Twenty years ago, OCJ Okocha, SAN, emerged as Millennium President of the Nigerian Bar Association in year 2000. Such was the landmark achievements of his tenure that people thought there must have been an oracle teleguiding him. Hence he was given the prefix “JP” (Justice of the Peace) twisted to mean “Juju Priest”. It all started at a Bar Conference in Enugu when Okocha cracked a joke that his own “JP” means “Juju Priest.” Ever since, people have not stopped calling him Juju Priest, a tag that has stuck to him like a barnacle with some viewing him with awe, fear and mysticism. A curious young lawyer approached him at the conference to find out if he truly was a Juju Priest and Okocha scared him the more, saying: “Yes, ooo. The oracle is in my village. I am the one to be serving it as the Chief Priest now. But because of my engagement in law, I have told them to wait till I retire from law. Then I will come back.”
The lawyer then went out, broadcasting the news to his friends: “See that man, he is truly a juju priest.” He didn’t know that Okocha, a humorous man, was just having fun calling himself a Juju Priest. “To me, it’s just a fun name,” Okocha would later tell me. Because of his near-prophetic insights, people used to marvel and each time they ask him, he tells them that “my juju used to give me revelations. I have an oracle.” What a funny man! I met Okocha last week via Zoom , which has become the “new normal” for even a journalist and biographer like me. I was interviewing him for my book, “COURTROOM AND LAW FIRM STRATEGIES—Top Lawyers Share Their Experiences.” For two hours or so, I put him on the “witness box” and “cross-examined” him, asking him tough questions about his legal trajectory. In cross-examination, you have to beware when interviewing experts. I threw all caution to the wind and fired my questions on all cylinders. And Okocha proved himself that he is truly a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
A lawyer who enjoys advocacy and can talk for hours, giving me practical insights into what it takes to excel in the courtroom. I had similarly interviewed a long list of Senior Advocates for the project. Names like: Prof. Itse Sagay, Olisa Agbakoba, Wole Olanipekun, Dele Adesina, Godwin Omoaka, Roland Otaru, Adewale Atake, Wale Adesokan, Louis Mbanefo, Prof. Joe Irukwu, Claudius Aduroja, Titi Akinlawon, Paul Ananaba, Ladi Rotimi Williams, Sina Sofola, Sylvester Elema, Ebun Sofunde, Chief Abimbola Richard Akinjide, Olumide Sofowora, Wale Taiwo, Bode Olanipekun, Prof. Taiwo Osipitan, Mike Igbokwe, Yusuf Ali, Supo Shashore and Anthony Idigbe. And there are more interviews to be conducted. After drilling Okocha for two hours, he asked me: “What is your background? Did you study law?” The answer is I did not study law. I am purely a journalist. But there is no way you will interview such an array of heavyweights and not become a lawyer in your own rights. The idea for me is to contribute to new knowledge in the area of Nigerian Jurisprudence. Not being a lawyer gives me an edge. I am able to ask questions that on the surface look so basic. I try to break down the walls of legal jargons and technicalities. I try to simplify. I try to make my respondents explain every confusing legalese. I wish I had read law. There is a correlation between law and journalism. We are both investigators. We are both inquisitive. We both ask questions. We both cross-examine. We both rely on eyewitnesses and testimonies. We both worship at the altar of truth. We both write essays and reports. We both sink ourselves deep into research. We both communicate to be understood. We are both lovers of books. We are both gentlemen. Journalists, like lawyers, deserve to be called “learned gentlemen” too.
Back to OCJ Okocha, I asked him what were his own achievements as NBA President? He told me how he met 58 branches of NBA in his time and created 30 additional branches—10 in the East, 10 in the West, and 10 in the North. Achievement No.2: “I amended the Constitution of the NBA that allowed us to create what we call Section of Business Law, Section of Legal Practice and then forums of the association. Under that provision, we now have section of Business Law, Section of Legal Practice, Section of Public Interest and Development Law. We also have Women Forum and Young Lawyers Forum.” Achievement No.3: “I said I wanted to democratize the NBA, because in my own perception, NBA started and ended in Lagos and Ibadan. So we said no. The NEC meeting under my tenure, we took it to Gombe. Then we had a meeting at Ado Ekiti, took meetings to places NBA had never held meetings before. So they credited me with democratizing the NBA. We also managed to amend the constitution and allowed magistrates and judges to become honourary members of the bar association.
“Those were as far as I was concerned landmark achievements. And people still remember me as the Juju Priest of the Bar. People said there must have been an oracle I was consulting to make all these landmark achievements.
“So, what advice has the Juju Priest for the new NBA President Olumide Akpata? From his imaginary “virtual” crystal ball, he told me: “First, congratulations to Akpata. We need to restore the bar association to its pride of place as a foremost professional association in Nigeria. We are the watchdog for society. Our motto is: Promoting the rule of law. That motto alone shows we have to be in the forefront in anything that concerns the rule of law. He is a business lawyer. Most commercial organisations don’t like this thing about delay in courts in Nigeria. You take it to Arbitration, it is delayed. You take it to court, disputes are delayed. So we must put in place mechanisms and procedure to ensure speedy administration of justice. Most of the people who voted for him are young lawyers. They see in him a man who exemplifies their own aspiration to become successful in practice. As a young lawyer, he joined a few of his colleagues to found Templar, a leading law firm in Lagos. So they see him as a role model. He must put in place mechanism to encourage young lawyers to know that there is a future for them in the profession.”