By Godwin Tsa and James Ojo.
The Federal Capital city of Abuja, last week, was agog with the arrival of 4,225 new lawyers. From the International Conference Centre (ICC), Abuja, where the oath of legal practitioners was administered on them by the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, to the streets of Abuja, it was celebration galore for the men and women in black gowns and wigs.
The celebration from the ICC moved to event centres, hotels and gardens across the city where family, friends and relatives of the new wigs reveled in the moment with eating, dancing and merriment.
It was a very busy day for both big and small-scale business owners, including taxi drivers, caterers, DJs, and crooks. Although the streets were clogged with chaotic traffic and other fallouts of the celebrations, to the chagrin of many residents, it was a memorable day for the new lawyers and their proud families; pickpockets and con men also had a field day feasting on the greedy and gullible.
Presenting the new lawyers before the Body of Benchers, headed by Justice Onnoghen, the Director-General of the Nigerian Law School (NLS), Olanrewaju Onadeko (SAN), expressed reservations about the proliferation of Law faculties in the country, which, he said, was responsible for the waning quality of legal practice and practitioners.
He called for a structured mentoring process in the profession to allow new lawyers understudy established practitioners before they are allowed to set up on their own.
“The aim of pupilage is not to elongate the duration of formal legal training of new lawyers. It is, essentially, to avail them a period of hands-on apprenticeship in law establishments for a total comprehension of law practice,” he said.
The Acting CJN, while admitting them to the bar, warned the fresh wigs not to delay in reacting to demands for information by their clients.
“As a legal practitioner, you must respond promptly, as reasonably possible, to request for information by your client.
“Negligence in handling a client’s case may be of such a nature as to amount to professional misconduct. You must endeavour to adequately represent your client in all matters you are handling.
“Furthermore, as ministers in the Temple of Justice, it is never enough to solely protect the interest of your client. You musty strive to attain justice above all and not derail its course even if it may not favour your client, and avoid sharp practices.
“You must not knowingly advance a claim or defence that is unwarranted or with intent to abuse court process or maliciously injure another. “Always remember that all oral or written communications made by your client in the normal course of professional employment are privileged. Therefore, you shall not abuse or take advantage of the confidence reposed in you by your client for your personal gain or benefit or for any other consideration,” the CJN said.
The roll call of legal luminaries at the occasion include Justices of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, federal high courts, state high courts and other divisions.
Of the 4,225 new lawyers that were called to the bar, two were the cynosure of all eyes. First was Mrs. Patricia Olubunmi Etteh, first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, from June to October 30, 2007, while the other was a former street beggar, Mr. Abdulsalam Idowu.
From hair salon to the Bar
Etteh was radiant in her regalia as a qualified lawyer, analogous of what she wore some years back as the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, but with the oath of legal practitioners administered on her by the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Etteh’s romance with law has become legendary.
Her journey to the bar was a fallout of the crisis that engulfed her short reign and culminated in her resignation from office as Speaker.
She had earlier made history when she was unanimously elected as the first female lawmaker to preside over the House of Representatives in 2007, however, the honeymoon was short-lived because the forces that installed her soon moved against her, after she announced the composition of special and standing committees to run the Sixth Assembly.
Etteh was accused of awarding contracts to renovate her official residence and that of her deputy and was forced to resign from office after weeks of probe.
Her public image was battered through a ludicrous campaign against her person and integrity until pressure from all fronts compelled her to resign from the Speaker’s post and she took her seat on the floor of the chamber.
She, however, remained punctual, attending plenary and contributing to debates until the close of the Assembly when her indictment was removed from the records of the Fourth Assembly through a motion.
Etteh decided to rebuild her battered image and returned to the ivory tower to obtain a degree in Law from a British university.
She returned to Nigeria and enrolled for the two-year mandatory study at the Nigerian Law School in Bwari, Abuja, before her calling to the bar last Tuesday.
Etteh has kept quiet since she stepped down as Speaker, she has refused to speak with the press on her experience, particularly the run-up to her resignation.
But now, as a lawyer, she would have to speak when she starts defending her clients in open court.
Onnoghen, at the ceremony, warned the new lawyers, including Etteh, not to delay in reacting to demands for information by their clients.
Some associates of Etteh said that she felt very bad because the members who moved against her were not only the most trusted but also knew that she did no wrong in the award of contracts, which was the prime trumped-up allegation used to humiliate her from the exalted seat.
One of her friends who did not want to be named said: “Mama has forgiven all her colleagues who plotted against her, she has long moved on with life. Have you seen the political end of all the people who ganged up against her for doing no wrong?
“Now, Nigerians have seen the integrity of the people who claimed to have integrity. We have seen their end, not only the arrowhead, but also every member of that House who deceived Nigerians to move against an innocent woman.
“She was removed as Speaker not because of contracts, but when it is time, she or one of the people who moved against her will tell the true reasons why she was removed, the story will be told one day.”
I’m at home with lawyers – Chief Ikedi Ohakim, ex-Imo Governor
Another prominent Nigerian who graced the occasion was former Governor of Imo State, Chief Ikedi Ohakom, whose daughter, Chioma, was among the new lawyers who took the oath of office. Chioma, according to her father, is a child of destiny, whose arrival in the family opened the floodgates of blessings.
Born during a period of military harassment of the family during the era of the late General Sani Abacha, Ohakim’s was happy that Chioma followed in the footsteps of her mother and two other members of the household to graduate as a lawyer.
“I am happy about what God is doing in my family, with the call to the bar of Chioma today, I am now surrounded by lawyers. Chioma is a child of destiny. I’m now at home with lawyers,” the former governor said as he entertained guests who joined the family to celebrate the occasion.
Ohakim was all over the hall cracking jokes and exchanging banter with guests as he intermittently retold the story of Chioma’s birth and how she made him a proud father.
Ohakim had company in such people as former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Emeka Ihedioha, Professor ABC Nwosu, Chief Chris Uche (SAN), Chief Ewa Kalu, and several lawyers.
Success story of a race against nature
The story of Idowu, who was also called to the Bar is that of a man who defied all odds to achieve his life ambition.
As a physically challenged street beggar, he came from the bottom to bag a degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Lagos in 2015. He then proceeded to the Nigerian Law School, where he emerged successful in the August/September 2016 final bar examination conducted at the end of the one-year programme.
The grass-to-grace story of the 37-year-old new lawyer, who used to be a beggar to fund his primary and secondary education, having lost his mother at the age of three, was heart warming and inspiring.
Things got worse earlier in his life after a disease befell him and crippled him, leaving him in the hands of a father and relatives who had no interest in his future.
Idowu started begging at age eight in Erin Ile, Kwara State, to see himself through primary and secondary school.
Against many odds, he obtained a degree in political science from the University of Lagos. He went on to secure admission to study Law while in the final year of the first degree programme.
“I struggled to get admission to study Law. I got the admission when I was in my final year, writing my final project for the political science degree,” he said, attributing the inspiration that drove him to “God’s miracle.”
“I thank God because, if not for Him and those He used to come to my aid, I would be nowhere now,” he added. He said his immediate plan was to get a job in a law firm: “I wish to set up my law firm later and, in the nearest future, I want to become a judge.”
Following the family tradition
For the family of Ebonyi State’s immediate past Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Dr. Ben Igwenyi, the last call to bar increased the rank of lawyers in its fold.
The emergence of his son, Nnamdi, as a barrister at law brought the number of learned persons in the family to six. Igwenyi’ wife, Nnenna, two younger brothers (Ogbonna and Iheakolam) and a niece are lawyers.
The visibly elated couple said their joy knew no bounds, because Nnamdi has continued in the family tradition.
“I am particularly happy because my son has shown that he’s taken after me. My prayer for him is that he would even surpass whatever I have achieved and would still achieve in the legal profession,” Igwenyi said.
He disclosed that he did not choose the profession for his son, saying, “Nnamdi, on his own, said he would be a lawyer and I am highly elated that he has fulfilled that aspiration today.”