PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Olufolake (Folake) Solanke, SAN
First Woman Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN)
By Osawaru Iyasere
On the 29th of March 1932, Olufolake (Folake) Solanke was born to the family of Jacob and Sekumade Odulate in Ogun State, Abeokuta, Nigeria. Folake began her primary education in 1937 at Ago Oko Primary School, Abeokuta, she later attended Emo Girls School, Abeokuta from 1940 – 1944. In 1945 she attended Methodist Girls' High School Lagos. She, however, lost her father’s sponsorship to college for refusing to marry the man her father had chosen for her (a practice of betrothal which was common at that time), and this experience influenced her advocacy for women’s rights. In October 1956, she secretly married her boyfriend from college; Toriola Solanke, a young man who studied Medicine at St. Andrew's University Medical School in Scotland where he obtained his degree in Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery.
In 1950, she took a one-year higher course in Queen's College, Onikan Lagos (as it then was) before proceeding to England where she had her first degree in Durham University (now Newcastle University). She obtained her Bachelor's degree in Latin and Mathematics in 1954. Subsequently, in 1955, she received a diploma certificate in Education. In 1960, Folake proceeded to study law at Gray's Inn, London where she graduated with a degree in law in 1962. Following this, she returned to Nigeria.
Folake's career as a legal practitioner has spanned over four decades. She has received both international and national recognition as a writer and an advocate for women's rights and equality. In August 1962, Folake commenced her legal career in Nigeria at the chambers of late Honorable Justice Michael Adeyinka Odesanya. After her call to the Bar in 1963, she started her law practice full-time at the law chamber of Chief Frederick Rotimi Williams as a junior counsel. She later started her own law firm named “Alabukun Chambers” in 1966. Her legal career was marked with success, as Folake in an interview once affirmed that she has had a 90% success rate in the cases she has handled despite their complexities. Amongst her many achievements, she is most known as the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
Folake Solanke has been the recipient of numerous traditional and national awards. In 1981, she was conferred with a traditional title of "Yeyemofin of Ife" by the late Olubuse II, the 50th Ooni of Ife, following her conferment with Senior Advocate of Nigeria. She has also been awarded the national honor of the Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON).
In 1986, Solanke was called to serve on a tribunal for the review of the sentences of politicians, where she performed a judicial role. She made an indication to serve on the bench at the Supreme Court, but was however invited by the President of the Court of Appeal and was offered a position on the bench, which she declined in order to focus on her activism. Folake played a key role at the Zonta International Organization – an organization whose goal is the empowerment of women through service and advocacy. She contested for the presidency of the organization and was elected as the 42nd president, making her the first African, and non-white to be president of the organization since its establishment in 1919. She paved the way for other Africans to hold international leadership positions in Zonta International Organization, as the 43rd Presidential seat was also held by an African.
As a prolific writer, she has taught and delivered multiple law lectures. In1998, her public lectures on the "Trial" of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the "trials" of St. Paul, the Apostle received commendations from the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 2012, she was awarded the International Bar Association's Outstanding International Female Lawyer Award at the Association's 5th World Women Lawyers' Conference held in London, as a “recognition of her professional excellence and immense contribution to the advancement of women within the legal profession”. Folake is a Life Patron of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (Ibadan branch) and has received the honor of Fellow of The Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. On January 17, 2015, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of the many feats of her career by The Sun Newspaper. Folake Solanke’s publications include: A Compendium of Selected Lectures was published, Oral & Written Advocacy: Law & Practice: Traditional & Modern Trends in Advocacy, and most recently, Selected Essays and Papers on Law and Societal Issues.
Folake Solanke, SAN is indeed a pioneer in many fields, of significance are her many achievements in the legal profession. She led and still leads an exemplary lifestyle. To date, Folanke mentors young, and emerging lawyers and continues to contribute her knowledge to the community. Folake’s hard work, consistency and excellence exemplify courage and leadership. Beyond her feats as the first female SAN or any other of her many ‘firsts,’ she has ascended to the pinnacle of her profession defying the odds of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Folake Solanke has undoubtedly paved the way for many women to climb the ranks of both the legal profession and society in general in Nigeria.