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NBA presidency not exclusive of SAN’s, says Azinge

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Professor Epiphany Azinge (SAN) was the former director-general of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS). The law teacher, who is marking 40 years post-call and 20 years as a professor of law shares the experience of his legal journey in this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE.

Would you agree that there are falling standards in legal education and what do you think are responsible?
Regrettably, standards have fallen in legal education. The quality of lawyers trained in the 70s, 80s and 90s are far better than those of the new millennium. This is in terms of written English, legal opinions, drafting skills, oral advocacy and fluidity of language, discipline and behavioral pattern, interpersonal skills and research acumen.

The reasons for these are not far fetched. When we were called to Bar in 1980, there were not more than 600 of us from five law faculties i.e Lagos, Ife, Zaria, Enugu and Maiduguri. It was in 1980 that Maiduguri graduated their first set in the Law School. 600 is a much more manageable number to engage than 3000 produced in separate batches in a year. The problem is not from the Law School but from the proliferation of law faculties and the churning out of numbers that are totally unmanageable. When you have classes with over 300 students in some law faculties, engagement with lecturers becomes an uphill task. It does not help for better assimilation or comprehension.

My take has always been that legal education is rather polluted by the quality of intake from the secondary schools. As is often stated in Computer terminology “garbage in, garbage out”. The garbage from Secondary Schools is what unfortunately ends up in the law Faculties/Law School. I have argued repeatedly that our only salvation is to make Legal Education, a graduate programme. This will help in whittling down the number of intakes and present us with better materials for legal education and for the legal profession.

When you compare your days with the present times, what is your observation in terms of ethics, professionalism and prestige of lawyers?
No doubt, the legal profession enjoyed greater prestige in days gone by. There were fewer lawyers on parade and they were better valued and respected. With over 120, 000 lawyers presently in Nigeria, it is now a game of survival of the fittest. In circumstances of unhealthy competition, rules are bent and standards compromised. It is, however, instructive to note that in terms of ethics and professionalism, the legal profession has managed to regulate the conduct of members and maintain discipline in the profession. The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) and the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) have endeavoured to stamp their authority in the discipline of members of the profession.

Why did you choose to study law? Was it by providence or you made the choice deliberately?
I should say that it was a combination of choice and providence. We normally say that man proposes and God disposes. Mere desire or choice could not have made things happen without God’s intervention. Truly, I became attracted to the legal profession early in my life. I was privileged to read about some of the highly distinguished legal personages that graced our noble profession and I desired to be like them. Besides, as one that was arts-inclined, in the sense that I was very comfortable with arts subjects, there was only one profession that naturally beckoned to me. Also, coming from a town that produced legal giants such as Dennis Osadebays, Chike Idigbes, Uche Omos, Dan Azinges, Olisa Chukwurahs etc, one was never short of role models growing up. Who wouldn’t want to be like them? What with a combination of flair, panache, eloquence, brilliance, flamboyance, the nobility of conduct, highly analytical mind, elevated thought process, intellectual depth, mesmerizing erudition, dignified carriage and comportment. These were the qualities on parade and I prayed to join the noble rank of the legal profession. In all these, God ordered my steps from primary school to secondary and then to University and Law School. The rest is now history.

Where did you hone your skill as a junior counsel?
Immediately after my call to bar in July 1980, I proceeded for my National Youth Service (NYSC) in Yola (then Gongola state). I was posted to the Ministry of Justice, Yola, where I served in the Legal Aid Department. This afforded me the opportunity to traverse the length and breadth of then Gongola state, defending people who meet the requirements for free legal services. It is a noble gesture from the government that exists to date. In addition to my legal aid assignments, I still found time to lecture at the State College of Legal Studies in Yola. My love for academia undoubtedly blossomed there. The joy of imparting knowledge and transforming ignorance to electrifying brilliance is simply indescribable. As you watch students drink from your fountain of knowledge, there is a sense of fulfilment that overwhelms you and motivates you to dig deeper in search of knowledge. It was not surprising that at the end of my service year, I emerged the best Youth Corp member in Gongola state in 1981 and ultimately won the NYSC presidential honours of that year. My journey in academics, however, began in earnest at the University of Benin when through the instrumentality of Prof Itse Sagay (SAN) as founding dean of law, I was privileged to join as a pioneer staff of the new faculty of law in 1981. In every step of the way, one will always see the hand of God, paving the way and directing my path. He made it possible for me to make a fairly decent result of a second class upper division in the University of Lagos in 1979–a result that enabled Prof. Sagay to invite me without hesitation to join the staff of the law faculty. God also made it possible for me to travel to the UK just after one year to pursue higher degrees of LLM and PhD respectively at the London School of Economics and Political Science. That I started my PhD in 1984 and completed in 1986 is a testament to my desire to achieving higher intellectual accomplishments.

Who were your role models, who inspired you a great deal as a young lawyer?
The path of law is decorated with an avalanche of role models. You have role models as teachers in the University, role models as lecturers at the Law School and role models by reputation. At the faculty of Law, the University of Lagos, many of our professors then were world-class scholars. Talk of the legendary Elias, Gower, Omotola, Jegede, Adesanya, Obilade, Oyebode, Oyebanji, Akanbi, Asomugha, Nylander among others.

Across the Ife law faculty divide, there were the Kasumus, Sagays, Fabumis, Okorodudus, etc. In Enugu then, we had as role model teachers, Okonkwos, Nwabuezes, Ewelukwas, Nwogugus, Ilegbunes, Okere’s etc. In Zaria, we had Chukkle, Ayua amongst others. At the Law School then, the Ibironkes, Jegedes, Olagbegis, Abayomis, etc were every inch role models. Beyond the Law School, the names of Graham Douglas, Augustine Nnamani, Mudiaga Odje resonated brilliantly. But the unmistakable reputation of Rotimi Williams, Richard Akinjide, Gani Fawehinmi, GOK Ajayi, Folake Solanke were awe-inspiring.

At the bench, we had the Bello’s, Idigbe’s, Oputas, Esos, Uwais, Obaseki, Irikefes, Aniagolus etc. We were young but their reputation preceded them.

What were your aspirations as a law undergraduate and can you beat your chest today to say you have met all?
From the onset, I wanted to be a lawyer. But beyond that, I wanted to take a PhD and become a professor of law. I drew a lot of inspiration from my father’s words of admonition- “one must always aspire to drink deep from the fountain of knowledge.” I felt I could only achieve that through higher intellectual engagements and pursuits. My profile is in the public space and I don’t need to beat my chest except to say that God has been kind and merciful. Perhaps, I am tempted to believe that I exceeded my expectations and for this, I am grateful to God.

What do you consider your most outstanding achievement in the last 40 years of your call to the Bar?
My journey through life has never been one of self-glorification. Similarly, my achievements as a lawyer in the last 40 years can never be measured by individual accomplishments. I have derived immense joy in the fact that I have impacted positively over 15,000 students and mentored equally large army of juniors and colleagues. Whether at the bar or in the academia, nothing has given me greater joy and fulfilment than touching these lives and helping in their transformation, some at the undergraduate level and others at Masters and Doctorate levels. Likewise, the grooming of young lawyers as a mentor is simply overwhelming.
You have had an unblemished career in legal advocacy, teaching, research, public service and scholarship for 40 years. What are the secrets of your success? How can young lawyers draw inspiration from your success story?

To the glory of God, it has been a memorable career in the past 40 years. A career that spanned legal advocacy, teaching, research, public service and international appointments and back to legal practice is certainly laden with experience and exposure. By the special grace of God, I think I have what it takes to engage for another 20 years at the highest level. The secret of my success is simply the pursuit of excellence, self-motivation, setting goals and striving to accomplish, result-orientedness, great work ethics, cultivating a sense of history and an altruistic disposition. The road to the top of the ladder is littered with banana peels and there are slippery slopes here and there. Integrity is key. As we were taught growing up, a good name is better than riches. Our young colleagues are invited to learn the virtues of old— make haste slowly, stoop to conquer, work diligently and assiduously, build capacity consistently, strive to be one of the best if not the best, let your legacy speak for you for all times and be loyal to your superior colleagues and constituted authority. Keep in mind that with about one percent of lawyers Senior Advocates of Nigeria, there is certainly a lot of space at the top. It behoves the ambitious and serious-minded junior colleagues to aspire to break into this exclusive company.

It is easy to see the glory all through, but certainly there must have been some drawbacks along the way.
Can you please share with us what was your greatest challenge or challenges as a lawyer and how did you overcome?

Certainly, it has not been a cosy ride all these 40 years. There have been a lot of ups and downs. But my commitment to Almighty God has helped me overcome the challenges on my path and navigate the uncharted paths in my movement up the ladder of success. It is difficult to single out any challenge worthy of recounting. When things don’t go my way, I never see it as a reason for recrimination. I learn to take them in my strides and see them as the wish of God. All said I think there are clearly more highs than lows.

Being a Senior Advocate indeed confers a lot of privileges, but does that extend to the position of occupying the presidency of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as the exclusive preserve of SANs?
Technically, there is no hard and fast rule that only SANs can aspire to the presidency of NBA. Perhaps it can be argued that it is a rule of practice since the presidency of NBA has been occupied only by SANs in more than 30 years. But like I earlier stated, there is no express provision of law, regulation or guidelines stipulating that NBA presidency is the exclusive preserve of SANs. The critical question for me, however, is the determination of capacity to provide leadership. Can a non-SAN provide leadership to the Bar? The answer for me is in the affirmative. Are there SANs not capable of giving leadership to the Bar? Again my answer is in the affirmative. The good news is that we have a highly informed and enlightened voting force that is capable of determining what they want and who can offer them the leadership that they want.

There are arguments about the preservation and abolition of the SAN title, owing to allegations of nepotism, undue influence and partiality. Do you think it should be retained and what reforms should be done to restore confidence in the selection process?
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. I see no justification whatsoever in any call for its abolition. In all spheres of human endeavours, there must be indicators for determining success. There should also be aspirations to be met as well as motivating factors to spur people on. In legal practice, the rank of SAN motivates lawyers to pursue the path of excellence and distinction. It is, therefore, the major aspiration of all lawyers to wear silk. Beyond the privilege of wearing silk, there are other factors inextricably intertwined with the attainment of the rank. This includes befitting office accommodation, impressive office facilities, assembly of high-quality partners and associates, employment of juniors for mentoring, decent conduct and impressive appearance, excellent relationship with other lawyers locally and internationally etc.

This is in addition to accumulated experience, legal dexterity and skilful advocacy. For Nigerian lawyers to compete favourably with our counterparts abroad, we need the requirements for the attainment of the rank of SAN to build a legal profession of international standards. As a member of the LPPC in the last five years, I unequivocally refute any allegation of nepotism, undue influence and partiality. This is without prejudice to the known fact that conferment of the rank of SAN is purely a privilege and not a right.

What do you make of the argument that law teachers should stop taking briefs and going to court, the reason being that it is shortchanging core litigators, who depend solely on it?
I consider any argument that law teachers should stop taking briefs as fundamentally flawed. Professionals generally excel in the classroom by experience generated practically. Be it medical doctors, Pharmacists, Accountants, Engineers, Architects etc, they draw from field experiences to the classroom. Law teachers ought not and should not be an exception. How the legal practice of teachers shortchanges other practitioners is beyond my comprehension. In the public space, there is enough room for all competitors. So it is in the legal profession.

How can lawyers assist in deepening democracy, social justice and rule of law?
Lawyers by training are the watchdogs of any society. Naturally, they are at the vanguard of promoting democratic principles and ideals. Whether it is through advocacy, questioning the actions of political actors, holding the leadership accountable, proffering ideas and suggestions for a healthy democratic space, lawyers impact the system to a very large extent. The more enduring influence, however, is the actual participation and engagement of lawyers in democratic processes and contributing immeasurably to deepening of our democratic experiment.

COVID-19 has brought the ‘new normal’ of transacting electronically across the world. What do you think is the future of legal practice, going forward?
Legal practice certainly will adapt to the new normal by changing many of its normal procedure of doing things. At law firms, not much has been affected because there was already a lot of progress made as regards processing things electronically. The challenge certainly is with the courtrooms. Subject to an amendment to applicable legislation and rules of courts, I believe virtual court proceedings can be accommodated for purposes of legal practice. It is indeed doubtful if big law firms can flourish post-COVID-19 as lawyers in the new normal have learnt to function effectively and efficiently from outside the office environment.

What is your message to Nigerians and how do want to mark the anniversary of your 40th year as a lawyer and 20 years as a law professor?
I still believe in the indivisibility and indissolubility of this entity called Nigeria. I believe that our nation should be founded on the principles of freedom, equality and justice. I urge for the cessation of armed conflicts in the theatres of war. I urge for improved infrastructure in the area of roads, hospitals, housing and rapid industrialisation. The welfare of our people should be the major priority of the government. Unemployment challenges must be vigorously addressed. For me, this anniversary is a remarkable milestone and my foundation, Epiphany Azinge Foundation proposes to establish forthwith the following: 1, formally institute the Fellowship of my foundation with effect from July 19, 2020. This is to support a candidate nominated to run a programme on leadership and public policy for a period of six months to one year in any approved institution. Thereafter the candidate will be admitted as a fellow of Epiphany Azinge Foundation. 2, Kick start skill acquisition training fund for eligible Asaba indigenes. This takes immediate effect. 3, Kickstart the already institutionalised Epiphany Azinge Foundation essay competition for all public secondary schools in Delta state. This will be on an annual basis. 4, Endow a prize at the Nigerian Law School in the name of Epiphany Azinge Foundation and 5, commence global on-line programme for career guidance for prospective law students and for mentoring of law students and young lawyers.


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