This may sound a bizarre question. But when one has dealt with Nigerians for a long time and watched or observed the idiosyncrasies of the elite, one may be tempted to ask: where do we find the most intelligent Nigerians. You have their doctors. You have their engineers. You have their lawyers, etc. Where are the most intelligent Nigerians concentrated? Is it the legal profession? Of course, Nigerian lawyers will consider themselves the best intellectually. After all, they belong to a profession openly referred to as the “learned”. But how learned are the lawyers, really, especially Nigerian lawyers?
The assessment of Voltaire, the most outstanding enlightenment philosopher may help one see lawyers in the proper perspective. In his essays on Voltaire, Clarence Darrow addressed it thus:
“On his return from school, about fifteen, his father decided to make him an advocate (a lawyer). He picked out the profession for his son, as most fathers do, because it was his own; but Voltaire’s early efforts at poetry had given him the ambition to write and he insisted that he should not follow his father’s footsteps, but devote his life to literature. This his father would not consent to. “Literature,” said the parent, “is the profession of the man who wishes to be useless to society, and a burden to his relatives, and to die of hunger.” But even Voltaire’s father could not make a lawyer out of a genius. To be a good lawyer, one must have a mind and a disposition to venerate the past, a respect for precedents; believe in the wisdom and the sanctity of the dead. Voltaire had genius, imagination, feeling, and poetry, and these gifts always have been, and always will be incompatible with the practice of law.” .. By Darrow, Essays on Voltaire.
When I first read the above view of Voltaire, I was not so happy. As a lawyer, I was of the view that I belonged to the most intelligent professional group. And as a Nigerian lawyer, I had always nursed the impression that I was among the most intelligent Nigerians. But over time, I realized that the intelligence of lawyers, as a group, has been terribly overrated. This is so evident in Nigeria, even today. When we speak of corruption in Nigeria, do you realize that no aspect of corruption can actually work if lawyers are not there to oil the engine of corruption? Take for instance the Halliburton Case. Halliburton was the global oil concern that was involved in major corruption in Nigeria up to the tune of six billion dollars and involving several Nigerian Presidents. All the officials of Halliburton who bribed Nigerians either pled guilty or were convicted in their countries for bribing Nigerians. However, Nigerians who received the bribe were the only ones that were never tried. And among those Nigerians were several senior lawyers who still hold sway and control over the legal profession in Nigeria. Look also at the case of Process and Industrial Developments (P&ID) Case. It is a classic case of a huge corruption (8 Billion Dollars) which was packaged with the assistance of senior Nigerian lawyers.
One can make a long list of high profile corruptions conceived, birthed and incubated by Nigerian lawyers. When, therefore, we speak of intelligence and overall value to society, it might be wrong to place lawyers anywhere other than at the bottom of the list.
I have experienced directly, even as a lawyer, occasions that force me to reexamine the argument that lawyers in Nigeria are particularly more intelligent than other professional groups within the country. On few occasions when I ventured into social media discussions among Nigerian lawyers, I come across lawyers who lack the ability to argue with me on the merits. But given their orientation of bloated egos, induced by years during with the wrong notion of superiority has been forced on these lawyers, you will see some of them try to shut me up by claiming that my name was struck off the Rolls, a claim that would be so easily contradicted just by looking at the law and the public record. Obviously, more and more of Nigerian lawyers cannot argue on the merits even on the simplest of topics. Even on a non-legal subject in a public debate, the poorly educated Nigerian lawyer will tell me that my name is struck off the rolls, and that is his response to even the most fascinating point of view on a public issue. Yet, the same bunch venerates and sucks up to those lawyers that perpetrate corruption in billions.
It is astonishing that all this is happening at a time when the Nigerian Supreme Court itself is embroiled in the worst crisis in its history, with the Justices accusing themselves of corruption and the seemingly forced retirement of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. A few months ago, the second most senior justice was nearly abducted from her house by policemen who claimed to come from the office of the Attorney-General. A few months earlier, the entire bar went on strike for three months and achieved nothing in the end. A couple of years earlier, the then Chief Justice was forced out of office in the most unconstitutional manner forward. You would expect that the crises would more suitably engage the attention of an intelligent member of the profession. But no; it is the petty squabble and name-calling and shaming of a lawyer they envy would dominate the attention and debate of so-called intelligent group. If all these things are happening within the profession, why would an intelligent person believe that having his name in the rolls of infamy is the path of honor? For me, it has been a shocking experience when I run into Nigerian lawyers and I experience this appalling level of pettiness, even in their professional groups. I am forced to remember the essay by Darrow on Voltaire.
The Nigerian lawyers have contributed very little to the development of the country. They have aided in the spoliation of the country through the mindboggling corruption and backwardness of Nigeria. Even though there are a few intelligent ones among them, overall, the lawyers have been a liability to Nigeria than any other group except, perhaps, the politicians. It therefore raises a big question whether Nigerian lawyers can truly be called a learned group in so far as Nigerians are concerned.
Emeka Ugwuonye is a Harvard trained attorney and founder of Due Process Advocates International (DPA)