Chimezie Ikeazor: The Unsung Hero

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Before his death, Chimezie Ikeazor was an extraordinary lawyer with passion to help the poor. His immense energy and enthusiasm in pleading free legal aid for the poor was admired across board. Chineme Okafor explores the life and times of Ikeazor for a lesson on service to humanity

It should be said without any misgiving that the late Chief Chimezie Ikeazor, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) stands better qualified to render an account of his selfless crusade for free legal aid to indigent Nigerians.

Such was his commitment to ensuring access to justice for poor natives that prisoners and awaiting trial inmates without the means to obtain legal services were represented and got justices without even meeting him.

Following proactive campaigns, Ikeazor in 1976 convinced the federal military government of Olusegun Obasanjo to promulgate a legal aid decree which was subsequently amended and accommodated into the Nigerian constitution.

This birthed the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria. He died in 2012, leaving behind a history that will be told by generations.
Indeed, people who have had reasons to come across him while he lived would often talk about the warm disposition that late Chief Chimezie Ikeazor embodied; people of all status and races reportedly benefitted from his life as was also confirmed by a former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Alfa Belgore.

Belgore in his acknowledgement of Ikeazor’s good works and commitment to poor members of the Nigerian society, said, “many beneficiaries of his vision hardly know his name, much less his person but history will surely do him justice.”

True, Ikeazor was rarely known or heard of by majority of the poor people that have benefitted from what he believed in and fought for. Like Belgore, former president Olusegun Obasanjo also buttressed in his forward in the same book that such thoughts on the man who founded and presided over as the first President of the Legal Aid Association of Nigeria, an association whose early sacrifices were enough to now earn poor Nigerian citizens access to justice at no cost, were true and reflective of the life he led.

Obasanjo had in his words disclosed how as a military president, he listened and heeded to the arguments proffered in 1976 by Ikeazor and other eminent jurists that a legal aid scheme to guarantee standard representation for poor people who are unable to pay for their defence of litigation against them in the law court was inevitable, mostly to ensure the equality of all citizens before the law in Nigeria. All these were contained in a book on the life and times of Ikeazor.

He also expressed in the forward, his pride in sharing with Ikeazor in the history of justice for indigent Nigerians when he said that the Legal Aid Decree No. 56 of 1976 which he promulgated was by extension aimed at giving life to the ideals Ikeazor represented in founding the Legal Aid Association of Nigeria.

When accounts of crusade for inclusive social justice in Nigeria are told to generations of the country, it is expected that such will be told with considerable slant to the man, Ikeazor whose passion of leaping in defence of poor members of the society perhaps contributed strongly in swaying him away from becoming a priest, having obtained a prior diploma in Divinity and Law from the University of Hull and Kings College, before eventually graduating with a law degree from the University of London and subsequently called to the English Bar in 1959.

Extant reports on the person of Ikeazor further indicated that in his benevolent character, he represented and still represents freedom to the very poor members of our ever bourgeoning society and who have often endured the misery of being denied justice at law courts for failing to pay for legal services due to poverty. Ikeazor had with such bent, founded the Nigerian Legal Aid Association in 1974, along with colleagues such as the late Chiefs Solomon Lar who served as the General Secretary of the association, Debo Akande as its Director of Operations and Edwin Ume-Ezeoke and Chief Felix Offia to provide free and mandatory legal services to these poor Nigerians.

From Onitsha, where members of the association had in a visit to a prison in 1974 discovered that about 500 people suspected of various trivial offences that included wandering at night were kept in custody for as long as four years without trial, to the Ikoyi prison in Lagos where as much as 300 suspects that were equally held for up to seven years without trials but were freed following the intervention of Ikeazor’s legal aid platform, admiration and words of courage soon began to great the new crusade Ikeazor championed and court judges no longer had to withstand their reported discomfort of presiding over impartial cases but now appreciated their constant visits to prisons which also often resulted in massive decongestions.

When in 1978, Ikeazor learnt with such words that ‘your pet-child, legal aid, has been included in the draft constitution,’ from a member of the constitution drafting committee, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, that a proposal for the establishment of a mandatory legal aid scheme in the Nigerian constitution for poor people which he presented in a memorandum he submitted to the committee was wholly accepted and subsequently ratified by Obasanjo to be Section 42(4) (b) of the 1979 constitution of the country, his thoughts of a constitutionally backed revolution in the value of free legal services were thus given a life which now lives even after his demise.

Almost two years after he died on October 12, 2012, THISDAY met with his widow, Chief Mrs. Uju Ikeazor and with refreshing thoughts of her late husband who is also known and fondly called Oboli in reference to his hereditary traditional title from his hometown, Obosi in Anambra State, she told THISDAY that the revolutionary ideals which Ikeazor promoted through legal aids for the poor now outlives him and has overtime created a legal environment where indigent citizens can demand for accountable governance while at the same time increasing their access to justice even in the face of stiff opposition albeit through the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria.

She said that apart from his general acceptance amongst people, Ikeazor stood for justice and respect for the rights of all citizens irrespective of their economic status. With a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) honour which was conferred on him in 1984, Ikeazor by all accounts continued to plead the cause of society’s underprivileged and this was irrespective of his late health challenges.
Ikeazor from the accounts of his senior colleagues was irrespective of his challenges constantly seen at court sessions and other legal engagement, majorly representing the underprivileged.

“Chief Ikeazor was a man of the people, he stood for justice and fought against injustice. He was a crusader for justice; the underprivileged and downtrodden benefitted immensely from his character,” she said.

She rendered more accounts on his passion for the poor, saying: “Immediately he qualified as a lawyer in London, he came back to start providing free legal aid to the poor and as far back as 1974 in Onitsha. When he came back, there were many people, very poor people who could not afford the cost of legal services.

Chief visited prisons and seeing the number of inmates with tattered clothes, who committed very minor offences but had no lawyers to defend them, he had to take up their cases.”

“Some had been sentenced and convicted but had no money to pay and come out of prison, but out of his own pocket, he paid the fines of those that were billed to pay; that in a nutshell was how he started campaigning for free legal services for the poor.”

“He did many pro-bono cases for people who didn’t have the means to be represented in courts or pay legal fees. Oboli campaigned from one university to the other, organising seminars and conferences to explain reasons as to why the poor who could not afford to pay for legal services should be assisted,” she added.

Mrs. Ikeazor also spoke about the inroads made by her late husband and his co-campaigners especially into the walls of Nigeria’s universities where the commitments came stronger mostly from the faculty of laws.

For Ikeazor and others, paying through their pockets to fund their ideals was not so much a sacrificial demand too heavy to bear; from reports, the campaign for free legal services to indigent Nigerians was executed with finesse and this was further buttressed in a quote from an interview that he granted to Reuters News Agency when over 300 prison inmates were set free following their intervention and in which he said, “our aim is to ensure that nobody is denied justice on account of poverty.”

“It was at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, that he had a flamboyant launch of the legal aid association in 1974, which he funded from his own pocket. He sold his properties to promote the campaign free legal aid to the extent that some of his colleagues couldn’t understand his motive.

They really didn’t understand the concept of free legal services for the poor but because it was what he believed in, he continued with the fight and in 1976 convinced the then military president Obasanjo to include the scheme in the constitution. The president heeded to the pleas he initiated with the promulgation of the legal aid decree in 1976 and finally in Section 42 (4) (b) of the 1979 constitution,” Mrs. Ikeazobor added.

She also said that: “When the scheme became too big and the spending also increased, he had to invite his lawyer friends to give it a global look and that was when Chiefs Solomon Lar, Debo Akande, Felix Ofia, Edwin Ume-Ezeoke and some others rallied together, delivering lecturers, fighting injustices and spending from their pockets to see that the downtrodden got legal services free of charge.
Ikeazor had good passion for the poor irrespective of his noble background; I often think that his studying of divinity which would have easily led him into the priesthood had informed his passion for the downtrodden who he represented so well before he died.”

Truly reminiscent of the sayings of the holy bible that a diligent man will stand before kings, honours and recognition of Ikeazor’s contributions to the welfare of mankind sure came in torrents. Internationally, he was elected as the first African director in the governing board of the International Legal Aid Association in Vancouver.

He also received the World Legal Aid Award amongst several other international and local awards; in 2007, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria equally honoured him as the founder of the Legal Aid Association of Nigeria, the association later metamorphosed into the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria.

A Prophet without Honour?
But following Ikeazor’s death, THISDAY asked to know from his widow, what level of relationship exists between the family and the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, especially with regards to keeping his dignified ideals in human history.

She said: “Our relationship with the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria has been good so far since Oboli passed on, in fact, the Director General of the Council assured us that their national headquarter building will be named after him and I believe that will still remain as promised.

He got several awards from the council in recognition of his role in providing legal services to the poor and we believe that the council is still holding forth the flag that chief hoisted.”

“In addition to the promise of having the headquarter named after him, I will like a street in Abuja to be named after Ikeazor; that will not be too much of an honour for the federal government of Nigeria to accord a man that represents so much in this country.

He worked to give hope of justice to Nigeria’s poor citizens from his pocket and many people that still benefits from his efforts are all over the country.

There are lawyers who honed their litigation skills from the legal aid scheme, defending the poor; when chief started this, he had nothing in mind other than liberating the poor and downtrodden of the society. He did not seek for material benefits for his efforts,” she further added.

Continuing, Mrs. Ikeazor said: “His life was always colourful. Life without him hasn’t been easy; it is so lonely to live without chief who was very lively and active with so much love to share with everybody. In him, I found my mentor, confidant, best friend, husband and father.

I really miss him both at home and in the office because I practiced extensively with him; he would usually introduce me at courts as his co-counsel but now it is no longer that way. The shoes chief left behind are so big and really, no one can fill that gap that he has left, he was a unique being.”

As a man whose sacrifices are today felt through the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria that successfully renders an average of over 4260 legal aid to indigent citizens across the country free of charge, Ikeazor was a man that was greatly admired across board.

Colleagues, ordinary citizens and indeed everyone had reasons to associate with him. In his lifetime, he chose the courageous path that he travelled, putting smiles on the faces of people across the nation, perhaps, it is time for the same nation to wear on his memory an honour deserving of his boundless contributions to humanity.

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Culled from thisday live- http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/the-unsung-hero/184764/

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