Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye In Conversation With Placid Aguwa

PLACID AGUWA, a New York-based attorney, is the Managing Partner of the law firm, Placid and Emmanuel, P.C., and former president of the Nigerian Lawyers Association (NLA).  Since 1991, he has practiced law in state and federal courts in New York and Nigeria. In this interview with UGOCHUKWU EJINKEONYE (March 2007), he speaks on the activities of the NLA, and some of the challenges faced by Nigeria in its tortuous journey to democratic and economic stability. 


*Placid Aguwa 

UGOCHUKWU EJINKEONYE: When was the Nigerian Lawyers Association (NLA) formed, and what are its objectives? 

PLACID AGUWA: Thank you for your interest in learning more about the Nigerian Lawyers Association (NLA).  NLA was incorporated in 1999 as a not-for-profit, non-partisan association of attorneys. NLA represents the interests of attorneys mainly of Nigerian descent both in the United States and all over the world. It advances the professional needs of its growing members and provides leadership and advocacy for the legal needs of and interests of the minority community in the United States and around the world.
NLA's principal objectives are to cultivate the science of jurisprudence, facilitate and advance the fair and equitable administration of justice, serve the needs of the members of the Nigerian legal community, as well as the minority communities as a whole, in their understanding and access to the law and to educate and assist such persons in their day to day dealings with the law.  

U.E.: The impression one gets is that the NLA is merely a New York affair, or do you have members in other states in the United States and other countries? 

P.A.: Yes, we are aware of that wrong impression that NLA is a New York affair. The fact however is that NLA has its headquarters in New York, but membership is open to and indeed comprises of attorneys from all over the United States. We also have a handful of members practicing in Nigeria. It may interest you to know that NLA at one time or the other has had top officers who practice in states other than New York. For instance, a former Vice-President of NLA practices in Maryland. In addition, a former Chairman of the Board of Directors practices in New Jersey. Currently, we have members from as far away as Florida and as near as New Jersey. Note that we also have honorary members who are Judges, including a Judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria.

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

U.E: A former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) had announced (during his tenure of office) that the NBA was not a pressure group; I guess you may have the same opinion in respect of the NLA? 

P.A.: Well, what is a pressure group? The phrase is very resilient. If you characterize it from the point of view of a group that lobbies its own or limited interests, then NLA is not a pressure group. Indeed, a bar association is not a pressure group to the extent that it not only advances the interests of its members, but those of the public as a whole by ensuring that its members and the general public are guided towards understanding laws, and providing and/or obtaining justice. NLA represents the interests of attorneys mainly of Nigerian descent, particularly in the United States. Of course our goal is to reach beyond USA. Be mindful of our main objective, which is to cultivate the science of jurisprudence, facilitate and advance the fair and equitable administration of justice, serve the needs of the members of the Nigerian legal community, as well as the minority communities as a whole, in their understanding and access to the law and to educate and assist such persons in their day to day dealings with the law. Therefore, if performing these services entails some “pressure group” activity, so be it. However, NLA (or any typical bar association) is not a pressure group. 

U.E. You said earlier that the NLA "provides leadership and advocacy for the legal needs of and interests of the minority community in the United States and around the world," could you please specify the very people that fall into this category?

P.A. As I said, our particular interest is towards attorneys and the minority communities in the United States. Ultimately, we will keep expanding our sphere and perhaps make serious impact in Nigeria and other countries. The time will come sooner or later. NLA is still very young, you must note. However, diving straight to your question, yes, NLA has been providing leadership and advocacy for the legal needs of and interests of the minority community in the United States. Our activities in Nigeria and other parts of the world have been limited particularly due to funds and logistics. In the United States, NLA organizes Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars which are mainly attended by minority lawyers.
I am glad to inform you that every attorney in New York, for instance, must attend at least 24 hours of continuing legal education within every 24 months or lose the license to practice law. Other states have same or similar requirements. NLA assists its members in meeting this requirement by organizing the CLE classes from time to time. Note that these classes are also open to the public at large. NLA has provided classes in Taxation Law, Real Estate, Negligence, Immigration law and many more. In addition, NLA organizes Legal Clinics wherein members of the public have the opportunity to meet and discuss their legal problems with our attorneys free of charge. Last year alone NLA organized three of such events in New York. 
Once again, I acknowledge that NLA has not done much outside the United States; however, NLA did condemn the killing of former Attorney General of Nigeria Chief Bola Ige. Shortly after his death, NLA condemned the act and called for justice to prevail on the killers and/or conspirators. Our position was made in a full page of one of the national newspapers. I believe it was The Guardian. I should also inform you that NLA periodically supports charitable works that are geared toward uplifting the less privileged. In 2005 NLA donated several thousands of dollars to charitable causes in Nigeria. As part of my speech last month during my handover to our new leader, Bola Oloko, I urged NLA to devote more time towards public advocacy, especially in Nigeria. I have no doubt that in the years to come, NLA will definitely get more active in Nigeria and beyond. Ultimately, public advocacy is about speaking out and fighting for what is fair and right for the larger community. Correct me, I think this is also part of leadership.

U.E.: In these days when tenure elongation appears to be the in-thing, why did you not seek another term, at least “to complete the good work you are doing for NLA,” as they say it in Abuja, Kampala, Conakry, Harare and some other places?

P.A.: The truth is that the pressure was on me to seek re-election. However, my brother, you get to a point in your life, when you have to let different and, hopefully, better ideas take over. More so, I have served NLA twice as Secretary, twice as Board Member and as President; thus, I missed being a regular member in every sense of the word. I will continue the good work by being an active member, attending meetings, seminars and serving in committees.

U.E. Why did you have to wait until the time you were handing over to a new president to realize that the NLA should now devote more time to public advocacy, especially in Nigeria?

P.A. It is incorrect to infer or allege that I did not timely realize the importance of public advocacy. NLA has always been for public advocacy. It need not be reminded and I have not done so. However, as an outgoing president, I had the opportunity to review the achievements of my administration and voiced my suggestions as to the direction the association should lay more emphasis. Like I said earlier, public advocacy requires funding and more. I think we are heading in the right direction, but don’t expect us to compete with local bar associations.

Placid Aguwa

U.E.: Mr. Aguwa, I do not think that it is too much to expect an association of lawyers from Nigeria to be troubled each time there are clear instances of what many people have described as constitutional rascality and raw advertisement of official lawlessness in Nigeria, as witnessed in states like Ekiti, Anambra, Oyo and, now, Adamawa. But the NLA appeared totally indifferent, and has continued to maintain a loud silence. Could this be because of the problem of logistics you talked about earlier, or the fear that some key actors in the present government who are friends of the NLA might be embarrassed if you came out hard on what many people perceived as budding dictatorship?

P.A.: You will like to see an NLA that is more outspoken on the issues; however, NLA has not been silent. Mr. Ejinkeonye, let me correct a false impression that you have. NLA has no allegiance or loyalty to any person, especially any so called “actors of the present government.” Years ago, NLA honored Former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okojo-Iweala. Is she one of the actors you are talking about? We can all agree that she did a relatively wonderful job. The Attorney General of Nigeria, Chief Bayo Ojo, was guest speaker at our annual dinner. Is he one of the actors you are referring to? His attendance and that of other former Attorneys General, has not compromised NLA. The NLA has always engaged such “actors.”
In all countries of the world, Attorneys General speak at lawyers’ events. So I totally disagree with your innuendo. Whether you are aware of it or not, and whether it made headline news or not, there have been certain actions of the Attorney General which I spoke against while President of NLA. I am no longer the President of NLA, so I do not speak for NLA; however, I can confirm that most members of the NLA have been saddened by the rascality of many Legislatures and some within the Executive arms of the government. I cannot call President Obasanjo a dictator; however, some of his actions have been authoritarian in nature. I always measure my criticism. While the President has shown some level of military totalitarianism, on the other hand we should also commend his fight against corruption as well as many of his economic reforms. Don’t get me wrong. He could have done much better for the country and should have been more even-handed; however, as much as I believe he is not a saint, think about this, one Naira recovered today, is one Naira that could not have been recovered eight years ago.                                                                       
Let me tell you a story. Years ago, NLA engaged the late Attorney General of Nigeria, Chief Bola Ige during the peak of the Amina Lawal’s death sentence. I hope you remember that name. NLA was outraged that she was condemned to death for an alleged adultery. In my presence, in New York City, Chief Bola Ige made the following statement, “...as long as I am Attorney General, Amina will not be killed.” Of course, Chief Ige was killed months later, but whether or not he actually did anything to save her, the good news is Amina is alive today, thanks to people like Chief Ige who spoke out and thanks to Ms. Hauwa Ibrahim who fought the court battles. So, my brother, public advocacy is not just going to the press or beating drums of war; you need to privately and publicly engage those you refer to as the “key actors”. You and I agree that democracy is run by way of rules and laws. We cannot have a democracy where lawmakers constitute themselves into lawbreakers and the Presidency seizes the moment to declare a state of emergency. The Presidency ought to take more proactive measures to assist in resolving these crises and not take political advantage of them. 
Let’s look on the bright side. I am highly encouraged by the fact that the judiciary has taken the lead to protect Nigeria from further political insanity and confusion. The judiciary has distinguished itself as dependable and impartial. The decision of the Court of Appeal in Oyo and Anambra is a victory for democracy. When I was president of NLA, I commented on this publicly in several news media and public forum. Now, if you have been expecting the NLA to be more visible in the press, the public and courtrooms fighting these issues that is a fair expectation. However, you have to realize that NLA is based in the United States of America; therefore, most of us are not on the ground everyday in Nigeria. Therefore, I appreciate and support the work the NBA has been doing. More than ever before, the NBA President, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, has been outstanding and fearless. I guarantee you that the present leadership of NLA is exploring ways to collaborate with and/or assist the NBA, since we have the same goals, which is ultimately, a better Nigeria for all of us.

U.E.: Thank you. Apart from the annual dinner/awards, and, perhaps, a couple of seminars in a year, what would you identify as the real preoccupations of the NLA over these years? How does it differ, for instance, from any other social/professional club?  

P.A.: NLA is a bar association and not to be likened to a social club. In between awards and seminars, NLA has a ton of other activities. For instance, we provide mentoring to law students and new attorneys. The secretariat keeps tab on developments in the legal community. Members get regular updates of changes in the law and the practice of law. Again, remember our legal clinics which are open to the general public. Also remember our quarterly publication “The Nigerian Lawyer.” I am sure you have read prior editions. 

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

U.E.: I have not. Well, how is life in exile? What do you think accounts for the mass exodus of Nigerians from their country to even some countries where they are subjected to various forms of degrading treatment? How do you think the trend could be reversed?
P.A.: I am not in exile. I am part and parcel of Nigeria. Sometimes, I am in Nigeria more than thrice a year. Professionally, I am in good standing as an attorney in Nigeria. You probably don’t know that I also practice in Nigeria. I handle business law and commercial law cases in and out of Nigeria. People have different reasons for leaving Nigeria. I can articulate hundreds of reasons; however, I think one of the most serious is the economy and its inability to create jobs. In a country where probably 70% of the citizens are not gainfully employed, traveling out of the country becomes a compelling option. Ancillary to this point is the issue of corruption. When a bunch of idiots embezzle public funds in billions, what do you expect? The economy continues to tumble, hence the perpetual feeling of helplessness. Amongst others, we can reverse this trend by the simple act of fighting corruption at all levels. 

U.E.: Tell me about your law practice, what motivated you to choose the profession, and why you had to relocate to the United States 
P.A.: Frankly, I never wanted to be a lawyer. My father got me into it. When I was very young, my father took me to a court to observe a trial involving a disputed election for the traditional ruler of my autonomous community. One of the attorneys was very tall and articulate. My father looked at me and said, you have to be lawyer. Do you see how smart that lawyer is? From that point, all my efforts were geared towards becoming a lawyer. I am glad I did. My firm is known as Placid & Emmanuel, P.C. We have offices in Manhattan and The Bronx, New York. We also recently opened a third office in Poughkeepsie, New York. Law practice has been lucrative for me. I thank God. I am a civil trial lawyer. I handle mostly civil and commercial law cases. I have a partner and a few associates. 

U.E.: So what then informed your decision to relocate the US?

P.A.: I initially went on a one-month vacation. While in America, late General Sani Abacha started his mayhem. Most of my corporate clients were going out of business, and I decided to hang around for a while to see where things were heading. It got worse and I decided to establish in the USA, albeit, temporarily. For me, it was never a decision to become part of the system out in America. I merely wanted to stay for a while and set up an international law practice and thereafter make the best of the two countries. This is what I have achieved. So it has worked out as planned.

U.E.: What is your assessment of the Nigerian judiciary? Of late, Nigerian courts, especially the appellate ones, have given some landmark judgments that clearly underlined a new resolve to operate without the old, self-imposed constraints that had abridged their freedom in times past, what do you think accounts for this, and what does it portend for the future of the rule of law and democracy in Nigeria?  

P.A.: Rule of law remains the same, yesterday, today and forever. It is what it is. The future of democracy in Nigeria is what I am scared about. I read the news today that a top official of INEC said that the elections may not hold because of several pending court actions. Mr. Ejinkeonye, this is frightening. Do you know that candidates are already seriously campaigning for the November 2008 elections to be held in America? But in Imo State, barely two weeks before the April 2007 elections, it is not clear who the governorship candidate for PDP will be? The issue is before the Supreme Court. When will the rightful candidate campaign? How legitimate will the election results be?
Listen, the judiciary has continued to save this country from doom. The recent decisions in states such as Oyo and Anambra States are commendable. The judges are now paid relatively well. They are fearless than ever before. When you read the judgments, they make sense. However, like I said, we cannot have a democracy where lawmakers constitute themselves into lawbreakers and the executive seizes the moment for political advantage. I am cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy in Nigeria. I don’t know if the judiciary alone can do the job, especially when the executive arm refuses to comply with court orders. Not when the INEC Chairman has become the interpreter of the Nigerian constitution. I think all hands must be on deck if we are to preserve democracy in Nigeria

U.E.: Are you a member of NIDO (Nigerians in Diaspora Organizations)? At what point did NIDO metamorphose into an image laundering platform for the Obasanjo Administration, as has been variously alleged by some people?  

P.A.: I am a member of NIDO. Yes. You are wrong to allege that NIDO is assisting the Obasanjo Administration. I disagree seriously. I believe that the idea behind NIDO is great, however, as with any organization, improvement is needed. I think NIDO will welcome some of your ideas, so feel free to make suggestions to the organization. In any event, since the premise of your question is wrong, I cannot give further response. 

U.E.: So what really does NIDO do? 

P.A.: Well, I am not part of the leadership anymore, so I am not in the proper position to tell you what it does. You may want to read its charter or speak to its leadership. I can tell you, however, that NIDO was set up to bring Nigerian professionals together to have a unified and strong platform to participate in the development of Nigeria. Out in the United States, there are pockets of professional organizations scattered in all of the states. NIDO was set up to attempt to bring them together as an umbrella organization. NIDO was set up as a mouthpiece for Nigerian professionals out in the USA. How it has succeeded in achieving this goal is for people like you to argue. There is obviously some success. For instance, when I was on the board, in 2001, we had an economic seminar in New York. This brought together hundreds of entrepreneurs and potential investors. We highlighted the privatization process going on in Nigeria at the time.
In addition, NIDO has organized and/or co-sponsored several other seminars and conferences. You may be aware that NIDO co-sponsored an international seminar on Advance Fee Fraud (419), a few years ago in New York. There are also minor activities that NIDO gets involved with every now and then, which does not make the news. For instance, NIDO has been at the forefront of the fight to get the US Department of Transportation to permit Virgin-Nigeria Airlines and other Nigerian carriers to fly directly to the USA. Again, reasonable minds can argue whether or not NIDO has been a success. I know funding has been a problem.
On the other hand, I agree that NIDO can do much better. Regardless of what you read on the internet, let me make this point very clear, I was part of the group that set up NIDO. I met the President and Vice-President a few times while I was part of NIDO’s leadership; at no time did the President or any person acting on his behalf request that NIDO or its members become a mouthpiece or image-maker for his government. President Obasanjo supported NIDO, just like other Presidents support similar ventures involving their citizens. I don’t see a problem with that. This is not to say that there are no members of NIDO that have other selfish motives. I would have resigned from NIDO if I thought it was a front for the government or something close to that. I think there is a perception problem which is due largely to the fact that NIDO started “too close” to the government.
But trust me, it was never the intention to make it a part of the government.

U.E.: Nigeria is spending millions of Naira on the “Nigeria Image Project,” do you think this is not a wasteful venture? Shouldn’t that money be channeled instead to programmes aimed at fixing the country and reclaiming its collapsed systems, which will in turn improve our rating before the outside world?  

P.A.: I agree with you, I think the money is a waste. When we respect the rule of law, when we seriously control corruption, when we treat one another with respect and dignity, Nigerian’s image will improve.
U.E.: But when the Image Project was launched in Canada, NIDO was, reportedly, about the only group that came out en masse to help make it succeed. I don't know about the one that took place  in the UK and Washington? 

P.A.: I did not attend the event you are talking about so, my comment will be limited. The mere fact that NIDO was the only group that attended has no implications, either way. If NIDO is run properly, this is one of the things it can do for Nigeria.
I see no problem with helping to improve the image of our country as long as NIDO is not helping to advance the image of any particular administration. Again, note that I believe that it is a waste of money to attempt to salvage any image at all. You can smell a delicious soup from miles away. You don’t need to be told that it smells good. So, if the only reason for the event in Canada was to project the image of the Obasanjo Administration, it is a waste. However, I cannot condemn an event that I do not have the details of and never attended. Suffice to say that I know many of the leaders of NIDO are respected professionals and I do not believe they will allow NIDO to be used in any improper way.

U.E.: What is your assessment of the eight years of the Obasanjo regime? How does it make you feel that even today Nigerians still have to send their children to schools abroad, including Ghana, to get quality education, and people still go abroad to treat minor ailments like catarrh - the ‘common cold’? 

P.A.: Overall, I think the administration failed Nigerians when you compare it with the leadership of many other countries. However, I give him some credit for his fight against corruption. As I always say, one Naira recovered today, is one Naira that would not have been recovered eight years ago. It is a shame that the healthcare and school system in Nigeria is a mess. It is part of the overall state of decay. I expect the next administration will see this as a matter of national security.  

U.E.: You think the war against corruption is genuine, and not a mere tool for the prosecution of someone's personal and political battles as has been widely alleged? 

P.A.: I think the two positions can exist in perfect harmony. I have no doubt that the fight was genuine at the beginning. However, down the line, it appears to have taken a different dimension. I do not support corruption, but you have to balance your investigation and prosecution. What has disappointed many Nigerians is that there appears to be a few that are untouchable. Regardless of what they do, no one can touch them. I think the President deserves both credit and criticism. Having the courage to challenge the status quo, should get him some credit. Recovering some stolen funds deserves some commendation. However, he could and should have done much more in a fair and unbiased platform. He had the opportunity to do the right thing, but he blew it.

U.E.: Have you heard of the Nigeria Diaspora Village, which will have all the amenities that are not available to the rest of the people, where those of you who live abroad (including in Sierra Leone, Togo and Rwanda, I suppose) will be ‘quarantined’ if you decide to come home? Do you think this can now serve as sufficient encouragement to Nigerians in the Diaspora to start returning in droves?  

P.A. I do not think the programme is good for Nigeria. It does not appear fair. I do not support it and I have no intention of applying for space at the village. 

U.E.: Do you have confidence in the ability of the Prof Maurice Iwu-led Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) to rise above what looks likes like partisan encumbrances to conduct free and fair elections?  

P.A.: I have no confidence in Prof. Iwu. I do not trust him. How can we expect a free and fair election, when we have all seen the height of unfairness and incompetence months before the election? It’s a shame to even talk about the elections. It is a big joke. We have been planning for the elections for years and this is the best we can offer? It is a total disaster. 

U.E.: Apart from law books, what other books do you enjoy reading? 

P.A.: I run a very busy law practice; so it is difficult for me to make out time to read materials and books other than practice books. However, I make it a habit to read magazines and newspapers everyday. You may be glad to know that Daily Independent is one of my favorite newspapers. I read it and a few others everyday. 

U.E.: Could you please talk a bit more about yourself; I am sure readers would like to know more about you.

P.A.: I was born more than 40 years ago into a big and lovely family in Mbaise, Imo State. I live a simple life with my wife and two kids.  

U.E.: Any plans to “enter politics”  (as they say in Nigeria) in active capacity in the near future?  

P.A.: I don’t know that people “enter politics.” Early this year, I met a gentleman in Abuja who told me that he is a politician, although he does not hold any office. I think we are all politicians by birth. If your question is whether I will like to serve Nigeria in some capacity in the future, then my answer is, maybe.

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye writes a column (SCRUPLES) every Wednesday on the back page of Daily Independent.  He is also on the Editorial Board of the Paper.

Interview Conducted March 2007

1 comment:

  1. Is the NLA a social club or a professional body? Of what relevance is this body to Nigeria, its judiciary, democracy and rule of law? As a body of lawyers, its determination to continue advertizing its crying irrelevance to Nigeria and Nigeria, is a tragedy. Somebody out there should quickly learn to spell 'focus' and 'purpose', and equally rehearse their meanings before this group as often as the meet


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