As a high school teenager, Peace Emma Akpabio watched her father unjustly persecuted and swore she would read law to fight injustice in the society, and she did. In this exclusive interview with GBUBEMI GOD’S COVENANT SNR, Peace bares her mind on impropriety of legal practices in Nigeria, among others.
Far away in her Ogoja, Cross River State missionary home, Peace describes herself as a little timid but passionately altruistic lady in her adolescent years; so concerned about people that she spent her growing up years always solving one emotional or financial problem or the other for friends. “Whatever the problem was, I always put myself where I will to sort it out. I was not outspoken, I was quiet and timid.” She said.
In psychology, timidity is hardly a nature synonymous with the knowledge and practice of law, but one incident sparked off a hidden fire in Peace that poised her for the wig and gown profession. She recalls it with passion as though it happened yesterday:
“When I was about 15 in secondary school, my father was a principal of one other school, the Methodist High School, Ibiakushet. The students rioted and the fracas was so much that they had to push my father out through a hole to escape for his life. I remember that night the students were actually coming in to kill my father because he suspended some students.
“The matter eventually went to court and my father was remanded in prison custody. The morning of that day the case was called to court, my dad was brought in a Black Maria. The chief magistrate told my father that, as the principal of that school he was in a position to know that the students will react when he suspended their colleagues and should have done something about it; and because of that my father should be taken back to prison custody.
“That judgement set something loose in my mind and I was deeply offended; so the following day when my father was taken out on bail, I made a firm promise to him. I said Daddy, because of this, I’ll go to law school and get this injustice corrected. That was why and how I became a lawyer.”
How was the case concluded?
“Like every other case in magistrates courts; because it was a post police case, it was intended to embarrass a person; they don’t ever pursue it to the end. Before you know it, something will just make it fizzle out as if nothing ever happened. That was exactly what happened to the case.”
A native of Ekom Imam in Etinam Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, Peace was born on May 11 1968, to a family of educationists. Her father, Etim Akpabio was a retired principal and later became a Reverend of Akwa Ibom Church of Nigeria before he passed on in 1999 and her mom, Jane Etim Akpabio is also a retired teacher, so naturally Peace went to school everywhere her parents were teachers.
Finishing her primary school at Ikono Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, the little lady proceeded to Cornelia Connelly College, CCC, Uyo and concluded her school certificate examination at the Immaculate Conception Secondary School, Itak also in Ikono LGA.
Peace recalls she was fortunate to be one of the pioneer students admitted to the then University of Cross River State to read law. From there she went on to the Law School in Lagos, graduated and was called to the bar in 1990.
Peace served her National Youth service as legal officer attached to Nitel in Enugu State. But the lioness that has been lying low in her broke loose when she joined the law firm of Clark Paiko & Co (legal practitioners) which had Chief Robert Clark as head of chambers and Adebayo Osho as head of litigation that had a lot to do with political parties. She recalls her folio:
“The chambers had the folio of solicitors to Nigerian Republican Convention and the Social Democratic Party (NRC/SDP) cases which were purely election petitions. That exposed me to so many cases in so many courts nationwide, but one of the cases came before a Lagos high court and that case was passed on to me.”
Instead of finding excitement at the opportunity to fight injustices as she had always wanted, Peace discovered another operation of the law in the dispensation of electioneering cases which she likened to ‘showmanship’ and paraphernalia.
“Now, that was what decided me because I don’t like fanfares. I discovered that those political cases were arranged for drama. The politicians come to court with Nigerian Television Authority crew and journalists to cover their cases, then the judge will come out with special regalia ready to speak a lot of grammar that will appear on the pages of newspapers, and lawyers will come looking good and waiting for press interviews many of which had been prearranged; while the real matters at hand are not addressed.”
Peace went looking for a chamber that will have a little humanitarian touch and she found in no other place than the late Gani Fawehimi chambers.
“I applied to work with Chief Gani Fawehimi & Co. chambers at Anthony Village in 1998 but my qualification hindered my human rights advocacy passion with the lawyers at Gani’s chambers. The senior lawyers thought my experience qualifies me most to edit Gani’s weekly law report, a favourite journal for the bar and the bench.”
The young woman didn’t stick to that for too long.
‘All I was doing there was sit down, read and edit the law reports and though I was doing it successfully, it wasn’t a job I liked; and because of the hierarchy of senior lawyers who decided who does what in the chambers, I couldn’t meet and discuss with Gani one on one.
“After two months I left there and returned back to Clark Paiko& Co. This time around, Chief Robert Clark had an understanding of what my passion was and he graciously passed to me the kind of cases I loved to handle. I enjoyed the cases that came to me throughout and I really was fulfilled.”
However, the adventurous lady move in 2002 and started her own law firm, Emma Akpabio & Co at Kodeso Street Ikeja.
“I employed two lawyers and I started really fighting for human rights and balanced justice.’
That exciting new beginning came with its contention as she found most of her clients were very poor, street people and the location of her office, caught up in the notoriety of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s old Afrika Shrine on Pepple Street did not help matters. Peace how she got the money to run on that premise.
“I still wonder to date how I coped; but I just know that when I set my mind on doing something, I do it. I rented that 3 bedroom bungalow with a gift shop in mind; the parlour was fit for a gift shop but somehow I took one room for my office and the second I converted to other lawyers’ office; the third room that should be the reception or a dining area I converted to a business centre. I was able to put in some computers, copying and other machines and a generator that served the law office.
“When I started, most of the cases we had come from the young men in that area who knew me; so when the police raid and dump them in the cells, they send for us and we go and take them out on bail. If their cases proceed to high court, we defend them because I always felt they’re human beings who have right to justice. All these services we rendered at the cost of the chambers.”
But today, Barrister Peace Akpabio is a missionary running a Non Governmental Organisation in far away Ogoja in the heart of Cross River State. How she got there and the story behind her dozens of the helpless, abused and widows in her care is a story for another day.