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Legal profession operates on seniority – Okulaja

Ekiti and Lagos states have opened registers to document records of serial rapists in the respective states.  How will you react to this?
Well it’s okay, if it is not just to create a black book and use it for some other purposes rather than what it is meant for. This is because in other civilised countries when you are convicted for rape there is legal provision that they should make your identity known in the area where you settle so that people will know that the man is a threat to young women in the neighbourhood. This will prevent him from having another opportunity. This is because rape is almost an offence of opportunity. I cannot rape somebody who is in Ibadan; I can only rape people who are very close to me. You will see all these young men inviting girls into their rooms, or maybe if they are left alone in the house with the rapists and then they would attack. In fact, people in Britain, America and more organised countries have even gone beyond that, they would make sure that all the people in the area as well as social workers are aware because once you are a rapist, the chance that you will repeat that offence is there.  So the government has the duty to protect the society, somebody who has committed an offence has lost the right to be treated as a normal human being.
Since June last year, the judiciary in Rivers State has not been working due to the crisis over appointment of the state’s chief judge. How do you see this as a senior member of the bar?
Well, it’s quite unfortunate the whole thing has been politicised. Right from the time of the colonial government, we have a system in place whereby it is the most senior judge that will be appointed as the chief judge of a state and that has always been the case. A judge is not under compulsion to have a degree in management, because we are not businessmen. So, whoever finds himself as the most senior judge will be appointed as the CJ because our profession operates mostly on seniority. In fact, if two lawyers are called to the Bar the same day, you must be able to determine who is the most senior among them. We are called to Bar alphabetically, so if my name starts from A automatically I will be a senior to anybody whose name starts with B or C. So also if you’re called to the Bench, you must be able to determine who is the most senior; that is how our profession operates.
But, things started collapsing when the soldiers began to stage coups; when soldiers started coming into government and that is what has brought us to the situation we have in Rivers State. When the soldiers took over, they didn’t feel obliged to follow the system, so they started appointing their cronies into the Bench. They started taking a number four judge to be the chief judge and that started causing problems in the system. Now, it seems we have accepted it as precedence – that you can take somebody who is not number one to be the chief judge. My take is that Justice Peter Agumagu was the most senior judge, although he was redeployed to the Customary Court of Appeal but he still maintains his seniority. The fact that he was redeployed does not mean he has lost his seniority. I believe Agumagu should be the Chief Judge of Rivers State.
What is your take on the 180 days’ time-frame to hear election petition matters?
The problem is in the way matters are handled. It  is possible for election petitions to be given accelerated hearing because it is very bad that someone would have been sworn-in as governor while election petition is still going on. For instance, look at the presidency, since the inception of this country, there has never been any instance where you have election petition in respect of the presidency and then the court would remove the person who has been sworn-in and another person will replace him. It has never happened and it will not happen. In Awolowo’s case, the Supreme Court justices went as far as saying the judgement should not be used as precedence because it was more or less a political decision. The justices reasoned that how can we ask Shagari to vacate the government house for Awolowo? I believe we should not allow a governor or somebody to almost exhaust his term in office before you conclude an election petition; so 180 days is sufficient.
Recently, some states declared that they would retain the death penalty in their statute books so as to serve as deterrent to criminals at a time when most countries in the world have abolished this capital punishment. How do you see this?
In America and in China they still kill. All our laws are taken from the Holy Books, you can always trace the origin of all the laws we have from the Bible. So, if you kill you should be able to pay the penalty. You have deprived a man of his life, so why must your life be saved? But, over time, we have had human rights activists and they have been the ones coming out with all these modifications. In America, it is a state by state basis, if you go to a state like Texas, once you commit a crime and you are sentenced and on the death row, you will eventually be killed.
I believe death penalty should be allowed to stay because this punishment is to serve as a deterrent so that when you know that you stand the risk of losing your life you will sit-up. Especially in our country where impunity has been institutionalised, I believe death penalty should still be part of our law. Justice is not a one-way traffic. If a man kills and human rights activists are saying he should not be killed, we should look at justice to the victims too.
What is your advice for young lawyers on how to reach the pinnacle of the legal profession?
Well, the same advice as I was given 40 years ago. There were no many lawyers at that particular time. The military took over power in 1966, a lot of lawyers who were in government and who were engaged in political activities came back into practice and the system could not absolve the large numbers of lawyers who came back. When we were going to read law, people were even warning us, ‘why do you want to read law?’ and that there were too many lawyers. But, now there are about 10 times the number of lawyers we had in practice than in 1970. What we were told was that there is always room at the top provided you are ready to pay the price. And many of the lawyers who are qualified now, I have it on a good authority that  at least 70 to  80 percent of  them did not want to practice law, some of them studied law because they  didn’t know what course to read.
Some were privileged, some were forced, most of the lawyers who were called to Bar don’t even intend to practice law. 80 percent of lawyers called to Bar don’t even intend to practice law. Again, among the 20 percent that remains, they just want quick money. When I qualified, it took me almost 17 years before I could buy a Mercedes Benz. I worked with about five different seniors before I established my law firm. I worked with Chief Bola Ige, I worked with Afe Babalola, I worked with Chief J. B Majiyagbe and others. I welcome the opportunity because as a young man I was able to learn. Some of the big cases that it would have taken me a long time to attract on my own merit, I was able to handle them because my seniors have confidence in me. I had the privilege of facing the great F.R.A Williams who is the greatest lawyer- ever produced in this country either living or dead. I could never have done that if I am not with a senior of equal importance. Many of them were paying me peanuts. When I was with the late Chief Bola Ige, he was paying me N150 and at the time I left the chambers he was paying me N250.  But, because of my love for the profession and because I really want to succeed, I did not care about the money. When I was with Bola Ige, I was sustaining myself from the transport fares I collected from clients because I was living in Ibadan. Which young lawyer is prepared to go all through these, it is very harsh but you have to be prepared. Although things are very hard today, but a young lawyer will have to prove himself.

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