As family, friends and associates gather in Lagos today to celebrate Festus Keyamo, who was last Monday conferred with the prestigious Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Davidson Iriekpen chronicles the tortuous journey of this distinguished lawyer to the elite club of the legal profession
He is variously described as a lawyer, social crusader, critic or columnist, but today, Festus Keyamo has added a very big one to his titles: Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Last Monday, the man who has successfully etched his name in the consciousness of Nigerians with his activism in the last couple of years, was among the 28 others conferred with the prestigious title of SAN at the Supreme Court, Abuja.
For many, even though the award was late in coming, it could not have come at a better time. This is because for close to three decades he had been in the forefront of the struggle to entrench the rule of law and good governance in the country. And in a conservative profession, where seniority is taken seriously, Keyamo’s voice has resonated so resoundingly to the admiration of many, both home and abroad.
For those who have been following his career, his attainment of the golden crown was not by fluke, but through the dint of hard work.
Keyamo was born in Ughelli, Delta State on Wednesday, January 21, 1970 by a father, who hails from Uvwie Local Government Area near Warri, in Delta State. However, his mother is from Yewa South Local Government Area of Ogun State. He is the third child and first son in a family of seven children. He attended Oharisi (Model) Primary School, Ughelli from 1975 to 1981, Government College, Ughelli from 1981 to 1986 and proceeded to his Higher School Certificate (HSC) course in the same school.
Before he completed his HSC course, he gained admission through JAMB in 1988 to study law at the Bendel State University, (now Ambrose Alli University (AAU)) Ekpoma, in Edo State, and obtained his LL.B degree (Second Class Upper) in 1992. He was called to the Nigerian Bar on December 15, 1993 setting the stage for a colourful career in law. Much later, Festus Keyamo proceeded to the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in the United Kingdom, where he qualified as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (UK).
He started his legal practice in the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi Chambers in Lagos at the height of the agitation for the revalidation of the June 12, 1993 election. Even as a young lawyer, he was on the front row of legal activism with Chief Gani Fawehinmi, representing icons like Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Chief Frank Kokori and Ken Saro Wiwa as well as the duo of Chief M.K.O. Abiola and Anthony Enahoro, who were arrested in 1994 and other NADECO leaders.
These challenging responsibilities helped to build Keyamo’s confidence in trenchant advocacy emerging with the award of Best Lawyer in Gani Fawehinmi Chambers in March, 1994.
He left Gani Fawehinmi Chambers in 1995, had a brief stint in a partnership and then established his own law firm, Festus Keyamo Chambers, which has since grown rapidly with three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Warri and liaison offices in many states with over 23 lawyers and more than 30 para-legal staff.
Keyamo is one of the private prosecuting counsel for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). In that capacity, he has prosecuted some politically exposed persons on behalf of the commission. He is still pressing on with appeals in respect of the cases that have gone against him. As such, the last has not been heard in respect of those cases. He secured the conviction of Chief Bode George and five others at the High Court and Court of Appeal, before it was overturned by the Supreme Court.
A few years ago, he went to court to challenge the power of the Nigerian President to unilaterally appoint Service Chiefs without the approval of the National Assembly. In a landmark judgment, the court agreed with him and declared the appointments of the nation’s Service Chiefs without the concurrence of the National Assembly as null and void.
In 2014, he won the case of the former Deputy Governor of Adamawa State, Bala James Nggilari, who was said to have resigned, but was later sworn-in as governor when he (Keyamo) argued that his “resignation” was unconstitutional and therefore he ought to have been sworn in as substantive governor upon the impeachment of the Governor, Murtala Nyako.
He has also handled several controversial and landmark cases. He was counsel to the leader of the Niger-Delta Peoples’ Volunteer Force, Mujaheed Dokubo-Asari, in his trial for treasonable felony, lead counsel in the treason trial of the leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, and other MASSOB leaders. He secured the freedom of both separatist leaders from prolonged prison custody. He played a prominent role in the search for the prime suspect and other suspects in the brutal murder of former Attorney General of the Federtion, Chief Bola Ige.
Keyamo also has a rich history of social and legal activism. In 1994, he teamed up with his late boss, Fawehinmi, and other pro-democracy activists to campaign against military rule, and he suffered several arrests and detentions as a result.
Sometime in 2009, he prompted a probe of the leadership of the House of Representatives over alleged profligacy and mismanagement of public funds in the purchase of 380 units of 407 Peugeot cars. His crusade for accountability by the legislators led to the eventual investigation and trial of the House leadership. The case is still at the Court of Appeal, Abuja.
While working with Fawehinmi, he teamed up with him to establish the National Conscience Party (NCP), which was originally designed to challenge military rule. He was the first Northern Coordinator of the movement.
In 1997, he formed the Youth against Misguided Youths that mobilised thousands of youths to oppose the self-succession bid of General Sani Abacha.
Keyamo’s brushes with the various Nigerian authorities have been audacious. He has been detained many times in prisons and cells across Nigeria on account of his crusades for justice, human rights and against corruption. This also led to his facing several charges in courts that were all dismissed.
A man of amazing gusto and dogged spirit, right from his days in school, his activism and advocacy have not gone unnoticed. He has always been rewarded. These include: Best Single Advocate of Nigeria Law Students, (Taslim Elias Moot Trial Competition) 1992; Best Lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi Chambers (March, 1994); Honorary Alumni of various Students’ Associations; Activist of the year (2001) by the Students Union, University of Jos; Listed in the New Who is Who in Nigeria, 2003; and nominated for the World Medal of Honour, 2003, by the American Biographical institute, in 2005.
He was conferred with the chieftaincy titles of Ogba-uri of Ogor Kingdom (Strong man of the law) 2005 and Omorokaro of Uvwie Kingdom (The child who leads the way) 2011 in Delta State but he still prefers to be called ‘Mr.’
As the compassionate person that he is, Keyamo did not just receive the SAN award without a word to the poor, weak and defenceless. He urged them not to feel neglected or abandoned, promising to always be with them.
In a statement, he said although it was a long and tortuous road, “full of thorns and thistles, but to the glory of Almighty God,” he finally became a SAN. He pointed out that even though the award showed that he has reached the pinnacle of his career as a lawyer and as an advocate, “this is the beginning and not the end.”
According to him, for too long the Inner Bar had been perceived as too elitist and deployed only in the service and defence of the rich and powerful or the upper echelon in society. That narrative, Keyamo said, has to change, saying there cannot be greater injustice than giving arms to the already powerful to fight the weak and defenceless. He stressed that the only honour he can do to the silk he adorns is to help the weak, defenceless and just, against what he described as the oppressive might of the powerful and unjust.
“And on the flip side, it is also to ensure that the weak do not use the weakness as an excuse to unjustly blackmail the powerful and manipulate society. For me, my admission into the Inner Bar is an encouragement to continue to speak truth to power; to continue to hold government accountable to the people; to continue to confront the high and mighty in defence of truth and justice.
‘To make my modest contributions to the reforms in the judiciary and to continue in the pro-people path I charted for myself since my call to the Bar. I would not thank all those who wished me well in this journey. Why? Because, we succeeded together; it is our collective elevation. It is those who did not wish me well that I wish to thank specially. Why? Because, they were the ones who pushed me to my limits in order to succeed,” he added.