Guest ColumnistInside Nigeria

Agbakoba: My Top 4 Nigerian Greatest Lawyers, By Mike Awoyinfa

MY head is full of dreams.  Like the American Civil Rights legend Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream.    Even though I am not a lawyer, I have a dream to write a law book.  Not just one, but two law books.  One is titled, WHAT THEY DON’T TEACH YOU AT LAW SCHOOL.  The other is:  THE ART OF CROSS-EXAMINATION (The Nigerian Experience and Perspective).

I had done my research, read some law books and drawn up some questions.  To test-run the project, I am sitting face to face with Olisa Agbakoba, the radical “leftist” lawyer, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria who practices law from two facets: that of a private lawyer and a public lawyer.  He combines both seamlessly.

I start by introducing myself as a journalist with the mission of writing “experiential books”.  I brought along my latest book: “50 NIGERIA’S BOARDROOM LEADERS—Lessons On Corporate Governance and Strategy.”  I hadn’t even gone far with my self-introduction when Agbakoba interjected: “I know you very well.  You and your late twin brother Dimgba Igwe.”

As I reeled out the books we have written, Agbakoba was quick to add that his biography should be next on our list.  Listening to him, you can’t but see a “learned gentleman” who is a biographer’s delight in his mastery of storytelling and facts marshaling.  I asked him: What is law?  In search of the meaning of law, he takes me on a highly philosophical excursion from Greek mythologies to the Age of Reason to the School of Jurisprudence to Lord Denning, a “social thinker” and a “caustic master” who was “one of the greatest exponents of what the law ought to be.”

“If you want to understand what law is, you have to go back to the earliest philosophers,” he tells me professorially.  “And they are so many.  You had perhaps the most important philosopher by name Hans Kelsen who wrote the Pure Theory of Law and who coined the term Grundnorm.  Kelsen talks about law having to have force.  If it doesn’t have force, it is just a moral norm.  Law has to have force for it to order society.  As time went on, a bit of morality crept in.  The theory of Thomas Hobbes came, saying it is those who can get that will survive.  The law of survival of the fittest.  So law has different degrees.  But just to summarize, law orders society.  Without law, what you have is a Hobbesian state of nature, a state of anarchy where the strongest can prey on the weak and gets away with it just like in the jungle.  It’s law that creates order.  It’s law that says you can’t bring strongmen to my house to take over my property from me.  Law is crucial to order, is crucial to governance, is crucial to democracy.  Law is nothing other than what the judge says it is.  This is one of the great theories of jurisprudence.  It is what the judges prophesy and nothing more pretentious that constitutes the law.”

Olisa Agbakoba SAN
Olisa Agbakoba SAN

For over an hour, he held me spellbound with the brilliance of a well-exposed and widely read lawyer who quotes books with ease and panache.  Apart from restoring order, there is a developmental side to law.  He explains:  “Law is a tool that can unlock capital.  It is a big tool.  In the field of development law, there are only about five of us in Nigeria who are development law scholars.  People like me, people like Sam Amadi and a few others.  Let us start from the fact that Nigeria is a dysfunctional country: poverty, mass unemployment.  So, how do we fix it?  It’s not readily understood that law can play a role, but it can.  One role it can play, as I earlier said, is unlocking capital.  And there are many books about how law can develop a nation written by writers who are not even lawyers.  The world-famous Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto in his book Mystery of Capital—Why Capitalism Thrives in the West and Fails Everywhere describes what law can do to make nations great.  It is not just the field of economics or econometrics.”

So, what don’t they teach in law school and university?  “They teach the theory of law which is fine, but the theory of law isn’t enough.  It’s the practice.  And so, today, many of us are apostles of what we call clinical legal education which is learning by experiential teaching.  The only way you can learn it is to see it.  And seeing is called the clinic.  That’s why I am beginning to wonder whether the old way that law developed isn’t actually better than today.  Law developed by special people who are called pleaders.  These were men who went before the king on the day the king sat in council to listen to petitions.  The king on the throne and the Lord Chancellor who was the highest officer sat on the bench.  No wonder we talk about judges on the bench today.  That was the origin of the bench.  And then listening to the petitions of people.  Today, we call those people who came to the king to petition claimants. We still use the word court today because back then, they went to the king’s court to petition.  It was all live.  It was like a clinic.  So I can imagine a young courtier sitting close by the king, just listening to the debates and learning as he sees things unfold.  Everything is practical here.  He is not cramming.

“In our case when we went to school, everything was theoretical. It was not live as in the king’s court scenario.  We had to do a lot of cramming.  Being a big rascal, in a semester, I only used about two weeks to cram and pass.  It was cramming all the way until I passed out of the university and I asked myself: Am I really a lawyer?  That was why I had to go to London School of Economics for my masters in law.  When I got there, I found that the white boys studying law with me could bring their girlfriends to class and they would be smoking, drinking beer and yet were learning law.  The approach was different.  Through them, I found that there was a lot of rigidity in the teaching formula way back in Nigeria.”

Asked to list his top four all-time greatest Nigerian lawyers, Agbakoba picked Professor Ben Nwabueze, Chief F.R.A. Williams, Gani Fawehinmi and G.O.K. Ajayi.  In picking Nwabueze as his first choice, Agbakoba sees him as “one man who has left behind over 40 books in law. I used to ask him: ‘How do you write seven books in one year?’  Because of his humble lifestyle, Nwabueze has not been given the accolade he deserves.”

Like Nostradamus, Agbakoba predicts the future of law in the Age of Disruption and Artificial Intelligence (AI), saying wigs and gowns will vanish, that Do-it-yourself (DIY) law will be the new order, that lawyers would be expected not only to solve problems but to preempt and eliminate foreseeable problems even before they happen.  Lawyers must renew themselves, he says, “so that as disruption occurs, you adapt to it.  Disruption must not take us down.  It can only take us up.”


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