The name OCJ Okocha is a household name not only in Rivers State but nationwide. His fame has gone international especially in legal profession. He is a giant and luminary in law.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), and former president of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). The man was also a Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General in the old Rivers State. A man of many parts, humble, brilliant and devoted leader.
In this Round Table Encounter, a vintage Okocha tackled various questions from The Tide Editors on a range of issues, including his person, Derivation, State Creation, Amnesty for militants and the Law. This is the first part of a long journey.
We know you because of the interactions we have with you over the years but how would you want members of the public to know O.C.J. let us start with the initials O.C.J?
These are my initials. O stands for Onueze, C. stands for Chukwujinka and J stands for Joe. Joe incidentally is a family name which emanated from my father’s first name which is Jonathan. Some people make mistake sometime they call me Joseph.
I’m a lawyer based here in Port Harcourt at No. 71B Aba Road. I think that should be okay for introduction.
Let us know what these names really mean and if it has affected your life we know when people give child his name, the name must have relevance?
That is correct incidentally in my family we are always named by the eldest man and it happened that my grand father was the eldest man in Okocha family. So the name Onueze is the way Ikwerre man would say Onueze, Onu is mouth Eze is chief, but the way he explained it to me is that it means what God has said, the voice of God is what God ordained my father has had five daughters in a row and so everybody was praying for a boy to come along. When I come along, they now said oh! That this is what God has said, so I was named the voice of the king.
Chukwujinka is from my mother’s place Onitsha. I was born there. Chukwujinka God is holding this world Chukwujinka, and Joe as I said emanated from my father’s first name Jonathan his friends in the police used to call him Joe, so when I was born it was like this is Junior Joe.
People started calling me Joe. You cannot really say at this time in point how those names have affected my life. I have carried on by the special grace of God.
We will take liberty of your presence here; you will help us today with the history of how lawyers started accepting money for their services?
Well you know in the olden days going by the history of the profession in England there were two categories of the legal profession in the category of lawyers, yes generally there are two categories, the Bar and the Bench, but the lawyers are a body we know as the Bar. At the Bar, there are two groups of professionals, Barristers and Solicitors. Barristers were drawn from the rank of noblemen, gentle men of those olden days.
Their responsibility is to go before court and plead the case of their clients as advocates. They just go to court and stand as well as represent you, forward your case and your defence and try as much as possible to get the law to you.
In those days Barristers because they were noble men and gentle men never charged fees. And if you look at the Barristers gown worn by lawyers you will see something like a cord, the rope and behind, you see something that looks like a bag, is a relic of the bag which the Barrister uses to put his implements of work.
The way it came about that lawyers were now charging fees, was that they never charged fees, when you have done your beat for your client and he felt impressed, as you are leaving he would slip some money into that bag behind you. You won’t see it, you don’t discuss fees. That is the relics that you see in the Barrister’s gown that we as Barristers wear. But of course with the passage of time, it became a recognized profession and the profession as you all know is a calling which entitles you earn your living from it and so Barristers started charging fees.
Barristers considered it beneath there dignity to even discuss fees, so the solicitor is the first point of contact of anybody who has a case in the court.
Solicitor’s responsibility is to find a Barrister to represent you and in that solicitor who will discuss the fees not with the Barrister, but with the clerk of the Barrister. Every law firm has a clerk and in those days, the way it happened, you go to your chamber in the morning your clerk will just hand you briefs so somebody is appearing before the home base, somebody is appearing before the criminal court. That morning you just take your time, you glance through, you go to court and you stand and put forward the case.
So when, Barrister and Solicitors now became a recognized profession, fees became the order of the day. The fees as I said were settled between Barristers and Solicitors. But in Nigeria, the early lawyers we had in Nigeria went to England and those of them who became Barristers, but because they were the only people learned in law, they would practice as Barristers and Solicitors.
Those of them who studied as solicitors and could go to court and present cases. Solicitors don’t appear in the High Court in England but now, a solicitor can even appear and wear the gown. So the profession has come a long way, but in Nigeria once you have passed through the law school you are called to the Bar, by the Authority of the body of benchers. And as provided in the Legal Practitioners Act you are entitled to practice as a Barrister and a Solicitor. So Solicitor was the cadre that were usually office workers who take instructions from clients and prepare the cases. The Barrister is the Advocate who goes to court and pleads the cases.
Now in government, you have the Solicitor General, Attorney General, how do their job move?
Oh! these were statutorily done because the Ministries of Justice there was a time when we have Town Council in Colonial days the department that was charged of doing solicitor’s work. Writing agreements for government, preparing cases, while there was the other cadre which was mostly under the Director of Public Prosecutions the (PPP) were mainly the Barristers who went to court to plead cases.
So when the Ministries of Justice were formed, it was recognized that they still needed to be quite apart from the Attorney General, who is the head of the Ministry, a solicitor general. The Head of the Administrative arm of the Ministry of Justice, The Solicitor-General was an offshoot from the solicitor profession, who stayed in the office and prepared the case. The attorney general was the head of the ministry under the constitution as it is now, he is incharge of all matters that will link to prosecution of offenders, that is how the office is run, but they are now legislated on. There is a solicitor-general’s law which creates the office of the solicitor-generals, both at the federal and the state service.
They said before you get a SAN, you would be prepared to have bank account elsewhere?
That is not true.
What is the lowest SAN can have in the bank?
The lowest and this is in the legal practitioners Act, because we do not want a Senior Advocate to handle every case; there must be a chance for young lawyers to grow. A Senior Advocate is not expected to accept instructions from any matter the value of which is under 400 pounds. 400 pounds, you can now begin to do the conversion. Some people are using the exchange rate as stipulated by the Central Bank, some people are using the black market rate, but the stipulations in the law is that, a Senior Advocate quite apart from other restrictions on his ability to go to court, should not accept instructions in any matter the value of which is below 400 pounds.
In recent times, we have come to approximate that to be at some point N50,000, some have said N100,000.
You see before you become a QC in England as we become Senior Advocate here, Queens Counsel or Kings Counsel if the person on throne in England as at the time you are appointed is a man, what you needed to do is to reduce the number of cases making demand of your time and that is why you have to apply for it because it has added responsibility. It will decrease the number of cases you are handling. It will now make sure the cases you are handling are high value cases. Because as a Senior Advocate, as a QC, in civil matters you are obliged to appear with a junior and the way of charging is that you charge first amount, one third of that first amount is added for your junior who appeared with you. So anybody going to brief Queen counsel or King counsel or a Senior Advocate should accept that the fees you will pay will be higher than what you would ordinarily be paying is not only going to pay for the lawyer, the SAN or Queen counsel appearing. He will also in addition pay one third of what he has agreed to pay to that Senior Advocate to the junior, so he was supposed to make you exclusive in a way, so that Queen Counsel, SAN is not for all comers.
What made you read law?
I said to some other journalists, the fear of the mathematics led me to law. During the civil war we lived at a place in Umuahia near a magistrate court. I used to while away my time and go and stand in the court premises and just watch lawyers do their thing.
Some of them were given to all mannerism so I cultivated an interest. As you may know, my father was a policeman and all that , so when I finished secondary school in 1972 in Government Comprehensive Secondary School, we were looking through the universities prospectus syllabuses and all that. I tried to choose a course and I have my difficulties with Mathematics. Happily I ended getting C5 in Mathematics. It wasn’t my worst subject, my worst subject was Physics. I had C6. Why I got a C5 I was good in Arithmetic and Trigonometry, so I was determined not to come across Mathematics again anywhere in my future career, so looking through the only courses I had that has noMathematics, is History. No Mathematics, single honours BA History.
Economics had Mathematics, I was very good in Economics, that is what I thought I should go and read. But thinking about it I spoke to my father he said, I should learn from his experience, he was a policeman with only O levels he didn’t have any profession; he said look go and study a professional course so that if government refuses to employ you, all you have to do, put up a sign board somewhere, then start working for yourself. So I looked through all the courses; medicine has Mathematics, Architecture has Mathematics, the only one that did not have Mathematics was Law. And I remembered how I used to enjoy those lawyers with their wigs and gowns at Umuahia in those days only to get to Ife and the first year, we had Mathematics 001 Mathematics 102, so it turned out that you cannot really run away from Mathematics, so it was the fear of Mathematics that actually led me to do Law and I ended up teaching logic, logic is Mathematics 102; and then symbolic logic 001, so that was how I ended up becoming a lawyer, advice of my father and the fear of Mathematics.
As time went on, I realised that there was something about law, and my genes you know in my family, my great great grand father had always been a law enforcement officer. My great great grand father was a native court judge in the old Obio District Court. My grand father followed in that same mould, because when he became the head of the family, he also went and became a member of the Obio Native Court. Those courts in the colonial days, now they are calling them customary courts. Then my father went into the police, law enforcement too, and here I am a lawyer one sister is a judge, one brother is a lawyer, one decided to follow and he inherited all my fatehr’s books. He is a Chief Superintendent of Police now.
Sir Before we go into more contemporary issues what are the true goal, factors for becoming SAN. Why is it difficult for more Rivers people to become SAN. The impression being created is that, else where, some lawyers, helped people to pay the prescribed fees of their clients to get to Supreme Court, that would qualify you, how true it is?
Well I don’t know about the truth of lawyers paying the fees for the litigation cost for their clients is professionally unethical to do so. And |I will not agree with you that Rivers people have not become Senior Advocates. We had quite a few. Indeed, the first Senior Advocate appointed in Nigeria was a Rivers man. Dr Nabo Graham Douglas, former Attorney-General of Nigeria of blessed memory.
After him, there was also Galima Peterside, Opobo man, who became SAN. He was practising in Jos. The truth of the matter let me be frank with you is that, the cost of the major qualifications required to apply to Senior Advocate of Nigeria, you need to have met some minimum number of appearances, argued minimum number of cases in the superior courts.
High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. We were not too easily or readily exposed to those other superior courts like Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. In the olden days, the Supreme Curt used to sit in circuit. It would move from one capital of one region to the other and sit there, when it was the Federal Supreme Court, even when they had The West African Court of Appeal, it would move from the capital of one country to the other and would sit like that. But when the law was passed, that created the Senior Advocate cadre. It became important that you have to practice where all these courts were within the jurisdiction.
You see the realities of the situation is that if I have a case in the Supreme Court, and Supreme Court is in Lagos, as it was in those days, someone needs to brief a lawyer in Lagos, because if I brief a lawyer in Port Harcourt and other provincial headquarters, it means to pay, not just his transport. I will pay also not just his fees, will pay his transport, also pay his hotel accommodation and so on and so forth. So those lawyers who were in the area where those courts were located are in a vantage position.
It took a long time for us to move the Court of Appeal to Port Harcourt. When the Court of Appeal was originally created, it had divisions only at the regional headquarters. Ibadan, apart from Lagos which was the capital of Nigeria, Kaduna and Enugu. Sometime I was secretary of the Bar Association here in Port Harcourt. We made very serious effort to have the Court of Appeal Division from Port \Harcourt crated and to have the court also moved to Port Harcourt. Because when the Court of Appeal Division for Port Harcourt was created, it was still sitting in Enugu. And some lawyers used to think it was greater advantage to earn transport money, to earn hotel bill and go to Enugu to do cases.
So when Wifa became chairman and I the secretary, B.M. Wifa SAN, and I secretary, we fought seriously to move that Division to Port Harcourt and immediately, Oh, virtually no year would pass without one SAN and that court came here in 1992 or there about, 1992, 1993, Graham Douglas had been appointed SAN in 1988, 1987, 1988, when the Court of Appeal was in Enugu, but when it came to Port Harcourt, it came here in 1992 as I said before. By 1994, 1995, when I became SAN two years later Dr Osanakpo, the next year, Wifa and virtually every year now, we have two or three appointed as Senior Advocates.
Informatively for you, we have 16 senior advocates. And this is even not counting our former Attorney-General Odem Ajumogobia who is now the Minister of State for Petroleum. He was the Attorney-General here when he was made SAN.
These are the reasons for the qualification, you must have minimum of ten years post call experience. Second you must be of good character; third, you must have a good law practice. These days, they actually come to inspect your office, see how many juniors you have. Look at the library and facilities you have in your office and then you must have argued a minimum number of cases in the Supreme Court as well as Court of Appeal and High Court. These three categories, Supreme Court cases is category A, two Supreme Court cases and four courts of appeal.
Second category, category one Supreme Court. Four Courts of Appeal and six High Court cases. Because people argue that you know most of the practice is in the High Court. Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are reviewed panels to look over what has been done by the High Courts and so real advocacy is at the High Curt level, so you have those three categories, and you must qualify in any of those three categories. Now they’ve also imposed a certain fee that you must pay. When I applied for SAN, I didn’t pay anything, What you have to pay, I think is N200,000.
You also have to show that you have been a good citizen, you pay your taxes as at when due, and then that at the time of your application you are not being investigated or having been convicted or liable in a case of professional misconduct. So there are the parameters by which you get appointed as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
Creation of State taskforces, are they in accordance with the constitution?
I would say is not inconsistent with democratic culture we are trying to build. Task forces by their very nature are charged with particular task so is expected that they focus their full time and attention towards the cardinals of whatever task is assigned them. The problem which ma be … is that some of the taskforces don not understand that they are naturally bound to follow due process in carrying out of any their assignment so you may have a point when you say, these taskforces are not acting in accordance wit rule of law or due process as you say. But there is nothing inconsistent with the constitution, or with democratic principles of government decides that it want to set up taskforces in view of particular problems.