Emeka Etiaba (SAN) was one the 21 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) that were sworn in by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed on Monday, September 21, 2015 at Supreme Court of Nigeria, Abuja.
The rank, certainly did not come easy for him. He had applied five times before he was eventually successful.
The former governorship aspirant of Anambra state and the son of the first female governor in Nigeria, told us in this exclusive interview his ordeal and joy of attaining what he called the ‘icing’ on the cake of his professional career.
How does it feel to be a SAN?
It feels good. It gives one a sense of fulfilment. One is happy that his professional body has recognised one worthy to be given the best award that the profession can give. Being a privilege, it is not something that I want to toy with. It is something that has given me a sense of duty and a resolve to work harder and to make sure that the ideals of the profession is upheld to the highest level.
Was it something you’ve been expecting for a long time?
It didn’t come as a surprise because I have been on the short list for quite sometime now. But being on the short list does not guarantee that you will eventually make it. Because a lot of people are qualified to be Senior Advocate of Nigeria. So, it is when it pleases God. I don’t think any of us who applied to be Senior Advocate of Nigeria will say he is surprised if he eventually makes it. Because the whole idea of being in any race is to make it.
How many times did you apply before you eventually made it?
What do you think were the reasons you did not make it in your previous attempts?
It wasn’t my time. It has nothing to do with anything, it just wasn’t my time. The Bible says it is not of you that willeth or he that runneth but of God that showest mercy. It is also time and chance that causes things to happen. The time was ripe, the chance was there and I was there to take the time and the chance. It’s all about God, not about man. Quite a lot of people are qualified and if there is anything like over qualified , I can say I was over qualified. But by the rules of the game only a certain number will be elevated. That certain number never really takes quite a lot of people. So, you now find out that people keep coming back applying and reapplying. As far as I am concerned, once one does not get tired of applying and one keeps qualifying , someday it will happen. For me, it has happened and I thank God.
Did you feel disappointed those five times you did not make it?
It’s natural. At least, for the three times that I got to the final level of interview. Yes, yes, I was disappointed. But like I said quite a lot of other people have attended that interview more than five times. To be disappointed is natural, it is human but I never felt cheated at any time because I know the rules of the game. It is a privileged one, a lot more people are qualified than you are so, why will you cry over a split milk?
Why will any lawyer want to be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria?
Any lawyer who is into litigation or who is into academics would want to be a senior advocate because that is the icing on the cake of such a lawyer. Having practised for long time, showing diligence and studious in your ways, the next thing is an acknowledgement that you have done well. But, one will miss it if, he gets carried away that having attained SAN, that is all and all. It is not an end, it is a means to an end. Because I know that what is most important in legal practice is to do good with the practice. So, when you become Senior Advocate, you are supposed to do better and be the best not just good. Looking at the society today one will not search hard to find where to do good. There are a lot of people incarcerated in the prisons for no reason. They need free legal service. There are people out there who are impecunious, who need legal representation. These are the things that one should be able to continue to attend to.
Is true that as SAN you have the advantage of charging a high fee to your clients?
If you are senior advocate and you don’t know your law, nobody will brief you. You can only be briefed as a lawyer if the client knows that you have something good to offer. It is not every Senior Advocate that actually takes advantage of that enhanced charges and fees. Because when you charge high, what the client wants to know is what do you have to offer. If you have something good to offer he doesn’t mind paying. If you don’t have something good to offer, he would rather go to a non senior advocate who know his law.
Yes, you may charge a little more because you have something to offer. But I also know some lawyers who are not senior advocates and they charge as high if not more than senior advocate because they also know their law and they are able to prove that to a client.
Are there other privileges attached to being a senior advocate?
Privilege like coming to court and mentioning your case. But what people don’t realize is that Senior Advocate has a lot of cases. He may have one or two cases at the Court of Appeal, one at the Federal High Court and at the State High Court. He has to go round. So, that privilege of mentioning your case out of turn actually helps the Senior Advocate to be able to go round the courts. It is a privilege I don’t think anybody will want to quarrel with because, the gate of that appointment or elevation is not shut. So, if you feel that it is a great and wholesome privilege then attain that rank so that you will also enjoy it.
Is it possible for a Senior Advocate to be derobed?
It has happened several times.
On what conditions can a SAN be derobed?
One was derobed within the year for professional misconduct. It had to do with election matter in one of the South Western states. Senior Advocates are derobed, the rank is suspended and all that. It is not something like I said, you will say uhuru, I have finally crossed over. The truth is that to whom much is given much more is expected. The rules of the game get tougher with Senior Advocate. There are certain things a non Senior Advocate will do and get away with it but if a Senior Advocate does it, he will be in soup. Because that rank is more like sacred and everybody watches you. The rank actually humbles you and makes you get conscious of yourself at all times. A Senior Advocate cannot stay in a property and refuse to pay rent. Some other lawyers can do that but not a Senior Advocate. It will make news and you will be the first to publish it. Those are the things but, what people see are the other side of it, oh, they come in, they mention their cases, they charge big fees and all that. When you pay your dues there is nothing wrong in charging a little higher.
You are also in politics and you contested for the governorship of Anambra State in 2013. Now that you are a Senior Advocate do you think it will be an added advantage?
The question has resurrected so many times but what I tell people is that I didn’t become a Senior Advocate so that I can leverage on it and become the governor of my state. If it comes, it comes but I don’t think that my plan is to become Senior Advocate and use it to become a governor. I have told whoever cares to listen that given the option between being a Senior Advocate and a governor, I will choose that of Senior Advocate 100 times over. Being a governor is also call to service but I don’t see anything wholesome about it. I can tell you that being a Senior Advocate is good because, it puts you at the point where you really know that you have done well in practice and that there is no other place than to continue to go higher. That is basically that.
Is there any other place one can go after being a SAN?
Yes, producing younger lawyers who will be Senior Advocates. So, I will now become papa Senior Advocate.
We know your wife is also a lawyer. Is she planning to also become a Senior Advocate?
I wouldn’t know. It’s for her to say. I think for now she is trying to learn her law and contribute her quota. I know that she is someone who is very serious minded and whatever she sets her mind to do, she does it very well. She is a mechanical engineer before she became a lawyer. I know she can always become anything God willing.
Why is it that the number of those who qualify as SANS every year are always very small compared to those who applied?
This question is meant for the Privilege Committee not me. There is this saying that if you have not played the game you cannot coach it. I don’t think I am in the position to make categorical statement that the number should be enlarged. But talking as Emeka Etiaba, I would wish the number be enlarged. In the last exercise the whole of South East, got four SAN. Abia took one, Imo took one and Anambra got two. But Anambra went into the final interviews with 10 candidates. Abia went into the exercise with three candidates, Imo with one candidate. Ebonyi and Enugu did not have any. So, you will find out that if you keep giving 18 or 21, Anambra will keep having one or two and more people will qualify next year from Anambra. So you will now find out that going into final interview next year, Anambra, may have 14 and it will now get two. How do you now thin down the list? One or two people that I know have applied more than five times and also qualified more than three times. The truth about it is that, Anambra is a yearning case for more appointment. If Anambra is able to get four or five and the following year another four or five then the queue will be a bit smaller. But like I said the Privileges Committee members are the ones that know the reasons we cannot exceed the number that they insist on. I believe that their opinion ought to be right and is right.
Some people argued that the appointment of SAN has been politicised. How far is this true?
Anybody can argue anything. I heard that, somebody said it was because of my mother that I was made Senior Advocate. That person does not know me. Another has said if Emeka Etiaba can be a Senior Advocate that means that process is very bona fide. That process is good. You see two people discussing the same person. One knows me, one does not know me. So, I don’t dwell at place of they said. Because most times people who say, they don’t know the character they discuss.
Is it politicised? I must tell you that one rank that has enjoyed some level of seriousness is Senior Advocate of Nigeria, especially in the past years. Go and check out those that were elevated. There is none that you will say did not merit it. I must tell you privileges committee guards the rules very jealously. If you do not meet the conditions, no Jupiter we get you in. There are certain requirements which you must meet. It’s when you meet those conditions that we begin to talk about this one is from North East, North Central , South East and all that. But that does not mean it is politicised.
What the Privilege Committee does is to say, okay, we have six geo-political zone in Nigeria, things must go round. They will now say every geo-political zone must have a particular number. When they begin to make the appointment and they see that one or two zones did not have enough candidates, they can now say okay we have two or three extra slots to share. How do we share it? South West you have 30 finalists, South East you have 30 finalists we will share it between both of you. If this is what they called politicisation I wouldn’t know. But what I have just described is positive and shouldn’t be regarded in negative term that politicisation connotes. But if it is people who now stay in their houses and make a call make my son SAN, make my daughter SAN or nephew SAN it doesn’t happen.
I see people discussing those that have been elevated, it is because of this or that. The truth about it is that they do not know those candidates that have been elevated. The fault of those ones is that their parents or their uncles are people who are important in the society and so they tie their elevations to them.
But I can tell you that if only people knew the persons they discuss, they know that those ones are qualified. That even if their father or their uncle or mentors are not influential people in the society, they would still have made it.
- TOLANI ABATTI AND JOSHUA SHOBIYE