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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Oluyemi Orija: An Advocate for the Hopeless.

She rose above all barriers, conquered all challenges, and became a beacon of light. Read the inspiring story of Barrister Oluyemi Ayoluwa Orija, a woman of substance, who is restoring hope to the hopeless.

On the 21st of June, 1988, in a small village named Omuo Ekiti in the south west of Nigeria, a beautiful child was born into a polygamous home. In those days, there weren’t technological devices used to detect the gender of a baby before birth. So, most parents prayed for the gender they needed. In this case, the family needed a son, and they had already chosen masculine names for the child. However, when the time of birth came, a beautiful baby girl emerged.  “Children are gifts from above, so who dares to question the gods after receiving a free gift?” Those were the words of the child’s father when he named his daughter, Oluyemi Ayoluwa.

Oluyemi grew up in a home that had the basic necessities of life. Her father was a civil servant and her mother was a teacher. Although a polygamist, her dad ensured he gave his family the best. Educating them was his top priority. He didn’t just send his children to school; he also sponsored his wife’s education till she got her National Certificate in Education (NCE).

Oluyemi started her primary education in a public school in Omuo Ekiti, but when her dad saw that she wasn’t doing very well academically, he decided to transfer her to a private school named Blessing Nursery and Primary School. It was there that she was groomed and she became one of the most brilliant pupils.

She had her secondary education at Federal Girls College, Omu – Aran in the north central state of Kwara. She lived in the hostel and shared her experience below.

“As a child, I was going to travel for the first time. I had imagined how I would survive living far from home. On that day, my parents and my brother travelled with me to the school. When we arrived, I was assigned to a hostel. However, when it was time for my parents to go, I started crying. My mom also cried because she wasn’t willing to leave me behind.

Life in the boarding house was both sweet and sour. In that place, we respected the senior students more than the teachers. Some of them would punish you, send you on errands, and even collect what belongs to you. They were very terrible people.

As a student, my nickname was Rebel because I was fearless. I questioned everything and everyone. So, if you really wanted me to see things from your point of view, you must be very convincing.

I fought very often and received punishment from both teachers and senior students. It got to a point when I decided to change my ways. I know that if I hadn’t made that decision, I would have been expelled from school.”

As mentioned earlier, Oluyemi was a very brilliant student. She helped her friends with their assignments, and her teachers loved her. Her favorite teacher was Mr. Okugbile. He taught her Literature in English and never to forget her origin.

While living with her parents in the village, Oluyemi wasn’t a social person. She was that child that lived in a fenced and gated house and had no interaction with other children. However, her lifestyle changed after she went to a boarding school. She met people from different tribes and backgrounds. She met the wealthy and poor, then gradually, her perception of life started changing. She realized that although she came from a small village, she could still become a superstar who would be spoken of all over the world.

Oluyemi was a very inquisitive child. To acquire more knowledge, she started reading all the books in her father’s library. She also loved watching successful women’s interview programs on TV, and her favourite program was “Moments With Mo.” It was during those moments that her tender heart resolved that people would also watch and listen to her interviews in the future. And guess what? Over twenty years later, those dreams have become a reality today.

It is often said that children learn more from what they see their parents do. They learn to express themselves and develop skills that enable them to live a fulfilling life. Barrister Oluyemi’s father was a community chief who was highly respected by his people. He made sound, firm, and unbiased decisions, and no one ever questioned them.

When little Oluyemi saw how her father was handling other people’s cases, she decided that she would become a lawyer when she grew up. Her dad was also a very strict man who ensured that his children got the best grades in school.

“He is not interested in the number of A (s) you have, but he is interested in your scores. You cannot have 95% last term and have 93% this term. That means you were not serious enough. Your grades should get better every new term.  I still remember the only time my dad beat me. It was on a week day, and my dad’s club members were having a meeting in our house. My mother had prepared different delicacies to host them. As a child who loved food so much, I felt that if I went to school on that day, the food might finish before I returned. So, I used a razor blade to cut my sandals to prevent me from going to school.

When my dad found out what I did, he was so angry and beat me up so badly that I was taken to the hospital for treatment. That’s to tell you how much he loved education. It was that incident that made me value education as one of the keys to becoming successful in life. “

Oluyemi studied Law at the Ekiti State University in Nigeria. After graduation, she spent one year in Nigeria Law School, Lagos State, and was posted to Uruan Local Government in Akwa Ibom for the compulsory national youth service. She served as a legal officer in the LGA. In her place of primary assignment, there was no work for her. As someone who hates idleness, she decided to look for employment in a private firm. After a thorough search, she was finally accepted at C.I. Uduak & Co. a private Law firm in Uyo.

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One thing is to study a course, and the other is to actually practice what you studied. Working at C. I Uduak & Co. was a learning experience for her. Although her monthly salary was just 5,000 naira, the experience gained was worth more than the pay. It was during that time that she made her first appearance in the courtroom as a lawyer.

After her service year, she returned to Lagos State. To increase her chances of getting a good job, she took a professional course in the Institute of Chartered Secretary and Administrators of Nigeria. At first, she didn’t want to practice law because she heard that Lagos State lawyers are usually broke, except for those working in large firms. However, she continued to search for a job until she got one.

“I found Abiodun Onikari & Co – a law firm in Lagos Island and joined them. I was there for one year and it was a fantastic experience for me. During the time I worked there, I was exposed to a lot of things that I didn’t even have the opportunity to see in Akwa Ibom. We did a lot of EFCC, NDLEA, maritime, and corporate cases and made huge profits. It was there I found out there was a lot of money in legal practice. It all depends on how you position yourself. “

Working for someone can limit your potential. After spending a year with Abiodun Onikari & Co, Oluyemi decided to start her own firm. Establishing a law firm wasn’t easy, but she worked hard and was determined to succeed. When she launched firm in 2015, she couldn’t afford to rent an office space. She had to set up a temporary office in her one-room apartment. She used the first money she earned to buy basic office tools such as a printer, stapler, etc.

Oluyemi continued to work tirelessly until she was able to rent a small office in a shopping complex. In the beginning, she handled tenancy and property cases. However, a time came when she couldn’t tolerate the injustice done to poor and innocent people.

“As a lawyer, I have seen a lot of injustice in this country. I have seen innocent people convicted of crimes and those who were sent to jail for minor offences. I was particularly pained by the number of people languishing in prisons because they don’t have the money to hire a lawyer. I know the Legal Aid Council is supposed to provide legal aid for these victims, but the truth is that there are many cases and there aren’t enough lawyers who give free services to the less privileged.

When I saw all that, I was moved to help. In 2017, I started volunteering to represent these victims in court. I had a secretary, and together we would go to Ikoyi prisons to take up cases. The first time we went there, I took up 40 cases and studied them. I noted the date of the trials and showed up to represent them. The result was fantastic. In a space of three months, we were able to free 10 people! Yes! I was so happy. “

At first, Barrister Oluyemi was working alone, but when the work became so overwhelming, she looked for a way to reduce the stress. It was at that point that the thought of registering as a Non-Governmental Organization came into her mind, and the Headfort Foundation was born. It was officially registered in 2019. As an NGO, volunteers were called to join, and some lawyers were recruited. Barrister Oluyemi employed two female lawyers who share the same vision, and together they have been pushing the goals of the organization.

When Barrister Oluyemi was asked the reason for choosing this path, she said:

“There are people in prison that have lost hope of regaining freedom. They feel no one cares if they live or die, and they wake up every day wishing it was their last day. Some even decide to commit suicide. Just imagine if such a person was told that he could be free again even without spending a kobo.

I have also seen those who did not have transport fare to return home after they were set free. I had to give them money from my pocket.

Sometimes, after reuniting with their families, they call to pray for me, and guess what? Such prayers have been fueling my passion up till this day.”

While growing up, Barrister Oluyemi didn’t have relationships with the opposite sex because her daddy clearly told her to be careful with men and never accept gifts from them. He said that when you accept gifts from men, you’ll become indebted to them, and that will prevent you from leaving the relationship even when you want to.

She listened to her father’s words and didn’t have any romantic relationships until her first year in a tertiary institution. However, the relationship didn’t last long because she wasn’t serious about it.

When it was time to settle down, Mr. Oluwaseun Ajodeji Orija came into the picture. They had a great courtship, and today, they are happily married and blessed with a four-year-old son named Israel Orija. Mrs. Orija’s husband is proud of her and the work she does. He supports her fully and encourages her to keep the mission alive.

Barrister Oluyemi told Iya Magazine that she found personal fulfilment and inner joy in pursuing her passion.

“Have you been to any Nigerian prison before? If you see the condition of those places, you would never wish anyone to spend a day there. You cannot imagine what the suffering inmates go through behind those walls. I may not be the richest woman in the world, but I consider myself a successful person. Helping people regain their freedom gives me inner joy and happiness. By the grace of God, HeadFort has helped more than 300 lives, and that’s a big win for me. “

The pathway to success is not always smooth. There will be challenges and obstacles, but only those who overcome them will sing a song of victory. Barrister Oluyemi’s major challenge was the lackadaisical attitude shown by people working at the court. They always come late to work, and sometimes court meetings are cancelled without any pre information.

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“There was a day I left my house by 7 am to attend to a case that was scheduled for 9 am. Do you know that by 10 am, there was no sign that the court hearing would be held? I continued to wait till 11 a.m. when they came and announced that the judge was unavailable. Therefore, the session had been adjourned. Time is a precious gift, so why waste someone else’s time? The truth is that the “African man time syndrome” has infected most of us and I pray God heals us.”   

If you read the details of some cases Barrister Oluyemi has handled, you will weep. A memorable case she shared was that of Segun, who was sentenced to five years in prison. He had collected a motorcycle on hire purchase and paid 20, 000 naira as deposit. He was expected to pay a 100,000-naira balance within a stipulated time. It was to be used as a commercial motor – cycle. However, he made the big mistake of giving the motorcycle to someone else to operate on his behalf.

This driver ran away with the motorcycle, so Segun was arrested by the owner. After narrating what happened to the police, they went to look for the driver but didn’t find him. His brother was found and arrested. He told the police that the suspect had relocated to the north with the bike. To clear the debt and bail himself out, he paid 70, 000 naira, leaving a 30,000 naira balance. At this point, you would assume that Segun would be freed, but that didn’t happen. They accused him of conspiring with the driver who ran away with the motorcycle and charged him to court.

Segun had a challenge. He couldn’t understand English very well. Before going to court for trial, the Police told him to plead guilty. They convinced him that he would be set free if he pleaded guilty. So, in court, after much narration and accusations, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Now tell me, how would someone spend five years in prison because of a 30,000-naira debt? That’s exactly what we are seeing in this society. Barrister Oluyemi met Segun during one of her visits to the prison and decided to take up his case. We all know how trials are delayed and adjoined in this country. Sadly, while the HeadForth team were still working tirelessly to help him regain his freedom, Segun fell sick and died in prison. His story is just an example of one in a thousand sad cases happening in our society.

Social media has served as a great tool used for creating awareness for NGOs. Whenever Barrister Oluyemi posts the cases she handles on social media, people are usually touched by those stories. Some lawyers volunteer to join the team and other people make donations for the prisoners. All of these have helped in promoting the growth of the HeadFort Foundation. Today, they have about 200 lawyers who are working as volunteers.

Managing a law firm and NGO isn’t easy, but this woman is doing it excellently. The profits earned from the firm are used to handle the expenses of the NGO. HeadFort Foundation has a Communication Manager who relates to sponsors and donors. They receive donations, although not regularly.

Winning an award is always a special moment. If what you are doing is influencing lives positively, then you’ll receive awards from reputable institutions.  The great work of Barrister Oluyemi has won her a couple of awards both nationally and internationally. On the 7th of December, 2021, she was awarded one of the 100 Inspirational and Influential Women around the world by BBC. On March 1, 2022, she was recognized by Leading Ladies Africa (NGO) as one of the 100 Most Inspiring Ladies in Nigeria.

She was also recognized by Herbert Macaulay Foundation and given an award for the work she’s doing. Barrister Oluyemi has also been recognized internationally by the Republic of Women in India. They awarded her the title of Woman of the Year (2021).

Most women experience discrimination and molestation at their places of work. However, Barrister Oluyemi has never had such an experience. She said that when you present yourself as a weaker gender, you will be treated as such, but if you are up and doing, then no one would discriminate against you.

“The goal of every employer is to see the results of your work, but if as a woman you keep giving excuses and neglecting your duty, then you will not be respected. And when the need for replacement arises, they wouldn’t think twice before replacing you. “

Barrister Oluyemi is a Christian but not a religious fanatic. Her role model is the former Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, Mrs. Ibukunoluwa Abiodun Awosika. Although she hasn’t met her in real life, she follows in her footsteps in the areas of spirituality and career. She also loves an American TV host named Ellen DeGeneres and would like to meet her someday.

During her leisure time, Oluyemi loves to play with her son, watch a movie, or listen to music. On rare occasions, she hangs out in public places with her family. When she decided to become a lawyer, her family supported her fully. She also loves graphics and design, and she said if she wasn’t a lawyer, she would have become a successful woman in technology.

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