By Mercy Hill
In this final part (part three), Fr Edwin Obiorah, SAN, speaks on his journey to SANship, challenges of being a SAN and a Catholic priest, some intricacies in trials and litigations, his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, among others. Excerpts:
At the event when you were conferred a SAN at the Supreme Court, Abuja, you mentioned that you first applied in 2017 and was denied of it. Why were you denied in 2017?
Now the rank of SAN in Nigeria is a privilege. It is not a right of anybody. Just like in the priesthood, to be ordained a priest is a privilege; therefore, it is only the church that recognizes the call. If the church did not see that call, you will not be ordained. Similarly, in legal profession, many lawyers that are not senior advocate are great lawyers but it is only the legal practitioners privilege committee that can look at you, look at your work and say we can confer this honour or rank on you.
In 2017, my name was shortlisted among the candidates, went through the inspection of my chamber. Because to be a SAN, many things are involved, including the inspection of your chambers. I don’t want people to see it as if we are trying to be proud or something because we are only trying to set down some facts.
To be a SAN, there are certain basic skeletal things you must present first before they begin other things. One, you must have shown that you have initiated and completed four cases at the Supreme Court. Two, that you have initiated and completed five cases at the Court of Appeal. Three, that you have initiated and completed twenty cases at the High Court or its equivalent. And when we submitted our record, they shortlisted us, and went through chamber inspection.
Your chamber must be inspected to make sure it has all the facilities that the chamber needs. However, when we went for interview, they probably chose a better candidate for that year. In 2018, we applied. For one reason or the other we were not shortlisted. I know that there were petitions and objections from some quarters, particularly, people saying that a Catholic priest cannot be a senior advocate.
That was a raging issue for some people. In 2019, the same issue and other things came up. Then in 2020, we rested. In 2021, we applied again. Since they required four Supreme Court cases, with humility, we gave them eleven. They required five Court of Appeal cases; with greatest respect we gave them thirty-five.
And they required twenty cases done at the level of the High Court, we were humble that we were able to give them fifty six. They looked at all these and came for chamber inspection, went through everything, and this time they decided in their wisdom that I should be selected. And it is by this, in humility, that I am today a SAN.
After you had applied for several times and you finally got selected, how did you feel when you got the news?
It was a big satisfaction and what gave me so much joy is the fact that many of the poor people we have been fighting for, feel so happy that the person fighting for them did not lose out.
What should we expect now from you as a SAN and also as a Catholic priest?
It is now time for us to begin again to do more work. One, for those who, unfortunately, have not been able to be heard in the society. Two, to support and carry out everything that will help the judiciary. Because the judiciary has always been on fire, politicians often, when they want to make name, they attack one judge or the other.
As a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, we will be in a position to fight for the judiciary. Fight for the judges whom we know because of their positions cannot speak for themselves. And more importantly to fight for the poor.
So many young lawyers listening to you will really be trilled and motivated. As a SAN, what would you advise young lawyers who are aspiring to reach where you are today?
Hardwork, hardwork and hardwork.
What is your advice for Catholic priests who are lawyers that are looking up to be conferred the SAN?
First of all, I thank them for taking that profession. It is not easy to be a priest, be a litigator and an advocate in court. And for them to be able to see how hard it was and still see the need to do it because Fr. Obiorah is doing, gives me satisfaction. And I know many of them.
I have told them, if they have any need to come around we would be ready to offer whatever assistance we have. Practice of law entails going through moral waters. Often certain issues that could be very intricate, that might try to question your moral upbringing will come up. It entails a priest lawyer to strike a balance. And so, I tell them go on. It is a good thing to be a priest and a lawyer because you have a lot of contribution to the society.
There was something you said at the beginning, the first Catholic priest to be a SAN in the entire world. Does it also entail those who are QC and KC?
Yes! There’s no Catholic priest that has ever been a SAN, or its equivalent, Queen’s Counsel (QC) or King’s Counsel (KC).
How do you juggle integrity in cases? That is, where you have to judge a case based on your integrity considering that you are a priest?
In fact, being a priest qualifies me and other priest to be good lawyers. Lawyers are not liars. A lawyer is a professional whose work is to first do research, and even investigate, gather facts, know the law and search the law, marry the facts and the law and then persuade. In fact, you will have to be on one side of the two sides of the coin. For instance, if an individual is accused of murder, for a lawyer priest, his work is not to ask him to go to confession or to condemn him.
No, his work is hydra headed. One, to make sure that the prosecution discharges the burden that the law itself has imposed on the prosecution. It is not you that imposed it. It is not the accused person that imposed it. It is the same law on murder that imposes it, and says to the prosecution: before you can prove this young man guilty, you to prove, one, two, three, four.
And the constitution, section 35 and even 36 made it clear that every person that is accused of any crime is presumed to be innocent. Then the work of the lawyer is to push the presumption and present it to the court. The work of the prosecution is to test run that presumption from fact.
In our jurisprudence now, a good lawyer must have the art of cross examination. In cross examination you can destroy a witness, evidence, and you can uplift a particular case. A judge is an impartial person, he wasn’t there. After all the lawyer wasn’t there, the prosecutor wasn’t there. It is the fact that we joggle around with the law.
Even when you know that a client has committed a crime against the law, will you go ahead to work on that case?
There is a principle which is well known in jurisprudence. That principle came from canon law and the Church borrowed it from the Roman legal system during the Roman empire. That is, nemo judex in causa sua, that is, no one is a judge in his own case. It is a principle of natural justice. How can you say you are guilty, how can you say that? Sometimes the law gives you right to kill.
When you kill at that circumstance, they call itself defense and everyone will shake your hand. You kill in another circumstance, they say it is just negligence, he didn’t want to kill. It is only that something just happened. They say we’ll give you little punishment for doing that. While others, the court calls it murder or negligent homicide. Some other situation, you kill, you are given a medal.
Like the police, who are protecting the nation. The same killing. So the lawyer’s work is to go through the law and the fact and to make sure that the burden of the case rests where it should rest. When that is done and the court finds you guilty, his work is not done yet. The lawyer will plead for mercy to make sure that best that could be given to you was given.
There was one case in New York. This young man was accused of pedaling drugs, hard substances. So many kilograms of cocaine were found with him. US government and investigators, you can trust them. The family came to our office, they said they want a black lawyer and I was the only one around. I explained to them that I can only defend him within the armpit of the law.
They said go ahead. We took the case. Do you know that the government produced over bug cartons of what we call jerking materials: documents, wiretap, and everything they had gotten. If you go through them, you will convict this young man before trial begins. It was a jury trial in the district court in Rochester. The jury was selected, twelve people.
They tried him. During break after some cross examination the family came around and said, attorney, you have done the work. Even if they convict him, the mother said, you have done the work. I was so satisfied. We went in, if he was convicted of the crime as charged, he would have been sentenced to about fifty-six years imprisonment. After the trial, we were lucky, the jury came and they ran through the charges acquitting him in almost all of them. It remained the smallest of all the counts, that was just street possession.
That you possess marijuana on the street, which was what almost every young man had tried one way or the other smoking marijuana. That count carried about five years imprisonment. When the verdict was done by the jury, the man jumped up in happiness, not minding that he had been convicted. We went to the phase of sentencing, when we came back; and we had to address the court about his history, his family background, his repentance.
I was privileged to have been given three hours to address the court on sentencing alone. At this time, it is no longer jury, it is the judge. The judge looked at him and said, young man you are lucky. He gave him three months imprisonment which he had already served more. So, we worked out of the court free.
That was one of the best cases that I never forgot, because it gave me some satisfaction that you can help the helpless. However, what I do and it is important, is that if I sense that my client, even though he is not a thief but when he passes something misses, I will sit him down and say, young man if we defend you on this, this will be the first and last in your life.
Are you ready to reform your life? If I don’t get his commitment, he will have to look for another lawyer. But once I get that commitment, I know that I am not just working as a lawyer, I am also working as a priest.
What is the source of your courage?
I will first of all say that I am a devotee of our Blessed Virgin Mary. I love that woman. She has been the source of my strength and like every other priest, we are devoted to the Eucharist. If I have a very serious case, I go to the chapel and kneel down and talk to the unseen person there. I will come back to my table and do my research. By the time I am going to be through, everything is clear.
Sometimes, you come out of court and you are surprised at yourself because things just flow. A witness can be so funny due to so much work; he has been prepared by his lawyer on how to answer questions. But, unfortunately, one question which wasn’t even part of the question you prepared comes out of your head and the whole shield is broken. You get what you want.
It is the work of God, the grace He has given us. Part of that grace is that as you see me now, I look old, so hairy. We work so hard. I can tell you we have over one thousand, five hundred open files in the office. I don’t leave the office before 8pm any day.
There are too many issues I have to deal with. The strength is from the unseen hand, otherwise I would have broken down. As I said, I am too privileged. His Excellency, Most Rev. Paulinus C. Ezeokafor, has been a great help. He went with me through all these. Since 2017, he was always encouraging me. This year, he came back from his oversea’s trip, the very first phone call he made was to call me.
What is going on with the SAN application? he asked. He follows everything. He is so happy that one of his priests was made a SAN. So, I cannot but thank him, including his auxiliary, Most Rev Jonas Benson Okoye. Each time there was an issue, call any of them.
Once I call, anything they can do, they do it. And so they are angels sent to this office. If you know what the two Bishops had on the 8 of December – the day were conferred the rank of SAN. It was so difficult but they were there. Bishop Jonas Benson had to leave from the Supreme Court after, to rush to an event he had earlier scheduled. Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor had to resign himself to fate. They were there and we thank them.
Are you also the first lawyer in Awka Bar Association to be promoted to be SAN since 1999?
The person that is our archive, arch and echelon in this field in Awka is Sir Chief O.B Onyali, SAN. He is a rock in legal profession. Not only a SAN but he is a life bencher. Chief O.B Onyali if I am not mistaken was elevated to the rank of SAN in 1999. But at that time, Awka Bar has not really been strong as such. He was the person that engineered the forming of Awka Bar.
Since then, when the Bar was formed, we have been very unfortunate that no lawyer had been awarded the rank of SAN in Awka. And it has been a great concern to the lawyers. That’s why the entire Bar from Awka said this is our own. So, we thank God for that and I know the clog has been broken because Awka Bar is rich with great lawyers and I know in no time we are going to get more senior advocates in Awka Bar.
We wrap it up here. It’s been great having you around. Thank you so much for your time