Professor Epiphany Azinge

His tenure as Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, witnessed monumental innovations and advancements in the institution’s academic curriculum. Retiring from the Institute last year, Professor Epiphany Azinge, SAN, has since delved into private legal practice, while establishing his Foundation, and striving to set up a Private University in the next few years. Married to an academic who is also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Prof Azinge spoke with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi on several issues, including his views on legal education in Nigeria, and his vision which has crystallised into the Epiphany Azinge Foundation being launched on November 13, 2017

 

You recently took a radical view on legal education in Nigeria, when you advocated for the abolition of the Nigerian Law School. What informed this extreme position and what alternatives would you suggest?

My comments with the greatest respect, ought not to be considered as radical in the first place. It was well considered and responsibly articulated. We all agree that the legal profession is a conservative profession, but it does not preclude us from projecting into the future.

Was it not the great American jurist Hon Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who opined “that the inn that shelters the knight is not the end of his journey; the law like the sojourner must be ready for tomorrow; it must have a principle of growth”. The legal profession, indeed, legal education, must have a principle of growth. We must be ready for tomorrow. So it was from the prism of projecting to the future, that I made the call for abolition or rather scrapping of Nigerian Law School. My reason is based on facts.

Firstly, that the law school admission, is growing in geometric proportion, given the noticeable increase in the number of law faculties in Nigeria. A situation where more than 1,500 students sit in one auditorium for lectures, is not better than a market place. No serious training, can blossom in such an atmosphere. Secondly, is that lawyers or members of the legal profession, ascribe too much importance to themselves. Often, this is done without consideration for the sensibilities of other professions or disciplines. Have we ever paused to ponder why training of potential Lawyers should be funded from the coffers of the government and not for Medical Doctors, Engineers, Nurses, Architects, and Pharmacists? How many of these graduates of law school end up in government employment? So, why should it be the business of government to invest in their training?

As Director General of Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, I joined the other parastatals of Ministry of Justice, to appear before the Oransaye Panel in 2009 – 2010. The law school was subjected to serious inquisition on why they should be funded by Federal Government. It was a major issue, and all of us joined in arguing in favour of the law school. Not that we were convinced about the strength of our arguments, but because we wanted to be politically correct. I saw the white paper report, which recommended partial funding for the law school.

My deduction is that, it is only a matter of time and there will come a Pharaoh that knows no Joseph, and funding of law school by the Federal Government will become a thing of the past. It was from this vantage position and in order to prepare for the unknown, that I made my proclamation. You can now understand, why it was not necessarily a radical proposition.

Lastly, is that I am convinced that the much touted quality of law school products, is as a result of law not being upgraded to a graduate program. My position is that, the time has come for law to become a graduate programme. In other words, you must have a first degree before aspiring to get into legal education. But more significantly, I posit that the training in law school, can take place in the law facilities. All that is required is to harmonise the curriculum, and have the Council of Legal Education, conduct the examinations. You can imagine how elated I was, when my daughter who is rounding up her doctorate degree in law at Warwick University, called me to state that she was offered to serve in a committee being set up to work out modalities for law faculties to take up practical legal training in UK with effect from 2020. That, for me, is a vindication of my stance, and it shows that some of our strategic thinking is not only within the bounds of our localised environment

 

Many are saying that the standard of legal education in Nigeria is on a downward spiral, thereby producing ‘half baked’ Lawyers. This is also an indictment on the lecturers. Kindly, comment on this.

To accept that the standard of legal education is on a downward spiral in Nigeria, is to admit without qualification, that the standard of education in Nigerian has fallen to an all time low. What I mean is that, it is uncharitable to single out legal education.

My thesis is that, three or four years spent in the law faculty, is nothing compared to the years in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools. Basic knowledge at our disposal, is that by the time you are ready for Jamb after SS3, the character is already formed. But more significantly, your all round knowledge, comprehension ability, capacity to express oneself in oral and written english, and the general analytical mind are clearly defined.

What the law faculty does, is to introduce you to legal scholarship and train you to reason like a lawyer. That is the basic distinction, between a lawyer and non–lawyers. English Language is not taught at law faculties. Indeed, you are expected to have a credit in English and in some Institutions in English Literature, to be qualified for admission to a law faculty. My position is that, once the stream is polluted from the source, it is difficult to remedy at the “confluence” or the “tributaries”. Yes, we have lawyers who have challenges expressing themselves in english language. Does that make them “half baked” lawyers? Perhaps no. Given the opportunity to communicate in another language, you possibly will appreciate their grasps of legal technicalities. I am not in any way suggesting, that Lawyers should now be trained in vernacular. I don’t want to be tagged radical again in my thoughts. All I am saying is that, we must make excuses for that young man from the hinterland whose early exposure to school is in native language, without access to print or electronic media, and never read a literature book until late in his teens.

He is bound to wobble in his attempt to communicate in english. But that does not make him “half baked”.

As for indictment of the lecturers, that, I am afraid is embarking on a wild goose chase.

 

Nigeria is in a precarious situation politically. There are agitations for restructuring, devolution of powers and some sections of the country are even demanding a referendum for outright self- government, while others issue quit notices to others to quit their region. What would be your advice to the Government under these circumstances?

I agree that our country is in a precarious situation politically. Nigeria is sitting on a precipice, and is like a time bomb waiting to explode. How we suddenly got to this point, is what continues to amaze me. How I wish Nigerians as a whole are agitating for restructuring, devolution of powers, regionalism, self government referendum etc. Rather what we see is sectionalism, ethnicity and tribalism writ large. We have progressed from cynicism to mistrust, and suddenly it appears that the centre can no longer hold.

One lesson you learn as a student of history, is that it is better to jaw- jaw than to war-war. The last National Conference, gave Nigerians the opportunity, to ventilate our views about some of these issues. The National Assembly in its wisdom, embarked on a constitutional amendment exercise that highlighted some of these issues. Given the sectional perception at work, those against restructuring, devolution of powers etc outvoted those agitating for them. Politics, is generally regarded as a game of numbers. But building a nation demands more than numerical superiority. It requires inclusiveness, recognition of the importance of any group, no matter how small in number, creation of a semblance of harmony, peace and unity, absence of marginalisation or superiority complex, genuine integration and constructive engagement at all times.

My advice to the Government of the day, is to open channels of engagement, dialogue with all the agitators, and endeavour to address some of the issues orchestrating the agitations. As a student of jurisprudence, the opinion of Dean Roscoe Pound, that law must strive to reconcile competing interests in society, appeals to me a lot. Government through the instrumentality of law (Constitution as the organic document), owes the people a duty to harmonise and reconcile these competing interests, in a way to reduce the spate of agitations and create the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This can be achieved, only through dialogue and respectable engagement.

 

The law firm of Azinge & Co has continued to raise very engaging national issues at its annual Roundtable. The last one raised hot issues which are still being debated, especially whether Constitutional Delimitation is a Legal or Political question. How has that sensitive issue been addressed?

I appreciate the recognition of the humble contributions we are making from our law firm. Yes, we interrogated the subject of constituency delimitation exhaustively. The 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), enjoins that Federal constituencies should be delimited or delineated not less 10 years.

My position is that, since 1999 till date (about 18 years), no attempt has been made to redelimit constituencies. I raised this issue with Prof A. Jega while he was on the saddle, and he attributed the inability of INEC to delimit to Administrative challenges. That was, with respect, off the mark for a constitutional issue of such magnitude. I have opted once more, to bring it to the front burner of national discourse, so that we shall have enough time to address it this time, before the 2019 elections

Modern democracies consider delimitation of constituencies, an essential ingredient in the conduct of elections. The approach is acceptable, regardless of the electoral system operational in a given society. The art of delimitation is the practice whereby the state or nation, is sub- divided into a stipulated number of constituencies. It basically ensures that, representation is fairly and evenly shared among the electorate.

Electoral rights though simple and democratic, would lack the substance of true political democracy, if parliament is not evenly divided. Inextricably intertwined in the principle or concept of constituency delimitation, is the implied doctrine of “One man” one vote, one value”. In a host of cases starting with Baker v Carr, the Supreme Court of US ably articulated the significance and importance of congressional reapportionment of electoral districts

Whether delimitation of constituencies is a legal or political question, is clearly for the court to determine. Going by the litany of cases from US and other jurisdictions, the position which is widely acknowledged, is that citizens have the locus standi to contest issues of delimitation. What is not settled even in American jurisprudence, is whether the court can enter the “political thicket”. In some instances, the court did. In others, the court resiled. I am of the considered opinion, that given the provisions of the Nigerian constitution, it is clearly a legal, and not political question.

 

Your tenure as Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies saw quite a number of innovations, including the establishment of an e-library, a review and expansion of the curriculum of the Institute, and securing grants from donor organisations like the Theophilus Danjuma Foundation. How have these projects fared since you left office as DG, though you are still there as Professor?

Once more, I thank you for recognising my humble contribution as Director General of Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. I am always quick to point out that, it was a team work, for which I cannot take absolute credit. My successor has continued and indeed, improved on the achievements recorded during my tenure. My prayer is for the Institute to continue to grow from strength to strength to the glory of God. I am aware that the Theophilus Danjuma Foundation grant is running smoothly and very soon, a major event from that grant will take place. Other projects are also running smoothly.

Perhaps I need to add that I disengaged from the services of the Institute on the 1st of January 2016, when I voluntarily retired. I want to devote my time to the pursuit of fresh challenges, and explore the prospect of establishing a private University, and also run my Foundation creditably. This, without prejudice to the fact that I have since returned to the law firm, to reunite with my wife.

Some have observed that, it is unethical that some Senior Advocates who applied through the platform of academics immediately after taking silk, jump into legal practice. Would you say this is a fair criticism? What is your view about it?

I see nothing wrong or unethical about Senior Advocates of Nigeria (on Platform of Academics) going to court. The expression “Jump” into legal practice, presents them in bad light. A good number have always been in legal practice and their exposure in court, has proved immensely beneficial to students in class.

Screening of applicants for award of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on the category of Academics, requires that they show evidence of payment of practicing fees and NBA dues respectively. Payment of practicing fees, presupposes that they have a licence to practice in the first place. No doubt, it is a greater honour for them to show off their new status, immediately after elevation. No one should begrudge them that entitlement. It certainly does not conduce to “Jumping” into legal practice.

 

Do you think that the CJN’s directive to all Chief Judge’s to set aside at least one court to try corruption cases, is the panacea to concluding these cases quicker and handling the issue of corruption cases more efficiently in a bid to secure more convictions?

I consider the CJN’s directive, a step in the right direction. Trial of corruption cases, certainly has not moved with the speed of light. But it is generally believed that, we can do better in that regard. With the advent of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, the thinking was that a solution to the problem has emerged. That does not appear to be the case. The move by the CJN, is yet another attempt to expedite trial proceedings. Let us hope that it will go a long way in speedy conduct of corruption cases.

Even at that, Lawyers must not be spared for their role in securing unnecessary adjournments for suspects. In this regard, the judge must be firmly in control of his or her court to ensure that such subterfuges are well taken care of

Lastly, the prosecution must have their witnesses and documentary evidence needed for trial, in place before initiating prosecution. More often than not, prosecutors have occasioned adjournment of trials more than the defence counsel, because of manifest lack of preparedness.

 

Is there really a necessity for the recently created Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee? Some have argued that even if there is a need for such a Committee, there is a problem with the membership of the Committee, especially with regard to Lawyers who may be handing corruption cases in various courts, being on the Committee. Kindly, comment on this?

Again this is another attempt by the NJC, to expedite action in our courts. It is an established practice of NJC, to engage in performance evaluation of judges. This is an additional move, to ensure that judges are up and about as regards trial of corruption and financial crimes cases. I have raised a note of caution, that the process and procedure must not be such that may amount to breathing down the neck of judges and stampeding them to lose control of their courts.

Furthermore, it must not intimidate them to compromise the independence they ordinarily should enjoy, and possibly erode their neutrality and impartiality in the cases being monitored. Once we can guarantee that the judges will not be cowed to lose control of their courts, then the issue of monitoring is perfect.

As regards membership of the monitoring committee, the point has been made loud and clear, that those handling corruption cases should cease to be members. This can be modified to mean that, no member of the Committee, should monitor cases in a particular court where he is conducting any case whatsoever. It is therefore, the duty of the member to disclose courts where he is conducting cases, criminal or civil, and excuse himself from monitoring trials in those courts.

 

What has been your experience so far as a member of the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal (CSAT)? What is the role of the CSAT? Does your membership give Nigeria any advantages?

Exciting, challenging, engaging and intellectually stimulating. I have found my membership, as a call to duty in the service of the commonwealth and member states of that body. To sit with 2 or 4 other members (firstly 3 for initial sitting and 5 for review of cases), affords you opportunity to share your knowledge, and appreciate the perspective of jurists from other climes on issues of Administrative Tribunal.

The mandate of CSAT, permits it to handle disputes of employment contracts and administrative regulations involving staff of the commonwealth secretariats. It also extends in rare instances, to addressing issues between member states of the commonwealth with special regard to staff engagements.

As you are aware, membership of CSAT is not by appointment, but by election. So you are put up to represent your nation, and other members of the commonwealth are invited to cast their votes. In my case, I not only represent Nigeria, I also represent Africa, as I am the only African presently sitting on the Tribunal.

The advantages are obvious. It gives you access to the administrative hierarchy, protect the interest of Nigeria and Nigerians within the bounds of civility, and helps me build capacity in the area of Law of International Civil Service, which I am already sharing with other Nigerians. On the whole I consider it a worthwhile exposure.

 

Arbitration still does not seem to have caught on properly in Nigeria. Why is this so? If it is the way forward especially with respect to decongestion of court dockets and quicker dispensation of justice, what steps must we take to make it more commonplace in Nigeria

With respect, I want to posit that in the last 10-12 years, ADR generally seems to have enveloped Nigeria. Arbitration in particular, became common place in commercial agreements and transnational transactions. The challenge became apparent, when instead of becoming a veritable instrument for decongesting court dockets, it has turned to be become an avenue for elongation of dispute settlement. Like everything Nigerian, parties now see arbitration as the first lap of a marathon race. Arbitral awards rather than end arbitral proceedings, are now the precursor to court litigation. Parties now hide under all sorts of nebulous reasons, to appeal an award in the court. From there the matter proceeds to the Court of Appeal, and then to the Supreme Court.

No doubt, this defeats the whole essence of Arbitration. The so called speedy, informal and cheap process, has turned out to be expensive, slow and ultimately formalised through court proceedings. Many foreign investors, have not seen arbitration in Nigeria as capable of inspiring confidence, and most of them are scared of investing in Nigeria.

The good news however, is that a practice directive has been issued recently by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, stating that no court shall entertain an action instituted to enforce a contract or claim damages arising from a breach thereof, in which the parties have, by consent, included an arbitration clause, and without first ensuring that the clause is invoked and enforced. The courts must insist on enforcement of the arbitration clause, by declining jurisdiction and award substantial costs against parties engaged in the practice. This, for me, is a step in the right direction.

 

IPOB was recently proscribed by the Government. Were the steps taken to proscribe the organisation correct and appropriate? Do you believe that IPOB qualifies as a Terrorist Organisation or that there was a need to proscribe it? Is this the way that Government should have gone about addressing the Igbo agitation against marginalisation?

As far as the Terrorism Prevention Act is concerned, government followed the steps prescribed by law to the letter. To that extent, the proscription is in accordance with the extant law. Whether that makes it correct or appropriate, is a totally different proposition.

My opinion may not matter, in determining whether or not IPOB has qualities of a Terrorist Organisation. Within the context of the law, the definition or categorisation, is from the prism of those the law has mandated to decide as appropriate. Bearing in mind that they have more facts at their disposal, it is only proper to defer to them in this regard.

My point of departure however, is that when compared to other known terrorist organisations, IPOB truly has not graduated to that level. Perhaps, branding IPOB a terrorist organisation is a preemptive action, to degrade the activities of IPOB.

I am of the considered opinion that, what government succeeded in doing, is to suppress the agitations of IPOB and by extension the cry of marginalisation of the Igbo’s. To address the fears of the Igbo’s, requires bringing them back to the mainstream of governance by appointments to relevant portfolios, and rehabilitation of decaying infrastructure in the South East. Above all, is that Government must be willing to engage and dialogue with all people agitating for one reason or the other.

 

Many are saying that the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee and the Privileges Committee may be shirking their responsibilities, as quite a few Lawyers violate the rules of professional ethics frequently, and they get away with all sorts of atrocities, despite reports and petitions being made to these two bodies. Is there any truth to these allegations against the two Committees?

I have never been a member of the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee and to that extent, I cannot competently speak on their activities. However, I am aware of the zest and enthusiasm they bring to bear, in the conduct of their cases. I have also read of Lawyers that have been disciplined by the LPDC.

For the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee of which I am a member, I can say without equivocation or fear of contradiction, that all petitions are vigorously scrutinised and appropriate measures taken in line with the guidelines. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that we shirk responsibility and applicants get away with all sorts of atrocities, despite reports and petitions. We are witnesses to the decision of LPDC withdrawing its nomination of a candidate, just about 72 hours to investiture. That is indicative of how serious the Committee is, and the extent it can go to demonstrate that only fit and proper persons (in terms of integrity and professionalism), are elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

 

We understand that the Epiphany Azinge Foundation will be launched on November 13. The title of the Inaugural Lecture – ‘Nigeria in search of a Detribalised Race’, is extremely timely. Do you believe this can be achieved? What are the aims and goals of your Foundation?

You are perfectly right. My Foundation, Epiphany Azinge Foundation, will be formally inaugurated on 13th November, 2017. Incidentally 13th of November is also my birthday. We have chosen to use the platform, to address the worsening issue of tribalism and ethnicity, in our national life. We feel that, it is time we interrogate how we can build a detribalised country, engender integration and promote peace and harmony. We want to see more marriages across cultural and religious divides, and a country that recognises you more as a citizen of Nigeria, than a citizen of your State of origin, first and foremost. It is our hope that, the public lecture and award ceremony, will set an agenda and chart a roadmap for detribalisation in our polity. The major objectives of the Foundation include:

(a) Promotion of academic values and pursuit of excellence in our nation

(b) Establish a citadel of higher learning for teaching, research and promotion of knowledge

(c) Help to propagate and source for funds for actualisation of research innovations, inventions and creative intellectual property

(d) Cultivate and inculcate the altruistic passion of volunteerism

(e) Vigorously pursue the promotion of work ethics in the public sector in Nigeria with a view to reinvigorating patriotic fervour, dignity of labour and hard work

(f) Identify, support and promote excellent innovative minds who are trailblazers in their areas of influence

(g) Institute awards, honours and investitures in schools, universities and the wider society and

(h) To groom and mentor young men and women in the art of leadership and enthronement of high ethical values and standards.