In this speech, the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Security Agencies Relations Committee (NBA-SARC) , CHIEF JOE-KYAI GADZAMA SAN tracks his sojourn into the legal profession and notes that if young lawyers “get counsel from the senior ones, engage them, look for someone as a role model and copy and paste with some few adjustments,” they will build successful legal careers
Being the transcribed version of the reminiscences by Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama, OFR, MFR, SAN, FNIALS, FICMC, DiplCArb, FNICArb, FCIArb, C.Arb (Of Lincoln’s Inn, Barrister/Life Bencher/Certified Mediator/Regulatory Consultant) Sardauna of Uba, Okwulora of Ukpo and Bobajiro of Akure Kingdom, Founding Principal Partner of J-K Gadzama LLP on Friday, March 4, 2022 at the NBA Abuja Branch (Unity Bar) monthly meeting for the month of March 2022, held at A-Class Park And Recreation, Kashim Ibrahim Way, Maitama, Abuja and hosted by former Chairman, NBA Abuja Branch, P. O. Okolo SAN
Our indefatigable chairman of the branch, Moses Ebute, SAN, who has graciously, as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (“SAN”) agreed to be the Chairman and serve this branch. It is not easy to have a SAN to lead a branch. I remember when I became the Chairman in 2004, someone asked me as a SAN, would you accept to lead the branch? I said yes, why not, that is the more reason some should be there. So, I greet you and I praise you for that and of course all your Executive members, Learned Senior Advocates here in person and of course a few others who have joined virtually, our elders at this meeting, past Chairmen, Secretaries, all leaders of the branch, all members and I recognize also specially for that matter the young lawyers, to whom this talk mainly concern.
Paul Eshomomo my brother, I call him my younger brother not because I am older biologically or older professionally, but because the name of my one and only younger brother from the same parents is Paul. That is the exact angle from which I am looking at you as my younger brother.
I have not been given a particular topic to talk about; I have not received any letter of instruction and guidance as to what I should talk about. However, generally speaking, I think the request is for me to give some kind of reminiscences, some kind of recollection and probably to do a narration of some of the experiences, good and bad, negative and positive as you may look at them, that catapulted us to where we are today, while of course giving the glory to nobody but to the Almighty God, the helper, the sustainer of us all, the possessor of Heaven and Earth and the Fountain of living waters.
I have learnt that every day of my life, your life, our life, is but a page in history. So, if you will but fill a page in history every day, why not fill it with great things? If you were at a crossroad of life, why not the road less travelled? The tale of traveling the road less travelled has been my tale at the Bar. Where’s the fun in doing the common, in traveling the road travelled by all?
I have further discovered that one of the greatest tragedies in life is to lose your own sense of self. I know my roots, my story, my failures, my successes. I wear them all like a badge, I get inspired by them and when I look back on my journey, I take comfort in where my journey has brought me, and I get inspired, knowing I can go even further and farther.
Early Beginnings and Rainbow of Ambitions
Now, the question one may ask me is what happened before I became a lawyer? I became a lawyer in October 1986, when I was called to the bar at one of the campuses of the Nigerian Law School. But before then, the younger ones who do not know me may want to ask who are you? In an attempt to answer that question in less than a minute, I would say that I am Joe-Kyari Gadzama, from a small town called Lassa in Southern part of Borno State. Now, do not fret, there is no Lassa fever here (laughs), I have not brought any. To my knowledge, nobody from Lassa as an indigene ever suffered from Lassa fever (laughs).
Now speaking of my parents, my father was a policeman, a low ranked policeman. His educational attainment was probably primary four in those days and I was born in Mubi, Adamawa State, where the Director-General of the Nigerian Law School, Professor Isah Ciroma hails from, which was as far back as November 28, 1961, so I am exactly 60 years now. I thank God for all that. Well, some like Chief Awomolo, Chief Kanu Agabi, Dr. S. I Ameh, call me small boy, so that means I may call some of you small boys, as well as small girls, if you permit, especially the younger ones, since they look at us as their parents or some in the position of loco parentis. Having said this, somehow I started my primary school in those days, I cannot remember for certain if it was to as kindergarten in those days in Kainji Dam, then under Ilorin, now in Niger. I moved to Kaduna where I later saw lawyer Gaji who was being tried at the High Court of Kaduna, very close to our house. We always climbed the fence to listen to the proceedings as long as it lasted.
We used to live by what we call KCT, former Market Road now Ibrahim Taiwo Road. He was being tried for killing his wife and I saw lawyers in their wigs and gown, elegantly dressed, so I picked interest in becoming one, though initially I wanted to be a pilot and I wrongly thought that having not been to secondary school, because I went to a Teacher’s College instead, I was not qualified to become a Pilot. I also had an experience where my sister, by name Rebecca, snatched my biscuits and I got upset with her, and I decided to work in a biscuit factory so I could eat as much biscuit as possible, which did not happen. I was ambitious at that lowest level, all of us went through the same thing, and had different experiences. In fact, many of you must have had better and may I say sweeter experiences.
Now my parents like I said were low ranked, we were in the Police Barrack, near the then swimming pool road, Kaduna. We had one room and one parlor. In the night we would bring out our blankets, our mattresses and our mats and sleep. In the morning we will return them before guests will come. A family of about ten, five children and guests who had come from the village had to live with us as only few of us were in the cities. This is my little story of how I started. This story of mine simply portrays the fact that the future is bright, you can do better. You can be greater than Gadzama SAN, you can be greater than Moses Ebute, SAN, you can be greater than our host tonight, P.O Okolo SAN, and you can be greater than the learned Silk Onoja, SAN.
The Race to Silk: My Hurdles, Plights and Strategies
As you must be aware by now, I became a lawyer, but the real question is what happened thereafter? As soon as I became a lawyer in 1986, somehow by God’s grace, I stumbled across a publication in one of the papers ‘How to Become a SAN’. I remember some people whom I am happy to see here today, but I must recognize a few such as, Mr Moses Ebute, SAN who was my Head of Chambers in Maiduguri, for two good years before he came to Abuja, we worked together and he went further to be learned Silk. He has been blessed to be SAN but he had his own experiences with me. Prior to his time as my Head of Chambers, Mr. Fred Itula, SAN was my Head of Chambers in Maiduguri and he is also a Silk now. There are many of them. The Chairman of Sports Committee, Mr. Afam Okeke worked with me, for two years in Abuja. Chief C. P. Oli Esq worked with me too. Suffice it to say, over a thousand and one passed through our office and of course those who the office passed through have positive stories to tell. I went to a Teachers’ College and this has impacted my responsibilities as a mentor and a teacher. I do not have to tell you what you want to hear only, sometimes I have to tell what you do not want to hear. That is how it is done once mentorship is concerned.
So, after I became a lawyer and I read that publication in the paper, ‘How to Become a SAN’, the number of cases you must work on, the number of years you must be at the bar which is ten years e.t.c. I cannot remember the name of the paper. I photocopied it because the paper was not mine as I could not afford such then. I photocopied one and always kept it by my chest, and under my pillow. I was reading and going through it always, so I started working to meet the requirements. Most of the cases we handled, we sponsored them.
I was in Maiduguri at a point after my NYSC, with my uncle A. Ismail Gadzama in Kano. I also worked partly at the Kano State Ministry of Justice under the late Aliyu Umar, SAN. Then I left my uncle and thereafter started the practice of law on my own. I called myself a “scavenger”, not that I was picking pieces of paper everywhere I went, but if for example you gave me a piece of paper to work on, I mean let’s say two pieces of paper, I used one part of it, and kept the other part or I used the front page and kept the back page to be used for the next day, I did that. I am telling you what I did and I know many of you may be doing that. If I am given clips, you know clips and office pins, I would use one, if there is a spare one, I preserve it whether in my car, wallet or in my pocket. That was how low ranked I was at my practice. Initially I started on foot; sometimes, I would collect my father’s bike then, and would struggle to ride the bike. My father was a policeman when he retired. I took his Honda Benly, I would ride it, and would hide my face so that people will not see a lawyer on a bike.
This was how I was picking up, from these humble beginnings and working to become a SAN, sponsoring my cases to the Court of Appeal, Jos. There was a day at the Court of Appeal that Justice G. A Oguntade JCA(as he then was) who later became a Supreme Court Justice, now retired, and later retired as the Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK, saw me at the Court of Appeal with late Justice Muntaka Kumasi. I had twelve appeal cases at the Court of Appeal in Jos, I came all the way from Maiduguri and I was in all the twelve appeal cases, either for the Appellant(s), or for the Respondent(s). After the proceedings, he dropped his pen and said, “gentleman see me in my office”. I went to his office for the first time. He asked “where are you from, how did you come into these twelve cases? Someone will come for only one, spend a day or two and go back, but you are in all the twelve appeals, when will you apply for SAN?
You see, it’s like a young beautiful girl who likes a gentleman and may not be able to say it in our tradition, waiting and praying, hoping for the man to talk. The Hon Justice did not know I wanted to be a Silk or wear Silk. Pretending I was not interested I answered, “Well since you said so, I will apply my lord” He did not know I have been planning towards that for ten good years, because of the influence of people like Chief Kehinde Sofola, SAN. When we were having our law dinner, the dinner in the Nigeria law school which is conducted three times in a year, unlike in the UK where you must have twelve dinners, Chief Kehinde Sofola came and spoke to us, just as we participate these days as life Benchers to speak to students of the Nigerian Law School, I saw him, very intelligent, elegant, bright, you could not fault him in any way, confident, brilliant, he had all the positive traits of how a lawyer should be. I said I will like to be like that man. I went too close to him, although I did a case against him much later when I took Silk. But at that level, I wished to be like him, and this is what we call indirect mentorship.
Even Mentors were once Mentees who had Mentors
As you all probably would know, most times in life, you cannot succeed as an island. While I was taking this journey, I met several people who assisted me along the way, one was Hon. Justice Muhammad Kaumi Kolo, of blessed memory who was the Chief Judge of Borno State at the time of my application. He supported me during my Silk application process and physically accompanied me to the Supreme Court in Abuja for my conferment with the rank. Another was Kadi Kaka Shehu Imam. He mentored me when I was a young lawyer in Maiduguri and always provided me with counseling and advice.
The Honorable Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Mentoring and Training Program for Young Lawyers
On the other hand, there is direct mentorship program which we presently run at J-K Gadzama LLP. I never enjoyed that, most of you never enjoyed that, but the fact that you and I never enjoyed that formal mentorship does not mean you and I cannot do that for those coming behind us. That is why I sat down, and said, although I never had this kind of thing, what can I do for those coming behind? Because the question is this, what will be your legacies? Whether you like it or not time will come when you will no longer be there. You were not like this before; you were all once one month old, one year old, ten years old, twenty years old, some of us are sixty. Some of you are older than us. So it means time is transient, and whether you like it or not you will go back one day and meet your creator. The question is what are you leaving behind? As human beings, we do not have the same talent. But the one or two talents that God has given you, if you do not utilize them for humanity, if do not utilize them for your community, if you do not utilize them for your younger colleagues, if you do not use that to serve God, then you are not only being unfaithful, you are committing a sin and is punishable by God when the time comes. So, if you want to go to heaven, everyone wants to go to heaven, serve God and humanity with those talents.
One can go on and on telling you all these stories but, having become a Silk, I give God the glory. The question now is what next after taking Silk? You go back and serve the community, please lend a helping hand to people around you and bring them up. That was why for almost a decade now, I resolved between God and I that I must do something, carve a niche. I started a mentoring program. No one was doing it in the whole country to the best if my knowlegde, the records are there, I started it, and I used the name Chukwudifu Oputa for it. It was not a name from my state, nor from the north but because I have always liked Justice Oputa from far. I was not fortunate to appear before him, I was not from the eastern part of Nigeria, I did not know his family, but because I appeared before him at the Oputa Panel, I liked him; he was called the Socrates of the Supreme Court during his own time. One of the best of the best in terms of intelligence, in terms of character, in terms of integrity, in terms of everything positive that you need to have to sit with the lords. So, I made him my mentor from afar and I named the project “Honorable Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Mentoring and Training Program for Young Lawyers” and I have been funding that at my own expenses. I began this training programme due to my realization that the younger lawyers rarely get opportunities to meet with the more experienced lawyers for proper advising and counselling.
I also organize public lecture series which is currently in its 14th (fourteenth) edition to educate lawyers and the public, annually. I bear all the costs and ensure all our participants benefit from the programme. Even our Annual Lectures, I do not collect a dime from anyone, because you may create the impression you are using it to collect money from people, to keep half of it and then use the other half for the project. I have an NGO, I have a charity organization, and I fund them. If I do not have money, I keep it aside though it is not wrong to collect money from anywhere; there is nothing wrong with that, provided one is accountable. The program has been on for almost eight years and we have mentees from all over the country. I will always say this; whatever you do does not go in vain. I was involved in that project and little did I know that Honorable Justice W.O. Onnoghen, then the Chief Justice of Nigeria, was thinking of creating a new committee of the Body of Benchers Mentoring for Young Lawyers.
On a very good day, Mrs. Turaki came to my office to get information about what I have been doing. She said, Hon. Justice Onnoghen requested for you as he was trying to make someone the Chairman of the Body of Benchers Mentorship Committee for Young Lawyers but does not know anyone that was qualified for it, but was told by some Judges and senior lawyers that Gadzama has been doing that. And before you could say Jack Robinson, I was thereafter made the Chairman. People watch what you do; therefore, you must be dedicated to your work. So the young ones, without wasting much of your time, let me try and finish by deducing two different aspects, which I believe are the major components of this talk. I assure you and enter into a covenant with you that all I have said today shall be reduced into writing probably before the next meeting and sent across for distribution to members particularly for those who are not here and even for those who are on the way coming.
The two important points:
1. What is the plight of young lawyers?
2. What advice do I have for them tonight?
What is the Plight of Young Lawyers?
Regarding the plight of young lawyers, we know that the economy is down the line, everyone is suffering, the country as an entity is suffering, businessmen are suffering, employers are suffering, and younger ones are suffering. The younger ones in those days, some twenty, fifteen, even ten years back even probably five years back in this branch and in all the branches, will go to CAC and queue and break even, earn something on a daily basis, in some cases weekly basis, monthly basis and so on and so forth. When I say young lawyers, I mean young lawyers who are employees in firms and young lawyers who are standing alone. This is the categorization, today is it still possible at the CAC? They will tell you go online. You apply online, you may not hear from them, you operate online, and there may be no response. So that door appears to have been shut. As it stands, the problem is what can the excos and I do to once again to open these doors and windows for the young lawyers.
Secondly, I enjoyed appearing in the magistrate courts in those days during my own time when I was starting. There was a day I did ten cases in one day in ten different courts; I was the driver, as I had no driver. I drove from one court to the other in Maiduguri. Ten cases, ten different courts, is it possible today? I made little money, I will not say little money, good money, and maybe I am saying little because of where I am today. These magistrate and district courts: what can we do for young lawyers to earn a living there?
The third one, land registry, it appears our young ones cannot make a good income again from land registry, what do we do? In Warri and Edo State for example, they have taken steps to even engage government to come out with policies. They are trying to convince the national leadership of the bar to come out with policies to help young lawyers regarding land. Even in my time, E.C Ikeji was the Chairman when I joined this branch. And he made me Chairman of the Law Week Committee . That was how I began to develop interest in leadership at the Bar. I became Chairman, served in more than 30 committees as Chairman, here and then at the National level. Look at how someone unknowingly helped to build my CV.
Now apart from these problems, there are many other problems young ones are facing. No good salaries and some no good network. There are statistics that shows 50% of graduates of the law school as they come out in their 4000 to 5000 looking for work, 50% will not get work, ¼ may get while others will go to other industries. So what do we do? I know as it stands, Olumide Akpata is working hard. Of recent, he set up the NBA Remuneration Committee which has come up with its report. When we had NEC meeting two weeks ago and we are going to have an emergency meeting again most likely next week Tuesday, this issue is one of the issues that will be discussed. What can we do? What are the minimum payments, salaries, privileges that young lawyers are entitled to in our firms? How do we ensure compliance, how do we set up a monitoring committee to ensure compliance by all of us? So, these are the questions, I do not have the answers, I may have one or two answers but all of us have ideas even the young ones. We want to hear from them because they have a viewpoint that we seem to be lacking. Therefore, the plight of the young lawyer, the average young lawyer is enormous.
Let me go to the final question which I asked earlier.
What Advice do we the seniors have for the Young Lawyers?
I changed the name some ten years back from “juniors” to “young” lawyers. They were called juniors even in our courts but during one of those activities, I said I will not call them juniors; I will call them young lawyers. That was how we began to have “young lawyers”, the records are there, and I have them in writing. Another thing I did if memory serves me right was when I made efforts to be president of the bar in the past, though I do not want to circulate it so that I do not breach any code or any regulations but I can bring it during the next meeting and some of you will see where I posited in writing that I do not want a situation which has been the case in Nigeria whereby when you qualify to wear silk, some are chosen and some are not chosen and we are not told why those others are not chosen.
What is being done in England is that the authorities consciously make about 10% of the populations of lawyers, QC. The question you and I will ask here is this, what is the percentage of the SAN in Nigeria against those who are not SAN? Roughly 1% or 0. We have about 600 SAN including the deceased. Then we have about 175,000 lawyers, so if we have 500 or let us even say 600 SAN against 175,000 lawyers, what is the percentage? Do the calculation; you can call your accountant to give you the answer. Anyone that gives the correct answer will receive a prize which I will announce at the next meeting. My stand is if one meets the requirements, one should get it, except there is an issue of counter proving that. Now it is coming to pass, so we have opened the gate wide.
When I took silk, we were 12 in numbers but I was the youngest in that group. And the other younger people next to me in that group were Olisa Agbakoba, SAN and Rotimi Akeredolu SAN, respectively the Chairman NBA Board of Trustees and Governor of my second home, Ondo State where I am the Bobajiro of Akure Kingdom. They were called to bar in 78, I was called to the bar in 86, a gap of 8 years between them and me. I was, therefore, by far the youngest in that group. God gave me the privilege to join them and we were 12. There are many of you who deserve to wear silk, you are not wearing silk and I do not know anybody who wears silk that does not deserve to be there. I do not know whether you understand my position. Anybody wearing silk today, in my mind, I strongly opined that he deserves to be a silk. But there are many who deserve to be silk but they are not there because the system is not running effectively and efficiently. So all I am saying is, if 200 qualify to wear silk, the 200 should wear it. So that is my own position and I said it ten years ago in writing and it is coming to pass. So a lot of things have been done by us to shape today and the future of the profession that people do not know about but the records are there, and that is the good thing.
My personal Advice
Back to the young lawyers, there are many plights of young lawyers. But let me go to my own personal advice. One, be the decider for your fate. Your parents can advise you, Chief Onoja SAN can advise you, our host Chief Sir Patrick O. Okolo, SAN can advise you but decide for yourself. I will give you an example of what I did and I thank God. When I graduated, University of Maiduguri invited me as a Graduate Assistant to teach law. I got admission to University of Lagos to do my masters, I also got admission to go abroad to do masters. I sat down and said to myself “remember you are not a man of means, you are a man of straw”. I decided to go and practice and I started with nothing. I took my own fate in my hands and it worked for me. I took silk at a young age. When Atoyebi, SAN tells people how he became silk, you will marvel. We were travelling to Kaduna and he heard me telling a classmate whose name I do not want to mention for confidential reason, that if you want to be silk do ABCD, he copied that just as I did. The difference was that I copied from a paper, he copied from what he heard.
Look for the means; look for the interesting things out there. You can be with somebody for 7 days, and it is enough, if you know what you are doing, compared to where somebody stays for 10 years without learning much. Pick something and go with it. Atoyebi, SAN did that, he started implementing when he left me. He was introduced to me by a friend to work with me, I said no space, but I will give you one year. He did well, and I gave him another year then he left. He picked what he wanted to pick and started implementing, he beats my record, took silk at a younger age than me. So, this is what gladdens our hearts, that is if you are able to impact on your immediate environment. So like I told you, decide for yourself. Today do not be jack of all trades and master of none; this is the tradition we have in Nigeria. No, pick two or three areas of law practice, maximum of three, then specialize in them. So that in the event of a frustrating event, like corona virus, if one door closes and it is litigation, you go to another job and survive for some time before the major door opens again. But for you to say you want to do everything, it is not possible. So, the young ones I am speaking to you, do not make our mistakes. If you do not commit our mistakes, you will be greater than us and that is what will gladden us even in our graves. We will be happy that these young people were smart enough to merge their intelligence with ours and are doing better for themselves. Because we want you to be better, better versions of us, both our biological children, our mentees in our offices, who are informal and indirect mentees. This is what will gladden our heart.
I wish you well, there is a lot to say, I can talk for the next one hour but it is not advisable. Therefore feel free to keep in touch, you all know where you can reach me. My number is available, let me give you my number again for the young ones who do not have it, take my number. If you call me and I do not pick, send a text, I will respond 08022231999. We are proud of all of you.
Our young lawyers, you are talented, you are bright, you have your future ahead of you, you have vision but get counsel from the senior ones, engage them, look for someone as a role model and copy and paste with some few adjustments. The sky will not be your limit, it will be your beginning level, and you will go places.
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