Stephen Ubimago in this interview with Mrs. Uwa Ohiku, a senior partner with the law firm of Jackson, Etti and Edu, examines issues surrounding intellectual property practice in Nigeria. Excerpts…
May we meet you, madam?
I’m Mrs. Uwa Ohiku (nee Eghobamien), from the well-regarded Eghobamien family of Ogbe Quarters in Benin. My grand-father was one of the young lads that held the carved staff and stood behind Oba Ovonramwen. He also went with him to exile in Calabar. He was the Osuma of Benin. About ten years ago, his ceremonial regalia was exhibited at the London Museum.
Many regard me as a good dresser and I always say to them that my grand-father was equally so regarded. He died circa 1959. So the tradition of sartorial elegance seemed to have trickled down from him. The Eghobamien family is known to have produced many prominent lawyers. What is your relationship to the SANs among them? Well, Osaro Eghobamien (SAN) is my cousin. His father, my uncle is also a SAN. They have law chambers in Benin and Lagos. Indeed my family is made up of quite a lot of lawyers, but that is not why I studied Law.
Then, why your choice of Law as career?
First of, in my father’s house you have to study a professional course. You are not going to tell my father, for instance, that you are going to study History or English or any single honors course for that matter. We had a strict upbringing, and God bless his memory for that. In any case I’d always wanted to be a medical doctor. In fact I will say that I practice medicine on my own privately. I think this is because I always had an inclination for it. And I think the interest was actually developed by my father. At a very young age there was a book that he bought for us, titled, “Where there is no doctor.” I would read it through and through with such excitement that I said to myself that I was going to become a medical doctor. However, when I got to form three in secondary school, I found myself struggling with Chemistry, although I performed very well in other subjects. I just couldn’t pass Chemistry and it was dreadful and that dashed my aspiration to study Medicine. But I said very quickly, ‘what next can I do?’ And my father said since I could talk and was quite good in the Arts, I should go for Law. So I found myself putting in for Law as a course
In which cities did you spend your formative years?
I largely grew up in Lagos. However, I was told I was born in Port Harcourt, but my family moved to Lagos when I was just three years old. I have lived in Lagos pretty much all my life. I think I was 10 or 11 when I first step foot in Benin and that also mean I don’t speak Benin fluently. My mother is from Bayelsa. In a nutshell, I grew up in Lagos, then went to Federal Government College, Warri, where I did three years and then proceeded to the University of Benin, where I spent four years studying Law.
What really was your special preference for Law at UNIBEN?
The truth is that UNIBEN was not my first choice. My first choice was the University of Jos. UNIJOS for two reasons: I had a friend at FGC, Warri that lived in Jos. Again, my father knew the Vice Chancellor of UNIJOS at the time. But you know what, that did not avail much to me because my father was not the sort that would aid the bending of the rules for his children. I had said to myself, I’ve lived in Lagos practically all my life; I needed a change in environment. And when JAMB results were released, I went to JAMB office on Hawkworth Road in Ikoyi repeatedly for two days, but could not find my name on the UNIJOS list. You can imagine how disillusioned and sad I was with this development. And although UNIBEN was my second choice I never for once thought of checking on the UNIBEN list. However, one of my school mates at FGC, Warri called me and was screaming, ‘Uwa congratulations, they’ve taken you; I saw your name.’ Then I went back for the third time to JAMB office to see where this person said she saw my name. I went back to check the UNIJOS list and still could not find it. That was when I decided to check on my second choice. Lo and behold I saw my name on the UNIBEN list. I was the second on the list. My score was the second highest for Law. While the first person scored 317, I scored 314.
What are the exciting memories you have of the Faculty of Law?
Professor Itse Sagay was one. He was the Dean of the faculty at the time I graduated. I have the deepest respect for Prof. Sagay for a number of reasons. He was very humble and approachable. I recall that I had this issue with a lecturer back then, who said he took a fancy to me. But I wasn’t in school for any of that; I was keenly focused on my studies; I was even in a relationship too. Then the lecturer started making some subtle threats like ‘you know I’m the one to mark your papers.’ He would pick on me during tutorials, asking me all the time to answer his questions. It was pretty obvious. But you know what, I walked up to Prof. Sagay and I reported the case. And prof. immediately promised he would be the one to mark my paper. I scored an A in that paper. The faculty also boasted the likes of Prof. Ameze Guobadia. She was a very strict woman. She later became the dean years after I had left. She taught us Company Law. The legend then was that during Company Law exams, there was always an ambulance stationed outside, because people would be collapsing and fainting from writing the course. I would say that taking Company Law under Guobadia latter made me interested in corporate practice. There was also Prof. Yinka Osayeme Omorogbe, who I simply call Auntie Yinka. More precisely, she was my tutorial teacher. She’s an absolute darling..
Your set in the Faculty of Law are currently up there in the legal profession. What was your relationship with some of them back then as students?
Well, the immediate past governor of Lagos State, Mr. Raji Fashola (SAN) belonged to my generation of students at the faculty, although he finished two years after I did. The managing partner of the law firm of Udo Udoma and Bello Osagie, Mr. Dan Agbor, was also in my class. Chief Charles Edosamwan (SAN) entered the same year with us but he finished a year earlier in 1984. I finished in 1985. The current president of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Augustine Alege (SAN) was also in my class right from first year to final year. These are the ones I can readily recall at the moment.
Can you tell us about the early beginnings of your professional life?
While in Law School, there was this guy I met whom I knew back then in UNIBEN. He finished a year earlier than I. He was the one that told me of the law firm of Bentley and Edu. He said if I was looking for a place to do my law office attachment, I should try the place out. And I did. I really loved the place. It was very modern and in a lovely building. At the end of doing my attachment with them they offered me a job. But I told them that should be when I finished Law School. However, once I was done with Law School, I did not take up the job. My reason was that I was living in Isolo and going to the Island, where the office was located, was going to be stressful for me. And at that point also I was newly married. So, I ended up working for Dr. Raymond Dokpesi when he was operating African Ocean Line, a shipping company located in Apapa. I felt Apapa was not too far from Isolo. I was employed as a legal officer in the legal department of the company. I served them for one year while doing my Youth Service. But in 1989, I went back to Bentley and Edu and told them I needed a job. And they said the offer made to you in ’86 was still available; that I should tell them when I wanted to start. I must give credit to the founder and senior partner of the firm, Mr. Demola Edu. If he didn’t give me the platform to shine, I probably would not have been here, because that was my foundation. I was in Bentley and Edu from 1989 to ’96. In 1996, however some of us felt the need to leave. It wasn’t too pleasant, but again we felt the need to do other things. And so we left and started Etti, Edu and Co in 1996. When we started there were three male partners and a female partner. I happened to be the female partner. The firm started on the back of an area of practice called Intellectual Property. But very quickly, we started developing other areas of commercial practice. Now, in the area of Intellectual Property practice, we are regarded as number one in Nigeria. In any case, the firm has equal strength in other areas of commercial practice, as well as dispute resolution and litigation practice. We are rated in chambers by the International Financial Law Review (IFLR). We are also in Legal 500. I have led the Intellectual Property practice in the firm to win practically every award that is winnable in the area both locally and internationally.
Since Intellectual Property practice is not really well known in Nigeria, from where do you mostly get your clientele?
About 90% of our clients are international clients. Indeed, people don’t understand the importance of IP in driving the economy. All the rights that go around branding have to do with Intellectual property. IP is an intangible right, but the value is unbelievable. When people know the importance of IP, when they understand that it is the driver of any thriving economy; when they understand that it brings in investments into the country, then the authorities would begin to see need to update our laws in order to take advantage of the inherent value of intellectual property. Take India, for example. That country understands the value of Intellectual Property and how to put it to use in advancing the betterment of their society. India refused to grant a patent right in respect of an AIDS drug to a giant pharmaceutical company. They actually refused to grant them a second patent for an improved AIDS medication, because they were trying to protect their country, their reasoning being, if you are not going to make the drugs available at an affordable rate to our people, why should we grant you patent on the drug. So, they decided to open their market so that all the generic drugs for AIDS would come in so that their people can look into their composition and reproduce them for cheap and easy access. Those in authority in our country don’t think that way.
To what extent are Nigerian courts entertaining disputes in respect of Intellectual Property?
Before you came this morning, one of our clients in South Africa sent us an email that we should file some patent for them; that their patent was being infringed in Nigeria. Even as we speak we’re representing one of our clients in an infringement action that had to do with a machine used for recording people’s biometrics. We are representing the defendant, our client. The Federal Government of Nigeria was also sued in the matter. But this machine we are talking about is already in the public domain, as it now open to anybody who wants to produce it. So you cannot have a right to it. But because of the way our patent laws operate, we have a lot of deficiencies. People could get all sorts of things through. So the claimant got a patent on the machine registered, on the strength of which he sued our client for an unbelievable amount of money, about N30 billion. Do you know that the trial judge granted his prayers? Now we are on appeal at the Court of Appeal. However, we’ve gotten the patent revoked. You know Nigeria does not check anything. Anything you file, they just give you a document.
Do you hold the view that the problem is because Copy Right laws in Nigeria have yet to be strengthened?
Well, I should reiterate that our Copy Right Act is one of the best. But the others like the Trade Mark Act and the Patent and Design Act are simply archaic. These laws have been in force since 1938. Indeed, we are implementing a 1938 UK Act, while we are in 2015. It is ridiculous! To this end, there is a bill sitting at the National Assembly drafted to take care of the anachronisms in those archaic legislations. They should pass that bill into law. Also the issue of enforcement should be strengthened. Penalties for infringement of rights protected under the Act should be stiffer. A law that says infringement would only be punishable by an option of a fine of just N1000 lacks the ability to serve as a deterrent.
As a lawyer whose practice doesn’t really involve litigation, what would you say to those who believe that a lawyer who is not into litigation is not really a lawyer?
There are people who you even expect to be more enlightened, but you hear them say ‘you don’t go to court, what sort of lawyer are you?’ And I say to them Intellectual Property is my core area of practice. It is an aspect of Commercial Law. I advise clients on their rights in Nigeria to ensure that those rights are protected. In our firm we are also into immigration law. Our immigration practice is the biggest in Nigeria. We have litigation practice, obviously. We are also encouraging people to explore ADR. The court shouldn’t be the first port of call when a dispute arises. In fact one of our partners is a Fellow of the UK Institute of Arbitrators. So our ADR practice is also very sound.
What would you say is the contribution of Nigeria’s legal services market in terms of GDP?
I can’t make that quantification right now, but I know that it is huge. Nigeria right now is the toast of many investors. For a number of years, the South African economy was rated way ahead of ours. But now Nigeria is rated the biggest economy in Africa. And the projections are even better. There are all sorts of private initiatives taking place. So a lot of money is being pumped into Nigeria for projects. Look at the hospitality industry, for example. It is growing in leaps and bounds. Marriot is building; Intercontinental is building, among many others. The real estate market is also booming. Look at the Lekki corridor right up to the Free Zone. The Dangotes and co are building. It is amazing. In all of the transactions arising from them, lawyers are called in in to tidy negotiations and seal up deals, mega deals, because they know that if you don’t sort out your legal end, you would run into terrible trouble. Respecting legal services, we are just scratching the surface, and there is enough to go round.