Honourable Alexander Sapara Williams, an exemplary trail blazer, pacesetter, inspirational genius and legal icon, stands out as the first Nigerian lawyer
Indeed, until August 11, 1880, when he made his first appearance at the Supreme Court, there was no qualified practising lawyer in Lagos.
In the Colonial Lagos of those days, in spite of the establishment of a number of English-type courts, the method of administering justice in them lacked the formalities of an English court of law.
There was the problem of inadequate judicial personnel.
However, the advent of Sapara Williams, who made his first appearance at the Supreme Court in 1880, was to usher in a gradual wave of reformation, with the refreshing professionalism, panache and dexterity which he brought to bear on the legal scene.
He was the unofficial leader of the Lagos, Southern Nigeria and the Nigerian Bar (1888-1915); unofficial member of the Lagos and Southern Nigeria Legislative Council (1901-1913); Senior African member of the Nigerian Council (1914-15); unofficial member of the Board of Education of the Colony of Lagos and Southern Nigeria (1910-1915); executive member of the Lagos Institute (1901-1915); member of the Race Course Board of Management and the Lagos Municipal Board of Health (1901-15); Trustee of the Glover Memorial Hall (1901-15); member of the Council of Agricultural Union and of the Lagos Agricultural Show (1901-15); Vice-President of the Lagos Auxiliary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society (1910-13); Vice-Chairman of the Livestock Committee; President of the Lagos Ekiti Parapo Society; Member of the Ancient Order of Odd Fellows and one-time Grand Master of Lagos Lodge Number 1171; Wesleyan Lay Preacher, Trustee and Clan Leader of Tinubu Wesleyan Chapel; distinguished jurist and legislator, first Citizen of Southern Nigeria (1914-15), Chief Lodifi of Idifi in Ijesaland, orator, legal pioneer, statesman and politician.
Sapara Williams was born at Campbell Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone on 19 July, 1855 and died at his Customs Street, Lagos home on 14 March, 1915. He was buried at Ajele Cemetery the following day.
His father, Mr. Charles Alexander Williams, was a man with history. His native name was Orisa Parada (deity changed to man). He was a son of Lejofi Agbogborigan, a notable warrior of the ruling house of Loro in Igbara Oke and grandson of an Owa of Ilesa, through his mother. During the Bini-Ekiti war of 1814, Orisa Parada was captured and sold into slavery. In 1815, the Portuguese ship in which he was travelling to the West Indies was captured on the high seas by a British cruiser and he, together with others, was rescued and settled in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
In 1848, he married Miss Nancy Johnson, a sister of Mr. G.W. Johnson, an architect of Egba United Board of Management (the Johnsons traced their origins to the Timi of Ede and the Bamilosun of Owu of the Ikija clan of Egba tribe). The marriage produced Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams, Dr. Oguntola Sapara (born on June 9, 1861 and died on October 2, 1935).
Mr. Sapara Williams attended Buxton Memorial Day School and the CMS Grammar School, both in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
He came to Lagos in 1871 and was admitted into the CMS Grammar School. His school career in Lagos was, however, short-lived, because in July of that year, he joined the Customs Department at the request of Captain (later Sir) John Hawley Glover.
In March 1895, he resigned his civil service appointment and proceeded to England, where he enrolled at Wesley College, Sheffield. Following the death of his father in July, he left the college and was admitted as a student of the Inner Temple in 1876. On passing the final examinations in the Trinity Term of 1879, he was called to the Bar on 17 November, 1879.
Sapara Williams returned to West Africa the following year, after working in the chambers of a busy London barrister and was admitted Barrister and Solicitor of the Gold Coast Colony on 27 August, 1880. Lagos was at that time administered as an overseas province of the Gold Coast.
During the first year of his legal career, i.e. 1880 to 1888, he practised at Accra. In 1888, he quit the Gold Coast for Lagos, where he lived till he died.
In September 1886, he married Miss Anna Sophie, daughter of Captain Robert Hutchinson, M.C., J.P of Cape Coast Castle.
It will be recalled that when Sapara Williams returned from the Gold Coast two years after the separation of Lagos from the Gold Coast, he was confronted with a serious challenge from one Mr. Nash Hamilton Williams, a fellow Sierra Leonean born in 1847, died in Lagos on January 19, 1892 and also a member of the Middle-Temple.
Nash Hamilton Williams, who was by contemporary account, a brilliant lawyer, had earlier visited Lagos in the 1880s to undertake the defence of some native gentlemen in the colony and thereafter spent most of his time in Lagos and acted on many occasions as crown prosecutor.
But as it happened, his early death and the fact that he bore the same surname (Williams) as Sapara, erased his name, at least temporarily, from Nigerian legal history. Besides, he was not living in Lagos before the arrival of Sapara Williams and also not a Nigerian.
In the years to come, a new rival appeared in the person of Mr. (later Sir) Kitoyi Ajasa, whose boyhood name was Edmund Macaulay and a son of Mr. T.B. Macaulay, a merchant, who was no relation of Herbert Macaulay. It should be noted that Sir Kitoyi was the father of Lady Oyinkan Abayomi, a distinguished Nigerian public figure of blessed memory.
Ajasa was born in Lagos on 10 August, 1866 and after a brief career at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos (1878-80), he was on account of his poor health, sent to England to complete his secondary school education and subsequently lived in England for 14 years (1880-1893).
In 1890, he registered as a law student in the Inner Temple. After his call to the Bar in 1893, he returned to Lagos to begin a lucrative private practice and died in Lagos on 31 August, 1937. To Sapara Williams, he was a junior colleague, but very good.
All accounts agreed that the early history of the legal profession in Nigeria was a record of the professional activities of these three legal stalwarts. It is also agreed that each of the three men were remarkable in their own right and that they possessed distinct qualities and qualifications, while they excelled in a particular field of legal practice.
As a lawyer with sound judgment and great depth of legal knowledge, Sapara Williams was reputedly matchless.
“His mastery of cases was something wonderful. He was enthusiastic about law and was scarcely able to restrain himself from discussing law whenever the occasion presented itself and this, sometimes, even when it meant enlightening his opponent.
“He was ever ready with full information on all cases and to the references in the reports in which they were to be found. With his wide knowledge of the law, he combined an earnest and effective style of advocacy,” said one of his admirers in a glowing tribute to the legal icon.
He delighted to appear in appeal courts, where he reigned supreme. His peculiar strong point was a powerful retentive memory, which enabled him to quote strings of reported cases off hand and to confound his opponent with the submission that the cases which he had cited had been over-ruled by such and such a case.
Mr. Egerton Shingle was by the same reckoning, classed as the most distinguished criminal lawyer (in the defence) of his age; while Sir Kitoyi was said to have excelled his two rivals as a criminal lawyer (for the prosecution) and as a solicitor and attorney.
Partly for reasons of their personal distinctions and because they were the only African lawyers available, the three men monopolised the Lagos Bar and its laurels between 1893 and 1902, while they remained a menace to their juniors until their death.
As most lawyers are wont to do, Sapara Williams plunged into administrative politics at an opportuned moment. He was particularly qualified for this activity by reasons of his professional and personal distinctions.
It will be recalled that he possessed all the qualities and qualifications that delighted and still delight the Lagos public about their political heroes. He was a successful lawyer, gifted by nature with dignity and poise. He was six feet and three inches tall, handsome, oratorical and rhetorical, sociable and accessible, a debater of no mean order, who could be demagogic when he chose.
His ladder into the Lagos Legislative Council was the formidable agitation he organised against the Forest Bill proposed by Sir Williams Macgregor in 1900. After this disturbing agitation, Governor Macgregor decided to silence Sapara Williams in the traditional manner: he was nominated into the Legislative Council in 1901 and remained there until his death.
A crisis arose in 1903, over the payment of the tolls being exacted from traders, by native rulers, although Europeans were spared. The only option to this was to replace the tolls by a subsidy.
Governor Macgregor sought the opinions of Williams, Charles Joseph George and Obadiah Johnson in their capacity as the influential opinion leaders. All were in favour of retaining the polls to avoid the displeasure of rulers.
In 1904, Williams moved that the present boundary between the colony as well as Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria be readjusted by bringing the Southern portion into Southern Nigeria, so that the entire tribes of the Yoruba-speaking people should be under one and the same administration.
Sir Frederick Lugard was opposed to this proposal on the grounds of administrative convenience. His view eventually carried the day, as people were grouped on ground of geographical contiguity, rather than aligning the provinces along ethnic boundaries.
In 1905, Williams visited England, where he proffered suggestions to the Colonial Office for changes to imperial policy. These included establishing a teachers training college in Lagos and having more continuity of policy by the governors of the colony.
He also challenged the seditious offences ordinances of 1909 which suppressed press criticism of the government.
He pointed out that freedom of the press is the great palladium of British liberty and that sedition is a thing, incompatible with the character of the Yoruba people and has no place in their constitution.
Hyper sensitive officials may come tomorrow, who will see sedition in every criticism and crime in every mass meeting. Despite this plea, the bill became law.
Williams also encouraged Herbert Macaulay, to convene an inaugural meeting of the Lagos Auxiliary of the Anti-Slave and Aborigines Protection, Society on 30 August 1910, which gave Macaulay a platform for producing popular opposition to colonial practices.
When Northern and Southern Nigeria were united in 1914, the new legislative council was headed by the Governor and consisted of seven British officials two British non-officials, and two Nigerians, one of who was Williams.
By 1903, Sir William Macgregor and Mr. Sapara Williams had wormed themselves into each other’s hearts that the former recommended the latter for a K.C. award. The recommendation, however, was ultimately turned down by the colonial office through the opposition of the contemporary Chief Justice of Lagos, Mr. W. Nicholl.
Writing about Sapara Williams on that occasion, Sir William Macgregor recorded that he was a man of great influence in the community, both in Lagos and in the interior. According to him, “Mr. Williams is a gentleman. He is a total abstainer and has a large legal practice. The king possesses no more loyal servant in the legislative council than Mr. Williams. He has always been distinguished in council by a desire to carry out any instruction from the Secretary of State. Since I came to Lagos, the legislative council has always conducted its proceedings with dignity and though members often differ in opinion, perfect courtesy between them characterised each sitting.
“To this, the never failing good nature and dignified politeness of Mr. Williams have in a marked manner, contributed to his success and has been of great use to me because he is a man of superior intelligence, who knows his country and countrymen thoroughly and on whose loyal advice I can place reliance.”
In the light of the foregoing, one could affirm without fear of contradiction that by 1903 and for many years after, Mr. Sapara Williams had become the most powerful private citizen in Lagos. In particular, he stood in peculiar position of enjoying the confidence of the administration and the Lagos populace.
Although Williams, in many ways, accepted European ways of life, however, in October 1896, he sponsored an Egungun traditional ceremony. This gesture was highly commended by traditional rulers across Yorubaland.
Indeed, the pioneer legal luminary, partly because of his Ijesa ancestry wielded a considerable amount of influence in Ilesa, particularly with the reigning Owa. In the official circles, he was known as the Owa’s adviser-in-chief.
He paid occasional visits to Ilesa sometimes acting in some pseudo-judicial capacity by setting disputes among the chiefs, to the consternation of the British resident administrative officer on the spot.
On other occasions, he led deputations of Ijesa chiefs and other representatives to the colonial Governor in Lagos, protesting against aspects of British administration in Ilesa.
True to the political traditions of Lagos, the vortex of West African politics and the graveyard of reputations, any person who attained such a socio-political eminence became, at once, a public enemy and an object of attack, fair and foul, from erstwhile friends and old foes.
According to the same tradition, the reputation of the victims of such attacks was always destroyed and thus, it came to pass that towards the close of the first decade of this century, Sapara Williams suddenly realised that he had changed from a “public idol” to a “public enemy.”
He tried to regain his popularity but in vain and by 1913, he was a sick and broken man. Two years later, he was dead, but his soul still reverberates in Nigerian politics and his public speeches still resonate afresh in nostalgic memory.
One of these speeches delivered on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee celebration of the cession of Lagos is particularly apocryphal and nationalistic description of the act of cession: “On Sunday, the 6th of August, fifty years ago, at 9am, the late King Dosunmu left his palace at Isale Eko, for the last time, as sovereign of this Island. With great sorrow in his heart, he came to the Government House, which was the Consulate, now forming part of the buildings occupied by the Public Works Department, where a flagstaff was standing. With great reluctance and urged by Captain J.P.L. Davies, who promised to see him righted, he pulled the chord and the British Ensign was unfolded to the public gaze – the school children who had assembled sang, “God save the Queen” and the gunboat Prometheus, fired a salute of 21 guns, showing to the world, that the reign of Dosumu was ended and that Her Majesty has assumed the sovereignty of the Island of Lagos. The Consulate gave way to an Administrative Government under Consul McCoskry, who became Acting Governor until the arrival of Governor Freeman…”
That was vintage Williams, the first Nigerian legal giant.