s your right.
Culled from Punch
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