Folake Solanke SAN: Celebrating the Trailblazing Woman of Many Firsts at 91


I am delighted to celebrate the iconic woman of the Nigerian Bar, whose life has been devoted to the mentorship of younger women and the advancement of the cause of gender empowerment – Chief (Mrs) Folake Solanke, CON, SAN – the trailblazing woman of many firsts!

Chief Folake Solanke was born in Abeokuta on the 29th day of March 1932, to the family of Mr J.S. Odulate (Founder/Proprietor of Alabukun Medicine Store Abeokuta) and Mrs. Sekumade Abiodun Odulate who died when Folake was just 2 years old. After her secondary education, she lost her father’s sponsorship to college for refusing to marry the man he had chosen for her. Chief recounts this experience as being the influence behind her women’s rights advocacy.

This living legacy, as some would describe her, is well known for her brains. As a primary and secondary school student, she excelled academically, constantly taking the first prize in both English and Mathematics. She was admitted into the University of Newcastle England in 1951 where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Latin and Mathematics in 1954 and a Diploma in Education in 1955, this set her up for a teaching career in several schools in England, including St Monica’s School.

Ever the goal getter, Chief Solanke was admitted into Gray’s Inn London, for her professional training and was in 1962 called to the English Bar. Upon her return to Nigeria in August 1962, she joined the chambers of M. A. Odesanya, and thereafter, upon being called to the Nigerian Bar, moved to the chambers of Chief F. R. A. Williams in Ibadan where she commenced full-time practice of law. Her own law firm, Alabukun Chambers, was established in 1966 from where she ran her very successful and fulfilling legal career.

There is no gainsaying that Chief Folake Solanke, attained so many lofty heights. She gained prominence in the legal profession by becoming the first female in the entire country to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1981, or as the legend Chief Obafemi Awolowo happily resounded “the first woman to wear silk and sit in the inner Bar of the Supreme Court”. She would also become the first female to occupy a cabinet position as a state commissioner in the then Western Region of Nigeria.

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 subsequently declined an invitation to serve on the appellate bench, because she wanted to focus on her activism. But her diligence did not remain in the legal profession only. She 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 its 42nd President, making her the first African and non-Caucasian to be president of the organization since its establishment in 1919.

Chief Solanke is the recipient of traditional titles, national and international awards and recognitions. In 1981, following her conferment with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, she was conferred with a traditional title of “Yeyemofin of Ife” by the late Ooni Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olabuse II, the 50th Ooni of Ife. She has also been awarded the national honour of Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON). In 2012, she received the International Bar Association’s Outstanding International Female Lawyer Award at the Association’s 5th World Women Lawyers’ Conference held in London, “in recognition of her professional excellence and immense contribution to the advancement of women within the legal profession”. On the 17th of January, 2015, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of the many feats in her career by The Sun Newspaper. She is an honorary Fellow of The Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and is the Patron of the Nigerian Bar Association, Ibadan Branch.

Chief Folake Solanke is a person of faith and is constantly bold to profess her belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is therefore no surprise that Chapter 15 of Reaching for the Stars, her autobiography, began with this phrase from the Bible, taken from Isaiah 50:4: “The Lord hath given me the tongue of the Learned that I should know how to speak a word in season…” which in continuation reads: “He wakeneth me morning by morning, He wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned” – a scripture that became the mantra on which my legal practice thrives. 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.

Her publications include: A Compendium of Selected Lectures, Oral & Written Advocacy: Law & Practice, Traditional & Modern Trends in Advocacy, Selected Essays and Papers on Law and Societal Issues and her autobiography, Reaching for the Stars.

Chief Folake Solanke, is a pacesetter in many ways; she leads by her exemplary life of hard work, consistency, and excellence, even as she has continued to mentor younger lawyers. Her impeccable dressing and strict adherence to the ethics of the profession are striking and worthy of emulation. Beyond her feats as the first female SAN or any other of her many ‘firsts’, the ever graceful and radiant Folake Solanke has become a living legend. Amongst her litany of virtues and values, is her consistent punctuality – which was a defining ritual in her career, resoluteness to achieve, focus, objective resilience, and diligence to accomplish her set target(s).

This apparently inexhaustive prose of praise is just to celebrate “a beauty and brain at the bar” (as she was described by the articulate and fearless Chief Gani Fawenhimi SAN) whose contributions to the legal community and profession have added colour and flavour to the Bar. This is to wish her a happy birthday and a very blissful and a prosperous new year.

Happy 91st Birthday, Chief Folake Solanke, CON, SAN, the Matriarch of the Legal Profession Worldwide!

We thank you for all you represent and wish you many happy returns.

Yakubu Chonoko Maikyau, OON, SAN, is the president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA. 

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