The legal profession in Nigeria has maintained a pace of development that remains steady and impressive over the decades. From every angle the law as a profession is viewed in the country, the record will have more than enough positive output to proudly hold up.
This does not mean that the profession has not had its fair share of challenges and at times low points. As with all other professions and faces of the Nigerian society today, quality of manpower, is an issue. Even at that, training of new streams of professionals in the legal field, as well as relatively steady practice of law, never stopped growing and thriving, even in the days when democracy was suspended and military rule was imposed on the society.
The professionals in the field of law as well as lay people who are always in need of the services of lawyers and the judicial system, to adjudicate on disputes and offer several types of legal services continue to keep the legal system busy and relevant. This makes law practice an active and living profession that renews itself constantly.
One of the well-grounded and respected legal luminaries in the country who has seen the law professions grow over the years, someone who believes in upholding the values and tradition which the law profession is wrapped in is Chief Felix Offia, the managing partner of FO Offia and Co.
For someone with his profile and accomplishment in the legal profession in the country, Chief Offia keeps a relatively low profile, until you encounter him either in the court or in the circles where he operates. Even for this his present low profile, the man from Item in Abia state can hardly hide successfully in his field.
On October 25, in Abuja, at a ceremony marking the formal renaming of Legal Aid Council headquarters building in Abuja after the late Chief Chimezie Ikeazor, a senior advocate of Nigeria, one of the prominent impacts of Chief Felix Offia in Nigeria’s legal profession was highlighted. What is today the Legal Aid legal Council was started in the 1970s as the Nigerian Legal Aid Association, a testimony to the foresight and commitment to the provision of legal services to every person in need of legal protection by the Late Chief Ikeazor, alongside other eminent service-minded citizens.
Virtually all the friends who shared the vision and founded the Nigerian Legal Aid Association have now marched into eternity, but their good works have not only withstood the test of time, but have indeed, grown into a critical institution in the country, offering unquantifiable legal service to the various people who have course at various times to such representation.
Among the eminent citizens who joined Chief Ikeazor to establish the Nigerian Legal Aide Association were Chief Solomon Lar, Chief Debo Akande and Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke. They are prominent Nigerians who now live in history.
Luckily, the founding executive secretary of the Nigerian Aide Association (now Nigerian Aide Council) is very much alive and active in the law practice. Chief Felix Offia, still waxing strong and vibrant in the legal practice, is the only remaining link between that past and the present.
At the event in Abuja to rename the headquarters of the Legal Aide Council after Chief Chimezie Ikeazor, SAN, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, paid glowing tribute to the leader of the group and his associates.Speaking at the ceremony in Abuja, Malami said: “His (Chief Ikeazor’s) antecedents in providing legal services to poor Nigerians are exemplary, and along with a few like minds – the late Chief Solomon Lar, Debo Akande and Edwin Ume-Ezeoke, he founded and financed the Nigerian Legal Aid Association in 1974, which served as a platform for providing legal aid for poor Nigerians.
“The Association, which was inaugurated on February 6, 1974, had several branches across the nation and enjoyed immense support from the Bench pursuant to its laudable mandate.
“The efforts of the Legal Aid Association established by Chief Ikeazor later culminated in the promulgation of the Legal Aid Decree No.56 of 1976(now Legal Aid Act LFN 2004). This Act formally introduced the legal aid scheme into law and it was eventually incorporated into the 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Chief Ikeazor’s sacrifices cannot go unnoticed. Indeed, the federal government and the thousands of Nigerians who enjoy the services of the Legal Aid Council today, remain grateful to the learned silk for his selfless sacrifices and foresight.”
Chief Felix Offia looks back at the early days of the Legal Aid Association, when he as a young lawyer was saddled by his mentor, Chief Ikeazor to serve as the founding executive secretary of the Association. The project was very ambitious, but also very exciting.
He noted that it took the commitment and large heart of someone like the late Ikeazor to plough in his personal resources in pursuit of legal protection for ordinary citizens who ordinarily could not afford to pay for the legal representation when the need arose.
He also pointed out that the services of the Legal Aid Association was extended to all over Nigeria and this was in the years after the civil war, under military rule too. Chief Offia’s own commitment to the law has remained undiluted through the years. Born in Aba, he was educated at the famous Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar before going forth later to the Law faculty of the University of Nigeria Nsukka. He moved over to Lagos in his early years of practice, which was where he had the memorable experience of coming in contact with and working with Chief Ikeazor, a relationship he cherishes till date.
At various times, Chief Offia served in various capacities outside direct legal practice. At one point, he was a member of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) Consultative Assembly for Zone 2 (South East), where the late Dora Akunyili was the co-ordinator and General Muhammadu Buhari was the overall head at the top.
He was also elected member of the Constituent Assembly in 1988/89, representing Bende Federal Constituency of Abia State. At another time, he served as a member of the board of the Corporate Affairs Commission at another time.
After his foray into politics, where he was a member of the National republican Convention (NRC), Chief offia beat a retreat and decided to concentrate on law. That is what he has done and successfully too.
He says there is a lot that still needs to be done in strengthening the legal profession in the country, but he holds that the profession has produced very good lawyers and brilliant jurists, some of whose judgments are excellent.There is, perhaps, no better statement about the law profession and what people in the field think of their profession than the fact that most lawyers, more so the successful ones guide their offspring to toe the same line with them. Chief offia is not an exception.
On December 7, 2022, when the latest graduates of the Nigerian Law School were indoctrinated as lawyers, Chief Offia was on hand to welcome his son, Ogbonnaya into the fold as a lawyer.The legal luminary welcomed the latest Offia into legal practice with a sense of pride and satisfaction.
He also has advice for his son and all young lawyers. Experience has told him, Chief Offia said, that the law rewards hard work and creativity. Anyone who wants to thrive in law practice must be ready to shut out distraction at various points and face the law. He counselled Ogbonnaya Offia to be ready for extensive research and meticulous attention to detail.
Fortunately, for the younger generation, Chief Offia said, technology and the internet have made research easier than it used to be. Yet, there are personal touches that technology will not add to preparation of briefs and cases, he said.
“Extra work and following on the footstep of those who have successfully passed through the same route, have no alternative,” he said.
The young Offia feels blessed for having a very successful lawyer as father. He paid tribute to his mother and father for guiding him through life to this point. He said he is aware that a lot of work is required in successful law practice, going by what he sees of his father’s work ethics.
He looks forward to proving himself and says he knows it will take some time, but that he is ready to learn. Looking back at the type of personal sacrifice and commitment made by his mentor, Chief Ikeazor in founding the Nigeria Legal Aid Association, Chief Offia noted that such personal sacrifice for the good of others, who cannot pay you back, is rare. He appreciates the fact that the Federal Government through the ministry of justice came around to recognizing the uncommon sacrifice of Chief Chimezie Ikeazor.
Chief Offia said he has dedicated himself to the legal practice, not merely for personal accomplishment, but to help in his own small way to improve on the values in the society and the promotion of justice and equity. He points out that the political and administrative system of Nigeria have a lot of mileage to cover to arrive at a desirable society, adding that inequity in all facets of the Nigerian society has made harmony extremely difficult at the moment.
He believes that the legal system and the law profession cannot do a lot more to help set the society on a better pedestal for progress. One of the major tasks Chief Offia has taken up in helping the society is in mentoring younger citizens, both in law and in leadership.
Unfortunately, he noted, many young people, especially in the area of politics, have little patience to go through mentoring. They seem to believe that they know it all, but they do not.