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Nigeria Bar Association Onitsha

The Onitsha Bar became formally constituted as a branch of Nigeria Bar Association in the year 1956. Thus, Onitsha Bar in its description is referred to as the Premier Bar East of the Niger and is reckoned as a strong solid Bar in terms of its caliber of personalities and bold steps it takes when matters challenge it. The Premier Bar is a professional, non-profit, umbrella association which comprises all lawyers practicing in Onitsha and its environs.

Our History: The Premier Bar

Onitsha Bar started with Sir Louis Nwachukwu Mbanefo who was called to the English Bar of Middle Temple, on Friday the 13th day of August, 1937 and later became the first Eastern Nigeria indigenous judge in 1952.

At the return of Sir Louis N. Mbanefo, it would be pertinent to note that Onitsha and environs consisted of one judicial division, i.e the East Central State of Nigeria. The Courts - the High Court, Magistrates Court and Customary Court were located and sited all over the Eastern States as one Judicial Division. Cases determined in these courts were cited in the law reports of East Central State of Nigeria. Some laws equally made were cited as laws of Eastern Nigeria.

Be it known that when Sir Louis N. Mbanefo started his legal practice here in Onitsha, he had little or no interaction with other personalities who were lawyers other than emigrants, mostly judges, magistrates and some lawyers such as Gerney Montecute Campbell Thompson who moved to the East sometimes in 1925, where he made a huge fortune out of land cases. He died on the 31st of March 1936. Amongst other attorneys were John Akinola Otumba Payne, who was called to the Bar on Thursday the 15th day of July 1909, Ekundayo Alaba Akerele called to the Bar on Saturday 14th September 1929, Silas Palmerston Dove and Boston Esq. Amongst the magistrates were Mr. Percy Walmim Holm and Mr. F.O. Lucas. Then we have some of them also who were attorneys and later became judges such as Jack Palmer who later became a judge. There were the likes of Louis Alan MacCormack who enrolled at the Supreme Court on the 19th of May 1923. He was a light skinned West Indian. His enrolment at the Supreme Court to practice law in Nigeria was soon after his call to the English Bar at the Middle Temple. MacCormack’s sound knowledge of the law was matched by his command of the English Language.

When Graham Paul became a judge in the High Court in 1934, MacComack stepped into his shoes as the solicitor for the European commercial firms east of the Niger. Amongst the expatriate judges were Bethuel Herbert Williams Norman, Reynolds .J. Brown, Herbert Macaulay Sandes, Palmer Stanley Horace, Savage Gabriel Hugh who was also called to the Bar on the 30th of December 1901, Dove-Edwin George Frederick, Palmer Williams John, Sir A. J. Ainley, who later became the first Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria, and then Manyo Plange, a Ghananian citizen who practices as a lawyer here in Onitsha before he became a judge. It must be noted that these expatriates who practiced as lawyers here in Onitsha and later became judges observed their judicial office in this part of Nigeria. These expatriates made their own contribution to the Bar and towards the up-building of the conduct of the lawyers in the legal practice.

However, I would like to address our minds to the fact that the green virgin land, which saw its dawn at that time, did not extend its activity at the Bar level beyond its immediate vicinity of a determined civilization. Thus, Enugu as the capital of Eastern Region at that time, was never part and parcel of Onitsha Bar and neither were Owerri, Umuahia, Orlu, etc, even though in practice of law the East was one body.
The Supreme Court session was opened in Onitsha in 1936, shortly before the return of Sir Louis N. Mbanefo in 1937 to Onitsha. Other indigenous and Igbo lawyers emerged as lawyers and hastened their return to Onitsha immediately after their enrolment at the Supreme Court.
The next in line of call was Ernest Odogu Nwanolue Egbuna called to Bar on Friday 14th of August 1940, followed by another William Anthony Onuora Egbuna called to the Bar on the 20th of September 1944, Michael Oguejiofor Ibeziako (14th April 1945) Chuba Ikpeazu (22nd June 1946) Gabriel Chike Michael Onyiuke (6th Dec. 1947) John Aniemeka Phil Ebosie (17th Jan 1948) Godefrey Chukwuweilo Nkemena (27th Feb. 1948) Christopher Chukwuemeka Mojekwu (27th feb. 1948) Theodore Okam Chukwuemeka Ojiako (10th January 1950) Rita Sheila Egwuatu (16th March 1950).

With the arrival of these lawyers into the folk of Onitsha Bar and the legal practice, the activities of the Onitsha Bar began to have its unique, upbuilding and communal sense of brotherhood.
Sir Louis N. Mbanefo became the first chairman of Onitsha Bar. Meetings at that time were held at his residence. The determination of who was to be the chairman was not determined by election but by virtue of seniority and the interest of the person concerned.
Subsequently the activities of Onitsha Bar which sprang up under the chairmanship of Sir Louis .N. Mbanefo, gradually developed the characteristics of quiet resilience and a strong sense of association, depicting the personality of the said chairman, whose personality, though imposing, was not of many words. Time was not of the essence then as to how long a leader/chairman was to be in office. What mattered was his ability to deliver and carry the Bar forward to greater height. The chairman of Onitsha Bar from inception had other executives who worked with him in furtherance of the interest of the association.

In their gatherings, efforts were made to exemplify the culture and code of conduct inculcated in the colleagues from the various Inns of Court. These were seen in the expected manner of behavior, which had a minimum standard of requirement in different brotherhood. Lawyers who were each other’s brother keepers once they left the court room premises and so it was in all their social activities. Annual dinners were held at the end of the year at a chosen venue that was convenient. The culture in the United Kingdom was so sustained in this part of the country and diasporas that lawyers’ bibs used as part of the attire of lawyers wardrobe bought from England were dry cleaned and maintained in the same way that they were in England. The high target to establish and maintain discipline and standards within the Bench and the Bar will be appreciated when one recalls the occasion when Manyo Plange, as a judge, asked a counsel, who later became a judge (name withheld), to leave the court and refused to grant him audience because he was not properly dressed. He had to go back home and dress up in two-piece black suit, with bib, before the judge would hear him.
We must note that in the year 1956, Onitsha Bar became formally constituted as a branch of Nigeria Bar Association.

The era of Sir Louis N. Mbanefo came to an end when he went to the bench. On the appointment of Sir Louis N. Mbanefo to the bench, all lawyers in Onitsha organised a send off party for him. It needs to be noted that the said party was honoured by the attendance of some doyens of the Bar namely:

  1. Justice Manson-the then Resident Judge in Onitsha
  2. Late Mike Ajaegbo QC. (later Supreme Court Judge of Nigeria.)
  3. Late T.O.C. Ojiako QC. (later Nigeria Ambassador to West Germany)
  4. Late G.C. Nkemena (later a Judge of Eastern Nigeria)
  5. Late Chief M.O. Ibeziako QC (Onoli of Onitsha)
  6. Late L.M. Achike (Retired Magistrate)
  7. Late Luke Emejulu (a High Court Judge in Malawi)
  8. Late Joe Ebosie (a High Court Judge in Eastern Nigeria)
  9. Late Alex .O. Mbanefo ( later a High Court Judge in Eastern Nigeria)
  10. Late B.C. Obanye (High Court Judge of East Central State)
  11. Late M.O. Balonwu QC. C.O.N (later Chief Judge of East Central State)
  12. Late G.C.M. Onyiuke QC, OFR, SAN (later Chief Justice of Tanzania)
  13. Late Fred .O. Anyaegbunam (later Chief Judge of the Federal High Court)
  14. Late E.O. Araka Esq. (later Chief Judge of Anambra State)

Sir Louis Mbanefo was succeeded as Chairman of Onitsha Bar by Michael Oguejiofor Ibeziako (the Onoli of Onitsha). Under the leadership of Onoli Ibeziako, meetings were still held and observed at the chairman’s residence but occasionally some senior members of the Bar hosted the meetings, which said meetings were equally backed by treats. At times treats were organised and held at a member’s residence, irrespective of Bar meetings. Under the chairman of Onoli Ibeziako the membership of Onitsha Bar increased tremendously, the names of some of whom will be mentioned later. The loft spirit to continue the up-building was still upheld in the endeavour to see the association move forward. The chairman was always flanked by Barrister Anthony Ikechukwu Iguh, who was the Secretary for many years. The Financial Secretary was G.R.I. Egonu and Timothy Umezinwa was the Treasurer.

Dues and levies were collected at the residences of lawyers to ensure efficiency of payment and to serve as a reminder to those who may have forgotten to pay. Sometime later, in the tenure of administration of Chief Onoli Ibeziako, the Secretary of the Bar was succeeded by the late Philip Green Ezebilo Umeadi. The administration of Onoli Ibeziako made efforts to produce a constitution for the association under the chairmanship of E.O. Araka. The members of the said committee were as follows – Anthony Ikechukwu Iguh, Tim.C. Umezinwa and G.R.I. Egonu. The committee was named Araka Comiittee. It should be apt to say that each arm of the executive was expected and indeed required to give a full account of its stewardship, in respect of the office he was holding. Financial Statements and Accounts of the branch were duly and strictly presented to the branch.

Permit me to say that, while the Bar activity was springing up, the legal practice did not lose its focus and growth. As we all know, the scope of practice of lawyers in the legal profession spanned the whole country, considering the fact that the entire east was one judicial division. The clientele of a counsel was usually not restricted to Onitsha only. Thus, travelling round the country was the order of the day.

Onitsha was equally known to have produced numerous beautiful charming brides as counsels, whose manner and strength of advocacy rang a big tone across the reverie to the rest of the country. Thus, serious cases, novel in nature and intellectually challenging, were very often solicited for from lawyers residing on the East Coast of the Niger. The rules of practice then were the High Court Law 1955, High Court of Eastern Nigeria Rules of Court 1955.

However Onitsha on its own strength, in terms of litigation, had mostly land matters to offer. Thus certain novel areas like admiralty law, shipping law, air law, marine law, conflict of laws, arbitration etc. were matters which were handled in jurisdictions outside Onitsha, even though lawyers from Onitsha were sought for to deal with them.

Under due process of legal practice, lawyers charged their fees with the description of akpa ego, which contained £100 coins in bag. It would be correct to say that, at this point in time, we had in our midst expatriates as our judges and only Sir Louis N. Mbanefo and few other Africans were judges residing in the eastern part of Nigeria.

To cast our mind back to the activity of the Bar, I would emphasis that, under the chairman of Onoli Ibeziako, the leadership of the Bar was equally vested in him in this capacity. You may well note that the QC (Queen’s Counsel) is the equivalent of our present Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Thus, in court proceedings, the QC enjoyed all the privileges due to his high status. One outstanding feature of difference is that though the QC was of the British flavour, the conferment of one did not mean the bestowal/conferment of the indigenous honour of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Today, every indigenous Nigeria lawyer has the opportunity to apply for the conferment of SAN in accordance with the requirements of the Nigeria legal system. It needs to be noted that the title of SAN may be conferred on legal practitioners in Nigeria of not less that ten years standing and who have distinguished themselves in the legal profession. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria is said to have been admitted to the Inner Bar as distinguished from the Outer Bar consisting of junior advocates.

The title was first conferred on April 3rd, 1975 with Chief F.R.A. Williams and Dr Nabo Graham Douglas as the first recipients. I will at this point state that those who were already QC at the institution of the SAN lost their status and right of audience to the court as the latter replaced the former rank.

The profession had a mark of streamlined conduct expected from the members, of which one of the major adages was seniority at the Bar. In the past, the Bar had its yearly dinner on the 26th of December of every year, an activity, which comprised of dinner and ballroom dance. That standard fee then was £3.

This fee was commensurate for the dinner and the ballroom dance. The dinner/ballroom dance was held at good restaurant/hotels. Contracts such as catering for the guests were contracted out to companies such as the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation. Alongside the ballroom dance/dinner parties, there were also cocktails held at the residence of some members of the Bar. Fees were paid to cover the costs of achieving smooth running of the activity at that time. It was £22s i.e. (two guineas) but today that practice is no longer observed.

Subsequently, Bar meetings moved from the residence of the chairman to a neutral zone which was the Magistrates Court. At this point, there was an agitation from some members of the Bar that the Bar should have a neutral place i.e. a building in the manner of secretariat, where every member can have a sense of belonging. This idea and view seemed good and swayed the minds of many of the members, but the actualisation of the volition took many years to materialise. Permit me to say that there was no such thing as a welfare system then, in the sense of having an officer responsible for that function but rather the close relationship amongst lawyers then was such that each person was his brother’s keeper. It was a relationship that swung with a lot of respect and love.

Whenever a colleague was in need of help, be it medically, indigent as in relation to not having a vibrant practice, the association through its members formed a strong ally to support such a member. Such was the nature of affection that existed amongst lawyers that the term of reference “learned friend” became “learned brothers” as on the bench.

One of the striking events that happened under the chairmanship of Onoli Ibeziako was the visit of Rt. Hon. Lord Denning, Master of rolls (MR) to Onitsha Bar. This was in the year of our Lord 1960. A meeting was held between him, the Bar and Bench in the old Magistrates Court near the Central Police Station, Onitsha.

The visit of Lord Denning (MR) was guided and organised by a committee set up early in 1960 in England, of which Lord Denning was made the chairman. The essence of the committee was to examine how far the legal training offered to African Students at the Inns of Court met the modern needs of their respective countries. Lord Denning visited Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika, Zanzibar and Rhodesia and his committee submitted its report in 1961. The committee reached the conclusion that the types of legal education afforded by the Innes of Court needed to be adapted and supplemented if it was to be suited for students intending to practice in Africa. The committee made two recommendations to wit: the English Bar examination should be remoulded so as to include alternative subject more suited to the needs of students from overseas; there should also be a substantial period of training for both barristers’ and solicitors’ side of the legal profession for students intending to practice law in African Countries.

At that time and age of Onitsha Bar, we must note that there were some practitioners living outside the geographical areas of Onitsha Bar who, in spite of the distance, retained their membership of Onitsha Bar. Onitsha Bar in its description is referred to as the premier Bar east of the Niger and a strong solid Bar in terms of its caliber of personalities and bold steps it takes when matters challenge it. Thus, the unity of Onitsha bar blossomed to great heights.