In this interview with CHIEMEKAADINDU, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Mba Ekpezu Ukweni who just marked his 27th year as a lawyer narrated his experience so far.
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You have been a lawyer for the past 27 years. Tell us how the journey has been?
From what you have known, I was called to bar on the 15th day of December 1993 when I was already in Enugu for my National Youth Service programme. Then I was sent to the chambers of Okonkwo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, of the blessed memory, for my service. I served there and he retained my services after my youth service and I served there for another four years. Then I left Enugu to the law office of Kanu G. Agabi, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. I worked with the office of Kanu G. Agabi up to 15 of March 2005. Then I relocated and set up my practice, Mba E. Ukweni and Associates at Desam House, Calabar. I’ve been on my own since 2005. I later relocated to No 5 Orok Street where I have been since 2007 till date. So practice has been a challenging one but I don’t think there is any other work or profession I would have done that would have challenged me and that I would have derived the much satisfaction that I derive from practicing law.
What motivated you to go into the profession?
From day one, my interest has always been to be a lawyer. What moved me much was my uncle who became my elder brother and he became very passionate about my development. He is an elder of the Presbyterian Church, Marshal Kanu Ekpezu. He worked with the judiciary and I usually spend my vacation with him. As a Court clerk, he rose to become a registrar. I would always go to court with him and was seeing lawyers do their work so I developed interest and he encouraged me to become a lawyer and my community easily bought into that and felt that I should be given the necessary encouragement to become a lawyer. So those were my motivations. Then I had a foster Father, Alhaji Abba who also worked as a chambers clerk to the very first lawyer that my community produced, Barr. Ene. He worked with him both in Nigeria and in the then Cameroon. When he returned to Nigeria, his first interest was that since the death of Ene, the community could not produce another lawyer especially as a boundary community involved with litigation. That pushed the community to start encouraging its citizens to read law.
Alhaji Abba became my foster father. And when he found out that I was in second year in the University of Calabar, we related up to the time he died, as a father and son. So he encouraged me and gave me a scholarship in his company. I also enjoyed the state government scholarship. In fact, there were up to three scholarships but I had to waive one. My Local government, Biase local government gave me a scholarship that I had to forgo for another person since I was enjoying the state government’s scholarship.
What have been the challenges so far?
Law practice as you should know haven related with some lawyers up to now is time demanding. I use to encourage the younger ones that law practice is like a jealous woman who loves you and wouldn’t want you to look elsewhere but, she will not also fail you. That is what law practice is. It takes all your time, all your energy, but it will never fail you. So I’ve not seen a lawyer who has dedicated himself passionately who is not successful. I’ve not seen one single lawyer who has dedicated himself to the law profession of practice and is not successful.
What then will you say about most lawyers who are full time politicians today?
For those who go into politics, there is no problem. They have chosen that as their career. I had many opportunities to go into politics. I’ve been encouraged many times and my people even came to me and I gave them someone to go to the House of Representatives and house of assembly. Even now there is pressure on me for me to go and run for the governor of Cross River state but I don’t see it as what will give the level of satisfaction derived from my law practice. It can only take the interest of service for the people for me to leave law practice to do any other thing. And like I have said severally, we love our people but the society generally; the way the society is tailored is not giving me that level of encouragement that I could abandon law practice to go into full time politics because it is not service that we are seeing. If it is actual service that we are seeing, that would have been an encouragement. So the society is not such that I can make that level of sacrifice to abandon my law practice. I relate with politicians, most of them are my friends. I am their lawyer but where I feel more satisfied is my law practice.
There is this believe by many that for you to become a successful lawyer, you must belong to a secret court…(cuts in)
Let me just cut you short, there is nothing like that; I’ve told you the secret for success. In every profession, hard work will take you to the top but your character will keep you there. So it is hard work. I see certain persons who do certain things before they come to court but that is nonsense, it’s not necessary. Any person who feels that he could join any society before he becomes a successful lawyer is wasting his time. Those things will even constitute distractions to your work because I have already told you that the work of a lawyer will not give you any time even for your wife. So you must have a very very understanding woman who knows the nature of your work to be able to accommodate that. My regular closing time from the office is 10 pm everyday and where there is pressure I stay longer and most of the days we sleep in the office with my workers and lawyers doing some work. So what time will you have to go to those vain organizations, I’m sorry to use that, vain organizations. Join groups that every evening you have to sit somewhere and drink and look at women. It will rather constitute distraction. To me, many people watch football but when Nigeria is playing I may make out time, okay my country is playing and watch the ball, but if you ask any lawyer who knows me in Calabar, they will tell you straight that my club is Nigerian Bar Association, that’s my club.
Having been in the system for 27 years now, what areas do you think needs redress in the judiciary in the country?
I’m happy you have raised this point; one major area I feel should be taken into consideration by the national assembly while amending the constitution is Judges’ office, particularly Chief Judges of a state. The governors, like the one we have in our state feel that they are governors and that they should take control of all arms of government. They do not realize that the constitution created three arms of government as partners, not one being subservient to the other. They are equal parts in governance and they have their respective roles to play in the government. The constitution, particularly section 271, 272 in such a manner that the appointment of a chief judge of a state and the judges of high courts is not kept in the hands of the executive because that’s why we are having the problem we are having in Cross River state. So the national assembly should look into that, structure the constitution in such a way that the National Judicial Council will be responsible for the appointment of judges including chief judges of states, including the chief justice of the federation. Leaving that in the hands of the executive is being messed up, it has messed up the judiciary, it has messed up the country as a result of that. That is one major thing I want to be done.
Another area is financial autonomy, and that is why it appears that the judiciary as a person and legislative arms are subservient to the executive because they go to them to virtually beg for everything from the government. So the governors now see themselves as emperors, as benefactors of the judiciary because they see themselves as the ones sponsoring the judiciary. It is a public fund, the governors don’t bring their own to run the government so for a governor to think that it is him who is funding the judiciary or any arm of the government is completely a wrong notion. That is another aspect, completely autonomous of the judiciary.
Are there specific contributions you made so far in the judiciary?
Well, the contribution is still in the areas of legal developments. Strong cases of significance that are being cited; I’ve handled a lot of cases as you know. There is hardly any notable politician in Cross River state that I have not done his or her case, including the sitting governor. I was his lawyer before he went to the senate, I did his matter as a senator, and I did his matter as a governor in his first term. It is just the second term that I feel he is not doing well and I don’t want to give my assistance. I took a position that he is not doing well and will not do well so I did not want to lend my assistance. That is why I withdrew from being part of his legal team, otherwise, I was already going to be part of his legal team. I was also involved with the senator representing us at the national assembly, Distinguished Senator Gershom Bassey, I am his lawyer. I did his matter and many of them in the house of reps. So those are my areas of contributions to the stability of the politics for legal matters and we have succeeded in handling some matters both at the commission of inquiries to settle land disputes to ensure there is peace and stability in those communities. I have also made myself available to ensure there is peace in the society.
Also, there are people on my scholarship. I have a scholarship programme and I intend that in no distant time, I should turn it into what I will use to immortalize my parents and grandparents, introduce it fully and incorporate that as a full blown project and a scholarship scheme. That is what I intend because I believe that I am what I am because I went to school and any person who is prepared to go school and has the capacity, I encourage the person to go to school.