It is often said that it is not how fast, but how well one finishes the race called life. This is the case of a legal practitioner and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mallam Yusuf Ali, who began his secondary school education at 19. Staring off so late did not make him lose hope, rather he became more determined to succeed in his academic pursuits.
Today, Mallam Ali has not only had an outstanding legal practice, but has also morphed into a diplomat and notable philanthropist. His legal and humanitarian works are acclaimed in different international organizations as he just bagged the prestigious 2018 Peace Humanitarian Award from the Centre for African Peace and Conflict Resolution (CAPCR), at the California State University, United States of America. Mallam Ali is on a roll this year as he marks 20 years as a senior advocate. He spoke with Sunday Sun.
At what stage did you pitch your tent with law?
My academic trajectory was funny. I went to primary school, went to modern school and worked briefly as a clerk before going to secondary school. I actually entered secondary school the year my colleagues finished. Unperturbed, I started from class one at age 19-plus. It was from modern school that I discovered I had a debating ability. By the time I entered secondary school as an adult I developed it further and started representing my school in Form Two. The debating skills helped me in veering into law. Again, I was good in science, social and arts subjects. I did Mathematics, Economics, Geography, Literature, and History. I felt I should study Law because I was looking for a professional course that was not science-oriented. My father was a soil technician and would have loved me to study agriculture but it didn’t work out that way.
What was your experience like sitting in class with junior students?
It wasn’t a big deal to me. I didn’t feel ashamed about the whole thing because I had an ambition to be successful in life. I just kept to myself and the students also behaved themselves. Having realized that I was an ‘old man’, most of them called me ‘bros’ including the senior ones because I was older than most of them in senior classes. I eventually left secondary school at 23 plus. I later gained admission to University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) to read history in 1978, but I knew I was going to change later. That was how my journey into the wig profession began. It was a self-discovery because in our days there was no counseling and it was like walking blindfolded.
How has maturity with education helped you?
It helped me tremendously because it made me to be focused right from the beginning. I entered long after my mates had finished and some had even started working. I didn’t need any preacher to concentrate on my studies. I was also lucky I was a university scholar and national merit award winner. I graduated with a Second Class (Upper Division) in 1982. Two options came to my mind: to be a practicing lawyer or a lecturer. But teaching didn’t work out because there were certain developments. I opted for legal practice and I have been practicing as a lawyer after Law School and youth service in 1984. So, I have been engaged in Law practice in the last 34 years.
Where did you kick off your career as a lawyer?
It was in Ilorin in Kwara State. It has been my base over the years. I worked with Chief Gboyega Awolowo, SAN, for 20 years. I was there as a lawyer and later became a partner in his law firm. I left on May 31, 1994, and set up Ghali (Victory) Chambers on June 1, 1994. It has been law, law and law all the way. So looking back, my life is by providence, considering my academic trajectory. Ironically, my childhood ambition was to be a teacher. It was the in-thing for those who went to school in the 60s. Those who taught us in those days were inspirations to us and we saw them as semi-god. In fact, that was what led me to go into modern school with the hope of going into the Grade-2 Teacher’s College, to become a teacher.
What have been your most memorable positive and negative experiences as a lawyer?
What I would see as my positive experience as a lawyer was the day the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee announced my name as one of the most privileged Nigerian lawyers, on September 15, 1997, and I became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). It was a fulfilling moment in my life. I cannot, in all honesty, recall any memorable negative experience as a lawyer. But let me add that I feel disconcerted when after working very hard on a case or matter, we still end up losing.
At 19, most teenagers would have been distracted by girlfriends and partying. How were you able to cope with peer pressure to remain focused on starting Class 1?
When I started Class One as a mature student, I knew I had lost some grounds in my education. So, from day one, I had a focus and a mission. There was no distraction from any quarters. Partying and chasing girls was not my problem. I had no distractions because I knew I had a lot of catching up to do academically.
Were you mocked as an old Form One student, what was the experience like?
I must say that no one mocked me or made fun of me for being a matured student. Rather it conferred an advantage on me because my age made me to be immuned from the usual pranks from seniors. I enjoyed the respect of many of my seniors and teachers.
Are our law schools still churning out quality law graduates? How would you rate today’s generation of lawyers?
The times have indeed changed and there is a paradigm shift in the totality of our educational system. We should all remember that the Nigerian Law School is just a practical training ground of one year and has to deal with the products of our universities. The universities in turn rely on our secondary schools for their intake, just like the secondary schools depend on the products of our primary schools. The apparent low quality of our school graduates is a reflection of the general malaise that has plagued our educational system, from the elementary to the university. Our educational system has become a case of garbage in garbage out.
Tell us more about your childhood, background, family and origin?
I was born over 60 years ago to a civil servant father and a mother who was a trader. Ours was a humble family where I was the first-born and had five other siblings, made up of two boys and three girls. We lost my immediate brother in 2003. My late father retired from the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training, Moor Plantation as a soil technician, Ibadan. He passed away in May 2017. I had a very great and enjoyable childhood, growing up in the midst of extended family members of uncles, aunties, nephews and nieces, etc.
The history of my family was an interesting one. Our forbears migrated and found themselves in Ife area before eventually settling at Ifetedo. My paternal great grandmother, who initially was from Ilorin, also found herself in the same area. The forbears of my mother came from Efon-Alaaye in the present day Ekiti State. All in all, ours was a rich heritage of the diffusion of many cultures.
Tell us your most memorable experience back then as adult in secondary school?
My most memorable experience at Ibadan Boys High School was my appointment as the Labour Prefect. Unfortunately, before me, most labour prefects usually did not pass the school certificate exams. The expectation of some of the junior boys in school, who thought I was too hard on them, was that I would not pass. But God was on my side and I passed with Grade-1 and did well in all the subjects.
What can this generation of lawyers learn from you?
I try to be humble, considerate, hardworking, upright, transparent and above all, God fearing. I also try to be my neighbour’s keeper and do unto others what I will wish done to me.
How has your childhood influenced your law career?
I knew from childhood that God gave me the gift of analytical thinking and the ability to convey and express myself on any issue I get involved in. From that early age, I knew that I would probably do well in any profession where deep thinking is called for and where expression of what I think would matter. The societal values that my parents planted in me during my childhood like honesty, dedication, handwork, truthfulness and so on, have all assisted me in my professional career.
Going to secondary school as an adult, how did it benefit and mold you to become who you are today?
One of the greatest advantages of attending secondary school as a matured student was that it made me a focused and serious student. I know what I wanted in life in terms of how I wanted to live my life and the principles with which I wanted to live my life.
What other awards have you garnered over the years, both academic and social?
I have been very lucky that as at date, I have been honoured with over 200 awards. I have been awarded two honorary degrees (Honoris Causa) by two universities. One of the oldest polytechnics in Nigeria, Kwara State Polytechnic, gave me its Fellowship award, making me a Fellow of the institution. I have been honoured with the 1st African Golden Awards. I have had numerous merit awards and at the 50th Anniversary of Kwara State, I was also given an Award of Recognition, among other awards.
What input have you made in your immediate society and profession?
In my own little way, I have tried to be useful to my profession and the society at large. Even though I have never held an elective position in my profession, I have had the singular privilege of heading some of its most important organs at different times. I was the pioneer chairman of the Section on Legal Practice; I was at a time the chairman of the Rule of Law Committee; at another point I was the founding pioneer chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission of the Nigerian Bar Association and currently the chairman of the Constitution Review Committee. I am a life bencher of the Body of Benchers and for more than four years, a member of the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association.
Outside of my profession, I am a member of the Governing Council of Al-Hikmah University and Summit University, Offa, Kwara State respectively. I am currently the chairman and Pro-Chancellor of Osun State University. I was also the pioneer chairman of Office of Public Defender in Kwara State and was also the chairman of the Law Reform Committee of the State.
Socially, I have tried to give back to the society. I have built and donated hostels to universities; built, equipped and donated an international trauma center to a teaching hospital; donated ITC Center to three (3) other universities; among others.