‘Government Should Reserve Certain Positions for Women’

‘Government Should Reserve Certain Positions for Women’

The legal profession in Nigeria has, over the decades, been perceived as being somewhat biased against female members. Hitherto, some have even seen the law profession as one that is male dominated. Of recent, these perceptions appear to be changing, as there is now gender parity in the numbers of Lawyers called to the Nigerian Bar. Despite these advancements, the average female Lawyer in Nigeria, has to work almost twice as hard to get to the pinnacle of the profession. Dr Paulyn Osobhase Abhulimen-Okpalefe, SAN went through the grid to get into the Inner Bar, and shared her experience with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi over the weekend. She also spoke about affirmative action, and why Government should be compelled to reserve certain top positions for women

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eaned Silk, kindly, share the highlights of your journey into the Inner Bar with us. Did you at any point feel discriminated against, on the basis of your gender? We still have only a few female Senior Advocates compared to the men. Why is this so?

My journey into the Inner Bar, was fraught with challenges. The same challenges both men and women face. It took me 10 solid years of planning and preparation. The last three years were purposeful and intentional; I was moving and working like a train without brakes.

In the course of my entire legal career journey, there have been moments where I was doubted on the basis of my gender. Nonetheless, I stood up and continued to fight like everyone else. I never saw my gender as a disadvantage, but rather as a Lawyer who happens to wear a skirt, and all I needed to do, was to work seven times harder than my learned Colleagues in trousers. Along the line, to the glory of God, I met amazing people who helped pull me up. I refer to them as Divine Destiny Helpers, whom God placed on my path in my tough tortious and rough journey of life. I pray for them every day individually and collectively. These amazing people played strategic roles in my growth and journey to becoming a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

Essentially, network building is a very important part of this. I want to also register my appreciation, to those who did not believe in me. Their disbelief in me was a great impetus to my fighting powers, putting water in my fire and not knowing that they were actually fuelling my fighting powers. Like the saying goes, that when you give a toad a kick, you hasten its journey. 

In summation, the journey into the inner Bar was anchored on handwork, long years of planning, dedication and above all, Pure Graces of God. When you have the first three and lack the last one, then it becomes a struggle like a headless chicken saga.

Personally, as a pure product of God’s graces and mercies, hard work, diligence, dedication/commitment to duties coupled with my never give up spirit, a diehard who possesses natural strength, a whirlwind of passion, independence, native intelligence, and loyalty to a fault, are the bedrock and hallmark of what I am today. The Business of Law is serious business, and must not be treated with levity. 

As to why there are fewer female SANs, several factors are responsible for this. A lot of young women graduate from the Nigerian Law School with great grades, most far better than men. However, the issue may be what happens after being called to Bar? Litigation is one of the fundamental areas, through which one becomes a SAN. Litigation is hard and requires patience. The rewards for being a litigation Lawyer are not enjoyed in the immediate. So, it’s often a question of how tenacious the individual is. Also, don’t forget that many women are faced with progressing in their legal career or building their families. Another factor, is when you don’t have a supporting spouse. The task will become impossible as you will be faced to make a choice between your family and career. You know, as much as I know that most women will choose their families over careers. Despite our divine gift of multitasking, if your Spouse is not supportive of you, there nothing or more you can do in the circumstance. To the glory of God, I am among the lucky few with supporting and understanding spouse and family.

Ultimately, we hope to have many more female SANs as the world evolves, making family building easier so that focus can be on building a successful legal career that culminates into becoming a SAN.

In spite of the fact that there is gender parity in new intakes into the legal profession in Nigeria, the number of female Lawyers who eventually get into leadership positions in Nigeria is still heavily tilted against women. How, in your view, can this age-long challenge be addressed? How can we institutionalise gender parity in the work environment?

In 2017, the World Bank reported that over 41,000 girls were forced into child marriage every day. Such early marriages, are mainly due to how society and parents perceive girls. For instance, in Nigeria, many people view girls as inferior to boys, and expect them to prioritise domestic duties over education and career pursuit. People who do that, tell their girl-child what they can and cannot do. Parents need to teach girls they have the right to a voice, a say, a choice, and a life of their own. Parents also need to teach girls that, societal expectations do not limit them. Such an effort would help girls feel empowered. Girls should never see themselves as Victims, but as Victors because they are beautifully and wonderfully made. They are refined versions of the male species.  

Parents must strive to break these stereotypes, by encouraging girls to seek careers in male-dominated fields. Girls should pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Parents should encourage their girls, to attend and participate in STEM hackathons and scholarships. Such practices could motivate girls to bridge the male-dominated gap in science. They should be taught that if they don’t spread their wings, they wouldn’t know how high they could soar. Teachers should also liaise with accomplished women in STEM to mentor young girls. If these steps are taken, the Nigerian political system as well as the leadership role as it relates to women will change in all fields and industries, the legal profession inclusive. Thank God, women are fast coming up in the Judicial appointments.

There is no woman on President Tinubu’s New Economic Advisory Committee, and there was no outcry against the exclusion of women. Are Nigerian women becoming too complacent? Are you satisfied with the number of women in top government positions and the crop of women who have been chosen?

Last year’s Presidential election offered little hope of delivering any victories for women in leadership. Conspicuously missing from the list of front runners, was a female candidate or running mate. Indeed, Chichi Ojei was the only woman among the 18 Presidential candidates. Effective political education can help achieve numerical political equality, particularly in Nigeria, where patriarchy and cultural norms reward stereotypical gender roles. Successful politicians could train young women in public speaking, networking, and setting goals. Political parties can also organise retreats for women to bond, share ideas, and strategise to build strong coalitions. We must support women to women agendas, in order to attain the set goals.

A quota system, can also help increase women’s representation in political office. The Government could reserve a certain percentage of high-level governmental positions for women. For example, the President and State Governors (like Kwara State under Governor AbdulRazaq) could ensure that women constitute at least 35% of their appointed cabinet members, such as Ministers, Commissioners, Heads of Agencies and Parastatals, Special Advisers and Ambassadors etc. We have qualified and most deserving women, worthy of such appointments.

Since Dame Priscilla Kuye became President of the NBA in 1992, no other female Lawyer has ever made it that far. Only two women have been General Secretary, Mrs Hairat Balogun and Mrs Joyce Oduah. Even the NBA Branches have mostly been manned by men. Is it that women are not interested in the leadership of the NBA, or there is a silent unwritten policy that these positions must only be reserved for the men? How can this trend be reversed?

The premise of women’s engagement in political leadership in Nigeria and the NBA inclusive is not foreign, but is instead firmly rooted in the historical traditions of societies throughout the nation. How did Nigeria get to this present state? As Africa’s largest economy and democracy, what happens in Nigeria has substantial regional and global implications. Harnessing the power of women’s political leadership will be critical for the incoming government, faced with the opportunity to set the country on a new path in addressing pressing issues such as poverty reduction, economic growth, climate change, conflict, natural resources management, pandemic preparedness, and youth disillusionment.

It is time to reclaim Nigeria’s legacy of women’s involvement in political leadership, in the NBA and Nigeria at large, and to ensure that the nation’s governance reflects, recognises, and serves the full scope of its citizenry (regardless of gender). It is time to be bold and ambitious in raising aspirations beyond the limited horizon of a 35% representation, to rectify the gross imbalance and tap into the abundance of leadership skills and potential in Africa’s most populous nation. Remember when you empower a woman, you empower a nation.

In the past few months many Lawyers have been physically molested by security agencies, especially the Police. What does it portend for the profession when Lawyers are continually intimidated and harassed in the course of their professional duties? How can we stem this negative tide?

The numbers of Lawyers who have been wrongly arrested, detained, brutalised, harassed and disgraced are too many to mention here. Some of them are Mr Justin Gbagir Esq. NBA Makurdi Chairman that was grievously assaulted recently by the EFCC Zonal Commander in Benue State, Mr Shamsudden Musa who was recently detained for 105 days by the Police in Abuja and Mr Ozunye G. Nsirim who was detained and charged to court by the Police Command of Rivers State for defending his Client. So many of the Lawyers that were assaulted and harassed by the security agencies over the years, were unreported. It is important that the NBA wakes up to it’s responsibility to protect each and every Lawyer, and to ensure that all Security Agencies in Nigeria understand their role and responsibility under our extant laws and also the roles of a Lawyer in the administration of criminal justice system.

It is my belief that the Nigerian Bar Association as a partner in the administration of justice generally, should also be in the forefront in helping the citizens understand the operation of our laws and perhaps, partner with all major stakeholders in the same vein to achieve a seamless administration of criminal justice that will be highly beneficial to our country.

Despite the outcry from Nigerian Lawyers, the Nigerian Government stated that it will continue to explore avenues to allow British Lawyers into our legal space to do legal work. What are your views on this? If you do not support this, would you support it if there is reciprocity, that is, whatever opportunities British Lawyers are given here, Nigerian Lawyers would be given the same in the UK?

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) should criticise the Federal Government’s bilateral agreement with the United Kingdom, purporting to allow English Lawyers to practice in Nigeria. It is indeed, unfortunate that this tragic reminder of our colonial past is being gleefully celebrated at the highest level of the Government of Nigeria. What is more disheartening is the fact that a decision of this magnitude that adversely affects the well-being and livelihood of millions of Nigerians, could be taken without any consultation, especially with the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).

It is truly tragic that while the Government of the UK is seeking opportunities for its own Lawyers beyond its constrained environment, the Government of Nigeria is seen to be attempting to deprive Nigerian Lawyers and their millions of dependents their only of means of livelihood.

To embark on such a venture without recourse to the NBA is the height of insensitivity to the plight of the legal profession in Nigeria, and this is totally unacceptable, the Federal Government’s bilateral agreement with the United Kingdom, purporting to allow English Lawyers to practice in Nigeria.

If however, there is going to be reciprocity of allowing Nigerian Lawyers to practice in the UK, then it may amount to a level playing field. The British Government will not even allow our British trained Lawyers to practice in the UK, without being called to any of the Inns in the UK.

Nigerian courts were compelled to conduct virtual court proceedings, especially during the Covid-19 restrictions. Do you think virtual court hearings should be embraced by all trial courts?

Like many countries around the world, Nigeria was forced to impose a lockdown in Lagos and Abuja to combat the spread of Covid-19. The Government’s ban on public gatherings and interstate travel resulted in the Judiciary’s suspension of court sittings from March to May 2020, except for hearing of cases that were considered urgent, essential or time-bound. Of course, this led to difficulty in accessing justice, delay in the administration of justice and non-compliance with filing timelines.

The massive upheaval caused by the pandemic in litigation processes, has highlighted the global need for the development of an effective remote justice system with the aid of technology. Nigeria has not been left behind in this trend, as innovations have been introduced to aid the development of a remote system for the litigation process.

The Judiciary affirmed its commitment to the development of a remote justice system while considering the legal challenge to the constitutionality of virtual hearings in ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF LAGOS STATE v ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION & ANOR, AND ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF EKITI STATE v ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION.

In the first case, the Plaintiff requested that the Supreme Court determine whether remote hearings of any kind (whether by Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Skype or any other audiovisual or video conference platform) by the Lagos State High Court (or any other courts in Nigeria) in aid of hearing and determination of cases, is constitutional. In the second case, the Plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the directive of the Minister of Justice and the Attorney-General of the Federation to the Heads of Courts at Federal and State levels to adopt virtual court sittings.

Since the supreme Court has sanctioned it, I think it should be embraced by all Courts in the land.

Some have suggested and advocated that, the time has come for this jurisdiction to dump the wig and gown as mandatory dresses for courts. On what side of the divide are you?

This is a hard one to crack. I will speak for myself. I read law because of how Lawyers dress and carried themselves. I didn’t read law, because I knew what Lawyers were doing. The way we dress is our identity, as members of the noble profession. Most professions are looking for identity for their profession. If we dumped the legal apparel, what are we going to be wearing to court? In view of our multicultural dimensions, are we going to adopt the Ibo, Hausa or Yoruba styles of dressing to go to court? Even if we are to wear ordinary black and white, what will distinguish us from Hotel Managers and Choirmasters? Anyone that sees the way Lawyers are adorned, will not mistake us for another profession.

Conclusively, under the extant rule, no Lawyer has the right of audience in our superior court of records unless you are “properly robed”, which means you must array yourself in the voluptuous gown and put on your head an awful grey wig whose provenance dated back to 17th Century. Wearing of wig and gown by Barristers is a time-honoured British tradition dating back to the 1680s, and we inherited it as part of the legacy of the common law civilisation. Dumping the wig and gown amounts to picking and choosing as our people say, that when a man sells his dog to buy a monkey, he still has something on four legs in his house. If we are to dump the past, then we most do away with the Common laws and make and rely on our local laws.

I am also not unmindful of the school of thought that wants to do away with the wig and gown, on the ground that in some commonwealth countries like Canada, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and Kenya, the Judges and attorneys don’t wear wigs. Even in United Kingdom which gave the tradition to the world, there are a lot of reforms going on.

Here in Nigeria, people don’t robe before Magistrates, does that make our Magistrates’ courts less efficient in dispensing justice? The problem with us in this part of the world is that we are hardly capable of original thinking, but take delight in sheepishly following other’s people’s ways of life. The culture that invented wig and gown is different from our own, and the weather is different too. If we must do away with the wig and gown, then we must do away with the Common law system and develop our indigenous law, putting our peculiarities and diversity into contest.

Would you say that Nigeria is admitting too many Lawyers into the profession?

A simple attempt at answering these posers, will be that while the total number of Lawyers enrolled in Nigeria are still less than 200,000, thousands have died, and many more retired from active legal practice, or moved on to other human endeavours like the Jakpa syndrome. As a result, the actual number of active Lawyers in Nigeria today is considerably lesser. With a population of over 250 Million people, this figure still indicates a severe shortage of Lawyers in Nigeria. And, empirically, while the numbers show a shortage of Lawyers proportional to Nigeria’s growing population, there is a more acute shortage of top legal talents, and this poses a huge threat to the future of legal practice in Nigeria.

So, I believe there’s enough space and room to take up and accommodate more young Lawyers, especially where there are new fields of emerging law in marine, ICT, Fintech, etc.

How would you rate the Tinubu administration so far, vis-à-vis the primary purpose of government, that is the security and welfare of the people? Are there any additional measures that can be taken to alleviate the suffering of the people? People are hungry, so much so that they are looting anything they believe contains food

Poverty is one of the forces, militating against the social and economic development of Nigeria. The level of poverty in Nigeria is astronomically high and politically embarrassing, considering the enormous human and mineral resources the country is endowed with and despite the huge resources successive government have committed to alleviate and/or eradicate poverty, it seems no success has been achieved. In order for the Tinubu Government to succeed in alleviating the suffering of the masses, it has to introduce programmes that include, Operation Feed the Nation, Green Revolution, Better Life for Rural Women, Family Economic Advancement Programme etc. All the poverty alleviation programmes have not been successful due to inadequate funding, lack of proper coordination and commitment, poor design, and evaluation of programmes etc. I therefore, recommend that Government should ensure that programmes of poverty eradication are well designed, evaluated and coordinated before they are carried out, fraudulent officials should be prosecuted to serve as deterrent to others handling poverty eradication programmes and so on.

What can be done to reduce the evil of domestic violence and child abuse? The other day, a female Lawyer was arrested for brutalising her female staff who may even be underage. Despite the Child’s Rights Act, how come people still employ underaged children as household staff?

Domestic violence is a violent or aggressive behaviour in the home setting, involving the violent abuse of a spouse or a partner.

Firstly, no one act comprises Domestic Violence. Domestic Violence can be sexual, physical, emotional, economic and psychological.

Again, the causes of domestic violence are many and varied. It therefore follows that, the solution to domestic violence would depend on the actual cause of the violent behaviour. We all know that a cause has to be identified and accepted, before a solution can be prescribed. Like my late Father would always say to us that, “recognition of any malady is the beginning of its cure”.

Lastly, even when these causes are identified, society and the abusers, refuse to accept them as being causes of domestic violence. Instead, some persons erroneously prefer to hold the victim responsible for the action of the abuser. This may seem strange, but victim blaming is the order of the day in our African society today. For example:

– Male victims are unable to walk out of violent marriages, because it is believed that a man is less of a man if he is not in charge of the situation at all times. It is not culturally accepted for him to leave such marriages. He is perceived in the light of a coward, weakling or less than a man. This is damaging to the ego of most men, who eventually choose to keep condoning emotional abuse instead. Vice versa for women who must stay and condone domestic abuse, because they have to stay married in order to cover a societal gap. 

Best Solutions to domestic violence is Seeking Refuge – Victims are advised to seek refuge in cases of domestic violence to ensure that the conflict doesn’t escalate, and to heal up emotionally. Whether the decision to seek refuge from an abusive marriage will be a temporary or a permanent one, would determine on the circumstances of each individual case of abuse and on the conduct of the abuser afterwards.

In the instances enumerated below, victims of abuse may give the marriage a second chance where the abuser:

– accepts that he/she alone is responsible for his/her actions,

-accepts that he/she needs help,

– accepts to seek help from the right sources as will be discussed below,

-accept to be accountable to an unbiased third party, who should be a specialist in counselling/handling domestic violent cases.

In the past National Assembly cycles through the Fourth Republic, the constitutional amendment exercises have really come to nothing. Now, there is talk of another exercise in this present 10th National Assembly. Do you think this one will amount to anything, or that as usual, Nigerians are being deceived or distracted? Do you think the Constitution should be totally redrawn or it can continue to be amended? What areas should be addressed? Apart from the issue of restructuring to reflect true Federalism, a new debate has arisen on returning to the Parliamentary system. Kindly, share your views on this

The Constitution, being an organic document, must be responsive to challenges and emerging trends. Across the globe, Constitutions are amended to respond to socio-economic, cultural and political changes. But, the amendment process must include the mass participation of the people. It must be transparent, credible, and rigorous, to ensure that it is done in the interest of the people and not in the personal interest of the law makers.

Nigeria operates a Constitutional democracy, with a Written Constitution which is the grundnorm and stands above all other laws. The process of amending the Constitution is rigid and stringent. A Bill passes through first reading, second reading and referral, public hearing and third reading and passage.

Under Section 9 of the Constitution, it can be amended by a proposed resolution supported by a two-thirds majority of both Houses – the Senate and the House of Representatives. It further requires approval by not less than two-thirds of the 36 Houses of Assembly in the Federation.

Personally, I believe there are amendments that are made that are beneficial – some of these Bills include the financial autonomy for local government areas and free, compulsory basic education. Similarly, rights to food and food security, and allowing both State and Federal Governments to legislate on railways.

The Nigerian Constitution requires a major and fundamental amendment, if not replacement. The constitutional history of Nigeria, is both imperialist and military induced. Only a Constitution enacted by the people themselves, will be accepted by them. It will also include diverse cultures and ethnicities. It will confer legitimacy on the organs of Government, and build trust between the Government and the people. Genuine participation of the people in the constitution-making process, will facilitate compliance and would legitimise the Constitution.

Thank you Learned Silk.

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