PROF. ERNEST OJUKWU, SAN

Interviewed by Funke Olaode

Does the calmness about you reflect your personality?
May be my background played a key role. We were brought up to be simple and humble. You are what you are because others have made you. If others don’t give you a chance, you can’t be made.

What influenced you to study law?
I can’t say I have any serious reason. I was a science student at the time I was finishing my ‘O’ levels. May be providence steered me out of it. Half way into my decision I realized there was no single lawyer from my village, Ahaba Imenyi in Abia State. It became a challenge and in order to break that jinx, I embraced law, went ahead to study at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) from 1979-1983. I proceeded to Law school in 1984 afterwhich I was called to the Nigerian bar. It was a great feelings and sense of accomplishment becoming the first lawyer from my village. Today, the village has produced several lawyers. In my own family alone, I am a lawyer, my wife is a judge, my younger brother is a lawyer, and my two children are lawyers.

How do you cope with a spouse in the same profession?
We have been coping well and have never experienced personality clash. Don’t forget two of my children are also lawyers. In our case, the beauty of it is that I am a lawyer and she is a judge. For instance, if I am in the study preparing a material, she will understand and she may not worry if I didn’t pay much attention to her. It is the same way if she has to prepare for her court cases, I would understand and that won’t be a problem if she doesn’t pay attention to me.

What vocation were your parents into?
My father was a civil servant and my mother was a primary school teacher. I was brought up by educated parents. And growing up under the tutelage of a mother who was a teacher helped us. I remember families who didn’t have the kind of opportunity we had. We learnt manners quickly: to be well behaved and all that. Also, we learnt to be focused, work hard, being disciplined and operate within your means as you grow.

When did you kick off your career?
Kicking off my career in those days took a lot of determination because I didn’t have any prepared law library to fall back on. I just knew I was going to succeed through dint of hard work and by being focused. And even as a young lawyer I didn’t entertain any fear. University of Ife also groomed us as a mini Nigeria where we had different students from different backgrounds. Towards the end of my academic sojourn at Ife I had already formed my career. I knew what I wanted out of life and I pursued it. This actually helped to navigate when I found myself in the larger society trying to find my feet.

I knew I was going to be a law teacher. After youth service, I started teaching at the then Imo State University. I then came back to Ife and did my post graduate studies, went back and continued my teaching career at Abia State University. I also combined it with legal practice at a time. So I knew what I wanted. I was in the academic environment for 29 years before switching into legal profession. I was a pioneer deputy director-general in charge of the Nigerian Law School (Enugu Campus) from 2001-2013.

Why did you quit the classroom for legal practice?
A time will come when you decide how long you stay in a place. I had been in the academic for 29 years. I felt I had contributed my quota and it was time for me to do more exploits.

Would you say legal practice is more rewarding than being a teacher?
Of course, you make more money as a legal practitioner. But beyond money I think being passionate about what you do is more rewarding. If you identify your passion, you pursue it and you make success out of it money will follow.

When did you get a breakthrough as a lawyer?
Surprisingly, my breakthrough happened during my teaching career. I have taught between 15,000 and 20,000 students. Ability to impact knowledge as a teacher was my breakthrough. Today, some of my former students are judges, many are Senior Advocates of Nigeria and many are professors, successful businessmen and even teachers. I am fulfilled.

Would you still like to be a lawyer if there is another world?
Yes. Whatever profession I find myself I will still pitch my tent with teaching because it is fulfilling to impart knowledge to others, shape the future of others. We must have got that trait from my mother because two of my siblings teach as well.