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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

(OPINION) Gbongan’s star-boy: A tribute to Dr Wale Babalakin at 60

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In the early 2000s while as a young man I lived at Ikoyi, Lagos with my mentor, Mr J.M. Ajekigbe, the then Managing Director of First Bank Nigeria Plc, we usually on Sundays play host to many high-profile personalities. While the big men discuss business and other matters of interest, I liked to watch from one corner of the house and listen to interesting senior conversations. I loved and wished to welcome some of the big men more often because of the quality of their discussions and of course their benevolence. I really enjoyed those moments and still thankful for that privilege. One of the few high-net-worth visitors that I always looked forward to having around was Dr Bolanle Olawale Babalakin also known as BOB or simply Dr.  He is a Lawyer who I thought had achieved a lot in life at such young age. For a man then in his forties, his discussions always centred around financing of projects like MM2, conversion of the Federal Secretariat Ikoyi into luxury apartments, and similar magnificent infrastructural projects running into hundreds of millions of US Dollars. I really had a lot of respect for him and I became really fond of him. In my mind, we were friends whether he knew it or not. Interestingly, I used to and still have many friends like that.

When I left Ikoyi for Ketu, I lost contact with Dr Babalakin who at any event could not have imagined the depth of my love for him. As we did not belong to the same estate in life, there was little chance that I could maintain close contact with him. Opportunity presented itself again at an Olivet Baptist High School, Oyo Old Student Association Fund Raising event held at Sheraton Hotel Ikeja. The National President, Mr Segun Ahmadu who happened to be Dr Babalakin’s friend had invited him as the Chief Launcher.  After the event, when people were exchanging pleasantries, I tried to speak to BOB but could not as a multitude was seeking his attention at the same time. Fortunately, with the way life happens, sometime in December 2015, I got a call from Barrister Tope Adebayo informing me that Pastor Tunde Bakare had given my number to Dr Babalakin who would call to discuss an issue with me. That was how my long-but disrupted friendship with Dr Babalakin was renewed, thanks to the man of God. He has since been my good Egbon and friend on a closer level and I am thus competent on this occasion of his 60th birthday to testify of things I know, have seen and experienced.

Born in Ibadan exactly 60 years ago to the family of Justice Bolarinwa Oyegoke Babalakin (retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria) of Gbongan, Osun State and the late Mrs. Ramotu Ibironke Babalakin (who was a UK trained nurse and who ran a very successful but philanthropic medical home in Ibadan where she was fondly referred to by all as ‘’Iya Alanu’’ interpreted as the merciful woman). Dr Babalakin started as a young man with great intellect and potentials. He often recounts to me how he could have missed it in life with bad company and youthful exuberance but for his jurist father who instilled discipline into him early in life.  He told me how his father, in a bid to teach him unforgettable lessons and bring out the best in him, used to give one of their house attendants better privileges than him, on account of the attendant’s exceptional brilliance.

Dr Babalakin eventually turned out an excellent young man from Government College Ibadan, had his A ’Levels at the Polytechnic Ibadan and ended up at the University of Lagos, where he graduated top of his class in 1981. He was subsequently called to the Nigerian Bar in 1982, and immediately proceeded to Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge for his LL.M and PhD as a Commonwealth Scholar. He completed his PhD in record time of three years. Dr Babalakin’s intellectual prowess was inherited from his father who himself had a double promotion twice at Oduduwa College Ile-Ife where he spent only four years for his secondary school education instead of six. Dr Babalakin has passed the same gene to his own children who all graduated 1st Class/Summa Cum Laude from Ivy League Schools like University College London, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. In equal measure or perhaps more, he inherited philanthropy from his mother. Today, I know for a fact that the old jurist, now a nonagenarian, is particularly pleased with his son and what he has become. I once accompanied Dr Babalakin to Gbongan for the Ileya festival, when we got to their family house, typical of a well-brought up Yoruba man (who at any event never really grows too old before their parents) went prostrate flat for his dad. The old man greeted him and most fondly referred to him as Logunleko! (something like the Great Man!) That is the type of name a father calls his son when he is extremely pleased with him. In actual sense, which father will not be proud of a son like Dr Wale Babalakin, who has done him proud in ways more than one? He has ventured into diverse sectors and has excelled in all. Needless to say, Dris eternally grateful to his father in equal measure for grievously instilling iron-clad discipline in him and making him turn out the solid guy that he is today. 

Dr started his legal career at chambers of the legendary Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams, QC, SAN where he learnt directly at the feet of the late legal luminary and around the famous Black Table. BOB will always relive to me with nostalgia, some of the experiences he gathered learning under Chief Williams. Within a few years, Dr Babalakin set up his law firm- Babalakin & Co. which continues to wax strong over the last three decades as a foremost specialized multi-practice firm in Nigeria. Dr Babalakin reached the topmost echelon of the legal profession and was preferred with the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in the year 2002. BOB through Babalakin and Co. has produced other SANs in the persons of Messrs. Olawale Akoni, Chuka Agbu, Ms. Funke Aboyade, and my brother from Ile-Agbaakin in Fiditi, Mr. Tola Oshobi. He is one of the very few senior lawyers in Nigeria who are seriously committed to building enduring institutions of legal practice and who are kind enough to pay their juniors decent living wages Babalakin & Co retains till date the tradition he learnt from Chief Williams of providing free lunch to Lawyers. I should say however that I have also been a beneficiary of such decent income while I worked at Olaniwun Ajayi LP.

It has not all been a bed of roses for BOB, he has had his own fair share of the vicissitudes of life. He has been thoroughly beaten, hated and vilified, most of the time unjustifiably. He is a living example of a cat with nine lives. He has severally been taken through the fiery furnace but like gold, came out brighter. He has been crushed but not subdued and has not bowed to Baal! In this part of the world, it is almost a sin to be rich, and perhaps a curse to be wealthy of the class of Wale Babalakin which qualifies one to be subject of venomous envy, jealousy and hatred from friends and foes alike. It is a sad irony of our society. Dr Babalakin has told me about his many disappointments, the illegal and unjustifiable breaches of contract that he has witnessed from unconscionable counterparties, and heart-breaking betrayals by the closest of friends. Nevertheless, since he was born by Law, and into Law, trained by Law and in Law, he has always employed the instrumentality of the Law to fight his battles. I recall how a wealthy Yoruba industrialist who is Dr Babalakin’s client while extolling his legal competences and celebrating his numerous legal victories jokingly said: ‘’Wale ni asiri kan to ma n yin sinu agreement, to ba ti yin kini yen si, e ti rogo”. (i.e. Wale has a secret code that he normally inserts into his agreements, and when he does, you are in trouble!) It is true as he has proven to really know the secret that makes the Law work!

One interesting experience he always shared was how in pursuit of success, he had in the 90’s invested in banking business, the bank failed and he consequently had to spend almost two years in prison.  All is well that ends well, he was eventually discharged and acquitted from all charges against him. He has invested in businesses that turned sour-some merely on account of our society’s developmental status, and not for his negligence, action or inaction.

For every rumour or bad news I have heard about him, I confronted him and he has always provided cogent and verifiable explanation to rebut all.  As Pro Chancellor of the University of Lagos, he had issues with the management, and I felt concerned. This is because some years ago, while holding the same position at the University of Maiduguri, he was adjudged the best Pro-Chancellor in Nigeria, so why will he be having problems at his alma mater? So, I called him and, as it were, demanded clarification. In obliging me, he did not only sit me down, he took time to do a write-up on the issues which he sent to me via email. I studied his position; we thereafter had discussions and the issues became much clearer to me. While this is not a platform to discuss the subject, and not holding his brief, I believe that time will apportion every party their dues on the UNILAG matter.  For now, I can only say he who is filthy, let him be filthy still and he who is just let him be just still.

Though BOB’s success endeared him to me in the first place, getting close, I realized that the real gist about BOB is not his wealth but his humanity. Dr does not joke with his Muslim prayers and is ever conscious of the teachings of the Quran. He knows the importance of time and keeps to time with precision.  If he says I will be there at 2.00pm, then you can be sure to see him at 2.00 pm sharp or either at 1.59pm or 2.01pm, his margin of deviation is usually inconsequential.  When I was marking my 40th birthday, I told him that the program starts at 4.00 pm but that as the Chief Host, he should plan to be there at 2 and by 2.00 on the dot he was at the venue and sat-in till the end of the program. In terms of humanity, he is a philanthropist of note who has awarded many scholarships to students’ home and abroad.  I recall sometime in April during the Covid-19 lockdown, he sent me bounteous palliative unsolicited. When I queried why he had to do that, he said it wasn’t for me really but to assist me in providing palliatives to others who he reckoned would be looking up to me at such a time.  I am aware of the plentiful palliatives he shared in Lagos Island, at Gbongan, and many other places, even to members of NBA Lagos Branch. Such is the thoughtfulness of BOB!

I am persuaded beyond doubt that Dr Babalakin is genuinely interested in mentoring me; we always have intellectual discussions on almost all subjects, yes, all subjects imaginable. BOB’s call is not one I would pick if I do not have plenty talk-time. There is always something of interest to discuss. He would always call me The Great Majeobaje, Aburo mi Pataki and I will always respond, the Greatest Osa Global!  As a good son of Lagos- Island by marriage, he was given the chieftaincy title of the Osa of Lagos by the late Eleko, Oba Adeyinka Oyekan, as his very gentle and accommodating wife (Mrs. Gbolahan Babalakin) is from the famous Jinadu family of Lagos Island. He would often call me to accompany him to important events so I may learn the ways of big men. He took me to Baba Obasanjo’s 80th birthday at Abeokuta and was introducing me to almost all his friends in words I found extremely unmerited. It was and remains a humbling experience for me.

Dr Babalakin has a good sense of history and morality, he understands relationships and is loyal to his friends. When Justice Mustapha Akanbi was alive, BOB revered him and took great care of him the way a good son would take care of his father. The late jurist had a permanent suite at his guest chalet with standing instructions to the housekeepers to give the old man anything he ever asked for. What is more, he is a good family man with respect for family values; a caring son, loving husband and dotting father to his children. It is commendable to see a man of such tremendous means train his children to the highest standard of Omoluabi. I always marvel at how Dr has trained his children in the circumstances and aspire to train my children in like manner. I can also testify to Dr’s culinary skills, because I have, at least on two occasions, eaten sumptuous meals including vegetable soup well-garnished with orisirisi as prepared by BOB!

Dr Babalakin believes in Nigeria and desires a Nigeria that works. This is evident in his many investments in Nigeria, including the MM2 Concession. He has served and is serving Nigeria in various capacities- as Honorary Presidential Adviser, Pro-Chancellor, Chairman of Pro-Chancellors, Government Negotiator, President of GCI Old Students’ etc. He was a recipient of the national honour of Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2007. He has seen and experienced the good old days in Nigeria and in the legal profession, he is thus sad about the current rot. He dreams of a nation that is efficient and can rival any system in the developed world. Dr Babalakin promotes scholarship and the knowledge economy. He abhors the reign of mediocrity which our society has unfortunately unwittingly accepted as norm. Dr Babalakin has really made a remarkable success out of his life. He has done so much in a lifetime of just 60 years! Doctor is a personification of good upbringing, excellent God-given intellect, quality education plus what 9ce, the Ogbomosho born Yoruba Rap star called street credibility. Above all, Dr Olatokunbo, Bolanle Olawale Babalakin recognizes the grace of God as the source of all of his attainments and wealth-making.

On this occasion of your 60th birthday, I congratulate you most heartily as I wish you many more years in good health.



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