Eighty-year-old legal practitioner from Akwa Ibom State, Pa Umoekeyo Abasiene Uno, speaks to PATRICK ODEY about his life experiences
Tell us a bit about about yourself.
I am Umoekeyo Abasiene Uno. Umoekeyo means, “Wealth can’t be compared to children.” Abasiene means “God has made,” while Uno means “Being alone once.”
I was born into the family of Uno Abasiene Uno of Eyo-Ulo Oro in the Urue Offong/Oruko Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State. My father had four wives. My mother was the third wife and she had 13 of us (children) – 10 males and three females. I am the only one surviving.
What do you remember about your childhood days?
My father’s compound was very big. We all lived there. We had the experience of a polygamous family system. My father’s name was Uno Abasi Uno, while my mother was Arit Isinemin Antai. She didn’t take my father’s surname. Among of my mother’s 13 children only nine of us – seven males and two females – survived childhood. So, I only heard about the four others, I didn’t meet them alive when I was born.
When were you born?
I was born on December 21, 1941, during the Second World War. I was in my mother’s womb when the salt crisis came in the middle of 1941. While carrying my pregnancy, my mother was among the 13 women that confronted the English administrators to protest the scarcity of salt at the time. The story was that Oron women, led by Helen Ekeyo, went on to challenge and call for fair sharing of salt in our region, which is the present-day Akwa Ibom State, consisting of three nationalities, the Annang, Ibibis and Oron.
Permit me to emphasise here that these three nationalities had existed for years, apart from Calabar and the Igbos, but stayed here mainly as the Ibibio, Annang and the Oron. With the salt crisis, the woman (Helen Ekeyo) challenged the sharing formula in favour of Oron and stood up against the district officer, stretching her finger to the mouth of the district officer which led to her conviction and imprisonment for 14 days; the prison term was later reduced to 12 days.
My mother told me she was heavily pregnant with me at the time of the protest and that I was born in December of that year.
There was an incident that I always remember. In 1949, when I was eight years old, my first sister gave birth to a set of male twins. And my mother and other women gathered outside the house weeping. When I asked my mother was happened, she said my elder sister had given birth to a set of male twins and I was like, “So, why are you crying? Isn’t this a thing of joy?” But one of the women reprimanded me because I said they shouldn’t cry. When I argued that those children were a gift from God, the women laughed and abused me. But I wasn’t moved, rather I told them to allow me take custody of one of the twins and care for it while my sister would take care of the other. They laughed.
At what age did you start school?
I wasn’t sent to school early, even though I was regarded as a brilliant child. I was sent to Uruko market to trade. I started trading around 1952. I was doing business as a child. Meanwhile, I used to try to help children who were rejected from school. Two of my age mates, Etim Uko and Etim Edet Ekerenduo, who just retired as a federal permanent secretary, were sent to school and I used to give them sugar. And anytime I went to school, my friends would be happy to see me. Later in life when I became a lawyer, one of them working with UP, gave me retainership as a mark of our lasting friendship. He then took me to the Presidential Commission in Kaduna for one year, between 1999 and 2000. I have used this (opportunity) to establish a lot of things in my life. I have always protested against what is not good, oppression of all forms, most especially oppression of women.
How did you eventually go to school?
Eventually, I attended Akai Primary School where I had my first school leaving certificate in 1961. And the story behind how I eventually got educated is the reason why the theme of my 80th birthday celebration is ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’
My mother later came to the decision that I must go to school. So, she took me to her sister somewhere at Eyabiasang to enrol in school. While in school, I was doing well notwithstanding that I started late. I then moved somewhere to Ibibio land, Ikot Oku Udo and got my First School Leaving Certificate in Akai Practicing School in 1961.
In 1962, I was admitted to Methodist Boys High School but couldn’t continue because my mother couldn’t keep up with school fees. I stayed at home for five years. I later went back to MBHS and finished my studies by 1970 during the Biafran war.
That’s when I took the entrance examination into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to read Law. That surprised my friends because they felt I would go to science line because I was good at mathematics, but then, I have always wanted to be a lawyer.
What is it about being a lawyer that you love?
The beauty of debate is what endeared me to law as a profession. In school, I was the leader of the Debating Society. I recall that in 1959, Dr Mfon Amana, of blessed memory, was in Standard 6 while I was in Standard 4 and we had a moot court session in our dormitory. They used to arrest people and take them before the dormitory court for hearing. A case came up and I challenged the dormitory court. Mfon was charged with reckless and indecent dressing and I argued that the dormitory court did not have the ‘power’ (jurisdiction) to decide on that. My argument was that Mfon was not a boarder and could not be regulated by the standards that applied to those living in the dormitory. The teacher agreed with my argument and Mfon Amana was exonerated. Later in 1999 when I met Mfon after I was appointed to the presidential commission, he told me he had come to understand that what I described as the ‘power’ of the dormitory court back then in school, is properly called jurisdiction. We laughed over it. The experiences of those days, no doubt, played a major role in my choice of law as a career.
In your practice as a lawyer, what are some of the remarkable cases you have handled?
I have been at the forefront of fighting for justice and equity. One is in the issue of the male child being considered more important than the female child when it comes to inheritance. I have always maintained that the female child shouldn’t be cheated. That standpoint has come to define my practice as a lawyer. The customary court in Oron regards the male child higher than the female. But my agreement has been based on Section 42 of the constitution that says ‘No Nigerian shall be discriminated against on the basis of sex, religion and tribe’. In Oron, I have challenged a case in court on this basis. Generally, I don’t like one group cheating another.
I have also pushed against the cheating and relegation of the Oron nation by the Nigerian nation. The Oron nation has been relegated to just a group, to deny us an opportunity to have a taste of leadership.
I have also asked the question: “If the police go to arrest the husband, can they arrest the wife in his absence, to make the husband surrender himself to the police?” My argument is that a woman should be protected. It was because of that I was nominated to the Council of Legal Education. I was there for five years. But while there, I also faced problems because I am from a minority group.
Many legal practitioners look forward to becoming Senior Advocates of Nigeria but others don’t care about the title. Where do you stand on this?
I’ve lost interest in pursuing the SAN thing. The Nigerian factor plays out in everything, even the court system. Imagine what is happening at the Supreme Court. I tried to have my own position, it didn’t work out.
I had a lawyer from Mbo origin in Oron, who went to court and asked that they should render account on local government (funding). Assam Assam was in that case and I raised a very vital issue that an individual could not show up at the Supreme Court for the first time and demand that. The Supreme Court agreed with me. But they didn’t allow me to use that case as a key case (in applying for SAN title) because they said they didn’t give a considered judgment. But that wasn’t a problem for me because the objection had succeeded.
That’s why I lost interest in pursuing the SAN thing. Since then, I don’t think I had applied again. The reality is that being a SAN doesn’t necessarily mean that one is the best lawyer in town and merely being a good lawyer does not guaranteed that one will become a SAN. As I told Crystal Express newspaper last year, what happened is that a senior advocate would simply recommended junior lawyers from their firm. A lot of people can confirm what I’m saying. It is a sad situation here in Nigeria.
At 80, do you have plans of retirement from legal practice?
So long as I still have the strength, I will continue going to court. I don’t regret helping women. I have been advocating that the rights of a female child are equal to those of the male child and the Supreme Court agreed with me.
I have opposed several cases restraining women from owning landed properties, especially in Igbo communities. A man sitting as a judge in Nigeria should not only sit in his village, where they will apply customs as the basis for legal decisions. I have been agitating that lawyers should have national freedom, meaning a man from Oron can sit anywhere to dispense justice.
What are the things you are most grateful for?
My children are big-time lawyers; that’s an achievement. In Oron nation, they used to think that a lawyer must die as a poor man because he can’t do other things. No! I do not agree with that. I am happy that I have started to see some of my colleagues agitating that female children should have equal rights as the males.