The roll-call of those conferred with the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) title in the country could just as well read as the makers of the nation. Starting from the very beginning with Chief Rotimi Williams and Nabo Graham-Dougla, we have over the years seen illustrious names such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Prof Ben Nwabueze, Bola Ige, Gani Fawehinmi, GOC Okocha, Yusuf Ali, Afe Babalola, Wole Olanipekun, GOK Ajayi, Olisa Agbakoba, Chimezie Ikeazor, Tayo Oyetibo, Michael Agbamuche, Folake Solanke, Femi Falana etc. mount the lofty pedestal. Anambra State tops the list of SANs followed by Ogun State.
Recently, a mere letter from a well-known SAN nearly killed a self-advertised king. Here is how it happened. There was so much trouble in a certain town in the Southeast over the creation of the so-called Autonomous Communities. One man who would rather rule in Hell than serve in Paradise, as John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, led the charge of the dismemberment of the town, and crowned himself the king of his miniscule autonomous community.
The prominent leaders of the town who would not want their homeland split into puny communities got a distinguished SAN to dispatch a letter to the uppity “king.” When the letter got into the man’s hands, he screamed “SAN!” and promptly fainted. Traumatized members of his community had to rally to great lengths to bring him back to life.
As his acute palpitation was giddily transcending to chronic trepidation, the man kept muttering in Igbo: “Igwe ejee nga!” The expression simply translates to: “The king goes to jail!” It took no time at all to dawn on the man and his tiny community that they could not muster the resources to hire another SAN to undertake the imminent court battle on their behalf. To save himself from the abomination of a king going to jail, the man had to plead with the potentates of the larger town to ask the SAN to drop the case as he no longer had any use for the autonomous community he planned to lead.
The clout of a SAN is indeed immense in Nigeria. It is akin to royalty, an aura fit only for kings. When a SAN steps into a court, it is like the very charge of electricity. All eyes definitely turn towards the figure of singular distinction.
As the rule stands, SAN is a title that may be conferred on legal practitioners in Nigeria of not less than ten years’ standing. To be thus decorated, one must have of course distinguished oneself in the legal profession. In the scheme of global comparison, SAN is the equivalent of the rank of Queen’s Counsel in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. The rank of a SAN amounts to admission into the “Inner Bar” as opposed to the “Outer Bar” consisting of junior advocates.
The conferment of the title of SAN is steeped in the highest legal tradition. It is made in accordance with the Legal Practitioners Act 207, Section 5 (1) by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee, headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria as Chairman. The body consists of the Attorney-General of the Federation and one Justice of the Supreme Court who is chosen by the Chief Justice and the Attorney-General for a term of two years which is renewable on one occasion only.
The other members are the President of the Court of Appeal; five Chief Judges of States chosen by the Chief Justice and the Attorney-General for a term of two years renewable on one occasion only; the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court; and five legal practitioners who are Senior Advocates of Nigeria chosen by the Chief Justice and the Attorney-General for a term of two years renewable on one occasion only.
The history of the conferment of SAN dates back to April 3, 1975 when Chief F.R.A. Williams and Dr Nabo Graham-Douglas were honored with the first two titles. Chief (Mrs) Folake Solanke holds the distinction of being the first female to be made a SAN in 1980. Thus far, less than 500 lawyers in Nigeria have been conferred with the high title of SAN.
But before the attainment of the elegant status of the SAN, the requisite work is done in the early days at the bar. It is the application that the young lawyer brings to bear on his work that propels him in time to reach the heights of the profession.
As a standout repository of knowledge and experience, the story of every given SAN deserves to be told. For such a guru of the law to die without writing an autobiography or even having a biography against his name amounts to burning down an entire library.
The enormous information contained in the personage deserves the sharing of the wider world instead of being interred within the bowels of the earth. The testament of the SAN deserves circulation while he is alive instead of indulging in gaudy celebrations upon his death.
Even more crucially, the SANs ought to stem the corruption and the rape of the law hampering the growth of Nigeria into real civilization.
* Maxim Uzoatu, a poet, essayist, and lapsed atheist, is a freelance journalist and writes from Lagos.