Bar Associations and the Sad Story of Nigerian Lawyers – Sylvester Udemezue

Sylvester Udemezue

Gentlemen, have the lawyers` association (not) failed lawyers in Nigeria? If one says that Lawyers in Nigeria are the greatest hindrance or stumbling blocks to Lawyers in Nigeria, I do not know to what extent one may not be justified. But let me give a simple illustration, that’d explain this point. The NMA (Nigerian Medical Association) devotes all of its energy on planning and working for the welfare, security, comfort and improved working conditions of its members. Ditto for the NSE, ICAN, NUJ, NUT, PENGASSON, NUPENG, etc. Even the NURTW focuses mostly on how to advance its members` interests! But at Nigerian Bar Association and its various branches, partners and affiliates, we have been busy dissipating all of our energy, resources and time, talking about the society, while saying and doing nothing about the welfare or condition of our own members and colleagues.

The Nigerian Law School turns out an average of 4,000 lawyers or thereabouts in each year. These graduates, after call-to-bar are immediately faced with the ugly situation of no-jobs. Those, the few, who manage to find jobs are paid like cleaners and beggars and handed the poorest and most pitiable of all working conditions, especially by their own senior colleagues. Then, when a lawyer goes on the mandatory NYSC, he is posted, as a matter of compulsion, for his primary assignment, to go and teach in a secondary or primary school, for the entire one year, with the result that by the time he is through with service, he has lost touch with much of law. Only very few find themselves in Law Firms or in law-related establishments – the Legal Aid, Ministries of Justice, etc!  Yet, when he passes out from the NYSC (from being a secondary school teacher) and begins to look for a job, he is told by so-called employers, especially his own colleagues who own law firms, that a three, four or five-year working (law practice) experience is required for him to be employed in any law firm or in any law-based establishment or legal department. Where and how, one might ask, would this innocent job-seeker get this law practice experience from if no law employer has hired nor is ready to hire him?

Most of the few who manage to be taken in Law Firms are abused, treated shabbily and paid peanuts by over 90 per cent lawyer-employers who themselves rake in tens and hundreds of millions of naira, and lately, dollars, daily, from clients. The rest of the young lawyers, usually called “the New Wigs,” is left to roam the streets and corners of Nigeria and of the earth in search of non-existing jobs, while some, usually promising, easily give up in the face of what they see as hopeless circumstances, foisted on them due to no fault of theirs. What is more? A few female counterparts, out of frustration and or desperation, begin to take to some other trades and “callings,” including in some cases what is now widely known as “hustling” (you sure understand what this means) – all to make ends meet!

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Meanwhile, Court Registrars, Clerks, CAC, SEC and other government and non-government officials insist on bribes and kickbacks before they do their jobs for litigation lawyers and corporate law practitioners; Land Registry officials oppress, intimidate and extort property practitioners and colleagues engaged in conveyancing practice; police and other law-enforcement officials harass, victimize, dehumanize and brutalize lawyers on a daily basis; so many of the lawyers’ jobs are gradually being taken over and away by quacks under the guise of DIY (do it yourself).

Recently, lawyers have even begun to be harassed or castigated for appearing in court to represent their clients —that is, for exercising their constitutional and statutory rights as lawyers— while the prosecutors, investigators and law enforcement agents who often mastermind these harassments and blackmail strive hard to obtain convictions (of the defendants) at all costs, in total disregard of universally acknowledged standards in criminal justice administration. Lawyers are now afraid to honestly and diligently work for their clients! Moreover, most of us are aware that a large chunk of the biggest legal jobs in Nigeria (legislative drafting, etc.) are usually given out to foreign law firms, in America, Canada, UK, etc at cut-throat foreign currencies, while Nigerian lawyers, who are more often than not more capable and competent and of course willing to work, are left to fight over crumbs and pieces from the table of the non-Nigerian Lawyers!!! One may even ask a question, what has become of the Nigerian laws that say a person who is not qualified as a lawyer in Nigeria cannot practice law in Nigeria? Do those provisions not forbid giving lawyers’ job in Nigeria to non-Nigerian lawyers? Where is the NBA and its branches when all these are happening in Nigerian to Nigerian lawyers, to deprive them of their just entitlements?

The  direct  consequences  of these sad stories concerning the plight of the Nigerian lawyer, is that most lawyers remain unemployed or under employed, and so are not able to put shelter over their heads, and, if they manage to marry, to feed their families thrice a day becomes a problem; the single ones are more often than not rejected by prospective spouses on grounds that they’re poor. If the employable but unemployed lawyer who is not able to pay for an office because he has no money, and who cannot find food to eat because he has no work, decides, instead of stealing or soiling his hands, to practice from his briefcase, he is called “charge and bail,” and is as a result badgered and demeaned as a common criminal or tout! Then, deeper inside the profession, the young unemployed lawyer is being told he has no right to practice law, even on his own, until he has paid full (annual) practicing fees and branch dues (before set deadlines), and that he cannot participate in Bar conferences and workshops unless he has paid necessary fees in full. As all these go on, every NBA Annual General Conference and each NBA Branch meeting, which ordinarily ought to focus, mainly, on discussing the way out of the myriads of problems facing the (young) lawyer, is instead, and most unfortunately and ironically, devoted to discussing “DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA,” “Fighting Against Corruption in Nigeria,” “How to Stop the search by Nigerian for Medical treatment abroad,” “Local Government Autonomy,” “True Federalism,” etc., Topics and issues that have no direct bearing whatsoever on the lives, wellbeing, or welfare of NBA  members.

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NBA’s involvement in discussing these topical socio-political issues is not in itself condemnable, but to be preoccupied with only other people’s issues and affairs while our own house is up in flames is what is, with due respect, not only detestable and disgusting but also most deplorable and disheartening. What a pity!! Does one whose house is on fire pursue rats? The most annoying part of this disheartening story is that during campaigns leading up to every NBA elections, both at national and branch levels, all aspirants usually have one campaign promise and slogan in common: to improve the plight, and promote the welfare, of lawyers. This shows that all these aspirants, every one of them, understand that most lawyers in Nigeria are going through real hell. However, once these aspirants are elected, and sworn in as NBA executive members, they, each and all (like the typical Nigerian politicians of the 20th and the 21st century) turn their attention away from these lofty promises and instead focus the whole of their attention to and concentrating solely on the usual things: CORRUPTION IN NIGERIA, DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA, SECURITY IN THE WORLD, WOMEN IN NIGERIA, RIGHTS OF NIGERIANS IN DIASPORA, etc., indeed everything outside and excluding the outstandingly dismal or abysmal plight of fellow lawyers in Nigeria. Yet, if one even honestly decides to search for these bar associations` contributions towards these other chosen areas, one could hardly see anything. It is sad — so, so, sad!!

Fellow Nigerian lawyers, sorry. Your governments and establishments (at all levels) appear not to fight for nor care about you; the general public does not care about you; the clients are stuck to you only when they have no alternatives; within your own rings, those expected to be your mouthpiece and to vigorously be in the vanguard of your emancipation from these ugly shackles, and to dutifully devise ways to create gainful jobs for teeming jobless colleagues, are rather busy discussing the affairs of other people and trying to solve other people’s problems while leaving the gargantuan troubles bedeviling fellow members and colleagues. The question, then, is, what hope is there anywhere for our (young) lawyers in the face of this melancholic state of things? Should we not turn to God alone for help? My fear about this is that I have not forgot the time-tested wise saying, “Heaven helps he who first helps himself!” According, I humbly suggest that, unless and until we, lawyers, through our Bar Associations, Branches, Partners and Affiliates, rise stoutly to our feet, to take our destiny in our hands with a view to recovering our lost glory and improving our own lot in the Nigerian nation, no one else, anywhere, would or could do it for us. Besides, the time will never be just right, for us to retrace our steps and begin to take the bull by the horn in this respect, because if lawyers themselves fail to build their own dreams, other people would hire the lawyers, as they do, to build theirs.  And, to borrow the words of Tony Robbins, if we continue to do things the way we have always done, we would continue to get the same results as we’ve always got. May God help us to help ourselves, as we help others.  Amen! Ameen!! Amin!!!

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Sylvester Udemezue




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