Indeed, Everything is Wrong With Use Of “Barrister” As An Honorific Title Before a Lawyer`s Name! (A surrejoinder, by Sylvester Udemezue)

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Sylvester-Udemezue
Sylvester Udemezue

Section 11 of the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA), Cap L11, Laws of the Federation of Nigerian (LFN), 2004, provides that “there shall be a Committee of the Body of Benchers to be known as the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee … which shall be charged with the duty of considering and determining any case where it is alleged that a person who is a member of the legal profession has misbehaved in his capacity as such or should for any other reason be subject to its proceedings under this Act.” The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) sits as a tribunal or a civil court to determine cases of professional misconduct against lawyers in Nigeria. Its decision is appealable to a higher court (see section 12 (7) of the LPA. Decisions or directions of the LPDC are binding on all legal practitioners in Nigeria unless set aside on appeal (see s. 12 (8) LPA). Now, in the case of NGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION (NBA) v. OFOMATA, reported in (2017) 5 NWLR (PT 1557) 128 at 133, the LPDC had held that the use of the appellation of ‘Barrister’ as a title before the name of a legal practitioner is unprofessional and improper; …” 

 In reaction to this ruling by the LPDC, I had made some comment on a popular WhatsApp forum, which comment was later published in some online media platforms, including thenigerialawyer.com, lawyard.ng and a host of others. The publication on www.lawyard.ng on 19 April 2017 came under the caption, “ON THE RULING IN NBA V. OFOMATA BANNING LAWYERS FROM USING THE TITLE ‘BARRISTER.’” (see http://www.lawyard.ng/on-the-ruling-in-nba-v-ofomata-banning-lawyers-from-using-the-title-barrister-sylvester-udemezue/). The said decision of the LPDC and my comment had then generated some wider discussions among lawyers, especially on the social media, as to the propriety or otherwise of use of the term “barrister” as a prefix before a lawyer`s name, which discussions culminated in a rejoinder by my respected learned friend, Bolaji Ramos. The rejoinder, published on www.dnllegalandstyle.com, on 31 October 2017, came under the heading, “And What is Wrong in Using the Title ‘Barrister’? (An Answer To Sylvester Udemezue).” (see https://www.dnllegalandstyle.com/wrong-using-title-barrister-answer-sylvester-udemezue-bolaji-ramos/)

I have read the case of NBA v. OFOMATA, my earlier comment and now the rejoinder by Mr. Bolaji Ramos, and I honestly believe that there is need to put out some more comments on the matter, by way of a surrejoinder, so as to further put the issues surrounding this debate in proper perspective and thus leave no one in any doubt as to the correct position, which is that, indeed, everything is wrong with use of the word “barrister” as an honorific title before a lawyer`s name. As I had earlier stated, such is not just wrong, but irredeemably wrong, demeaning, awkward, unnecessary and now unprofessional, from whichever angle one decides to look at it. I shall now take the point one-by-one, to adequately deal with my brother lawyer`s rejoinder, which I consider, with the greatest respect, misplaced and lacking any legal, moral, professional, grammatical or social foundation.

As I had earlier pointed out, use of the word “barrister” beside a lawyer`s name is not in itself wrong nor unprofessional. Having been duly called to the prestigious Nigerian bar and enrolled at the Supreme Court as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, there is nothing wrong for a lawyer in Nigeria to associate the term “barrister,” “solicitor,” “advocate,” legal practitioner,” “lawyer,” or any related term with his name. Precisely, there is nothing wrong with the following: (1) “Robert Oke, Barrister-at-Law,” “Jide Obi, Barrister & Solicitor,” “Ben Ade Musa, Solicitor & Advocate,” “Chuks Adewale, Legal Practitioner,” “Amina Okon, Barrister.” There is also nothing wrong if I run into a lawyer on my way to a meeting and greet him in the following manner, “Good morning, Barrister. Hope you are doing great.” These are not what this argument is all about. This debate is as regards writing the name of, or addressing, a lawyer in any one of the following forms, “Barrister Amina Okon” or Barrister Ben Ade Musa.” This is what I had in mind, as unambiguously expressed in the published comment. Now, over to the matter at hand!

My learned friend, Mr. Bolaji Ramos, has “laughed off and paid less attention to” the decision in NBA v. OFOMATA (supra) because as he thinks that members of the court (LPDC) must have either been quoted out of context or something must have gone wrong somewhere.” With due respect, Sir, you are wrong! This introductory statement in your rejoinder is a clear indication that you did not bother to read the judgment of the LPDC in that case before you hastily ventured into your rejoinder. If you had, you would have appreciated the reasons for their opinions and you would not have been laughing off such a serious matter.

Let me now go into the crux of Mr. Ramos`s submission. Hear Mr Ramos: “An argument on the appropriateness or otherwise of the use of the word has a strong bearing on three areas of interest: (a.) professional practice; (b.) law; and (c.) grammar.”

THE POSTION OF LAW WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO THE LEGAL PROFESSION

I agree to some extent with my learned friend, Mr. Ramos, that the fons et origo of our professional conduct as lawyers is the Rules of the Professional Conduct (RPC), 2007, made pursuant to the Legal Practitioners Act. But my friend completely left out section 22 (1) (b) of the LPA which is the relevant legal provision on the matter at hand. Respecting the provisions of that section, I had written as follows:

“While section 22 (1) (b) permits only lawyers to “take or use the title of legal practitioner,” it does not say the later should use the expression “legal practitioner” or “barrister” as a title before his names. The proper interpretation of that paragraph is that only a person duly qualified as a lawyer can hold himself out as a legal practitioner by using that title.” (see http://www.lawyard.ng/on-the-ruling-in-nba-v-ofomata-banning-lawyers-from-using-the-title-barrister-sylvester-udemezue/).

Mr. Ramos forgot also that even though Courts of Law in reaching their decisions, are guided by provisions of statutes. Yet, when once a court has made some clear pronouncement on, or interpretation of, a certain (provision of a) statute, the affected legislation must thenceforth be interpreted and applied only in line with such court pronouncement. This in other words means that in any such situation, one is no longer entitled to apply or interpret provisions of such statute without recourse to the decision of court thereon. It is for this reason that Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr has declared in his book, The Path Of The Law, thus: “The prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious, are what I mean by the law (see http://www.constitution.org/lrev/owh/path_law.htm). The LPDC is a tribunal established by law, with a mandate to guide lawyers in Nigeria as to what is or is not “unprofessional” and also regarding what action or omission by a legal practitioner amounts or does not amount to a “misconduct.” The LPDC has now given a decision that use of the appellation of ‘Barrister’ as a title before the name of a legal practitioner is unprofessional and improper.” This (LPDC) ruling is yet to be appealed against and has not been set aside nor annulled by any later statute. It then follows that whether or not my friend, Mr. Ramos, or indeed any other person “laughs it off” or “pays less attention” to the ruling, the ruling represents the correct position of law in Nigeria today, as far as lawyers and the legal profession are concerned. Hence, there is no doubt that use of the word “barrister” as a prefix before a lawyer`s name remains banned for being unprofessional and amounting to misconduct. Mr. Ramos is therefore wrong on this side.

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Further, in the rejoinder under reference, Mr. Ramos tried to call in aid the provisions of Rule 40 of the RPC to justify his submission that use of “barrister” by lawyers as an honorific title before their names enjoys some legal or professional foundation. In this respect, he does not succeed, with due respect. Rule 40 (b) of the RPC, 2007 provides that “a lawyer may cause to be printed on his note-papers, envelopes and visiting cards… his academic and professional qualifications and title including “Barrister-at-law,” “Barrister & Solicitor,” “Solicitor & Advocate,” “Legal Practitioner.” Application of the literal rule of interpretation to this provision shows that even as it is, the Rule does not authorize use of “Barrister-at-law,” “Barrister & Solicitor,” etc., as a prefix before the lawyer`s name. I have explained, hereinabove, how these terms could be suitably used as honorifics after, but never as a prefix to, a lawyer`s name. Still on this, the word “barrister” as I shall further illustrate, below, may be said to be a “professional qualification,” but certainly it is not an honorific title to be used as prefix before a lawyer`s name. No section of the LPA, and no Rule in the RPC, 2007, supports that proposition, whether expressly or impliedly. And there is no legal support anywhere else for its use as a prefix before a lawyer`s name. Hence, my answer to Mr. Ramos` question as whether “writing ‘Barr. Bolaji Ramos’ on my notes, office stationary, cards etc can be said…  to be socially childish, unprofessional, inappropriate, unfortunate, unnecessary and demeaning to the legal profession,” is a resounding Yes! It is unprofessional! It is demeaning, childish! And it lacks any legal foundation!

THE GRAMMAR CONNECTION

Mr. Ramos tried hard, but completely failed, to justify use of “barrister” as prefix (title) on the basis that such is grammatically correct. This raises two issues: “barrister” is an English word; and law in Nigeria is majorly derived from England! Put differently, the English Legal System is a most dominant source of the Nigerian Legal System. A notable English dictionary defines the word “barrister” in the following words: “(Law) Also called: barrister-at-law (in England) a lawyer who has been called to the bar and is qualified to plead in the higher courts.” (see https://www.thefreedictionary.com/barrister). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “barrister” in Britain is “a person called to the bar and entitled to practice as an advocate, particularly in the higher courts.” (see https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/barrister). The Cambridge English Dictionary gives the meaning of the word thus: “a person called to the bar and entitled to practice as an advocate, particularly in the higher courts. a type of lawyer in the UK, Australia, and some other countries who can give specialized legal advice and can argue a case in both higher and lower courts. (see https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/barrister). From Wikipedia: barrister (also known as barrister-at-law or bar-at-law) is a type of lawyer in common law jurisdictions. Barristers mostly specialize in courtroom advocacy and litigation. Their tasks include taking cases in superior courts and tribunals, drafting legal pleadings, researching the philosophy, hypothesis and history of law, and giving expert legal opinions.” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrister). In England and Wales, the word “barrister” is also used to refer to a profession: “the profession of barrister in England and Wales is a separate profession from that of solicitor. It is, however, possible to hold the qualification of both barrister and solicitor at the same time.” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrister#United_Kingdom). Finally, on its part, The Black`s Law Dictionary says that a “barrister” is in English law, an advocate; one who has been called to the bar. A counsellor learned in the law who pleads at the bar of the courts, and who is engaged in conducting the trial or argument of causes.” (see http://thelawdictionary.org/barrister/).

What more should I say? The word “barrister” is used appropriately to refer to only two things: (1) a certain “profession” and or (2) a member of, or a person qualified in, that profession. Moreover, “barrister,” as an English word, is a noun, not an adjective and must never be used as an adjective. If I say “Bolaji Ramos, Barrister-at-Law,” I have used the word/term appropriately. But if I say or write “Barrister Bolaji Ramos,” I have committed a grammatical gaffe!  Now, compare the use of the words, “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” or “Miss.” The Cambridge English Dictionary describes or defines “Mr.” as “a title used before the family name or full name of a man…” while “Mrs.” is “a title used before the family name or full name of a married woman…”  (see https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/mr?fallbackFrom=british-grammar&q=Mr).  Barrister” is not in the same category as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” etc. So, any use of “barrister” as a title before a person`s name is grammatically wrong, childish and awkward. There is no doubt about this!

Permit me to stretch this matter further by asking a simple question: please where did Nigerian lawyers copy the use of “barrister” as a prefix from? From which country or legal jurisdiction, I mean? Since much of our law, practice and legal system were either imported from Britain or modelled after the British, one may ask whether we did not also import this practice from England. The answer is an emphatic No! There is hardly any lawyer in England today (Barrister or Solicitor) that goes about using “barrister” or “solicitor” as a prefix before his name. And no one in that country addresses himself, or permits himself to be addressed, in such a manner — whether in a book or article, on a card, in a letter or otherwise. Why then do some Nigerian lawyers indulge in this embarrassing practice, one may again ask? In answer to this, let me quickly refer us to what a regular commentator on Legal Minds (a popular WhatsApp platform in Nigeria) who goes by the name, Ken Chinedu Konze wrote in reaction to Mr Bolaji Ramos` rejoinder: “a lawyer who knows his onions ought to know that it`s wrong to use BARRISTER before his names…. I see it used only by lawyers who suffer from complex.” I agree with him. However, this does not answer the question as to where Nigerian lawyers copied the habit from. So, I think it is time to do a brief survey of the opinions of authors, writers and experts in this field.

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In an article titled, “Stop calling me “Barrister Stone!,” published by lawyahjhane, the use of the word “barrister” as an honorific title  before a lawyer`s name is roundly denounced in the following words:

 “It is a common phenomenon to see people call Lawyers this way:- “Barrister Janet” “Barrister Lanre” “Barrister Muiz” “Barrister Felix,” …but, with all due respect, this is not the right way. Barrister is not a title! Not at all! It is not even a sign of respect. The saddening part is that even Lawyers address themselves as “barrister.” For any benefit of doubt, I want you to bear in mind that, in the legal profession, there is a split. We have a Barrister and Solicitor. Just like we have a man in the generic sense, but inside a man can either be both a husband and a father, or either of the two, same is applicable in the legal profession. The umbrella word for both a Barrister and Solicitor is Lawyer or Legal Practitioner. Barrister or Solicitor only points to the roles a Lawyer plays or the area of specialization of a Lawyer…. Most times, Lawyers in Courtroom call themselves Counsel. You hear judges call Lawyers that appear before them Counsel. Even with this, you can’t draft a document and put your name as “Counsel Janet Babajide.” That is comical and ridiculous. Of course, some Lawyers write agreement and put something like this “Barrister Tunde Onijibiti.” This is also not necessary because whether you specialize as a Barrister or a Solicitor or practice as both, you still remain a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Why remove the Solicitor and just address yourself with that “Barrister.” If you must put a title before your name for people to know that you are a lawyer, why not put it this way,”Tunde Onijibiti Esq…. So, next time you see me, don’t call me Barrister Janet, rather, call me Janet Esq. or Janet because I am both a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Thank you!” 

 (see https://lawyahjhane.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/stopping-calling-me-barrister-stone/)

In a publication titled, What Is the Proper Way to Address a Lawyer?” Kara Page, Associate Director in the College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida, USA, observes as follows:

“When meeting or writing a letter to a lawyer, knowing the proper way to address him is a sign of respect for his position. In the case of lawyers, the term “esquire” is frequently used as an honorific in letters, although not in person or on the phone. Whether addressing an envelope, a salutation, or greeting a lawyer in person, the proper protocol is simple to follow and remember. Personal Greeting: The proper way to greet a lawyer either in person or on the phone is with the prefixes “Mr.” or “Ms,” depending on their sex and last name. For example, “Good morning, Ms. Wilcox.” Envelope: The front of the envelope to the lawyer should be addressed using his full name, a comma, and “Esquire” or the abbreviation “Esq.” For example, “John Wilcox, Esq.” Inside Address: The inside address on a letter features the recipient’s name and contact information, and comes below your letterhead and the date. Write the lawyer’s full name in this section of your letter. Follow the name with “Esquire” as you did on the envelope, or type the lawyer’s official title, such as “Attorney at Law,” beneath his name.  Salutation: For a proper letter salutation, greet the lawyer using the appropriate prefix and his last name. For example, “Dear Ms. Wilcox.”” (see https://bizfluent.com/info-7749962-proper-way-address-lawyer.html)

WordReferrence.com is a US-based online platform devoted to discussing current issues as they relate to grammar, etiquette, communication, professionalism, professional practice, etc. A discussion on the platform under the title, HOW TO ADDRESS A LAWYER, is dedicated solely to addressing issues relating to the proper manner of addressing a lawyer— socially, formally or professionally. Writing in answer to the question, When you are talking to a lawyer, how do you address him?” one senior member of the platform who is also a communication experts has this to say:

 “In EEUU, laywer, attorney … has no informal title. A formal title is esquire, abbreviated ‘esq.’ This is mostly used in formal correspondence or legal papers. (Joe Brown, esq.) So, you would call him/her by their name (‘Mr. Brown,’ ‘Ms. Smith’). You would most likely say “Mr. XXX” or if you wish to show deference, you might address him as “sir”. I think these are your only printable options —–“What is your opinion, Mr. Blackstone?” Lawyers are called Counselor in court by the judge or other lawyers, but rarely do we use that term in other situations, and it is not comparable to how “Doctor” is used as a title by lay people.” (see https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/how-to-address-a-lawyer.611714/)

In a related development, another expert in this field, Nancy Holland, has offered the following guide regarding the appropriate manner of addressing business letters to lawyers, barristers, attorneys, or solicitors, as well as on the proper use of the term “esquire:”

“Use of Attorney-at-Law: Type “Mr.” or “Ms.” followed by the full name of the lawyer on the first line of the address. Type “Attorney at Law” on the second line of the address. Type the name of the attorney’s law firm, company or governmental agency on the line under “Attorney at Law.” Add the street address on the next line with the city, state and ZIP code on the last line. Type the salutation as “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.” followed by the last name of the lawyer. Type a colon at the end of the salutation.” Use of Esquire: “Type the lawyer’s full name followed by a comma. Type “Esq.” after the comma. Type the name of the attorney’s law firm, company or governmental agency on the line under his name. Add the street address on the next line with the city, state and ZIP code on the last line. Type the salutation starting with “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.” followed by the last name of the lawyer. Type a colon at the end of the salutation.”(see http://classroom.synonym.com/how-to-address-business-letters-to-lawyers-12082292.html)

Finally, Roberty Hickey is the Deputy Director and Senior Master Trainer, specializing in “Titles and Forms of Address” at the Protocol School of Washington, USA. He is also the author of the famous book, Honor & Respect: Official Guide to Names, Titles, & Forms of Address. Writing under the title, “How to Address an Attorney or Lawyer in the United States,” the notable author has advised that there are two major ways of addressing a lawyer; the first is to write the lawyer`s full name followed by the word “Esquire,” abbreviated “Esq” (e.g., “Robert Smith Esq.”). Alternatively, he says, you put the title Mr/Mrs/Ms/Miss as a prefix before the lawyer`s name (e.g., Mr Robert Smith). He (Mr. Robert Hickey) then handed own the following warning:

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Esq. is not used by the attorney with his or her own name on letterhead or his or her business card and not used when addressing an attorney socially.’ Esq.’ is used after a name to identify a lawyer in exactly the same way M.D. after a name identifies a doctor. But in fact, they are not equivalents. The traditional use of ‘esq.’ is … for others to add it to the attorney’s name when writing to a practicing attorney (e.g., on a letter) to note/specify that the attorney is being addressed in his or her role as counsel in litigation or as a professional: ‘Kenneth Millard, Esq. Traditionally ‘esq.’ is not used reflexively … that is, one does not call oneself an Esq. when presenting one’s name on one’s own letterhead or business card.  Thus, on a business card or letterhead names of the principals, partners, associates, are be presented without post nominals: “Kenneth Millard, Attorney at Law.” Socially, attorneys are addressed as ‘Mr.’/’Ms.’ (followed by his/her name) … the post nominal ‘Esq.’ is not used socially…. Socially, an attorney and his wife are simply addressed thus: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Wilson.’”  

(see  http://www.formsofaddress.info/Lawyer.html)

Let me quickly recall, at this juncture, that in the United States of America (USA), the term “attorney” is used to refer to “a lawyer who has passed a bar examination and has been admitted to the bar and is licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction.”  (see https://www.wikihow.com/Address-an-Attorney-on-an-Envelope; See also http://www.thelawinsider.com/insider-tips/whats-the-difference-between-an-attorney-and-a-lawyer/).  Attorneys are addressed as Mr. or Ms. (followed by their names). It has also been suggested that it is not right to consider a woman’s marital status when addressing her professionally. The proper form is “Mary Johnson.” (see https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071007155328AA6TZNi). This is may be different when addressing her socially: “Mrs. Mary Johnson.”

The aforesaid has made this matter clearer and has shown that this “title” debate is unnecessary. But my dear learned friend, Mr Ramos, is not done yet; he still goes on to allude to “Professor XXX,” “Engineer ZZZ,” and other misalliance as examples of honorific prefixes and then suggests that these are still fashionable. It is however interesting to point out to him, with due respect, that even in those countries he referred to, “barrister” is not used as a prefix before a lawyer`s name. So, what is the use citing the “engineer,” “professor,” etc., as examples to rationalise the use of “barrister” as an honorific prefix? With the greatest respect, such comparison or analogy is incongruent, incoherent and incompatible! It does not hold water, because there are no credible pedestals for such comparison, especially when one considers that the use of “professor,” “Dr.” as prefixes (for lawyers, etc.) have since been jettisoned in much of the civilised world as archaic and improper. Writing on www.economist.com, a certain author has openly criticized the use of the title “Dr.” as prefix by lawyers with the Doctor of Laws degree (JSD or PH. D), describing the same as “silly and pedantic.” (See https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/03/professional-titles).  My learned friend would agree with me that if a Nigerian lawyer travels to any of the countries named during the course of this interesting but needless debate (e.g., Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, Italy, etc.), and addresses or introduces himself as, say, “Barrister John Okafor,” his audience would react with some scorn, jeer, disbelief, puzzlement or all of the above!

From the foregoing, therefore, my respected learned friend, Bolaji Ramos, and those who encourage or subscribe to the line of thought he has adopted in his rejoinder, could see clearly that from all angles, it is very wrong for a lawyer to use or be addressed with the word “barrister” as a prefix before his name. It is wrong legally; it is contemptible professionally; it is inappropriate grammatically; it is unsuitable socially and it is inacceptable formally; such practice is therefore clearly unprofessional, demeaning, and downright childish. Indeed, everything is wrong with it! A lawyer has a general ethical, professional and legal responsibility to uphold and observe the rule of law, maintain high standard of professional conduct and must not engage in any conduct which is unbecoming of a legal practitioner. See Rule 1 of the RPC, 2007.  In spite of all these, and in violation of the ruling in NBA v. OFOMATA, some lawyers are bent on the practice of using “barrister” as a prefix before their names. This clearly is illustrative and symptomatic of some of the major problems facing the legal profession in Nigeria — unnecessary pride, inappropriate show-off, and excessive obsession with vain titles. With due respect, some of our lawyers are just pendants, engaging in and preoccupied with unnecessary show-off, and display of self-importance while caring only little about those things that really matter in the profession and society. Pedantic use of “barrister” as a prefix is actuated and accompanied by feeling of some sense of superiority and conspicuous show-off in an attempt to impress others with an added intention to project some self-importance, all of which constitute a major problem in our profession. Some lawyers are hardly able to undertake the average lawyer’s work, in a competent, timeous and satisfactory manner, when called upon to so do, yet the same set is among those who flaunt the term “barrister” as a prefix before their names wherever they find themselves. In some cases, one could get even ignored or verbally assaulted if one fails to add “barristers” before mentioning their (lawyers`) names. It’s indeed a huge problem with some of our lawyers as with the society in which we live — undue fascination with titles, honorific prefixes and material things. So, apart from that use of “barrister” as a prefix is legally, socially, grammatically and professionally incorrect, as I have shown above, much of the argument against it has pretty so much more to do with the need for lawyers to eschew pendanticalness, vainglory and ostentatiousness and embrace hard-work, humility, professionalism, and integrity, which are the hallmark of a great lawyer.  As I had earlier suggested, when it comes to law practice, what makes a good lawyer is not the number of title prefixes he carries around; a good lawyer is known by what comes out of him, and by the aggregate of his contribution to finding valuable solutions to problems bedeviling his clients, his profession, and his society. In other words, they are known by their fruits, not by their titles!

Respectfully,

Sylvester Udemezue

(udemsyl@hotmail.com)

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