…Epiphany Azinge, ex-DG, NIALS, now Judge of the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal, London
… ‘How we got French into Nigeria’s legal studies after Bakassi case with Cameroun’
By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
PROFESSOR of law and former Director General, Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Abuja, Epiphany Azinge, SAN, who is celebrating his 40th anniversary of his call to the Nigerian Bar, today, says the country runs one of the finest bar and bench that the world can boast of.
Azinge, a Judge of the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal, London, United Kingdom and the first ever Okilolo (Philosopher) of Asaba, Delta State, in this interview, adds that he has nothing to regret in life because God gave him the ability to accomplish his set goals.
I look back at my 40 years at the bar with a feeling of nostalgia because I still remember very vividly my days at the Law School and my friends and I thank God for having spared my life to witness my 40th anniversary at the bar. It is a thing of joy and all the glory and honour go to God. I also think that it has been an eventful journey 40 years after. I am also at the service of my Asaba people as the President-General of Asaba Development Union. I have served my country to the best of my ability and with distinction, which was reciprocated with a national honour of Order of the Niger, OON.
I have achieved a lot of distinctions in my own small way; besides being a professor for over 20 years now, I have been a SAN for 15 years and here I am, presently, serving my country as a Judge of the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal in London, I have done the first four years, the second four years started this year and, for me, it is also a position of responsibility.
I was elected, not appointed to represent Nigeria and the whole of Africa; I am the only African in the Commonwealth Arbitral Tribunal elected by the body of Heads of States. They recommended after my first four years that I should be re-elected for additional four years.
At the moment, I am aware that I am the oldest serving member and, who knows, because they are already pushing, the presidency of the court may fall on me when the next election is conducted in the next couple of months. I have been the Director General of Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies for five years.
I was given that opportunity to express myself to the best of my ability, leading that top-level legal institution in the country and I felt that I did my best in the five years that I spent there looking at the innovations and policy formulations, support services, grooming of people, making of professors among many other things.
And obviously elevating that institution to the level of any other in the world because that was our target, it is knowledge that makes the difference, so we wanted to compete favorably with similar institutions, be it Havard Law School and we were able to attract the finest minds from all parts of the world to the institution to help water the fertile imaginations of the young ones. We tried to chart a path for the future and opened up legal studies in such a way that we do not lose out of the legal literature that abounds in other climes.
We were prepared and indeed ensured that our younger academics not just have a passing knowledge of French for instance, but profoundly, having participated in the International Court of Justice, ICJ, as a member of the legal team and Special Assistant to a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, the late Chief Michael Agbamuche. We had to handle the Bakassi Pennisula case; we were able to see the deficiencies that could mar, to a large extent, the outing of people who are not well balanced in legal literature and jurisprudence of a people.
In other words, while attorneys on the other side were very fluent in French and English and had very firm knowledge on jurisprudence on both sides of the divide, we were hamstrung because we were restricted to English literature and jurisprudence as the case may be. So it will be difficult for you in such a situation to persuade the judges of the French persuasion, as the case may be.
But over and above that is the realization on my own part that locked up in France, continental Europe, locked up in Cameroon and some of these places are wonderful philosophical and jurisprudential studies in French language that we could not access and they waste without our knowing anything about them. So I believe that to call yourself a complete legal scholar, you must have studied and understood whatever philosophical and legal studies they are in French language, just as you have in English language, that makes you a rounded scholar and a better human being.
That was why I instituted the idea, I think it is still there- that for you go beyond a particular level, either a senior lecturer, you must have a firm understanding of French language and I got French language teachers to start teaching them at the Institute. It was after I started it that the Civil Service in Abuja also introduced it apparently drawing from whatever they heard that we are doing it.
They institutionalized it and it is important that we appreciate that just next door to Badagry is Republic of Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, we are surrounded by French-speaking countries and yet, we cannot speak French and it does not make any difference to anybody.
How can we survive and make it with French countries surrounding us without bothering about the implications? No, we are just losing out. How do we communicate, influence and impact if we are not in the position to understand the language, etc. I see no reason why we should not make the study of other languages compulsory even in our secondary school system.
I told my children that people that enjoy the world are those who end up becoming citizens of the world and you do not become a citizen of the world by just speaking English language. If you want to work in the World Bank and so many other places now, the first thing they will ask you is how many languages do you speak and that defines you automatically.
In these 40 years, we have not just tried to practice law, we have also tried to influence and shape the thrust, frontiers, kind of prepare the goal post of where we think we should be moving in the 21st century.
We may have made some mistakes along the line, but there are not irredeemable. When I went to the Law School, we were not more than 400- 500, now we have 5, 000 – 6, 000 persons graduating at the same time. When I read those that graduated during my time on the platform, they are top-notch, but I think the future is still bright, there is now information technology, people are better exposed in that regard at the moment.
We have had some breakthroughs here and there, but, for me, the last 40 years have really been fun and I can look back with a lot of gratitude to God and say that I think I have achieved so much in 40 years and I do not look back with any regret to what I have done and, given the opportunity, I will do the same again.
Needless to say that I have served in the last five years as a member of the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, the body charged with the responsibility of conferring SAN on lawyers. For me, that is acknowledgement that one has come of age, a position in which you not only help to make other senior advocates, but being in the position to assess them and make sure you give back to your profession what you have benefited from the profession.
- In part 2 of the interview to be published next week, Azinge speaks on why Nigeria lost Bakassi to Cameroun among other issues.