The idiom “As sound as a bell” quickly came to mind the first time The Metro Lawyer team met him. We had to be on our toes as nothing was lost on this cheerful gentleman.
Jonathan Babatunde Majiyagbe, S.A.N, OFR has been able to establish and manage successfully, both a law practice (since 1966) and the worlds oldest service organization, Rotary International. Majiyagbe who obtained his law degree from the University of London is a member of the Bar of England and Wales, a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and was elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1980.
He is a former member of the Body of Benchers; Past Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association; member of the International Bar Association and the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. He is also a former member of the Interim Judicial Service Committee, Kano State and the Editorial board of the Journal of Nigeria Law.
In 2003, Majiyagbe made history when he became the first African to be appointed President of Rotary International, the world’s oldest humanitarian organization and again in 2008 when he was appointed Chairman of the organization’s board of trustees.
He is a former Chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of Kano, the Chairman of the Nigerian Red Cross Society, Kano Branch, a Notary Public and Coroner for Kano State.
In 2008, Jonathan was awarded the national honour – Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In this very engaging interview, the quintessential lawyer shares with The Metro Lawyer, his thoughts on some contemporary legal and bar issues plus the concept of volunteering.
TML: Having gone through your profile we know of some of your achievements. But when we went digging we discovered even more. Your firm was formally established in 1971, are you still in active practice?
Majiyagbe SAN: Not as active as I was in those days. When a man has done over 50 years in active legal practice, it’s time to rest. As you can see, age is no longer on my side. I will be 83 in July so I have slowed down a little. Occasionally I do get some consultancy work. I assist my son who has an office here in Abuja and I also supervise the office in Kano. But nothing as active as appearing in court now.
TML: You were conferred with the rank of SAN in 1980, would you say that the change in the selection process since then has affected the quality of senior advocates produced in Nigeria positively or negatively?
Majiyagbe SAN: I think positively in the sense that it has improved the quality of legal practice. The system of frontloading for instance in the new civil procedure has enabled lawyers to be more cautious and efficient in writing briefs. And I think that this is in the wake of more lawyers becoming silk or being elevated to the rank of senior advocates of Nigeria. So I think this has impacted positively on the legal profession. It is gradually leading to specialization in legal practice.
TML: what is your opinion of the ongoing prosecution of some serving judges?
Majiyagbe SAN: Nobody can argue against the need to have them prosecuted, the law must be obeyed. It doesn’t matter whose ox is being gored. As long as there is an infraction of the law, then the offender should pay for his misdeeds. It is not even new though that lawyers or even judges are being prosecuted, even in foreign lands it happens, so why not in Nigeria?
In fact, it is good that we are bringing lawyers to answer for their deeds as well. It will make for discipline in the quality of Nigerian people who never used to be as bad as this. In times past people were very afraid of the law. But suddenly everybody threw caution to the winds. So getting judges and legal practitioners prosecuted now will be imprinted in people’s minds that laws are to be obeyed.
TML: We learnt that there was a practice of tutelage of junior lawyers under senior lawyers in those days. In fact the CJN has recently advocated the return to that practice? What is your opinion on this?
Majiyagbe SAN: I think it is very good that the CJN has said so, though that idea is not new. Quite a number of lawyers cannot even speak good English. It is very pathetic. I was watching a report on television and learnt that these days students get help to pass exams, usually their parents do it for them by paying money. You discover that when this crop of students are let into the public they cannot perform very well but they still get on because whatever they needed to do is through bribery.
Yes, I wholeheartedly support that and maybe the emphasis should go to the universities themselves because there also, there could be lapses. Some of these universities especially some of the new ones, are not quite as strong. (At this point he asks the interviewers: “Which was your university?” to which we answered: University of Calabar, both of us. We were classmates). There are others that are not so good too but you didn’t ask me to name them. (General laughter)
The CJN recently called for nomination of lawyers by the NBA for appointment to the bench. Do you think having lawyers from active practice become judges will help improve the judiciary?
Majiyagbe SAN: I certainly think so. Lawyers who have practiced know the nooks and corners of meandering through the law and presenting a case. And because they have gone through all that, when they become judges, they would know when to stop a lawyer trying to play prank. There is a Yoruba proverb that says only a thief knows the tracks of another thief on a rock. So yes I think they should do.
Many a times you find some new judges adjourning a simple motion for ruling for 3 or 4 weeks. The reason is because they don’t have it all up there, otherwise they should be able to rule there and then. When I went into practice in Kano most of the judges were English. Some of the lawyers also were English. I was just coming from England it was as if I was practicing again in England. We would argue and the judge would say “alright i’m going to have coffee, gentlemen you can take a little break ill see you soon”. And before you know it he’s back with his ruling.
It was easy having cases decided within time and that’s because they know what they are doing but with new judges who don’t know I would prefer a lawyer becoming a judge than them. So I support the idea of the CJN. In fact, the former CJN Taslim Olawale Elias, went on to become Chief Justice of the Federation without any knowledge of being on the bench before that time. And quite a number of them as well, Augustine Nnamani was another one. He was Attorney General before becoming a Justice of the Supreme Court.
TML: One of the nominees is alleged to have been convicted of fraud in England.
Majiyagbe SAN: Well they should reject him if it is found to be true. Why should people not know their limitations. If a person knows he has committed fraud then he should not offer his name as a candidate. As a matter of fact it is questionable that this person should continue to be a legal practitioner.
TML: You are a successful lawyer and the first Rotary International President of African descent sir, both very tasking roles. How did you manage to succeed at both? Did your law practice suffer?
Majiyagbe SAN: Yes it did. You just have to balance the two. When I started I was very hardworking. Quite honestly, I never went on holiday for about 10 or 15 years. So it was solid practice. I was a junior in the midst of several seniors so it was a little bit difficult. There were several companies in Kano then all managed by English people. So to get on then you had to work hard, and thank God we worked very hard, outperforming some of the seniors and when you did that once or twice, you got noticed. They now gave you work and that meant you had to put more effort into practice. So having worked hard to lay the foundation, and of course with God’s blessings I was able to attract legal practitioners joining me in the firm and whilst I was away doing Rotary, they were holding the fort for me. In fact I paid tribute to the lawyers at a recent Life Achievement Award event hosted in my honour by the Rotary Club of Abuja Metro. They really helped me.
In 1980 when I was a Rotary District Governor for 14 countries in West Africa, you can imagine I had to pay visits to Rotarians in those countries. The office naturally had to suffer but the suffering was reduced by the fact that I had able hands who helped me hold the fort. So its not a job you can do single handedly. When I travelled the office was running and of course, with the introduction of technology, it was so much easier as they could telephone me and give me briefings or ask for advice on whatever issue was disturbing.
If you want to do it (leadership) well you have to abandon almost everything else. Most people do not want to join Rotary, or if they are already members, do not want to take up offices because it is difficult to perform efficiently without it affecting your work. But I think it means they love money more. When you are helping other people you are indeed helping yourself. Also on the religious front it is good to help others. You depend on others and others depend on you. You can amass wealth but then as Mandela said, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
TML: In today’s world of technology and networking, how relevant is Rotary International?
Majiyagbe SAN: I think it is very relevant but unfortunately the world has developed so much that things that help the community, like care for the family, the poor and the homeless are being ignored. Nobody wants to go to church now. In fact some communities put God aside. The very thing God says in our religious books, “don’t do”, is what they are doing, if you ask them to come to Rotary they will ask, “Why should I help somebody else? Don’t they have their own government?” There are some arguments in support of that. For example Nigeria is struggling, why should we help people in Angola or somewhere else. These are ethical matters and unless you are well grounded in religion or simply care for your neighbour, you may tend not to want to attend to it. But if you know that we are in a world of interdependence, then you will see the relevance of Rotary, and indeed Lions and other Non Governmental Organizations, in the world affairs. They are very relevant because governments cannot carry the load of caring for their people alone, they need humanitarian organizations which render selfless service.
You cannot do without volunteering. It comes from a willingness to want to serve your fellow man. You should not put your name down for election to political office unless you have the desire to serve others. Volunteering is relevant and I want to urge everyone to volunteer their time and resources to help others. In fact, if I had my way, I would say Awards of Honour should be given to people who volunteer their time to help the under-privileged, instead of giving them to people in the service of Government, who have not impacted their communities in any way.
TML: Your career has spanned over several decades. What are the most significant career and life lessons you have learnt ?
Majiyagbe SAN: It is good to work hard. If you choose any profession, it is good to be ambitious to get to the top but that calls for hard work and dedication. So if you start a new practice and you work hard and you are diligent, nothing can stop you from getting to the top. That is one thing I have learnt. And that has helped me not only in legal practice but also in Rotary and in volunteering. When I started as a young person, I was into several social organizations, I was in Kano Lebanon Club, Kano Club, Red Cross. And all these associations help you in your practice without you even realizing it. The very organizations you belong to, when they have any legal problem, they will first think about you.