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Lessons I Learned In The Beginning By Okoi Obono-Obla

Chief  (Barr.)  Okoi Obono-Obla 
In September 1991, I finished the mandatory and complusory one year national service just few days after Delta State was carved out of the old Bendel State through military decree promulgated by the Federal Military Government of General Ibrahim Babangida. The old Bendel State of Nigeria was formerly known and called the Mid Western State. It was formerly Mid Western Region carved out of the old Western Region of Nigeria by an Act of the Nigerian Parliament passed in 1963.  However, on the 15 January 1966, the military in a coup detat toppled the prevailing civilian democratic order in the country . On the 27 July 1966 there was another military coup that led to overthrow of the military government headed by General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi. The military coup which saw the emergence of General Yakubu Gowon as new military Head of State generated a crisis that resulted in the old Eastern Region breakaway to form the Republic of Biafra.  One of the measures introduced by administration of General Gowon to pull the rug off the feet of the secessionist was the abolition of the four Regional structure existing then in the country and its replacement with a 12 States structure. So in May 27 1967, the old Mid Western Region became Mid Western State. In February 1976 , Mid Western State became Bendel State.

In September, 1991, I rounded my national service in Benin the capital of the old Bendel State and return to Cross River State. After serious introspection on my future I decided to join the Law practice of my cousin, late Honourable Justice Okoi Ikpi Itam, former Chief Judge of Cross River State but just few days after I did that he was appointed a High Court Judge. So I elected to leave as I joined his practice because I had thought he would mentor me to become the strong legal practitioner that he was.

In February 1992 I joined the law firm of Kanu Godwin Agabi and Associates formed by the onetime Honourable Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Kanu G. Agabi (CON) (SAN). It was then one of the leading law firms in Calabar, Cross River  State. In 1992, the judiciary of Cross River State still had five or so Judges who had received their legal training in the United Kingdom in the 1950s/ 1960s. The Chief Judge, Honourable Justice E Ecoma was among jurists in the Cross River Judiciary trained in the United Kingdom. Others include late Honourable Justice EE Arikpo; late Honourable Justice E.E Effanga and late  Honourable Justice Okokon Ita. This generation of Judges were steeped in the ultra-conservatism of the British legal culture and tradition of their time.  They were well educated, intelligent, thorough, disciplined, incorrigible and courageous.  They spoke and wrote impeccable English with the accent and diction of British barons and carried themselves with such swagger.

One of the first case I handled as a starry eyed, inexperienced young legal practitioner after joining Kanu G. Agabi and Associates in 1992 was before late Honourable Justice Effanga.  He was such a burly man and presided over his Court with such intimidating presence and command that made many young legal practitioners very uncomfortable even afraid to handle cases in his Court. Justice Effanga loved what he called forsenic advocacy which includes a lawyer making legal argument and submissions with oratory skills, garb and speaking off the cuff without reading from legal texts and law reports/journals while addressing him. Woe betide a legal practitioner who lacks oratory skills and attempts to address him through reading from a prepared script!  He had a reputation of no nonsense and up braiding legal practitioners in open Court before their clients who did not measure to his standards of what an ideal legal practitioner appearing before him should do.

So in my first day I appeared before late Justice Effanga in Court No.3 in the High Court complex Moore Road, Calabar  to argue a bail application concerning a defendant who was remanded in prison custody because he stood surety for somebody that was a fugitive from justice was a real dreadful day! I was scared, apprehensive and frightened I was going to incur the wrath of late Justice Effanga. However, I summoned courage and decided to stand up to him. When I got to my feet before I could put myself together he descended on me and subjected me to a barrage of questions concerning law and practice regulating bail application!  He tried to take me off balance by asking me to explain the conditions that should guide his discretion to grant and refuse bail application by a defendant. I calmly and confidently answered all his questions to the best of my ability despite his efforts to make lose focus and balance.  In the end Justice Effanga granted my bail application but left me completely drained and tired.

I gathered myself and left feeling very sorry for myself despite the fact that my application succeeded.  I left the Court back to the office. Some one hour after reaching the office my principal, Kanu Agabi called me into his office and told me Justice Effanga had called him to say that I did very well in his Court. He said Justice Effanga said I was a courageous young man! From there on Justice Effanga respected me as young legal practitioner and would mention to young and senior legal practitioners how I practice before his Court. However this praise outside the court did not temper any of his toughness within his court!

Justice Effanga rose to become the Chief Judge of Cross River State of Nigeria in 1996 but died suddenly in 1998. The lessons I learned in my formative years from such great mentors are worth more and have served me more than billions in any currency ever could.                                   Okoi Obono-Obla
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