TO say that Mrs Boma Ozobia is a core professional is to say the obvious. Meeting her at her Lekki office, you need not be told that the United Kingdom-trained lawyer is officious. For instance, Ozobia’s intimidating resume is not limited to being the first black and female president of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) in over 50 years of its exi stence. Aside that, she is a member, Board of Trustees, Royal Commonwealth Society and served as the Chairperson, Association of Women Solicitors of England and Wales between 2005/2006.
Back home in Nigeria, the erudite lawyer was awarded the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in September 2014. She is also a partner in the law firm, Sterling Partnership. In this interview with Effects, she spoke about life as a lawyer, Nigerian judiciary and lots more.
Given the height you have attained in your profession compared to your simple lifestyle, how come you’re not loud, and you’re hardly seen in social functions unlike some of your colleagues of the same status?
I don’t know about being loud or not. But frankly speaking, I like it simple. In my undergraduate days, I was always in trousers and shirts. I agree with you that in terms of socialising, I may not have been socialising the way the average Nigerian does. So, you won’t see me at a lot of society functions. There are two reasons for that. One, I work very long hours. That means I have limited time for social engagements, and it is by choice because I really like what I do. It is a more useful way of spending my time. If I attend a social function, it is because that person is really near and dear to me. Time, for me, is extremely valuable and I try to manage it properly.
As a legal practitioner what are your views about justice delivery in the country.
l think we have come a long way and we still have a long way to go. One of the things that are key to this democracy, is that the three arms of government, must be properly funded. They must be truly independent of each other so that they can perform their tasks, and make Nigerians have good governance within the ambience of the law in this democracy . Now, two of the arms of government, have certain advantages over the other. The executive, because of the overbearing nature of our military dictatorship and the fact that for so many years, we had dictators in charge of our country. There were so many decrees that kept eroding the powers of the judiciary. We did not have a legislative arm under the military, but we had the judiciary. Now, those laws are still in our statute books. We still operate a constitution that says that the three arms of government are independent, but the reality is that the judiciary is heavily dependent on the executive. They put in a budget, and the budget is forwarded to the legislative arm by the executive. The legislative arm decides whether to give the judiciary, the money they are asking for or not. In the past four years, the budget of the judiciary has been cut year after year. l’m not talking of judges’ salaries because our judges are not well paid at the federal level. Some of the states are even doing better. They recognize the need to pay their judges well. But at the federal level, judges are poorly paid. You can imagine a supreme court judge going into retirement after serving for 40 something years, l’m not telling you anything new, there is a lady judge who does not own a house. From her salary, she was not able from to build herself a house. It was not as if she was not diligent, it was not as if she was not hard working, nor committed. At least, she had put in almost 40 years in the service of the country. She took the risks involved in being a judge. She was adjudicated over criminal matters, with the inherent risk to the lives of members of her family, yet she was poorly paid. That is one aspect of it. Due to the judicial system, the judges do not sit alone, they work other staff. l would have given you an organogram of the courts compared what obtains in other countries. To my surprise and sadness, Nigeria as close as she is to Ghana, if l begin to use the examples of other places like the United Kingdom or Australia or Canada, people would say that they are the first world countries, but Ghana is up there. The judiciary in Ghana has a five-year budget business plan from 2012 to 2017. They know exactly what they need. Justice delivery is not just about sitting in court and passing judgment, you have to ensure that justice is made accessible to all. Forget the aspect of paying lawyers’ fees. That is only one aspect within the court system. How quickly cases are processed, the documentation that follows a trial, is there adequate staff? If you cannot buy papers in your office, if there is no diesel to power the generating set to provide electricity in order to carry out administrative tasks, then the judicial system will be slowed down. Moreover, you have to train the people the judiciary officers. Meanwhile, training costs money. If you don’t train them, they cannot perform at their best capacity. Things are forever moving forward, and training is a key factor.
You were the first female lawyer and black woman to lead the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA). How did you feel achieving such a height?
For me, it was an opportunity to continue to serve. It shows that you were simply first amongst equals. It is a council, but you had the opportunity to direct and work with colleagues in the direction you feel we should go. It was special in terms of the reaction. I have colleagues from other African countries, who felt, how wonderful it was to look up there and see someone like them occupying such an exalted seat. It had not happened before. What had never happened also was that suddenly, there was a queue of people who wanted to come up and shake my hand. It wasn’t just Africans, my contemporaries and colleagues, it was across board. I had members of the British House of Lords who were present as keynote speakers. They lined up to shake my hands. That was a humbling experience because it really wasn’t what I expected.
From your background and achievements, you are very unassuming, no airs, what informed that?
I am not different from the next person. We are all human beings. We breathe the same air and drink the same water. We desire the same things, which are security for the family, individual happiness and the right to pursue our dreams.
I am me. I have been told that I am easy to get on with. It certainly has its advantages because I make friends easily and across the board. It is not just about opening doors. I like people and respect them for who they are, regardless of whether my relationship with them opens doors or not. It is not based on whether I want something from anybody. It is purely because I’m interested in people, I want to know them, I want to help if I can. I think that is what comes first.
How did you get into the legal profession?
The legal profession has always been in my family. My grandfather was a magistrate and also the Amayanabo of Nembe Brass, Bayelsa State. That is where the former Minister of Petroleum, Edmund Daukoro is. My uncle, the Amayanabo after him was a lawyer. The late chief justice, Ambrose Alagoa was the Chief Justice of the old Rivers State; the first indigenous Chief Justice and a respected lawyer. There are other uncles of mine, including the one that recently retired from the Supreme Court, Justice Stanley Alagoa. He reached the apex. In fact, he was the one who sparked my interest in the Law profession. There is close affinity within the family. Two, Uncle Stanley was one of my favourite uncles because he was one of those uncles that spared time to play with children.
Each time he was returining from the court, he would have his collar and black suit on. He would talk to you, and come along with all those old black and white reel movies. He would set them up for us and we would watch Charlie Chaplin and so on. Not many older people made out such time for little children. Certainly, he was one of my favourite uncles. So, I wanted to do what he did when I grew older. Meanwhile, he happens to be a lawyer.
So, it was really about the family. To begin with, I had an understanding of what the work entails. My late father would always say to me: ‘You would make a good lawyer,’ because I was the one who would always speak up. In fact, when others didn’t want to tell him something, I would be the one to say it. My dad wouldn’t just tell me to do something; he had to explain it to me because I would ask why. He encouraged that. He didn’t think it was an insult; he didn’t think I was rude as some parents would. My ‘why’ was not seen as confrontational or insulting questions; rather, they were seen as a perfectly logical approach and dad would take his time to give you reasons. As I grew older, I saw that lawyers could make the difference in the area of access to justice; ensuring that people were treated fairly. For me, it was a passion, which had brought me here. I am a commercial lawyer in practice.