As a Boy with Disability I lost Hope of Going to School – Daniel Onwe Esq.

Daniel Amaechi Onwe Esq.

Daniel Amaechi Onwe Esq., LL.M., B.L. and Notary Public is the Lead Partner in Daniel & Sophina a thriving law firm in Lagos; Despite the challenges he faced as a person living with disability, Daniel defiled all obstacle to become not only a successful lawyer, but an advocate of the masses. His story is an inspiration and a confirmation that there is ability in disability. Daniel is resilient, hardworking and dogged.

Recently appointed President of Association of Lawyers with Disabilities in Nigeria (ALDIN), Daniel spoke to DNL Legal & Style on his road to success as lawyer with disability. He also gave a peek into the challenges of practicing law with disability, his goal for ALDIN and the Disability bill currently before the National Assembly amongst others.

Mr. Daniel Amaechi Onwe is simply phenomenal

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DNL L&S: May we meet you sir 

Daniel Onwe: My name is Daniel Amaechi Onwe, I hail from Amankanu-Amurri, in Nkanu-West LGA of Enugu State. I was born in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State. I attended Army Children School, Isiohor, Benin City between 1981 and 1986. I did five years as my mother made me to start from primary two. I did not have the privilege of attending a secondary school. This was because, at the material time, my parents could not just afford my secondary education, with its attendant extra cost as a boy with disability. All hope of furthering my education, at a point, was actually lost. I then desired to learn radio repairing, but unfortunately, we could not get a master to take me, a boy with disability, as an apprentice. So, I became what I can now call a gambling radio repairer in my village. I was, by guesswork, repairing radios for those who took the risk to bring their bad radios to me for repairs. I would dismantle the radio, tap something here and there, fiddle with the wires, and in most cases, the radio would start talking again. I will then be paid. I also did some petty trading.

However, one day, I felt an inspiration to start studying. I then went, dusted up the secondary school text books used by my elder siblings and cousins who had finished secondary school, and started reading them. There was even nobody around to put me through, but God gave me understanding of what I was reading. And in 1992, I wrote and passed SSCE (private), making four ‘A’s and two ‘C’s. Subsequently, I wrote JAMB and passed also. Consequently, I got admitted, on merit, to Faculty of Law, University of Uyo. After the completion of my undergraduate programme, I proceeded to the Nigerian Law School in 2002, completed my Law School training in 2003. I subsequently bagged an LL.M. from University of Lagos.

DNL L&S: When were you called to bar?

Daniel Onwe: I was called to the bar in 2003, precisely on the 1st day of July.

DNL L&S: How was it like studying with disability in Nigeria?

Daniel Onwe: Quite challenging. The peculiarities of persons with disabilities were not factored in to the educational system. In University of Uyo then, the Law Library was on the second floor, and there were no elevators or ramps to aid the access of persons with disabilities; many of the lecture halls were upstairs and far apart, particularly in my first year. Many times you are ending a lecture when another one is starting, quite far away. How you take yourself to those lectures was absolutely your own headache. It was a similar thing at the Law School. I was at Enugu campus of the Nigerian Law School. My hostel was located where we called the “Snake Island” which was quite far from the lecture hall. I remember when we were about writing the exam, they had to move all seats and tables from the hostel to the lecture halls, where the exam held. So, I approached the lecturer in charge of that arrangement, who was, incidentally, my friend and pleaded that my reading table and seat be left for me in the room, as it would be too hectic for me, after returning from lecture under the hot afternoon sun, to go back to the lecture hall to read. To my surprise, he clinically told me, “Daniel, we have no sacred cows here.” But you see, he just got it wrong, I was not asking for a lowering of standards. What I was only asking for was not to be put at an undue disadvantage. For instance, if it would take an ordinary person, like seven minutes to walk from the hostel to the lecture hall without stress, it would take me not less than twenty minutes, and I would get there very tired and needing to rest first before I could start reading. The same will be the case coming back to the hostel from the lecture hall, such that when those who set out with me would have returned, and even sleeping, I would have still been on the way. After all, long trekking is not an essential aspect of legal education that I must be subjected to.

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Be that as it may, I must state with a deep sense of gratitude that I enjoyed so much good will from my school mates, both at the University and Law School. They would assist me with fetching water from the tap, securing seats for me at classes and offering me car lifts (that was for those of them who had cars). Some of them even offered to be doing my laundries, but I would declined, as I considered that a luxury too high for me. From age six I was taught, and had been doing my laundries myself, so why should I then be dependent on others for that. May God bless all those folks for me.

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DNL L&S: You are the president of the Association of Lawyers with Disabilities in Nigeria (ALDIN), when were you elected and how long is the tenure of office of ALDIN?

Daniel Onwe: I was elected President of ALDIN just this year, and it’s for a four year tenure.

DNL L&S: What is ALDIN all about?

Daniel Onwe: As the name implies it is the umbrella body for, but not limited to, lawyers with disabilities in Nigeria. Our Chairman, Board of Trustees is Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais.

The aims/objectives includes

  1. Promotion of rights of lawyers, and other persons, with disabilities.
  2. Development of disability jurisprudence in Nigeria.
  3. Promotion of favourable disability policies at all levels and spheres in Nigeria.
  4. Promotion of disability- inclusive practices and legislations.
  5. Actualization of the removal of all social and architectural barriers standing against persons with disabilities in the society.
  6. Promotion of the general welfare and career development of lawyers with disabilities.
  7. To create enabling environment for lawyers with disabilities to function optimally in every sphere of the law practice.
  8. Collaborating with the Nigerian Bar Association and other associations of lawyers, nationally and internationally as well as United Nations and her agencies, to ensure the maximum inclusion of persons with disabilities in all their activities.
  9. Capacity building of individuals and organizations working in the field of disability.
  10. Promotion of the introduction of disability law in the curricula of contemporary legal education in Nigeria.
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Though we are still new, we have already hit the ground running. We are already working in collaboration with the NBA. That was why the last NBA National Conference was that inclusive of persons with disabilities. We are already engaging with the National Assembly on the Disability Bill. There are a lot we are already doing.

DNL L&S: Is there a National Body for People with disability in Nigeria?

Daniel Onwe: Of course, we have the Joint National Association of Persons with disability (JONAPWD).

DNL L&S: What is the relationship between ALDIN and JONAPWD

Daniel Onwe: Very cordial. We complement each other; ALDIN brings the legal expertise.

DNL L&S: You mentioned the Disability Bill a short while ago, we understand it is currently before the National Assembly. What does the bill intend to achieve? 

Daniel Onwe: It is a bill for an act to ensure full integration of Nigerians with disabilities into the society and establish the national commission for Persons with Disability. It also seeks to make the environment accessible to persons with disabilities and many other things.

DNL L&S: How has the National Assembly responded to the Bill? Any hope for its passage soon?

Daniel Onwe: The Nigerian Disability Bill has a long history. During the 5th National Assembly, it was passed, but the then President, Olusegun Obasanj did to assent to it. During the 6th National Assembly, we drafted another one that is more comprehensive. It was sponsored by Senator Bode Olajumoke at the Senate and Honourable Abike Dabiri at the House of Reps. We actually did the primary draft under the auspices of a group known as Association for Comprehensive Empowerment of Nigerians (ASCEND) with Disabilities. The disability umbrella body JONAPWD subsequently bought into it and it became a communual effort. A lot of advocacy went into it. It was again passed by the National Assembly. However,  President Yar’Adua  did not assent to it. During the 7th National Assembly, Senator Nurudeen Abatemi Usma-Man, I think, from Kogi State took up the bill again and we were called upon to review it. And it was eventually passed again by the National Assembly. Be that as it may, President Goodluck Jonathan refused to assent to it. In the present National Assembly, I think it was Senator Francis Alimikhena who brought up the bill again. ALDIN, pursuant to the FOI Act wrote the National Assembly demand disclosure on the status of the Bill. The response we got is that the bill scaled through third reading on the 9th of june, 2016 at the House of Reps, and same at the Senate on the 13th day of July 2016. The next thing to be done according to legislative practice is for the two chambers to form a Conference Committee that will harmonize the two versions passed by the different chambers before it will be taken to the President for assent. I use this medium to call on both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representative to, please, do the needful in the circumstance.

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DNL L&S: Is it only ALDIN that is championing the bill or the umbrella body JONAPWD ? 

Daniel Onwe: No. There are many other organizations, and even individuals championing the same cause, and we still need more to be involved.

DNL L&S: As a person with disability, have you suffered any discrimination from members of the bar and prospective clients? 

Daniel Onwe: You see, legal profession is a problem-solving profession. So, what prospective clients look out for in hiring a lawyer is the lawyer’s ability to solve their legal problem.  From my personal experience, once they have the confidence that you can solve their legal problem, your disability status would cease to count. For instance, over 95 per cent of my clients were through referrals by other clients. But again, I worked extra hard to command such clients’ confidence.

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Then for the Bar, I will say what I and other lawyers with disabilities suffer is structural discrimination. For instance, holding events that I am entitled to attend in an environment that is not accessible to me. Or not factoring the peculiarities of persons with disabilities in event planning. Again, during my Youth Service days, in Makudi, it was not easy for me to find a place to practice. However, I was later given a chance to prove myself in the Law Firm of J. S. Okutepa, SAN.  Now, to the glory God, things a different. Be that as it may, I will keep fighting for others.

DNL L&S: How do you cope with routine practice stress? 

Daniel Onwe: Private law practice is quite hectic, no doubt, but the Almighty God is my strength. And I run on His energy. His words take anxiety and worry out of my life. And nothing can be more suiting. I also have a very supportive and harmonious family front. So, I cope very well.

DNL L&S: Any memorable case handled? 

Daniel Onwe: Quite number of them. But you know, going by our rules, there is a limit to which I can comment on them. However, let me just mention the case of Emmanuel Abah v. Lagos Travel Inn in which we got a favourable judgment just on the 12th of October at the National Industrial Court. The Claimant (our client) got his left foot damaged by a malfunctioned evaluator at his place of work while doing his duty. Consequently, he was sacked. He was broke, broken and jobless when he was referred to us. I was even the one constantly conveying him to court in my car. To the glory of God, we got judgment of N10.3 million for him. It gave me a sense of fulfillment. There was also this case I did against the Federal Government and ASUU based on the ASUU strike. My contention was that the prolonged strike was having traumatic effect on the affected student, and therefore amounted to violation of their right of dignity of the human persons. The Federal High Court declined jurisdiction. I wanted to go on appeal, but the strike was called off soon after.

DNL L&S: What would you like to be remembered for as the President of ALDIN 

Daniel Onwe: I would like to be remembered as one of those used by God to open up the space for persons with disabilities to function to the fullest in the legal profession and other spheres of life.

DNL L&S: If you were not a lawyer what other profession would you have chosen? 

Daniel Onwe: If I hadn’t a disability, I would opt for the Army.

DNL L&S: How do you relax?

Daniel Onwe: By sharing fellowship with my family members or friends.

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