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Armed robber told me he left N10m in Ilorin Hotel and never went back – Onaolapo

Barrister Toyin Mohammed Onaolapo graduated from the Usman Danfodio University Sokoto in 1997 and due to the protracted ASUU strike that dominated that period got admitted into the Nigerian Law School in 1999 as one of the pioneer set of the Abuja campus. He was subsequently called to the Bar in 2000 and joined Bamidele Aluko & Co. where he practiced for about three years before he opened his own chamber, Toyin Mohammed Onaolapo & Co. popularly known as Togunjo Law Temple. In this interview with ACTING EDITOR, MUMINI ABDULKAREEM, the legal practitioner who has spent over 20 years in practice speaks on life as one of the most prominent defense lawyers for armed robbery case in the state and challenges that had come with it among other sundry issues in the polity. Excerpts:
Some of your colleagues and contemporaries have keyed into the NBA politics, you don’t seem to fancy that trend, why?
Well, for me it is all about practice and I don’t really have time or love for both internal and external politics in the NBA. I graduated the law school same day as our present NBA chairman, Barrister Bello AbdulGaniyu. Although sometimes ago I joined politics during Governor Lawal’s regime to the extent that I was appointed a Supervisory Councillor from our local government at Ganmo where I spent just six months. But I know how badly it affected my personal office and since then it has dawned on me that I cannot combine anything with legal practice. If you want to join politics, there is no way you can run the office.
But there are others lawyers that have combined politicking with practice and are doing well…
What happened is that if you’re into politics as a lawyer, you must have competent hands in your chamber to run it just like my senior colleague, Barrister Salman Jawondo. During his time as the AG and Commissioner for Justice, he had competent hands in his private office and immediately he left as commissioner, he went straight back to his office. When late Bola Ige was declared to have lost the 1983 election on a Friday, on Monday he resumed to his office.
You seem to be very active in criminal aspect of litigation, what is the story?
Right from my days in school, I have always had interest and passion for criminal matters and fundamental right of law. Back then, I was nicknamed criminologist by my colleagues in the university.
Did that dictate what you’re doing now?
No, but you have to know your strength. Although we handle land matters as well; but people recognise me for criminal matters even as far as Ibadan, Lagos and other jurisdictions and our client over there usually say the person that can handle such matters for them is Barrister Toyin in Ilorin. I can say that I have handled at least half of all the criminal cases of the inmates in Ilorin prisons. Not that I win all the cases I handle, but I have a very good winning rate, at least two third of the cases and people recognise my prowess in that aspect of law which is prosecution of criminal matters.
Has your line of litigation anyway put you in danger or under any threatening situation by suspected criminals?
First thing is that there is no profession that has no hazard of its own. Likewise I also face numerous problems even from the people I’m defending. But since I know what I’m doing is right and within the purview of the law, there is nothing we can do. More so, by the ethics of our profession, you must defend the criminal no matter what. Even the law allows a defendant to be granted a counsel by the court to defend him if he or she has none. So whatever the case, there must be a lawyer representing somebody in a case. What I’m doing is within the confines of the law but I’m always on the defense side. In my firm, we have up to 70 to 85 cases we’re handling presently out of which 50 of them are criminal cases in lower court, high court and Court of Appeal.
People see you as the number one criminal defense lawyer in Kwara State. How true is this?
I can’t say precisely, it is difficult to say and I will leave that to the citizens to judge even though people do ascribed that to me. But presently, I can say I’m one of the top lawyers that handle criminal matters in Ilorin.
Do you have any regrets in the pursuit of this aspect of the law?
Whatever you’re doing, just make sure you have a clear conscience. I’m also human with blood flowing through my veins. I don’t just take every case that comes my way but also reject some that contravenes my faith and conscience. Presently I have a case at hand now which maybe very soon I will drop. I have started the case but later discovered that the person I’m defending who is an herbalist actually killed someone having invited the victim from Lagos and asked him to go and take a bath in the bathroom but later went to attack him right inside the bathroom with a pestle. He later started selling the victim’s flesh at the rate of N5,000 per kilo. I got to know this fact recently and I told my colleagues that we have to drop the case because it is against my conscience.
We’ve had instances whereby a criminal after serving their jail term; return to attack the lawyer that prosecuted their case. Have you ever experienced that?
No, such has never happened to me because I always try my best on any case I’m handling. Like I said, I don’t win all my cases but the client will be satisfied that I did my best and we were very committed to getting him justice.
Some people believe that lawyers who mostly defend criminals are usually friends to them. What is your view on this?
No, it is not possible to be a friend to a criminal. If a lawyer befriends criminals outside the official duty to defend such person, one day he will be rubbished by them. I’m not a friend to criminals but only give them advice. There was a case I handled and the boy was later arrested. I met with him in prison and he said to me “Lawyer Toyin, there is nothing in criminality”. I asked him why he said that. He said he went on an armed robbery operation once, where they robbed a bank. His share from the robbery was N10million and he later went to lodge in a hotel here in Ilorin with the money. In the evening, he wanted to go out and look for girls to enjoy himself typical of their lifestyle but saw former OC SARS Gbenga in the reception of the hotel he lodged in. Immediately he fled the place thinking that he was traced to the area by Gbenga. He said if he had died in that operation, that could have been it and promised that if he was given a second chance he won’t repeat his mistakes again.
How lucrative is this aspect of law, I mean criminal matters?
In legal practice, apart from our successful senior colleagues, you can’t be expecting huge sum of money every time. It is not every time that we make big sum of money, but we give thanks to God, we’re able to pay our bills, but there is no big money there.
Has this line of law affected your relationship with other lawyers?
You know jealousy is part of every profession and some of the cases I have handled were taken away from some other lawyers handling it before. The clients prefer us more because we know how to handle them. So that they don’t see us as enemy, and then i will not even take over some of the case, but I will call the lawyer and advice him for the success of the case.
Is there any time you regretted any case you handled thinking you should have done it different and better?
Well as a human being, whenever I lost a case, I will first assess myself, is the fault from me or from the judge? Sometimes ago, we had a case of armed robbery, our client bought an ordinary phone and he ended up being convicted. When we got back to the office after the judgment, I summoned a meeting with my colleagues at the chamber to review our defense and we agreed that truly we tried our best. But we later discovered that by the time the evidence was exhibited, he had admitted to have bought the phone which was a product of armed robbery which means the fault wasn’t on our part and more so, the boy didn’t come to our office for a pretrial briefing for us to know what he has in mind which affected a lot about the case. How can someone be given life sentence just because of a phone. Although the Judge gave maximum punishment, but as a first offender we thought Judge should have reduced the sentence. Notwithstanding we know the fault wasn’t ours but from the defendant.
Have you ever experienced any robbery incident since you started practice?
No! That has not happened to me but sometimes ago, some thieves stole the battery of my car (laughter). But thank God I have never experienced robbery attack.
One of your trademark attire is the use of hat whenever you appear in court and there have been insinuations that it is associated with charm for you to win cases. Is this not true?
There is no charm or anything spiritual associated with it. It is just for identification even though some people have said some of the cases I have won were because of the charm I kept beneath my hat (laughter). While I will agree it is not part of our main dressing in this part of the world, I am a person that has passion for Jonathan and so I see the use of the hat as a means to identify with him. Secondly, whatever I’m doing I always try to be unique. That is why we christened what we are running here as law temple not chambers.
Have you ever experienced spiritual attack because we have had instances of lawyers warning colleagues not to come to court or face the consequences and scenarios of witnesses vomiting blood during testimony for failure to heed colleagues’ threat, how viral are some of these spiritual warfare?
Although we can’t rule that out, but with assistance of God and prayer we’re able to overcome all those spiritual attacks, but it is happening because this is Africa and we all have belief in existence of spiritual forces. But with God’s assistance, we overcame it. It has never happened to me that a colleague will threaten me. A case in point was one I handled whereby someone took my name to a Spiritualist at Alfa Yahya area in Ilorin that I should be dealt with for demanding for the refund of N2m they allegedly collected from my widow client. But his lawyer said we should go to court. The case is yet to be concluded. It was the Spiritualist that called to inform me about it because he doesn’t know me to be a bad person. Assuming I was not called, what could have happened to me and I will say thousands of such scenario has happened. That is why I said we cannot rule out the presence of spiritual forces but with our faith in God, we have always and will overcome it.
Would you relocate from Ilorin in seeking for greener pastures if you have the opportunity?
No and I don’t think there is any need for that. Sometimes in a day, we have up to 5 to 6 cases and at other times, we do have up to 50 cases in a week. So where am I going to? I think I have more than enough clients here in Ilorin and I’m quite contented with what I’m earning from them.
What is your greatest satisfaction as lawyer?
I thank God for the name I have been able to build. Today in criminal matters, people reckon with me greatly just like some lawyers are well known for their handling of land matters. Then I’m able to maintain both my work and family. Although I’m not a millionaire but I’m contented.
Do you see yourself going to the bench?
If God wills, but for now, I’m contented with the legal practice because there is no retirement. If I had wanted to go to the bench, I had such opportunity during the administration of former Governor Muhammed Lawal.

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