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The legal profession and role of lawyers in Nigerian politics
A practicing lawyer could earn his living independent of government. He enjoys a measure of personal freedom. Along with the personal freedom which lawyer enjoyed was the high prestige that tended to accrue from his profession. In the words of Hon. Justice G. B. A. Coker of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, I quote: “If I come to the world ten times over and over, I will always be a lawyer”
.Good as that is, lawyers are called all sorts of names.
In almost every society there is some negative attitude towards lawyers. On the one hand, lawyers are greatly valued as practical men of affairs whose talents and special training are almost indispensable in any human organization. Yet, at the same time, people sneer at them as tricksters and quibblers. They are called upon for advice and guidance on numerous questions both public and domestic, yet in private they are often regarded as equivocators, artists in double-dealing, masters of chicanery an unscrupulous race of men. The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther preached in the 16th century that one could not be a good lawyer and a good Christian. Shakespeare wrote ~that all
lawyers should be killed. Legal training before becoming a lawyer
The legal profession required a formal training which could in the past be obtained in England until the passing of the Legal Practitioners Act in 1962.
Before then all Nigerian lawyers, like all lawyers from other Commonwealth African countries were trained in England at the English Inns of Court, i.e. Lincoln’s Inn; the Inner Temple, the Middle Temple and Grays Inn. But with the passing of the Legal Practitioners Act, 1962, the Nigerian Law School was established with the Council of Legal Education. Since then, Lawyers are being produced in Nigeria up to date. By implication, all expatriate lawyers had to be enrolled by the Supreme Court of Nigeria otherwise would not have the right of audience.
As you know, lawyers fall into three categories in Nigeria. They are:
1. The new wigs i.e. those newly called to the Bar and are less than 5 years at the Bar;
2. Senior members of the Bar of at least 10 years at the Bar;
3. Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN)
Those are members of the Inner Bar who have taken the silk and having been conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).
In England, the Queen’s Counsel (QC) are equivalent of SANs in Nigeria which replaced the rank of QCs conferred on Nigerian eminent lawyers before Nigeria obtained the Republican status in 1963.
Lawyers In Politics
The role of lawyers in the pre and even post- independent Nigeria was very remarkable. This is because; politics is intimately connected with the practice of the law. From privately advising citizens in chambers as to their legal rights is a short step to leading public debates.
In his words, Professor Hood Phillips, an English constitutional expert and writer, legal profession is the only profession that can conveniently be combined with the law practice. In most countries of the commonwealth world, there is professional convergence between the legal profession and politics.
By this training, a lawyer is best fitted for the drafting of resolutions and of rules and regulations governing organizations not to mention the examination of legal implications of legislative measures.
The role of lawyers in politics cannot be thoroughly discussed without particular reference to Christopher Sapara Williams, the first Nigerian Lawyer who was called to the English Bar by the Inner Temple on the 17th November, 1879. Sapara Williams who played a dominant role in politics once said: “A lawyer lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country”.
He was unquestionably the dominant figure in the politics of Lagos in the first decade of the Iast century. He devoted much of his time to serving public interest.
The need for his legal talent was simply immense. His power of oration was second to none. Consequently he gradually assumed public leadership. His role up to 1901 when he was appointed to the Colonial Legislative Council could be described as that of public educator, participating in public discussions on matters of general interest and on other occasions leading protest movements against legislative measures that he believed were likely to work against the interest of his fellow Nigerians. .
The unique role lawyers were fitted to play in politics of this country cannot be over emphasized. Lawyers have skills most relevant to politics.
The question we should ask of today is how far have Nigerian lawyers met the expectations of their own people? That is to examine the role of members of the legal profession from whom much was expected in terms of public leadership on account of their professional training.. The view expressed as far back in 1917 was that the legal profession represented a potential power for good and that lawyers were capable of exercising wide sphere of usefulness. Little wonder why Christopher Sapara Williams was able to play dominate role.
He devoted much of his time to servicing public interest.
However, the towering political stature of Sapara Williams should not blindfold us to the activities of other lawyers who also took keen interest in public affairs. Such lawyers as Joseph Egerton Shyngle, Eric Moore and J. 1. Nelson-Cole demonstrated a flair for political leadership.
After Sapara Williams was nominated into the Legislative Council, Joseph Egerton Shyngle became the most active, zealous and ablest legal champion of the people’s cause. Because of the role that legal practitioners seemed to have played in the politics of Lagos before the end of the first decade of last century lawyers were being looked upon for leadership and as a fighting brigade of the people.
From about 1908, lawyers appeared to be less prominent in politics. Such individuals as S. H. Pearse, Herbert Macaulay, Rev. James Johnson, Dr. Orisadipe Obasa, Dr. J. K. Randle and Rev. Majola Agbebi were actively assuming the leadership roles.
The formation of quasi-political parties contesting elections was a feature of Lagos politics during the period 1919 - 1947. Lawyers had a share in this important development. The period saw the emergence of Herbert Samuel Heeles Macaulay as the dominant figure in Lagos politics.
No one else captured the imagination of the masses as he did. In July 1923 he organized the first genuine political party in Nigeria named the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). In 1929 the party’s mouthpiece the Daily News, was published and edited by Herbert Macaulay himself. It is to be noted that the organization and running of the party was not a solo effort of Herbert Macaulay. He had his lieutenants, among whom were eminent lawyers as Joseph Egerton Shyngle, the President of the Party, Eric Moore as Vice President, E. J. Alexander Taylor, T. A. Doherty, Montescute Thompson and Ayodele Williams, again all lawyers.
On the role of lawyers in politics, one lawyer stood out prominently in opposition, a discordant element, as it were in Lagos politics. He was Kitoyi later Sir Kitoyi Ajasa, perhaps the most controversial public figure of his time. His contribution to the progress of his country was “ONE OF PERPETUAL PUZZLE”.
It is to be noted however that local politics was by no means confined to Lagos although there were some political or quasi-political activities in some other provincial towns too, but not as was best amplified in Lagos.
In a nutshell, the period between 1901 - 1947 and 1951 - 1960 may well be described as the era of lawyers predominance in the country’s legislatures. By the 1940s the predominance seemed to be reacting resentment at least in some quarters. According to The Daily Comet, a Lagos newspaper in 1945, there was no reason why the Legislative Council of Nigeria should be wrongly regarded as an exclusive preserve of lawyers. It was not that the Legislative Council was an exclusive preserve of lawyers but as a professional group, they dominated it. Lawyers were also amongst the African unofficial members who held the longest tenure of office in the Council. . Thus, Christopher Sapara-Williams was in the Council between 1901 - 1915, Sir Kitoyi Ajasa 1906 - 1933, Adeyemo Alakija 1933 - 1941, S. B. Rhodes 1933 - 43, Eric Moore 1923 - 1938 and 1. A. Doherty 1928 - 1938.
In terms of actual contributions to debates in the Council, it is easy to see from the Council minutes that lawyers tended to dominate the proceedings, exerting an influence somewhat out of proportion to their numerical strength.
However, one must make allowance. for the notable contributions made in the Council by non-lawyers like Dr. C. C. Adeniyi Jones, a first-class parliamentary debater 1923 - 38; Dr. N. 1. Olusoga 1938 - 45, S. C. Obianwu 1923 - 33 and B. O. E. Amobi1933 - 43, but on the whole, it is fair to assert that lawyers tended to take the centre stage in the Councils’ proceedings.
Chief Jimilehin, a legal practitioner , delivered this lecture at the 2010 yearly anniversary of the Law Students Association of Nigeria (LAWSAN), Babcock University, Ilishan, Ogun State, recently.
To be continued
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