When men are destined for greatness, there is no force that can stop them. J.S Okutepa SAN is one of the men that God has destined for greatness. Regardless of the excruciating pains which heralded his birth and defined his growing up, he rose like a stallion to become one of the most sort-after legal luminaries in Nigeria. J.S is highly cerebral, very compassionate and easily at home with the young and upcoming lawyers.
In this interview with DNL Legal & Style, J.S told the story from the very beginning. Find out how the learned silk transformed from being a farmer, typist, fireman, auto mechanic, upholstery maker to a lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
DNL L&S: Who is J. S. Okutepa SAN?
In the Beginning
Okutepa SAN: My name as you know is Jibrin Samuel Okutepa. By the grace of God, I am a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. I was told I was born on the 1st January 1960. Why I say I was told is because I come from a family that was completely illiterate, it was my late uncle Sargent Abraham Amodu Egbunu Uwani, a very intelligent man that told me the story about my birth. My dad of blessed memory was a complete farmer and a Muslim. I was born into a Muslim family of six; 2 girls and 4 boys. I am 2nd to the last child. My late uncle told me how my mother laboured for 3 days to give birth to me with excruciating pains. In fact I can say my birth was as excruciating as my growing up. I was told that everyone had given up hope of my mother surviving when a friend of my father called Baba Abdul Odekina assisted to deliver me through traditional method. As I was told, my father promised him that if he was able save me and my mother and get my mother delivered of the child, and I happen to be a girl child he should take me to be his son’s wife and if I be a boy, he should take me and train me like his own. So in 1965 when I was just five years old, I can recall that Baba Abdul Odekina who became my foster father was just passing with a bicycle and I cried to follow him as if I knew the promise my father made. I ended up living my father’s compound to a place called Ajakechi in present Ofu Local Government of Kogi State. I started going to farm with my foster father until the civil war started. I didn’t have tribal mark. The mark on my face was a product of Biafra war because the believe then was that if you didn’t have mark, you would be presumed to be Igbo and you can be easily picked up and slaughtered. So when I returned from farm in 1968, I was given the mark on my face. I continued to farm with my foster father until 1970 when I decided to visit my father and for reasons I do not know, my foster father did not look for me again. So I joined my father to become a full time farmer. We were going for farming competition and my father was quite happy with all these.
Becoming an Upholstery Maker
However sometime in 1972 my elder brother who was an illiterate soldier got married and I had to escort his wife to Abakaliki in the present day Ebonyi State to meet him at his base there. When I got there, my elder brother seized me and I ended up learning upholstery at a place called Afikpo Road. I was able to learn how to make chairs very well within 9 Months. But my father was not happy that I left the village. So he came and took me back to the village where I went back to my farming career.
Learning to Read and Write
My father did not allow me to go to school because I became an asset for his farming. But I had the desire to go to school and it kept increasing by the day. So at home then I had friends who were allowed by their parents to go to school and I began to join them to study at home when they start their home lesson. We used to write on a black board. That was how I learnt how to read and write without a formal school. Meanwhile, my elder brother Paul who was learning Motorcycle Mechanic in 1976 was in Idah Kogi state wanted me to go to school but my father would not allow it. The zeal to go to school continued to burn and I continued to learn with my friends until 3rd of September 1977 when I stubbornly ran to primary school at age of over 17 in a place called Local Government Primary Education Boards Ogbogbo in the present Igalamela/Odolu Local Government. I was a grown adult in primary 2. Primary 2 was too simple for me because I had already learned a lot at home with my friends. So after my first term examination in primary 2, I was moved to primary 3 but my father made everything difficult for me. Everything I did was an offence whether good or bad because I stubbornly started school. I quit school when the frustration became unbearable.
Becoming an Automobile Mechanic
In 1977/78 I ran away from the village and went to my elder brother at Idah Kogi State where I ended up learning Motorcycle Mechanic and became perfect in it. I extended to learning how to repair Motor cars and also began to do Motor Mechanic and did this for couple of years but had to again run far away when my father’s pressure was still getting to me some 7 miles away. This time I went to my mother’s village at a place called Ogbabo to continue my motorcycle mechanic. On 28th of April 1978 I had a terrible fire accident while starting a Motorcycle I worked on. I was badly burnt on my leg and it refused to heal. This I later realized was because my father was not happy with me. I learned a lesson that no matter who you are, you must get the blessings of your parents for things to work well for you. My dad came to where I was after I had done all I could to get the leg treated to no avail. My last injection after my dad came and said he forgave me cured the leg but I again continued to search for how to go to school.
Becoming a Typist
I started writing to my elder brother soldier who had been transferred from Abakaliki to Enugu. When his friends would read the letter, they made good comments and advised him to bring me to Enugu so I can go to a formal school. So in 1979 my brother came home again and took me away. We ran away in the night. He took me to Enugu and enrolled me in a place called Igwebiuke Commercial Institute, No.47 Ogidi Street Ogui Road Enugu. I learned for three months shorthand and typing but unfortunately the environment was hostile. My elder brother was unkind to me. My father’s anger had also resumed, one day I was reading and I placed a candle on top of a table fan and it got stained with smoke. My elder brother thinking I had burnt the fan beat me until I became unconscious. It took the intervention of his friends to realize he was wrong. To appease me, he gave me his salary to hold for him. It was N40.00; I immediately stole N20.00 from the salary and kept the rest for him and ran away. This time around, I ran to my uncle Abraham Amodu Egbunu Uwani who was in a place called Mararaba/Bayelsa in then Gongola State.
First Attempt at Formal Education
My uncle received me so well, whatever I am today the foundation was laid by him. His desire was that I go to school. So he registered for me to write common entrance to secondary school. For a destiny that God has colorfully laid for me which I wasn’t aware of, I failed my common entrance examination to community secondary school. I didn’t know why I failed because there was nothing to fail but they said I failed so I believe I failed. My uncle then enrolled me to finish primary school, at Takum Local Government primary school where I obtained my First School Leaving Certificate (FSLC) in 1980. I took 2nd and my Igbo friend I helped to solve the arithmetic took 1st position, but I was happy.
My uncle then said I should go to secondary school but I begged him to allow me to go and let my family know where I was in the village. On my way to the village I got to Makurdi in Benue State and saw a publication in Nigeria Voice Newspaper for Fire Service Recruiting First School Leaving Certificate holders, so I applied before proceeding home to my parents. At home they thought I was dead so my return was celebrated.
Before I ran away from home I was contributing money for savings in the village and because they believed I was dead, my contribution was returned to my father. It was N250.00. My father in turn kept the money. Something spectacular then happened. My immediate younger brother got admission to Secondary School, having been allowed to go to primary school, (because he was not brought up by my father, but our aunt), but there was no money for him to go to school. So after I overheard a neighbour whose son failed the same exam begging my dad to sell my brother’s admission to him, I was really pained. So I asked my father to use the contribution (N250.00) to send my brother to school while I go in search of police job with my FSLC which would enable me continue to pay his school fees. That my young brother Omika is today a chartered accountant to the glory of God.
From Police to a Fireman
For my gesture, my father blessed me and made all sorts of pronouncements upon me. He prayed that people would hear my name all over the world and that I would be a blessing to my generation. I eventually left my father’s compound 1st October, 1980. I got recruited to the Police quite alright but God had other plans for me. We were to go to Maiduguri for training when the recruitment officer met me and said I would be posted to department of tailoring to train as tailor. I refused and requested that my name be removed from their list. I didn’t know it was a subtle way of asking for a bribe which I did not have anyway. But that was how my police recruitment was aborted. As God would have it, the recruitment to Fire Service became successful. That one too was almost lost but miraculously on the 1st of December, 1980 I was called to join the training. That was how I was trained under the Benue State Fire Service School and I became a fireman. I graduated tops from the training.
One day at work, the Fire Service truck broke down and with my mechanic experience I repaired it. My superior transferred me immediately to the mechanic section which gave me an opportunity for extra moral studies.
In 1981 I saw for the first time past question papers for Nov/Dec GCE. I tried to solve the questions and discovered I could. So in 1982 I registered and I sat for the GCE ordinary level as external candidate and had 5 credits at first sitting without going through secondary school. In 1985 I got admission to the School of Basic Studies Makurdi, to study CRS, Economics and Government for my IJMB. That was the 1st formal school I attended. The very first test I had was a disaster. I failed and the Lecturer made a serious jest of me. I was already matured and married. I didn’t have any one’s support and I was driving a taxi to pay my school fees having taken a study leave without pay. This challenged me and I wondered how I would pay school fees for myself and not work hard. I cried and went ahead to buy all manner of economic text books. I studied so hard and became a student teacher. I eventually graduated from school of basic studies in 1987 with 11 points, the highest point that year being 12 points. I was on study leave without pay but God used a few people to support me, such as Matthew Nezan and late I.B.Alfa.
In 1987 I got admission to study law in the University of Jos and graduated with LL.B (Hons) 2nd class lower in 1990. I went to the Nigerian Law School in 1990/1991 and was called to the Nigerian Bar on the 12th December, 1991. I passed my Bar finals with 2nd class lower too.
The Grace of God Chambers
I started my legal practice consistently from 19th December, 1991 till today without venturing into anything else. Any day I am not in court, it’s a non-juridical day or I travelled. I have been in and out of court. My first principal was a woman, Mrs F.M.E Nezan and because of the way her husband helped me in life, I named my Library after him ‘Matthew Nezan’s Library’. I left my 1st principal on the 1st of June 1992 to join Emmanuel Akowe Haruna Esq and eventually set up my firm on the 1st April 1993. I initially set out with Michael Agamah and we formed; Agamah, Okutepa & Co. but my partner, left for corporate practice and I changed the name to J. S. Okutepa & Co.
I also got the 1st office where I started my own practice by God’s grace. I was looking for an office and was divinely connected to the then Ibrahim Atadoga Shaibu, now Hon Justice Ibrahim Atadoga Shaibu, President Customary Court of Appeal, Kogi State, who was then looking for a lawyer to handle his law office to enable him relocate. I ended up getting an already made office. That is why I named the firm Grace of God Chambers, because when I got that rent free office for one year I had no money on me.
I did all manner of cases. Even the cause I knew not I bore. I became lawyer for the down trodden. I practiced consistently and God rewarded me. On the 7th of July, 2011, I was found worthy in knowledge and character to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and sworn in on the 26th of August, 2011. I eventually moved from Markudi to Abuja on 11th January 2014. With God’s blessing I was able to build my office in Abuja.
That is the journey of my life to where I am in a nutshell.
To be continued …
Part II of the Interview here