Quest for Deep Knowledge of the Law Should be the Pre-occupation of Young Lawyers – Prof. I.O. Smith SAN

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Prof. I.O Smith SAN

Professor Imran Oluwole Smith, SAN is no doubt on of the legal luminaries who have contributed to the advancement of Nigeria’s Real Property Law. If you refer to him as the leading scholar in that field, you wouldn’t be wrong. DNL Legal & Style recently had an exclusive interview with the learned silk and he shared his insights on legal practice, legal education, mentorship for young lawyers, amongst other critical issues.

The interview is produced below for your delight:

DNL L&S: Could you please let us into your family background Prof? 

Prof. I.O Smith: My name is Professor Imran Oluwole Smith. I was born sixty years ago in Lagos; precisely, on the Island of Lagos. I am an indigene of Lagos State from the Olowogbowo area of Lagos Island where my progenitors settled, lived and died over a period of three centuries. My family houses, which are still standing, are located at Numbers 51/55 Offin Road, and Numbers 107/109A Alakoro, Marina. The Smith family is a prominent family in the Olowogbowo area of Lagos Island. My late grand father, Chief Abudu Rahman Abiodun Smith, the Osi of Lagos during the reign of Oba Adeniji Adele, was a very successful merchant. My late father, Mr Yunus Alabi Smith was an Accountant with the CFAO. He died 25 years ago. My late mother, Alhaja Suwebat Ayodele Smith, a princess from the Gayinko Ruling House in Badagry (precisely the Akran family of Badagry) was a successful trader. She died seven years ago. I am the last of three children from both parents.

DNL L&S:  And Your educational background?

Prof. I.O Smith: I attended Ahmadiyya Primary School Elegbaata on the Lagos Island  from 1964 to 1966, and later, transferred to Ansar-Ud-deen Primary School, Suru-lere, Lagos where I completed my primary school education in 1970. I had my secondary school education at Ansar-Ud-deen Grammar School Surulere, Lagos from 1971-1976 where I obtained the West African School Certificate. In 1978, I wrote and obtained the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level and made my three papers. I got admission into the great University of Lagos to read Law in 1979 and graduated with an LL.B honours Degree in 1982. I proceeded to the Nigerian Law School for the one year professional training as a lawyer and graduated in 1983. I was called to the Nigerian Bar the same year.  I worked briefly with the Chambers of the late Gani Fawehinmi after my NYSC before I returned to the University of Lagos in October 1984 for a Masters Degree. I graduated with a Master of Laws (LL.M) degree in June 1985.

DNL L&S: You are one of the Legal Luminaries in Nigeria who dedicated his legal practice to academics. At what point did you resolve that your legal career would be in the academics?

I must let you know that my career as an academic dates back to 1986 when I joined the Lagos State University as a Lecturer Grade II while I was also engaged in part time law practice at the time.  My experience in law practice has been eventful and greatly complement my classroom experience. Law is particularly a professional course and I don’t see how a law lecturer can give his/her best to the students and update knowledge of the law especially in case law related subjects, without having contact with law practice. So, I do not agree with your perception of ‘dedicating law practice to academics’.  I have always been engaged in the two.

DNL L&S: You have been an active lecturer of both the faculties of Law Lagos State University and University of Lagos. What memorable experience(s) would you prefer to share from your career in LASU?

Prof. I.O Smith: Well, you see, I joined LASU in January 1986 with all the enthusiasm of a young man called upon to sit on the other side of the classroom to impart knowledge.  LASU was barely two years old then and I was one of the five foundation members of the Faculty of Law with Prof. Jadesola Akande of blessed memory as the Dean. Other foundation members were Mr Yemi Adeola (the current Managing Director of Sterling bank) Prof. Oladipupo Solanke still in the academics, Mr Ibukunolu Babajide (now a Prosecutor for the United Nations), and Dr Tokunbo Akomolafe now in the UK and doing great. Others joined later. I remember that we all had heavy load of work to contend with. All of us had to teach two, three law courses. Teaching was unattractive to young lawyers at the time as the salary was too poor and conditions of service, nothing to write home about. So, no lawyer out there at the time was attracted to academics. In my own case, what got me going at the time was the support of my parents. For example, I lived in an accommodation provided by my parents; my Mum bought me a new car and augmented my salary. For my other colleagues, it was not quite different.

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But we were all dedicated and resourceful. It is on record that LASU Law Faculty made waves during our time and many of our students (some of whom are now professors in Nigeria and abroad, judges and Senior Advocates in Nigeria) made brilliant results at the Law School Bar finals. The standard then was very high and we were very strict in our interactions with the students.

As a young lecturer in LASU, I had the opportunity of attending the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherland and, in the course of writing the biography of my mentor, Judge Taslim Olawale Elias of blessed memory, I had a rare opportunity of interacting one on one with judges of the International Court of Justice at the Hague. It was, indeed, a memorable experience.

I continue to remember LASU for the first learning steps I took in the academics and for a number of accomplishments at the early stage of my academic career. I wrote my first book on land law and organized the first National Conference on the law of Landlord and Tenant in Nigeria followed by a publication of a book on the subject. While I was a lecturer there, part of the success story was the establishment of Part-time and specialized programmes in law. Under the auspices of the Law Centre of which I was the Director, there was an international conference on environmental law and also a publication on the subject of international environmental law.

As Dean of the Faculty much later between 2004 and 2006, I got full accreditation for the Faculty, and was instrumental to the establishment of the Islamic law Department; the first of its kind in the Southern part of Nigeria. I did not only make colleagues promotable through publications in the Faculty law journal, many of them earned their promotions during my tenure.

DNL L&S: What about UNILAG where you presently lecture?

Prof. I.O Smith: Oh, my alma mater! I joined the University of Lagos in 1999 on the invitation of my Oga and mentor, the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Prof Jelili Adebisi Omotola of blessed memory.  He had tried on two previous occasions without success, but the third attempt was successful. When I got into that great Faculty of Law in 1999, I met most of my former lecturers on ground namely: Prof. Adeogun of blessed memory, Prof. Adeyemi of blessed memory, Prof. Obilade, Prof. Agbede, Prof. Uchegbu of blessed memory and Prof. Akin Oyebode. I was appointed a senior lecturer in 1999 and became a full Professor with effect from October 2003. I delivered my inaugural lecture in 2008.

In terms of my contributions to the academic attainments of products of the great Faculty, I give total commitment to teaching and supervision. Apart from supervision of numerous LL.B and LL.M essays every academic session, I have supervised to completion, a total of six Ph.D thesis within 12 years. University of Lagos opened doors of opportunities for me, in terms of international exposure and recognition. My academic romance with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, in London which started while I was a lecturer in LASU, became solidified and better reckoned as an academic from the University of Lagos. Apart from the great opportunity I had to give series of Public lectures at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London, I was found worthy of appointment as a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, a position I hold to-date. I have had the opportunity of holding seminars on Law and Development in Africa with post-graduate students at SOAS, of engaging in research collaboration with academic staff and supervising and examining Ph.D candidates at the School of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London. Through the platform of SOAS, I have been recommended severally as a renowned expert in my field to prepare Expert Reports and give Expert Evidence before the High Court of Justice in England. Recently, I was invited as an Expert in Nigerian Property Law and Trusts, to write for the International Encyclopaedia of Laws (IEL) on those subjects; a work which has since been concluded.

In terms of productivity, I have produced two books, one on Law of Real Property in Nigeria and another on Nigerian Law of Secured Credit Transactions. These books are in use in the various Universities, appear on the reading lists of tertiary Institutions abroad in the area of comparative law, and are being cited by our courts. A new book on Landlord and Tenant Law in Nigeria is currently in print. As Head of Department of Private and Property Law University of Lagos, I have edited four publications, and as Dean of the Faculty of Law (2012-2014), another book.

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It is a privilege to be counted amongst the intellectual giants as Dean of the great Faculty of Law, from Professors Gower and Elias to other eminent Professors such as Olawoye, Jegede, Adeogun, Ajomo, Omotola, Obilade, Agbede, Akanki and Adeyemi. These eminent intellectuals laid the foundation of our superstructure as a Faculty. As Dean, I maintained the high standard posture of the Faculty, uncovered a number of opportunities for junior colleagues to tap into, and ensured that many of our colleagues earned their promotions. As a mark of honour for my academic, professional and administrative accomplishments, a book titled: ‘A Trajectory of Nigerian law’ was published by the Faculty in 2016.

DNL L&S: You are one of the few legal scholars who have been elevated to the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. We have heard so many stories about how challenging the process may be. Could you recount your journey to the prestigious rank?

Prof. I.O Smith: By the special grace of the Almighty Allah, I was elevated to the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria over seven years ago. Ah! how time flies! It’s like yesterday. As you are aware, the very least number of applicants for the prestigious rank are considered yearly for elevation from the academics; one, two or three. The highest was probably last year when we had, I think, five.

It was really tough to get there. I applied five or six times, shortlisted several times before the Almighty Allah showered His mercy on me seven years ago. No regrets but gratitude, realising the number of qualified applicants for elevation to the rank every year.

DNL L&S: No doubt you are the leading authority in the law of Real Property in Nigeria. In your estimation, would you consider that Nigeria’s legal framework and policies in real property is of acceptable best standard? What would you proffer as solution should your view be in the negative?

Prof. I.O Smith: The legal framework and policies in real property in Nigeria is far from being of an acceptable standard. Fifty seven years after independence, Nigeria is still, to a large extent, tied to the apron strings of the English common law theories, doctrines and principles in the evaluation and operation of our land tenure system. The Land Use Act which was meant to be the bridge between the old regime and the emergent system of land management and administration, has failed to harmonize pre-existing systems of land tenure apart from just preserving them subject to its provisions. The result has been a complete disconnect from local realities while the Act constitutes an albatross to investment in real estate development and real estate project financing. While property legislation in many states may be seen as the beginning of a journey in the right direction, the Federal Capital Territory is yet to keep pace with the trend in many common law jurisdictions. There is the urgent need to review our property related laws (not just the Land Use Act) for a sustainable land management and administration in order to boost agriculture, encourage real estate development and boost low cost housing for the teaming population of this country.

DNL L&S: You have recently been very critical of the manner in which Lagosians are treated in their own State (Lagos State). As a Professor of Law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, would you propose some form of legislation to guarantee the indigenous rights of Lagosians? If not, what would you propose from the legal perspective?

Prof. I.O Smith: My dear, there is no need for a special legislation on indigeneship in Nigeria. Our Constitution is fast becoming a souvenir because we fail in many cases to apply its provisions, not necessarily out of ignorance, but out of sheer parochial interest by mischief makers. May it interest you to note that the provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) on the Federal Character principles and the Federal Character Commission Act are still in force, but government of the day would not apply their provisions. Can’t you see this from the lopsided appointments at the federal level and the vagrant violation of the provisions of the law by political prostitutes for selfish interests? Criminal acts of laying claim to two states or multiple local governments based on political convenience go unpunished.

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In the case of Lagos State, Eko Foundation is simply urging the Ambode administration to comply with the law and not be a lawless leviathan. From Ogun State to Bornu State, Lagos State is the only State where the indigenes are not reckoned with, where competent technocrats and civil servants who are indigenes are relegated to the background or kicked out of reckoning, it is the only state that is declared purportedly to ‘belong’ to no one or to everyone, and where a race is surreptitiously put on the line to extinction. We are not going to allow this to continue. The rule of law must prevail.

DNL L&S: You have served in various administrative capacities at University level and at the Council of Legal Education to effectively develop Nigeria’s Legal Education. Do you share the concern of a few who are of the opinion that the set of lawyers produced in recent times are ill equipped due to the failing standard of Legal Education, what would be your recommendations in this regard.

You see, the issue of falling standards of legal education is reminiscent of the general falling standards of education in our country in recent times, and the truth must be told. More often than not, we blame students for this, and sometimes the lecturers, but not the system. I would say it is a systemic problem. What is our budget on education? Are the libraries well equipped? Do we have the enabling environment for learning? Do we have in our classrooms committed teachers well catered for so as to get the best out of them? Do we pay our lecturers well? Have we not compromised standards with the proliferation of private universities many of which apparently lack the basic requirements to get a university going in the 21st century globalised world?  Our problem lies in the caliber of law graduates we produce from the various universities and not with the law school. As a matter of fact, the rate of failures in the Bar finals these past years suggest the poor quality of law graduates produced by many law faculties in this country. The National Universities Commission must look inward and do a regular review of the criteria and the process of accreditation. 

DNL L&S: By way of motivation and encouragement, what advice would you give to young lawyers who aspire to become successful legal practitioners?

Prof. I.O Smith: Success in law practice depends on hard work, perseverance and discipline. The starting point is crucial. Young lawyers are advised to undergo pupilage for at least ten years before thinking of setting up their own chambers. The quest for deep knowledge of the law should be the pre-occupation of the young lawyers and not the rat race to get rich quick. It is also advisable that young  lawyers focus and specialize in few areas of law for good professionalism and admirable competence. It is not possible to get the best from a lawyer who does everything or takes on any brief like a ‘jack of all trade, master of none’.

In the practice of law, integrity is key. The knowledge of law without compliance with the basic ethics of the profession may get a lawyer into trouble and may cost him or her the wig and gown.


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