After a lecturing career spanning 40 years, Prof. Chioma Agomo, who is the first female Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, bowed out on March 1 as she clocked 70 years. She speaks to OLADIMEJI RAMON about her childhood, career journey and related issues
Your profile says you were born on March 1, 1951 at Nkpa, Abia State. Can you describe the kind of setting you grew up in and what growing up was like for you at that time?
It was a typical rural setting. Growing up was fun. The communal life provided security and protection. It also made for accountability. You could be disciplined by an elder and your parent or guardian would not come fighting. Rather, you may get punished twice for the same offence. People could display their goods, and even if no one was watching over them, you would pick what you wanted and drop the money. Nobody would steal it.
I remember the games we played at moonlight. After the night meals someone would start a song, which others recognised as a call to come out (of their houses). Apart from moonlight plays, I enjoyed going to the streams to fetch water, and going to the river with others to swim and to wash our clothes.
There was one incident which I can never forget. One afternoon, my younger brother and I went to the river by ourselves to swim. He went into the water first and I saw him being carried downstream, his head popping up and going under the water. I waded in after him and met the same fate. Luckily, we were saved just on time before we drowned.
Farming was a prominent feature of the village life, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not stand the hot noon sun, I would always look for a shed to hide under. My grandmother told me that I was lucky that I had brains, otherwise that I would have starved. How prophetic she was. I really enjoyed my childhood in the village. I was a member of the Sunday school choir, and later the main church choir. I love singing.
What kind of people were your parents?
My father was a journalist who majored in public relations. He was one time Editor of West African Pilot, and later Director of Zik’s group of newspapers. It was from there that he joined Shell in 1956 and blazed the trail of many firsts. He was conferred with the national honour of Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) in 1965 for his contributions to industry. My dad was the first black Executive Director to sit on the Board of Shell. He retired in 1974. He was the chairman of the committee that spearheaded the establishment of the Imo Airport. Incidentally, he was the pioneer Managing Director of Imo Newspapers. My father was also at the forefront of the creation of Abia State, for which he was given the title of Enyi Abia. He was a devout Methodist and one time Lay President of Owerri Diocese. He was knighted as Knight of John Westly (KJW). I can go on and on about my father. His pet name for me was Nma, which means beauty. He was a dedicated, caring and loving father who gave all his children the opportunity to choose their career path.
My parents were separated when I was three and I was thereafter brought up by my paternal grandmother. She loved and cared for us, selflessly. She was a farmer.
What made you decide to study Law?
I did not set out to study Law. I would say I was guided by the invisible hand of destiny. I had no intention originally of going to any university. As someone brought up in the village, I was afraid of being labelled an ‘Acada’. I wanted to be a tutor in a nursing school. The civil war ended that dream. My father originally wanted to study Law himself, he had even passed the University of London Intermediate Examination (Inter LLB) and had been admitted to one of the Inns of Court, but something happened along the way to scuttle that dream. He ended up a journalist. He did very well and earned a niche for himself.
My father had also promised that my mother, his very young wife, would train to become a lawyer. But that was not to be. That dream died when she was unceremoniously sent back to her people for an unexplained reason. But it became clear later that she was not found wanting. She was too young to compete for her husband.
My elder brother wanted to be a lawyer, he lived it, and he was already working towards it when the civil war broke out. He died in that war, and yet again the dream appeared to have died, or so it would seem. I carried the pain of his death in my heart and I took some of his books with me to London after the war. They guided my choice of subjects at the A level stage. When it came to choice of university course, Law was not on my mind at all. My first choice was Sociology but it required mathematics. The second was Economics; this too required mathematics. Law did not require mathematics, so it was a fall-back option. But on reflection, I think I was creatively guided by my Maker to my destiny in the legal profession.
You obtained your first and second degrees in Law from the UK. Why did you choose to return to Nigeria to work rather than stay back in the UK?
It never occurred to me to settle in the UK. I became a resident after my A Level, but I never considered it something to hang onto. Nigeria is my country and homeland. I came back to Nigeria in 1979 to attend the Nigerian Law School. Even if I had wanted to settle in the UK after law school and NYSC (National Youth Service Corps), I couldn’t have because I was married at this time and my husband, who was also a resident, already had a job lined up for him in Lagos, waiting for him to complete his PhD. But some members of my family stayed back.
Why did you choose lecturing rather than law practice or being a judge?
Being a lecturer was my choice from the word go. I never wanted to practise at the Bar, and the Bench never crossed my mind. I have had a fulfilling career teaching and researching Law. It has been like a mission field where many lives have been touched and moulded to the glory of God.
Can you remember your early days as a lecturer; did you have some troublesome students who played pranks in class and how did you deal with them?
Yes, I do remember my early years. I think some of the students wondered how this young girl could be rattling off law of contract cases just like that. Some remember me with the case of Carlill v. Smoke Ball Co. I do not remember any troublesome students who played pranks. Some of the students were already established and well known in society, but the respect was always there. I can say it was mutual.
Students are known to give nicknames to their teachers. Did your students give you any?
I do not recollect any such name.
Who are some of the lawyers who passed through you as students that you are very proud of today?
I have been privileged to encounter some of the most brilliant minds you can think of. Fidelis Oditah QC, SAN readily stands out. Others include Gbolahan Adeniran, the current Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice (in Ogun State). Another one is K. C. Madu’s wife, Emem Madu. In fact, K.C. himself is the current Justice Minister in Alberta, Canada. There are many of them making waves across the globe and within the country. I am proud of all of them. I cherish the times I spent exchanging ideas, and discussing issues and cases with the likes of Bode Oyetunde, M.C. Gideon, Kunle, a visually-impaired student, who was and still so agile. Omosede Okpiaru, a brilliant mind indeed. She was the first UNILAG Law graduate to enjoy the tuition-free scholarship instituted by my Alma Mater, Queen Mary University of London. They are so many.
You are a very well-known and respected Law teacher. One would have thought you should be a SAN. Why are you not?
I have been asked this question quite a few times. Even some of my former students, who themselves are members of the inner Bar, have asked me the same question. The truth is that it has never crossed my mind. Being a Professor of Law is fine by me. That is the ultimate in the career path I chose. I celebrate my colleagues who have been elevated to the inner Bar.
Tell us about the process that led to your emergence as the first female Dean of Law Faculty at UNILAG in 2004.
It was an intriguing process. But it was the first time a Dean was elected unopposed, in the first term. The PUNCH Newspaper carried the story of my victory immediately after the election. The newspaper wrote about how I broke two barriers – the gender and ethnic barriers. God was the one who chose me. He also made it to happen. Yes, He used people of integrity to achieve it. The second term was however contested but I still won. My younger colleagues considered me too high-handed and plotted a coup to unseat me. They enlisted a senior colleague to contest against me. But God had not finished with me. I won by three votes.
How did you cope with politics in the academic environment?
Politics in the academic environment is not different from politics in the wider polity. When God is with you, no one can be against you. It can be frustrating and mind-boggling. But then you cannot really avoid it. When the chips are down, one must take a stand.
Can you recall any critical moment during your time as the Dean of Law Faculty, UNILAG?
I cannot call them critical, but there were anxious moments. The anxiety of whether I would be able to meet all the accreditation requirements so as to maintain the full accreditation status which I inherited from my predecessor disturbed me, especially since funds were very scarce. There is gross underfunding by government. The solution came from the cooperation that I received from some alumni led by distinguished Professor Taiwo Osipitan. Times of students’ unrest or ASUU strikes provided anxious moments too; but we weathered the storms as they came.
Is there any moment that you can describe as low in your career?
Yes, the death of my mentor, Professor Anthony Adeogun, was a low moment for me. Leading the funeral procession and all that, took a lot out of me. The death was sudden. It was unexpected.
Are there changes in the way lawyers were trained during your time and now?
Technology and changing global environment are impacting modes of training and education, not just for lawyers. Currently, students are receiving tuition online. Who would have thought that it could be possible not to have physical interactions with students? These are indeed changing times.
What, in your view, is the biggest challenge confronting legal training in Nigeria today and what do you think the solution is?
We should embrace change. Flexibility is required. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that followed have introduced a new norm of doing business globally. Legal education cannot remain static.
You recently clocked 70; what does it feel like for you?
I feel on top of the world. Age is in the mind. I do not feel 70 at all. I consider this as the end of one phase and the beginning of another one. It is great to be 70; it is a landmark but it is not my bus stop
Are some of your children and grandchildren toeing your career path?
My second son, Ezeibe, is a lawyer; but he has chosen his own field. And he is a recognised authority in that field. Some years ago he won an award as an outstanding Global Mobility Specialist. So far, I do not see anyone else following in my footsteps. I am all for each person pursuing their passion.