The immediate past Director General of the Nigerian Law School, Prof. Olanrewaju Onadeko (SAN), speaks with TOFARATI IGE on his career and other issues
You were the Director General of the Nigerian Law School between 2013 and 2018. What was the first major decision you took in that office?
One of the things we did at the outset was to restore confidence in the system, especially regarding the examination system and processes, as well as the curriculum; laying emphasis on the transference of ‘lawyering’ skills, which certainly is the core mandate of the Nigerian Law School. The institution was created to produce lawyers who should be able to function as such. Those were some of the areas we focused on immediately we got into office and we pursued it tenaciously.
When you first assumed office, you mentioned that you wanted to sanitise the system. How far were you able to go in achieving that?
I’m not sure I used that word, ‘sanitisation.’ However, I think I understand what you’re trying to say. It was a matter of getting the system back on track. I had been a student in the institution before becoming a teacher of various grades there. So, I had a good idea of what things were and where we should be going.
If you look at the morale of students at that time, they had to be reassured that the only way to success at the institution and also at the Bar is through personal hard work and industry. Nothing else can push you forward. Even if you are handed the licence of a lawyer, if you don’t have the knowledge and are not sufficiently resourceful, you wouldn’t be successful. You cannot build something on nothing. We tried to instill that into them (students). Don’t forget that the students came from different backgrounds and institutions, and some had all sorts of beliefs. Some of the practices in our universities don’t happen at the law school and they cannot happen because of the system put in place, which we reemphasise in making sure that things go the way they should. I believe that is what we are still building upon today.
What were some of the challenges you met on the ground and how were you able to tackle them?
The challenges were manifold and they will always be; just like in every other sphere of life. Infrastructure was a major challenge; we need far more than we have. Human resources is another challenge. It is not an easy task to train a law teacher. Don’t forget that a law teacher is first and foremost a lawyer. When they get into the academic side, it takes a while to get them fully groomed. The attraction of other aspects of the legal career is also there. We have lost some of our good teachers to the bench (some have gone to the high court and the Supreme Court); some have also gone into politics and private practice.
We also have the aspect of the students because we constantly need to motivate them. For example, there is a world of difference between the study of law in the university and in the law school. In the universities, it is based on comprehending principles of law. At the NLS, students are taught the application of law. This dichotomy also has hidden in it, the need to shift from the principles of law approach to the application of law approach. The principles of law are comprehension and regurgitation. But for the application of law, you must have a sharp, critical and analytical mind to comprehend the principles of law and apply them to real life situations. At the NLS, nobody would ask you to state principles; rather, you would be asked specific questions about real life situations.
Many students don’t actually wean themselves off the principles of law they learnt in the university, so some of them wonder why they did so well in the university but didn’t excel at the NLS. The truth may be that such students did not know how to approach issues at the Bar stage.
You once raised an alarm that some lawyers were taking exams for law school students. What has been done to forestall such ugly occurrence?
It is true that I raised the alarm and interestingly, that wasn’t the first time of such happening. I recall that in 2002/2003 (I’m not sure of the particular year) when I was secretary of the Council of Legal Education, we had a similar incident in Abuja. A lawyer was caught and was handed over to the police. I cannot recall the outcome of that particular case.
However, the one you are referring to happened some years ago. We had about two instances and they were promptly reported to the police. We availed them (the police) of all resources, including funds, to pursue the case. I recall that they travelled to some parts of the country and the matter is still with the police. That was actually pointed out in my report to the Nigerian Bar Association’s annual general conference of that year because it was necessary for the body of lawyers to be aware of what some of our folks were getting into which did not augur well for the profession. Let’s be honest; it’s a very curious arrangement in my view. If you have not prepared for the Bar examinations, even if you are a practising lawyer, I don’t see how you are likely to pass. Some students go to extents that you cannot imagine to get what they want. Some people believed that they could get certain things done through certain means but the system at the NLS would not allow that. No particular lecturer has full control over any subject. Unlike in the universities where you know the lecturer in charge of a particular subject, at the NLS, every subject is taught by not less than two lecturers in each of the campuses. The examination system is central so you are talking about over 12 lecturers per subject. And the way the system is structured, no particular individual knows what would feature in the examination. So, it’s a very complex system that I cannot really explain here, and it worked very well. All students knew what they had to do to earn top grades. The students, in my view, became well motivated. I used to go round the campuses and we even saw it in their results.
How would you describe your relationship with students as DG?
The DG is at the apex of the system. Don’t forget that there are heads of campuses who are also styled as deputy directors general. The DG is a bit far away in terms of daily contact with the students. Don’t get me wrong though; I still interacted with students as the DG. I was domiciled in the Abuja campus, so those there saw me more than those in other campuses. I visited the classes from time to time and addressed the students. I did less of teaching, which I didn’t really like, but I was just too busy. When I was the head of the Lagos campus, I used to teach. I must say that our students in the NLS were and are still generally well-behaved. They are graduate students so there is a bit of maturity. In terms of dressing, they turn out impeccably. In respect of interpersonal relationship, we have a code of ethics which guides them and most students adhered to it.
We did have a few instances of students stepping out of line but by and large, students comported themselves well.
How would you assess the quality of students that come into the NLS from various universities?
You hear people say that standards have fallen. I have argued that maybe it’s the numbers that give us that impression. The numbers are generally more now. When I was a student, we were just a little over 300 in one campus, but now, we have over 6,000. The sources from which the students come have also become more diverse; we have federal, state, private and foreign universities.However, the access to knowledge for students has become wider. For that reason, I always believe that students of today are more poised to be better and knowledgeable than those who came before them. You can access diverse materials on any subject of law at the touch of a button. That makes research easier. I think the average student of the NLS today is more knowledgeable about jurisprudence than those of years before them. However, an area where one has always had concern is in the depth of knowledge. Maybe the copious access to knowledge of law has made it difficult for them to dig deep. Years back, we took pains to understand the principles and by the time you were asked questions based on what you had studied, you could, with a lucid mind, analyse the situation and bring forth solutions. I think some students today are not as deep as one would expect. And that affects them in different aspects.
Some students, even after a year at the NLS, come across as not having been thoroughly nurtured, in the study of law. There are also times one wonders how they got through universities. However, those who are of deep commitment to the study of law are very knowledgeable. Top students are top students anywhere in the world. When students graduate tops from the NLS, they still come out tops when they go to diverse institutions across the world, and we are very proud of that.
What do you regard as some of your achievements and legacies as DG?
I’m not too sure it is right for me to start reeling out my achievements. Simple modesty will not let that be appropriate here. However, one can look round and see how far we have come.
There were only two of us in the NLS system that went through the process I went through. My former teacher at the NLS, Chief (Dr) Kole Abayomi (SAN) and I were the only ones that went through all the academic and highest administrative positions at the NLS. The third person, who was also our teacher, was the late Chief Babatunde Ibironke (SAN), went through the same process but he was never the head of a campus because at that time, it was only the NLS, Lagos, that was in existence. However, Dr Abayomi and I were heads of campus before becoming director general. So, that gave one a clear insight of what Bar vocational training is all about, and it really helped in shaping one’s perception when it came to moving the institution forward. And I think we have moved forward reasonably well. I am happy that the institution has turned out top lawyers who are holding their own everywhere in Nigeria and elsewhere. The NLS has come a long way and has done very well. I think we have cause to be proud of what we have achieved.
Conversely, we also have those who have not proved their mettle sufficiently, and that is to be expected in any area of human endeavour.
What were the highlights of your time as the secretary to the Council of Legal Education and Director of Administration?
As academics, we actually knew very little about the administration in the NLS. Lecturers are usually only concerned about their academic work. Once there was nothing upsetting that, we didn’t complain. But by the time you become the head of a department, you have a little insight into how things are done.
If you are appointed as the secretary to the Council of Legal Education, you are thrown into full-blown administrative work. What gave me confidence in my own time was that people had gone ahead of me. Chief Ibironke held the same position before he became the DG. Dr Kole Abayomi also held the post. When it was my turn, I didn’t think I had anything to fear. With the assistance of the then director general, who was an administrator par excellence, I didn’t have any problem. I also combined my academic work with the position. Even as secretary to the council, I taught throughout. That position also gave me a better insight into how to relate with the students. For example, students would complain about shortage of water or electricity. An academic could get that complaint and be overly empathetic about it. But as an administrator, I understood what was been done to rectify the situation and I also knew the limit beyond which the institution could not go. When students brought such complaints to me, I could explain to them better what was being done about the situation.
The position was quite beneficial because it availed me the opportunity to interact with various components of the system. I related with members of staff, students, Council of Legal Education, and even with the government, because I had to be at budget defense meetings. The knowledge I got from there made it quite easy for me to head a campus thereafter and the institution subsequently.
By the time I headed the institution, I practically knew everything about the system. As a result of that, there were things I could easily correct. I also didn’t have to assert myself because I had worked with various colleagues across board and they knew me.
What were some of the innovations you brought to bear on the institution when you headed the Lagos campus of the NLS?
The Lagos branch of the NLS is the premier campus of the institution. One of the challenges we had was with power supply.
At that time, the Lagos State Government was going to expand the Ozumba Mbadiwe Road, on which the NLS is situated. The campus actually has borders on Ozumba Mbadiwe Road, Adeola Hopewell Street and Adeyemo Alakija Street. However, Ozumba Mbadiwe is the longest stretch, and the government approached us when they wanted to carry out expansion works on the road because they had to inch into our land and that took some time to sort out.
In the process of expanding, a lot of our infrastructure, particularly the underground ones, were damaged. For example, the underground passage from our hostel’s sewage treatment plant into the Five Cowries Creek was damaged. We just found out that the treated water could not go anywhere and that took us time to rectify on our own.
However, the most profound was the damage to our power supply system. For well over a year, we did not have connection to the public power supply. The Lekki Concession Company that handled the road construction was not as helpful as we thought (they should). When they wanted things done, they met with us; but when damages were done, we were, more or less, left on our own.
Fortunately, after more than a year, I got in contact with the power supply company and they went through a different source to get us connected. That was a very challenging time for us because we were always running on generators.
The location of the campus right on the highbrow Victoria Island was another challenge. Students who could not be accommodated in the hostel had a lot of difficulties getting in and out of the campus. We improvised further by trying to accommodate as many students as we could. There was an uncompleted part of the hostel and we started the completion in phases with allocation from the government. By the time I was leaving, we had managed to accommodate virtually all the students, which was, for me, a great achievement.
At that time, there was also no passage between the hostels and the school buildings because of the NBA structures in between. We had instances of students been attacked because they had to come out of the hostel gate from one end in order to link other parts of the campus. We approached the then leadership of the NBA and we had a walkway constructed through the structures of the association. Now, students can move around more conveniently. We also made improvements to the existing infrastructure we met on the ground.
Another thing we did was the motivation of students. Some of the students who came from distant places could not often travel during short breaks on account of cost and other factors. We then made facilities available for them to stay on campus during those times. We also introduced the students’ log book for the internship programmes. When the headquarters saw what we had done in Lagos, it was immediately adopted for the entire institution.
Throughout my time as the head of the Lagos campus, we also consistently had the best results at the Bar final examination. Other campuses had to borrow examples from us. In truth, the achievement was staff-driven. I am happy to say that the Lagos campus still comes tops at the Bar final examination.
Last year, a graduate of the NLS, Amasa Firdaus, was not called to the Bar because she insisted on wearing hijab for the Call to the Bar ceremony. Though she has been called to the Bar now, what were some of your takeaways from that incident?
The Call to the Bar ceremony is the domain of the Body of Benchers. I think people generally don’t know that the Body of Benchers is different from the NLS. The body’s main function is to call and admit new entrants to the Bar. The NLS prepares the students and the body takes it from there. What happened in the case you mentioned was that the conditions of the body were violated by the student in question, and that’s why she couldn’t be called to the Bar. For her to have been called to the Bar now, the Body of Benchers must have looked into the matter and treated it as it deemed fit.
You served as the Director of Public Prosecutions of the Republic of The Gambia. What were the highlights of that time for you?
That was a very interesting aspect of my career because it came when I was at a young age. Without my knowing, some people had been impressed by some of the things I did. That was how I found myself in that position. I spent about six years out there. At that time, The Gambia did not have a university or a law school. The attorney general at the time had been my classmate at the NLS. Also, more than 80 per cent of the lawyers in the ministry of justice had also attended the NLS. Some of them had even been my students so it was quite easy for me there.
It also gave me the opportunity to operate at a high level because I was exposed to the workings of the government. I had to accompany the attorney general to some of the top meetings and functions. I also had to speak on matters pertaining to criminal justice at top levels in the country. I had to participate at international fora and interact with diplomats. I was able to put in place a system of how the public prosecutions department should function. When I got there, there wasn’t a discernible system of operating the department. I’m not saying that there was nothing in place but it wasn’t like what obtained where I was coming from as a state counsel at the Ministry of Justice in Ogun State.
I also established a liaison between the department and the judiciary. Fortunately, the Chief Justice of The Gambia when I was there was a Nigerian, Justice Olayinka Ayoola, who eventually retired from the Supreme Court of Nigeria. I must also thank Prince Bola Ajibola who insisted that I should be given the position even though there were people who thought to the contrary. He was the attorney general of Nigeria at that time.
I recall that I had the opportunity to interact with the procedure of the judicial committee of the Privy Council in England. By the time I got there in 1989, appeals from The Gambia Court of Appeal went to the Privy Council. On a few occasions, I went there to follow things through. That was very interesting for me because I had read about the Privy Council in the university and I had the opportunity to see how it worked.
I also had the opportunity of serving as the registrar of the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia.
You were involved in a criminal libel case between a journalist, Sanna Maneh and the government of The Gambia. What can you recall of that experience?
Sanna Maneh was a journalist who had published some libellous materials about the government. He had actually been tried and convicted before I got there, so I think I came in to handle the appeal.
It was a very interesting case because Maneh was a man about town. He was quite popular with the public and members of staff so he used to come to the ministry of justice and I did not deny him access to me. We would usually chat even though we were defending an appeal he had filed against his conviction. However, we never discussed his case. And that’s a very strict thing a lawyer must know. It was a celebrated case and the then president was keen in seeing the case to its logical conclusion. The public believed that Maneh was a victim but the government felt that he ought to pay for violating the law.
How many books have you written?
My major text is the Nigerian Criminal Trial Procedure, which I authored alone. It is a major textbook in criminal litigation. I have also edited books with other colleagues. I was the foundation chairman of the editorial board of the Nigerian Law and Practice Journal, which is a publication of the Council of Legal Education.
What stirred your interest in academia?
I got into academia by providence. I was at the ministry of justice and I was doing well.
It was the then president of the NBA, Chief Tunji Fadairo (SAN), who saw me in court one day and asked if I would like to teach at the law school. I couldn’t fathom why he was asking me that and he told me he thought I would be a good material for the school. I smiled and told him I would think about it. Unknown to me, he was a member of the Council of Legal Education and they wanted to get more lecturers for the NLS.
I then applied and I was given the job in July 1981 but I didn’t resume until January 1982, because my bosses at the ministry of justice tried to dissuade me from going.
You are the chairman of the board of directors of CSS Limited and Bookshop House. What does this entail?
CSS Limited and Bookshop House are owned by the Anglican Communion. I was fortunate to be appointed to the position by the primate of the church. It has been a fantastic experience which I’ve found very beneficial. It has given me an insight into the private sector workings.
What can you recall of your days at the Government College, Ibadan?
We went to school at a time when Nigeria witnessed normalcy. GCI was the premier institution of its kind in the defunct Western Region and the government did everything to make it a model. It was a public school but we had everything. We had a swimming pool and took swimming lessons. We also ate good food and were often taken to watch movies. The school organised parties and invited top girls’ schools in Ibadan. It was modelled after the British public school system. A lot of our teachers then had attended top schools in the UK.
I believe that understanding leadership qualities and a clear vision of what to aim at; and how to cope, were some of the attributes that every student left GCI with.
In what ways did your studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science impact on your career?
The LSE is one of the top institutions in the world and I was privileged to have attended it. It was an institution that gave you the opportunity to discover yourself. Even as graduate students, we were part of an expansive procedure. Hardly would a week pass without a top personality in the arts, business or other spheres of life coming to talk on one subject or the other.
Who are the people who have had a profound impact on your life?
I will mention the late Chief Babatunde Ibironke (SAN), who was one of the foundation lecturers at the NLS. He was my teacher at NLS and was the director general when I was employed. He was like a father to me and a role model I will always admire.
How were you able to balance your career and family life?
One has to be able to strike a balance between officialdom and your personal time. Yes, there were times when the home front felt the official side was having more of one’s time and attention. But whenever I felt I had done too much in one area, I carefully moved over and struck the balance. I’m not saying it was easy but one had to do it and I hope I was able to do it reasonably well.
How did you meet your wife?
We just met and one thing led to another.
What were the qualities that attracted you to her?
I think relationships have several indices and facets. There are so many factors that lead to a relationship. You may start out as friends or mere acquaintances and develop from there.
Some people believe that lawyers do not make good couples. How would you describe your relationship with your wife, who is a lawyer?
I don’t agree with that. I think it is better actually because you have the opportunity of being with someone who believes in hearing the other side of the case.
Is any of your children following your footsteps?
My eldest daughter is a lawyer and she is the only one who studied law.
What’s your daily routine post-retirement from the law school?
A lawyer is always a lawyer. Professionals have the opportunity of practising their professions till they die. It is back to the profession for me and a number of other things.
Are we going to see you appear in courts?
I hope so.
How do you relax?
I used to play squash and golf. I intend to go back to golf because I should have more time now. I also like to walk.
How do you like to dress?
Since I became a lawyer, the profession has dictated how I dress. We usually wear black suit, white shirt, dark shirt, black trousers and black shoes. I have been donning that every working day since I became a lawyer and it has become part of me now. I still regard it as the best way to dress, though I can dress more relaxed if I don’t have anything formal to do.
Culled from Punch