I got a WhatsApp message from a friend, detailing the superlative qualifications of Eno-Obong Akpan Esq, as the next chairman of the Uyo branch of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA. I had not known the candidate before now and in the build up to the election, I have had the privileges of reading contending articles on the candidates. I became curious. I called my friend and requested to meet this “unknown” lawyer and find out what she has that has given her the confidence to dare the “establishment”. Even when I was making this move I knew it was not going to be easy getting to speak with a candidate barely 72 hours to an election. But I was pleasantly surprised that within three hours of my request, a response came and an appointment readily set up. That was a pointer to her accessibility.
Getting to her law office along Nwaniba road, I was surprised again to see her enmeshed in “legal matters”. My surprise stemmed from the information that she was hardly a lawyer.
I took it from there; “They say you don’t practice law, why do you think you should lead litigation lawyers? How would you be able to know what matters to them and how they fare in the filed?”
She looked at me and her face lit up in such a pleasant toothy smile. I had thought that the question would throw her off balance, but how mistaken I was! She in a tone that betrayed no emotions, she said “That is one of the perceptions I seek to dispel. It should not be heard of us to say that only those who are engaged in litigation are lawyers. There are thousands of brilliant lawyers in all fields of human endeavors that do not engage in day to day litigation practice and they are no less lawyers. That is not correct. Take a look at the United Kingdom, the practice there is not fused. It is either you are a Solicitor or you are a Barrister. So will you now say that a solicitor in the UK is not a lawyer? That is not correct. The good thing is that the profession is fused in Nigeria. So you can just do anything. Law practice is as wide as the sky. It would be nonsensical of me to expect you to leave your residence to come to my residence just to be able to view the sky. You can view the sky in your residence. You can view the sky in any country. There are lawyers engaged in companies as company secretaries, lawyers engaged in lawmaking in our legislatures, lawyers engaged as legal droughts men, lawyers engaged in administration in every sector of our economy. Would you say they are no longer lawyers just because they are not engaged in day to day litigation? What is important is the leadership abilities of any lawyer, irrespective of where he is operating as a lawyer. The NBA is a professional body and you cannot shut out core professionals because they are not into daily litigation.”
By now, I was already sure the interview would be a very cerebral one. I dug deeper to see what makes her this confident. Then I asked “who would you say you really are?
That toothy smile again. She responded curtly, “My name is Eno-Obong Akpan. I am a lawyer by profession. I am 27 years at the bar. I was called to the Bar in1990. I graduated from the Nigerian Law School with a second Class Upper Division. After graduation, I had a brief stint in litigation. I branched out into corporate practice, and thereafter into NGO work. But I still do my corporate practice all the time because that is where I have to make money to support my NGO work. I have an MBA degree. I have a Diploma in Transitional Justice and Human Rights from the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa. Currently I am running an LLM programme in the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom state.
“I am a researcher and currently I have five publications, four of them bothering on Women and Human Rights, one of them is on “Gas Flaring in Nigeria, Problems and Prospects”. Four out of the five articles are in International journals, while one was published by the University of Maiduguri law journal, Borno state. One has again been approved for publication by the same University of Maiduguri Law Journal and it will be out in the July or August issue. These research works are part of my contributions to legal education in Nigeria and in the world.”
“But can that fetch you an election in a bar that people say you don’t attend?” I again asked.
“I have been very active in the Nigeria Bar Association, Uyo branch. I have a very impressive attendance record. There is hardly any meeting I dont attend unless I am not around. Any time I am not able to attend, which is extremely very rare, I send in apologies. I am a registered member of the Eastern Bar Forum, for Eastern states in Nigeria. I have also attended the National Executive Committee meeting of the NBA as an observer. I served the NBA Uyo branch sometime in 2014 as the chairman of the law reform committee of the branch”, she said looking up to ensure I heard her well.
I shook my head, silently urging her to continue.
“I have held leadership responsibilities in Rotary International. I hope you know that the most organized organization in the whole world is the Catholic empire, (I like to call the catholic institution an empire because it is so big that I refer to it as an empire). This is in the Guinness Book of Record, and no other organization has beaten that record. So the Rotary International is the second most organized organization in the whole world. I have served in different capacities in the Rotary Club. I served the Rotary Club of Uyo as the first female president in 2007/2008 Rotary year. I also served the Rotary Club of Uyo as a two-term secretary. I also served as a treasurer of the Rotary Club of Uyo. I have also served Rotary International as an Assistant Governor in 2009/2010 Rotary year. These are the leadership positions I have had the privilege to hold”, she said with a relish.
I was impressed, reason being that I also have a background in International service organizations, having played a very high level leadership role in the LEO club, a youth activity of Lions club international. I immediately identified with her assertions on the leadership capacity building by these international organizations. But that was not enough as you must be personally motivated for an office you seek. I then threw the question on what motivated her into aspiring to lead the Uyo branch of the NBA at this time.
“I am a very serve oriented person”, she started, now looking very stern. “Top on my priority is to complete the NBA Uyo secretariat. I know it is such a gigantic dream because the money to use in the realization of this dream does not lie in our hands. Work has already started on the secretariat but in the last two terms, the chairmen have not been able to go back to that site. We have a bar center at the judiciary headquarters, but the sitting capacity, if one is so generous, is about 100. We have almost 700 members in Uyo branch, so you can imagine what happens if more than a hundred attend a meeting. You will have more than half hanging outside the hall and as a result most leave even before the end of the meeting. It is really top on my priority to reactivate work on that secretariat. I have called that a back to site plan. That is for the general interest of the bar. It cuts across the membership of the bar. When we have a functional secretariat, which will include an event center, which we can lease out and raise some funding for the association and use same when we have function and in the process save money we would have used renting venues for our own events.
Number two on my priority is the issue of a functional insurance policy for the association. There was an insurance scheme floated by the national body, but I really do not understand what is happening at that level. No one here has been able to access the payments. So I want us to have an accessible and workable insurance scheme. I have talked with the insurers and they advised that the group should have what they called personal accident insurance scheme for members. We are going to push for a lower premium from them so that we can pay for lawyers. I dont know how many we are and how much money we have, but if we dont have enough money to cover everybody, then we will have to ensure that we cover at least the young lawyers. The young lawyers are our hope for tomorrow and so must be taken care of; we have to prioritize them in the scheme.
“My third priority is the promotion of human rights, good governance and rule of law in Akwa Ibom state. As a human rights person, there is nothing I can do without bringing human rights onboard. Our human rights outlook is not just for lawyers, but also for the interest of the general public. We shall no longer sit back and watch human rights violations happen around us without the NBA saying anything; we shall say something and we shall take action. People must know that they cannot continue to behave with impunity. We are also going to promote transparency and accountability. From my Rotary background, there is no way I will not promote accountability. In Rotary, accountability is a creed and the organization raises accountable leaders. So, I am going to be very accountable in my leadership”.
My host by now was radiating with enormous energy and enthusiasm, she continued, “Another important thing is the issue of training and re-training. I have a lot of respect for academic and we are not taking enough advantage of our proximity to the University of Uyo, which has a very good law faculty. I can attest to that and that is why I have gone back there for my LLM. I know that the lecturers there are very sound. We shall tap from their knowledge to change the wrong perception in Akwa Ibom state, which I dont think happens in any other place, at least I have not seen it elsewhere, not in Lagos or anywhere in the south west where they have had a long contact with western education, and have had lawyers for a very long time; the perception that legal practice is all about going to court. Because of this wrong perception, we are not branching out to explore other areas of legal practice. So, I will like to have something in place that we could call the legal mind, where we bring in lecturers and other practitioners, if we can afford to bring them from outside of this state, we would, if not, we have enough cerebral minds from our own University of Uyo, we bring them in where they would give insights to other areas of possible legal practice. For example, we can bring in an expert in intellectual property law and he would tell us how we can branch out into that area and use that knowledge to make money. This can add income to us apart from going to court; I realize that some of the wealthy lawyers from the majority ethnic groups in the country do not necessarily go to court. Some of them in corporate practice and other forms of legal practice may just stay in their offices or even when in transit sit at the back of their cars, and while the driver is driving he plays with his Ipad or other internet facilities, following money movements for clients. We need to also know what they know and make money the way they do. The environmental law expert may also come and teach us how to make money from environmental law. The oil and gas expert can also come and teach us how to make money from such practice. Even the human rights expert can also teach us how to make money from that area of practice. That is what I am going to do. I am going to promote continuing legal education, which will also benefit the generality of the people.
For our colleagues in the official bar, I am going to work very closely with the law officers association of Nigeria to promote their welfare. I know they have a few things they have not been comfortable with in terms of their welfare and conditions of service. For example, not all the law officers have been given the car government promised them. We will try to appeal to government and I am sure government will listen to us because these officers need the vehicles for better productivity and for their safety”, she said with self evident satisfaction.
On the issue of human rights abuses and other problems lawyers go through in the court system, the chairmanship candidate said, “I have told you that I am a human rights person. I have done human rights work for 20 years. I fight for people. I lived and worked in the Gambia doing human rights work. If I can fight for people I dont know, who are not even from my place, is it people that belong to the same association with me that I cannot fight for? I told the young lawyers that they are not talking. You sit back and complain about a lot of things quietly; complain about court bailiffs, complain about clerks, but refuse to talk openly and officially about anything. By the time you begin to talk and the association gets cracking, and a few petitions and protests are made out against culprits, then you know that your association is solidly behind you. But you must talk. When you keep quiet and endure what you pass through, nobody will know how to come in. I am a very proactive person. I am a very assertive person, I can never be intimidated. Many of our lawyers have not seen me talk or act and that is why some think I am a docile person, but that is a wrong impression of me. Any person that does human rights work is extremely bold. But we need to hear what you are going through. A lawyer gets locked up in a police station and nobody is talking, nobody is telling anybody anything, the association doesnt get to know and the next thing is to say the association does not care. I will remain proactive and go for the rights of every lawyer, fight for their human rights with more vigor than the one I use in my human rights work, but my attention must be drawn to such abuses. I cannot compromise on the allegations of bribes because bribery weakens a system. When confronted with illegal demands for money by officials doing their jobs, many of our lawyers simply pay and allow the rot to continue. We must know those perpetrating these illegalities and then deal with them. But I can assure you that a lot of things will change, unless we dont get to know. The judiciary at that level must also be sanitized for our overall good. So what is in the day to day litigation or court to court practice that I will not know? I told you earlier that I have 5 research publications to my credit and I am not a lecturer. That will show you that I am a very serious minded person.
By the time I was done with the interview, I had no doubt that I had met an urbane personality, an international personality, who still retains the best part of her humanity. She smiles so easily, but behind those smiles lies a woman of very strict upbringing and an aristocratic bearing. Put she wears her apparent high social upbringing with a lot of humanity and candour.
I came out with the impression of a woman ready to give to her Association part of her wide world experience in leadership, volunteerism and humanitarian compassion. So when she continued to assure me that she would work her talk, I believe her because she is has all it takes to lead from the front.