By all standards, the originating email which formed the genesis of the whole debacle that busied the legal space during this past weekend fits into every description of unwholesomeness.
In terms of the Rules of Professional Conduct, it breached all rudimentary rules and made very deafening insinuations which left readers agape. The correspondence was in short, marinated in lies of monumental proportion. For context, the email which was addressed to a certain Mr. Caio and authored by someone described as a partner from Wole Olanipekun & Co., referred to “the ongoing USD130 million case at the Rivers State Government against Saipem SPA.”
It also described the author’s principal (Chief Olanipekun, SAN), as “the head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria”, while suggesting that the presence of the man will adduce some sort of influence in the case in question. As if that was not enough, the ominous email listed some cases, suggesting that the referenced influence has assisted in gaining victory and evading a huge payout in the cases. No doubt, the lies in the email were legible, requiring no braille for the comprehension of a blind man.
For a starter, Chief Wole Olanipekun, OFR, SAN, is truly a legal practitioner of sterling excellence and enviable stature. I doubt that there is any lawyer in Nigeria who does not covet his kind of success in the legal profession. Making an allusion to the vexed email, “a quick research” about him shows that though born in 1951, the legal luminary attained the highly coveted rank of the silk in 1991, at the relatively early age of 40 years old, when he was only 15 years at the Bar.
My record may be wrong, but I doubt that before him, anyone had ascended to this height at such a very early age, both biologically and in terms of a stint at the Bar. I am also aware that Olanipekun has held various significant leadership positions in the legal profession, including Attorney General of the old Ondo State, President of the Nigerian Bar Association, member of the National Judicial Council, Council of Legal Education, Legal Practitioners Privileges Council, and now, chairman of the Body of Benchers.
Since his emergence as the chairman of the Body of Benchers, there have been several reports of his activities and interventions in that capacity. So, in all fairness, I can safely say that he has brought some form of vibes to the office, which before now, was hardly noticed by a lot of us observing from not too distant a distance.
Not only that, I am aware that his two sons have also attained the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, at very early stages of their lives; in fact, earlier than their father. I have on different occasions, seen them in court and I can attest to their forensic advocacy and clinical delivery of arguments.
Only a handful of lawyers in Nigeria may boast of this height if there is any. Therefore, by all standards and descriptions, Chief Olanipekun is a leader of the Bar and a consequential figure in the legal profession; BUT THEN, Chief Olanipekun is not the “head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria.”
This statement alone resolves the issue that the email could not have been authorized by the doyen himself. Of course, the Body of Benchers over which Chief Olanipekun currently sits is described by the LPA “as the body of legal practitioners of the highest distinction in the legal profession in Nigeria,” the duties are neatly circumscribed. Therefore, its leader is not the “head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria.” Rather, the persons who could have fitted into this description are both the CJN and AGF.
Every litigation lawyer in Nigeria worth his salt, who is interested in the Rivers State and Saipem feud would know that the case was settled out of court as far back as April or thereabouts. As we speak today, it is undoubtful that the law firm of Wole Olanipekun & Co., is a frontline litigation law firm; so, it is impossible that the Senior Advocates in the firm would be interested in that case and would not know that same has been settled. In essence, therefore the email was at best, shadow chasing.
Even more critically, the email had suggested the ability to influence the outcome of the case, and in doing so, the author listed some cases. Having been affiliated with the legal profession for about two decades myself, two of those cases caught my attention, and they are the MTN and Shell cases.
Though I am unable to lay my hands on the suit numbers for these cases, I recall following the cases with keen interest; due to the national importance of the former and my affinity with the Niger Delta, in respect of the latter. For the MTN case against the Federal Government, I recall that the case ended in a settlement.
Settlement as I understand it, is a function of negotiation, thus, requiring no influence whatsoever on the court or the judge. For the Shell case, my friend who at the time, worked with one of the firms handling the matter, informed me that Chief Olanipekun was brought to lead the Shell team at the Supreme Court. Fortunately for the Ogoni claimants and we from the Delta, and unfortunately for Shell, Shell’s application for leave to appeal was disallowed by the Supreme Court at two separate attempts. Ceteris parabus, application for leave to appeal is actually not so much of a big deal, provided the procedures are accurately complied with. Therefore, it was one which Olanipekun could easily have asserted his influence to obtain the favour of the court, if truly, that is part of his practice.
I can also, off the top of my head, count the number of cases where the courts have given Olanipekun unfavorable findings. This is because the man is reputed for handling high-profile cases which most times attract media frenzy. In fact, the Odey v. Alaga case, which till today earns the Supreme Court a wide condemnation due to the irreconcilability of the decision with the law and procedure, was decided against Olanipekun’s client. I recall being at the Supreme Court on December 18, 2019, a day the Supreme Court fixed for the hearing of various election appeals. I can roughly recall that Chief Olanipekun led the team of lawyers in about 4 cases. I readily remember the governorship cases in Oyo, Kaduna and Nasarawa states. The Supreme Court delivered its judgments in the appeals the same day and Chief Olanipekun won a majority of his cases. However, I vividly recall that the court disagreed with him in the Kaduna case. I was specifically enchanted by the Kaduna case which has now been reported as Ashiru v. INEC (2020) 16 NWLR (Pt. 1751) 416, due to the alluring use of words by Nweze, JSC., in the following usual display of eloquence: “With profound respect, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, learned senior counsel for the appellants, one of the most distinguished, most urbane and most cultured senior counsel in this country, failed to show how the concurrent findings of the lower courts could be pitch-forked into the above categories.”
Those words capture the extent of respect accorded to Chief Olanipekun by the courts, without affecting the court’s discretion to either agree or disagree with his arguments. Just like the doyens of the past era, like F.R.A Williams, SAN, G.O.K. Ajayi, SAN, Richard Akinjide, SAN, Afe Babalola, SAN, Wole Olanipekun, SAN, while being venerated in the legal profession, has won and lost cases like every brilliant lawyer who has trod the path of the profession. This aligns with the words of Eso., JSC (of blessed memory) that “a lawyer needs not always succeed to be great.” Therefore, is Chief Olanipekun a great man? YES! Has he always succeeded in all his cases? NO! Does this then not deflate every insinuation of influence of judicial outcome which has become the gravamen of the fuss in the legal circus? After all, the much-touted “influence” would have fetched him victory in all his cases.
I read the further reaction of the managing partner of the firm, and the paragraph that struck me most is where he boasted that “there has also not been a single instance where we have attempted to influence judicial outcomes by improper means, influence peddling or means outside our representations in court.”
This is not a case of “he who has no sin, let him be the first to cast a stone.” Rather, the statement is akin to the challenge bellowed by Prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 12 verse 3-5: “Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the LORD and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes?… The LORD is witness against you, and also his anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.”
I doubt if very many lawyers in Nigeria today can boast in this manner before the whole world. Since this challenge, not a single person has created one puncture, no matter how bitsy, on this very weighty claim made by the younger Olanipekun on behalf of his firm. Such puncture of course, would need to be with verifiable evidence and not sentimental or speculative insinuations.
In like manner, I would have expected someone to come up with a similar email or correspondence emanating from any other member of the firm, to ground any claim that the email in question is a reflection of the practice of the firm. Rather, all I have read on social media are mere insinuations, suggestions, unempirical deductions and innuendoes.
The foregoing does not take away the offending character of the email, which in fact, was surprisingly admitted by the firm, as having been written by one of its employees. However, to the best of my knowledge, the individuals, and not the firm, are the legal practitioners who are subject to the Legal Practitioners Act and the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners. Just like salvation, may I say without more, that adherence to the Rules of Professional Conduct and the consequences of a breach of same, are personal issues, permitting of no vicarious effect.