In continuation of our engagement with J.S Okutepa SAN, the Learned Silk spoke to DNL Legal & Style on his journey to becoming a Senior Advocate, his tenure as the Lead Prosecutor for the LPDC amongst other issues.
DNL L&S: You became a Senior Advocate on the 7th of July, 2011 after 21 years of profound legal practice. By arithmetic calculation, you were called to bar in 1991. Between the years 2001 when you attained the age acceptable to apply for the silk, it took additional 11 years before you were conferred with the rank. Many have insinuated that the rank has become for the rich and is unduly made unreachable?
Okutepa SAN: Let me confess here that the person who opened my eyes to the idea of applying to become a Senior Advocates of Nigeria was the former Attorney General of the Federation Chief Mike Kase Aondoakaa SAN. We practiced together. Sometime in 2005 he came into my office and asked why I was not thinking of applying for the silk. I said to him I had not thought of it. Then, I had a very small office space. I was just doing my job in my small space and making a lot of progress. He said to me; “Jibrin, I know you, you are very intelligent and you can apply for silk”. He encouraged me and said that I have what it takes. After his encouragement other friends too spoke to me. That was how I started working towards it. I took it as a serious project because I didn’t have any pedigree except my qualifications. I started working towards qualification. I met all qualifications but above all, I put God at the front banner.
2007 I decided to get a bigger office and for the first time in Markudi, I took the entire floor of a storey building and furnished and stock my library with books and law reports. People made mockery of me saying I was becoming proud and arrogant but I knew I was not an arrogant person and I hardly go out to social events. I knew what I was aiming at. When I knew I have met all the requirements, like an orphan going for a journey not waiting for any father to send him money from anywhere, I put in my first application in 2009. I would have gotten it that year but I wasn’t destined to. So I got my rank on the second application. God used men of goodwill to support me. I was the only person conferred with the rank from Kogi State 2011.
In terms of numbers of application, people applied severally even up to 20 times. But let me tell you that the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria even though there are some commentary here and there in our time, we were grilled for 18th months, 18 months of open competition because a lot were qualified. It is competitive because you are supposed to be the leader of the bar; your in and out of court conduct should reflect the prestige of the rank. It is not a rank given to charlatans. It is not intended to be for personal aggrandizement or for showing of. Where once you become a Senior Advocates of Nigeria you transform into a demigod. I told God to take the rank from me the day I allow it to enter my head. I still find myself among young members of the bar sometimes they even nicknamed me “King of boy’s” because this rank is a gift from God it cannot enter my head. I try as much as possible to guard the rank jealously because it comes with responsibilities. You sit in the front row in Court. You are expected to assist and guide the court. It conditions you to behave in a manner that is pure. You cannot afford to behave like any other members of the society or the young members of the profession because you are a leader of the bar. You have to show the light for others to emulate and copy.
So let me disabuse the minds of people that say that for you to become Senior Advocates of Nigeria you need to buy it. I did not have money to buy it so I got mine without buying and I haven’t seen anybody who bought it. But even if it’s a commodity to buy, why not look for money to buy. There are processes and it’s a privilege not a right. You need to be visible for people to know you are good. If you are not good it can’t be given to you and nobody has said that any of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria conferred is not good. So I want to say that the rank is worth looking for. It’s good to have it.
DNL L&S: Every successful lawyer has a turning or reference point for his success. What was your turning or reference sir? What event/occurrence can you look at and say, this was the beginning or catalyst for my success.
Okutepa SAN: Well I don’t consider anybody successful if he hasn’t touched any life, so the successful point in my life was when I started taking matters for the down trodden like in the book of Job 29 in the Bible. I became the eye to the blind, the ear to the deaf and the cause I knew not, I bore it.
However, what you may regard as the turning point in my legal practice was when I took a matter involving 37 students of Benue State University who were unjustly expelled during the military regime. The students were demonstrating and a member of the Armed Force ruling counsel fell into their net. The military Government of Benue State then wasn’t happy that a very top ranking officer could be so humiliated by student and so 37 of the “ring leaders” were expelled. I was told by the students that all the lawyers in the state they approached declined to take their brief, so I took it and filed fundamental enforcement on their behalf. I slept in the office for 3 days because the case generated so many interests but I was not scared because every work had its own hazard. Even when I was reminded of decree number 2, I said no soldier can pick me because I did not commit any offence. I was only doing my legal work with my whole heart with an evangelical commitment. We won the matter at both the high court and at the Court of Appeal Jos, despite all efforts to frustrate the proceedings and court ordered the restatement of the students and it happened. One of them became the overall best graduating student I was told.
People began to look for me on account of that case. I recall late chief Godwin Dabo Azuana looked for me and I became his lawyer. The case connected me to prominent indigenes of the state. My name became house hold name. I did another one for 109 students of University of Agriculture. It was this dedication to ensure that the voiceless get justice at no cost that helped me. Even as a Senior Advocate I still have a Department in my office called Pro-Bono Department where we take up the cause of the oppressed for no cost.
So I consider myself as successful so far as that success is measured by the lives of people you touched. I pay practicing fee for lawyers even those that are not in my office. I registered some for conference even the ones I only talked to on social media. You see Nigerians don’t need plenty money. Little help and they are happy. A gesture as little as paying conference fee of N20 (Twenty Thousand Naira) for about ten persons was massively appreciated. That is why I often appeal to my colleagues who are closer to me in the bar to help but I must say that even the younger ones are not committed to the work. There is no passion again. During my time I was consistently reading my law reports but today what you see is cut and paste advocacy. Lawyers now have shallow reasoning. I am successful not in terms of money in the bank account but because I have my integrity and there is nothing I can take in exchange for it. I have the fear of God and even when you are in the darkest part of the earth he sees you. Lawyers ought to show the light for others to follow.
It is only the legal profession that has defined qualification. I can become the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with just secondary school or its equivalent qualification as defined in the Constitution. The profession is a very serious regimented profession; you cannot be a lawyer without having LLB Hons and going through Law School and be called to the Bar. You cannot be a Judge and the likes without practicing for at least 10 years
For me, if the legal profession; lawyers and judges agree to sanitize Nigeria society there would be no corruption. But unfortunately an infinitesimal number of us who are corrupt have overshadowed the larger numbers who are not corrupt and given the profession a bad image.
So I am successful I won’t deny but not in terms of bank account or property and stupendous wealth all over but I am contented with what I have. I consider this whole steps together as the destiny God has laid for me otherwise how could I have failed common entrance and still was able to sit at home and make 5 credits in one sitting
DNL L&S: You recently resigned as Lead Prosecutor for the LPDC having spent over 5 years in that capacity. When asked the reason for the resignation, you stated that you want to allow younger ones take up the position. Other than this, is there any other reason why you resigned?
Okutepa SAN: There is no other reason except that I decided to allow others to also participate in the prosecution of erring lawyers. I served successive NBA administration. It was time for me to step aside to allow others to also participate and I am proud to say we worked very well at the LPDC, my team and I.
DNL L&S: How did you get the opportunity to become the lead Prosecutor for the LPDC, what was the experience?
Okutepa SAN: I must give credit to Usman Ogwu Sule, the Legal Adviser to NBA under the leadership of Okey Wali SAN. Before then there were a lot of backlog cases before the LPDC. My learned friends S.I.Ameh SAN and Dr. Garba Tetengi SAN and Otunba Dele Oye were prosecuting for NBA at LPDC. One of Okey Wali SAN’s cardinal promises to members of the bar was the restoration of discipline to the bar by way of prosecution of colleagues who had a laissez faire attitude to the rules of professional conduct. When he came into power, U O. Sule Esq. introduced the idea of forming a team to be headed by the person they considered in their estimation as a person of credit who has an uncompromising principle and a sterling quality for fighting for restoration of discipline to the bar. I do not know what yardstick they had that made them to call upon me to lead the prosecution team because under the LPDC rules NBA is to constitute a prosecution team to be appointed by the president subject to NEC approval. I had the privilege to become the Chief Prosecutor of the bar appointed by Okey Wali SAN at the instance and suggestion of U.O. Sule Esq. and I commenced work in January 2012. In the cause of prosecution we met a lot of cases pending and I can tell you that at the time I resigned to give way to others to lead, we had cleared every pending matters before LPDC except new cases that were filed by NBA.
My experience as the Prosecutor, I can tell you it was not an easy job because you are prosecuting your professional colleagues, removing food from their table, turning a lawyer not to be a lawyer again. Because once you successfully prosecute a lawyer and the LPDC agrees that he has done something unprofessional and conduct unbecoming and incompatible with the status of a legal profession which is of infamous nature, the necessary committal order is to direct the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court to strike the person’s name off the roll of legal practitioners. Particularly, in my time I had a misfortune to prosecute a Senior Advocate which was not easy for me at all. And most of the things that lawyers are guilty of are things that little patent and keeping respect to the rules would solve. Most of our colleagues who became victims are the ones who because of their propensity to get wealthy throw caution in the air. Some engage themselves in communicating with judges behind the back of the other counsel. The rule forbids that.
After Okey Wali’s tenure, I was appointed by Austine Alege SAN to continue the work. I was heading about 32 members legal team. I successfully prosecuted under him and then A.B.Mahmoud SAN also appointed me but a time came for me to step aside and I didn’t want to complete the next 2 years so I resigned so that others can have the opportunity to contribute their own quota.
DNL L&S: As a one time lead prosecutor for the LPDC, what would you consider as biggest vice that leads to the name of lawyers being struck off the roll?
Okutepa SAN: The most prominent is touching client’s money. Others are engaging in conduct incompatible with status of lawyer like selling land, engaging in sales of other things which are considered incompatible with the practice of law.
DNL L&S: On the issue of selling land, I remember when the report came that a lawyer’s name was struck off the roll for selling land. This generated a lot of controversy. People where not clear as to what really the LPDC means by selling of land?
Okutepa SAN: Land speculation is not the same with transaction on land with respect to what lawyers are allowed by the rules to do. You leave your practice and engage in land speculation. You buy, collect money from several people. If your client legitimately instructs you to sell, then you find buyers and you have an agreement it’s not wrong. But if you became a land agent to be going around saying you are a land seller it becomes a conduct unbecoming of a legal practitioner because if you look at the LPA and the RPC you can’t engage in any other trade without the permission of the general council of the Bar. So you see a lot doing so leaving their core calling of the legal practice to things that are unbecoming of the profession. As a lawyer the circumstances of that case was such that it was unbecoming of a lawyer. Some even become fetish or sell land without the consent of the owner. Others even forge document of `title.
DNL L&S: Today the general perception is that the ‘young lawyer’ in Nigeria is not taking legal practice seriously like what obtains before. What advice would you give to young lawyers who are aspiring to work as hard as you sir?
Okutepa SAN: For me, there is a deteriorating interest in the profession on the part of both the young and senior lawyers. You hardly see senior lawyers reading law reports. The moment we started this electronic law reporting and editorial and quoting sometimes not correct and the moment people started citing only ratio without bothering to read the details of the case, interest weighed down.
For me, lawyers in Nigeria are living in Nigeria. The societal problem is creeping into the legal profession and what is this? Everybody wants to make money quickly. Nobody wants to sit down and find ways to make money legitimately. So most young lawyers the moment they come out are looking for things that would pay them fantastic money without working hard to earn it. If you have the misfortune to have many of them in the office, at the end of the month, all they are waiting for is the stipend to be paid to them even before the month ends. Not Minding whether they justified the pay or not.
I believe that an agent must earn his fees but there is an apathy and lack of interest in the legal profession. Even those who read law are not passionate about it. They don’t know the value of the legal profession to the society. So where there is no interest, it’s natural for things to go wrong. These young lawyers do not have these things. When I started practice I knew my law report well so if an issue arises extemporary in the court I would ask my younger brother to go bring a law report and be able to describe where he can get the law report. Recently I was in a court and asked one of my juniors to go to my chambers and to bring me a law report on an issue and he could not locate the report.
Most of the Senior Lawyers are experiencing a lot of difficulties with some juniors that we have. They cannot speak correct English. They mix their tenses and do not know how to put their thoughts in a concise manner that will make you to appreciate what they are saying. You are faced with difficulty appreciating what they are communicating to you. So I think most young lawyers are no longer passionate about the profession they think it is a bed of roses, once you become a lawyer that is the end of the matter. Becoming a SAN itself is another challenge. According to Chief Richard Akinjide SAN, at the top of the echelon there are also a lot of challenges you have to work hard to remain there. So the capacity to work extra hard to be known has taken flight in the sub consciousness of young lawyers. They want easy money. Some of them that have parents that are well to do rely on their parent’s wealth and their parents name forgetting that you can inherit wealth but not integrity.
Most young lawyers are not ready to work hard. I have driven to almost every corners of the country. The only place I haven’t driven to in Nigeria, is Kebbi state. I have gone to all states in search of legal practice but many lawyers these days are not ready to make these kinds of sacrifices.
In those days, a junior cannot leave the office at closing hour until his principal closes. Your principal cannot be in the office and you close. Some of them once they leave office, they forget all about reading. Young lawyers no longer read law reports and if you do not read, you cannot be a good lawyer so they are not prepared to work. Even those who are prepared to work, integrity is not there. They want to cut corners.
My advice to us all, hard work pays. Integrity pays. Even though honesty may seem not to be the best policy in Nigeria, it is still the best. What has created the moral degeneration in our society is what has crept into the legal profession. Everybody wants to acquire wealth and show off. Until we begin to fortify our rules of professional conduct which to me as at now is so loose that even obvious guilty professionals still parade round and assume leadership. Our rules are not self-regulatory like in England and other advanced countries because a lawyer must not give an appearance of being corrupt. It is the appearance that matters. It is said that justice must not only be done but must manifestly be seen to have been done. That is transparency, openness, purity because justice is an undiluted commodity. It must not be coloured at all. If you are a minster in the temple of justice, you must be above board like Ceaser’s wife. We are not above board. What we now have is the ‘let my people go’ kind of arrangement. You beg for everything. Beg to be admitted to law school, lobby to be this and that. The standard we have in the legal profession has been desecrated and that is why we are where we are.
The moment we started monetizing money for what you are supposed to produce with your hand, standard began to fall low. In the legal profession in England and Canada for instance, a lawyer can be placed on administrative suspension if there is a pending allegations of improprieties against you even when it may not have been proved. But in Nigeria, you are still presumed innocent until you are convicted no matter the overwhelming evidence.
The issue is that the moral fabrics of the society which is rooted in things like morality is no more available. Even in the churches, we have commercialized everything.
On a final note, there is a general decline of morality in Nigeria and unless something drastic happens, things are going to get worse. Lawyers, judges, everybody have so much integrity to protect and project. We must raise the standard of the legal profession. We must have the conference of the Bar and Bench and set agenda for the way forward. The legal profession must lead the way in the fight against corruption and corrupt practices. But to do so effectively, we must heal ourselves.
Read the 1st part of the interview here