April 2014 Edition with Ijeamaka Nwizu, Founder and Principal Practitioner – Beauforts Chambers stirred our minds about those little gaps of levity we need to plug for tangible progress.
Barr. Ijeamaka Nwizu obtained her Law Degree from Middlesex University, London in 1998. Her experience with Litigation and Corporate practice began in the firm of Chief Chris Uche (SAN). She continued active Litigation, Legislative Drafting and Arbitration as State Counsel in the Federal Capital Territory Administration from where she started the Legal Services department of Abuja Urban Mass Transport Company Limited as Deputy Manager, also serving for brief periods as Acting Company Secretary. She was also engaged to start and run the Legal Department of the Abuja Technology Village Free Zone Company. She is skilled in drafting Concession Agreements for Public Private Partnerships as well as drafting and negotiating Power Purchase agreements and Joint Venture agreements for Power Projects.
Ijeamaka is a member of the Nigerian Bar Association, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), the Institute of Chartered Arbitrators, UK and the Access to Justice Committee of the International Bar Association. She is the author of an article titled “Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Rights Violations: an extension of tortuous liability resulting in personal injury?” published by the international Bar Association Legal Practice Division. She also has a book “Personal Injury Law in Nigeria” in the works. She is proficient in both written and spoken French.
Her practice areas include Litigation, Arbitration, Energy, Company Secretarial and general Corporate Services, Joint Ventures, Public Private Partnerships, among others.
Below is the excerpt from our Community Session with Ijeamaka Nwizu. Enjoy.
Thank you for joining us on Friendraiser today
Thank you for the lovely introduction. I read up on Friendraiser and I was quite impressed by what I saw on the website. I think it is a novel idea and a good thing that should be encouraged to grow.
Thank you for the encouragement. Your passion for spreading the word on Consumer Culture, what is that about?
Somehow, Consumer Education has become a passion of mine largely because of the experiences I’ve had. These are experiences that everyone else has probably had as well. You go to a restaurant, you don’t like the level of service you get, at the end of the day, you still have to pay the bill. You walk out of there, not very happy and decide you will never go back, but you say nothing to Management. You try to board a flight, the flight is delayed, or let’s start from where you try to buy the ticket. You get to the airport, the flight is delayed, or worse still, they change the aircraft to a smaller aircraft but you have your ticket for a bigger aircraft with preferred seat selection.
All these are based on personal experiences. At some point, I thought, you know we sit in our little spaces and complain about things being so bad in Nigeria, what are we doing in our own little corners? We couldn’t even be bothered to sit and pen a complaint; we couldn’t be bothered to ask ‘pls, can I see your supervisor?’ and say to him ‘I don’t like the way you’ve treated me. I’m paying for a service, I expect to get better treatment’. So I decided I wasn’t going to take it anymore. If I find that my rights as I know them have been infringed upon, I will do something about it.
Share some of these experiences
First experience was with an airline on a local flight. Same thing, the ticket is a business class ticket, you get to the airport, they’ve changed the aircraft, fine, it happens all the time, but they don’t send you a text to tell you they have changed the aircraft. You get there with your 30kg luggage allowance and some, and you’re thinking ok, it’s a smaller plane, no problem, but ‘do I have a seat on the plane?’ ‘Yes ma, you have a seat.’ They check you in and halfway through, they say ‘oh ma, you’re entitled to only 20kg luggage’, and I’m like ‘yes, I do understand that, but you didn’t tell me in advance that you’ve downgraded to a smaller plane and you’ve downgraded me as a result of it. So I came to the airport with my 30kilos’. And this man says to me, quite rudely, ‘listen madam, you can see that plane, it is boarding and it will leave without you. This thing you are saying here is grammar.’ And I’m standing there very shocked. I find that the man is going to make me miss my flight. I have a lot more to lose than he does. So I dig deep and pay, both for the excess I had already packed and the one I wasn’t meant to pay. Then I say to him ‘alright, you’ve downgraded me and made me pay the excess, please can I have the refund on my ticket so I can pay the excess with it?’ He says, ‘when you get to Abuja, you apply for it’. I say to him ‘how about I pay the excess when I get to Abuja instead?’ He says ‘Madam, all this one na grammar, this plane will leave you’. I am very upset and board my flight, and at that point, I said to myself, no, no more, because that was only one of many flight-related experiences. We keep shutting up and putting up with it without saying anything. Something needs to be done.
What did you then do in that particular case?
I get back to Abuja and we do a letter to the airline. They don’t respond. We do a letter to the regulator NCAA (Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority), and the regulator is very interested in it. They pick up on it, get in touch with us, ‘have you heard from them?’ we said ‘no’. They said, ‘ok, we’ll follow up with them’. We were very impressed with that, quite surprised too because we didn’t expect the response, but yes it came. Eventually, we don’t hear anything from the airline, we initiate a suit, and I’m thinking, well, for me, it’s all in a day’s job. First I’m a paying customer, the Manager shouldn’t have spoken with me the way he did. Secondly, frankly, if you change the plane and you can actually take my luggage, then there’s absolutely no reason for you to make me pay extra when you didn’t tell me in advance. Long and short, we didn’t hear from them until we initiated the suit. They came to court. Halfway through, when they see it is a hopeless case, they want to settle out of court and we were able to get a pretty good settlement at the end of the day.
I say these simply because I feel that with most of these private organisations, we’re Nigerians and to a large extent, we tend to take things with a lot of levity, so if you hit their pockets, then they sit up and take notice. So that was it. The follow-up on that was that soon after, the NCAA updated their Passenger Bill of Rights (PBR) brought out a new one that included things like when the staff is rude to a customer, etc, and we felt that it was on account of our complaint. So that was a good thing that came out of that. The PBR is something that most passengers should know about and complain more.
The other part has to do with the Food & Beverage industry, what we eat and drink. We had a client, a young student who came to us. We didn’t know him from Adam, never met him. He saw us on the internet and came to us and said, ‘I had a bad experience. I bought a drink from the Mallam on campus and there was something in the drink’. We said ‘do you have the bottle, did you drink it, do you still have something left in the bottle?’ He said ‘Yes’, brought it to our office and added, ‘but I don’t have any money. I’m a student, I can’t pay you but I don’t think this is right. I don’t think this should happen’. He was a young man and we were impressed at the fact that he took the pains to try to do something about it so I thought, well, ok we’ll take it on. But then initially, when we hear some of these things, we also want to investigate ourselves to be sure it is not someone wanting to play a prank or to be funny or exploit a big company. So we investigated, went there, found the Mallam. In fact when we came, the Mallam was so scared, and that’s the thing as well. A lot of them get these things and hide it because it could impact negatively on their business; people around will say maybe they are selling things that they’ve put stuff in the drinks, and caution others from patronising them. So a lot of times, when they see those things, they suppress them. So when we came, he was very alarmed and we calmed him, and said ‘we are not here to indict you, did you sell a drink to this man and did he tell you that there was a problem with the drink?’ He said ‘Yes, I told him I will replace the drink’. He added that a few days after, to prove that he had nothing to do with it, he saw another bottle that had a bit of rubber slippers in it and he handed it to the young man himself. So we also had that. And I thought, how sad. The reason we took an interest in it is because on my 10th birthday party, I clearly remember we found a soft drink bottle with a straw in it. At that time, it was not typical. It wasn’t the kind of thing you would always see. So we actually took it and displayed it on our bar and people would come and we would say ‘see what we saw’. I called home recently and asked my mum if the bottle is still there. She said ‘yes, but it has changed colour o!’ I said, ‘no problem, please send it’. The way I’ve looked at it is, 28years on, it is still worse now. We are experiencing these things and children drink these things. People are consuming these things without thinking, without looking. So we have that matter and it is a case in court right now. We were not surprised to find that it is not the only type of case of its kind in court. Even before we got to the court, there was a process, we spoke to the regulator.
A month or 2 down the line, the regulator invited us for a meeting, we thought it was just us. We got there and saw quite a few other people who had similar experiences but a lot of them were product sellers and vendor. So I started chatting up the lady next to me about her experience. She said she was about to hand a customer a drink when she saw that there was something in it, so she withdrew it immediately, didn’t hand it to any customer but later went and complained and they invited her. Now at this meeting, we were one of the last people that they say and the regulator was there as well as the product manufacturer. It turned out the product manufacturer was there thanking people for what they called constructive feedback and offering them cartons of products. They were offering 10 cartons of products and it was quite acceptable to those people because they are sellers, so they took them and went on their merry way. I come in and I say to them, ‘the reason I’ve taken this on is because I drink these things and my children drink them too’. While I know to pour out these drinks, these kids will not. So it is very important to me that this thing is sorted out. That actually I feel they should stop producing the drinks forthwith, recycle the bottles, melt and remould the glass bottles or just do something, simply because of the environment we find ourselves in. These bottles are converted to ashtrays, people use them for engine oil, all sorts; and if you understand the process of cleaning them, as far as we’re concerned, we found that it was inadequate because we actually went to the plant to see the Plant Manager who said ‘oh, we’ve got this sophisticated equipment that after we clean them, we run the bottles through this machine and the machine picks out imperfect bottles’. I said, ‘yes, imperfect bottles, but what about dirty bottles? You put the drinks and put them back out there and people are buying them, drinking them.’ Long speech back and forth then this man says, “ok, madam, how about I give you 10carton products?” I said ‘oga, you try but e no reach’. He said, “ok, we understand where you are coming from. How about 20 cartons of products?” And I said, “obviously, you’re not getting it. I think this meeting is pointless. I’m obviously not talking to the people who are in a position to make decisions so let’s leave it as it is.’’ And we left the regulator’s office that way. Now we thank the regulators for their efforts but it was obvious that, for the young lad, there was absolutely nothing they could do at that point. I understand they have recently taken it up again. There were a lot of other complaints after us and I understand they are now pursuing these companies now.
Bottom line, I started saying to people, you don’t have to drink these things frankly, but if you really feel that you need to, pour them out. You will be amazed at the kinds of things you see inside. We need to learn to complain. They need to know these things are happening. I recall when we went to the depot after speaking with the Mallam, the lady we met at the depot was quite irritated. In fact, she said to me “Madam, these things happen all the time, what’s the big deal? If you were not an Igbo woman, I wouldn’t even be talking to you”.
What happens if/when we complain and nothing happens, because the system we have in Nigeria, is just not that supportive. We don’t need a forum like this to know that. This is not something that will change overnight just because you’ve advised us to be complaining?
It won’t change just like that, but at least you’re doing your little bit. If you complain and many other people complain, it is a pressure thing. Every complaint is/or at least should be a bit of pressure on that organisation, particularly when it is one that is very big and is cautious or conscious of reputational damage. When you complain, it will help, but like I said, some people choose to go to court; I did, after several encounters with these airlines. A lot of the time people are discouraged from going to court because they feel it takes too long, what will come out of it? I think it is still worth a try.
If we wanted to complain or we have a case where we wanted to go court, what are the first 2-3 things we would need to do?
The first thing would be to engage a lawyer, and that’s expensive. A lot of the time, even that alone is enough to discourage people from doing that. But then (and this is not to say I offer free services), but I did give you an example of the case of the young man whose case we took on. So you could similarly find some other lawyer who would be as passionate about this matter as I am and be willing to take it on. For me, I just felt, I drink these things, I have kids drinking it too, this company is an international company, they know not to do this elsewhere, why are they doing it here?
Consumer Culture, would it also apply outside consumables? Because if you get into the Leadership sphere and you have citizens talk about holding the leaders accountable. How does that fit in, in a way, it is consumer culture, right?
That’s taking it entirely to another route and that would be tantamount to talking politics to a large extent. But yes, our leaders are meant to be accountable. They know they are meant to be accountable. We try, as Nigerians, to hold our leaders accountable. It doesn’t appear to be working, but we still try. The thing is, just keep at it, keep at it…I think I can actually just say that things are not as bad as they used to be. There is EFCC now clamping down on people. You can look at it and say, well, they are being selective but you know what, they are not clamping down on people who haven’t done anything. They may be choosing the people that they’re clamping down on but at least something is happening that wasn’t happening before. So we’re moving slowly but steadily.
Let’s personalise things a bit. You work in the legal department, are there any sort of myths about women in your profession that you would like to share with us?
To a large extent, and it is not just the legal profession, sometimes people feel that with women, you don’t get 100% particularly with young women. When I was starting the law firm, I had people say to me, please just go and find some vibrant male lawyers that will do your work, move and do this and that. I thought, why male lawyers. They said ah, you don’t want to start dealing with ‘oh, my child is sick’ and the person will dump your file instead of going to court and take her child to the hospital. You don’t want to start dealing with ‘oh, I’m pregnant’. And it got me thinking hey, you know what, I’m a woman, pregnancy is not a disability. I have worked in places and I think that my input and contribution in all those places were valued. I don’t think I was a bad staff in any way. All I need to do is make a conscious effort to find people who are as driven as I am and are willing to give 101%. I rejected that advice, went ahead and engaged a female lawyer. She was one of the first lawyers I was engaging and she was coming from one of the big law firms in Lagos and she was moving to Abuja. I didn’t immediately at that time know why she was moving. So I engaged her and within 3 months of starting work, she comes to me and says, “ma, I’m getting married”. My heart skipped and I thought ha! I’m in trouble. They told me o, because I was thinking, she gets married, she moves, or even if she doesn’t move, she stays in Abuja. Next, she has a child or is dealing with pregnancy, and I’m like, oh my goodness. Again, I thought, well, you know what, in the 3 months that she’d been with me, I liked the way she works. She’s good material and I honestly think we can work around it. So I said, alright, that’s fine. She got married and thankfully, got pregnant almost immediately and we started having the little issues, morning sickness, not being able to come in early but still struggling and making sure she came in nonetheless. Those were traits that were more than enough for me. She was making the effort to come to work, and even if she couldn’t, we could work remotely. As time went on and she was progressing, I figured that 3 months maternity leave (most law firms give a month or 2), but for her 1st baby, I made a concession and said she could have 3 months with full pay. I figured at 3 months, her baby will still be small and I knew she was having nanny issues because I had advised her to get a nanny before the baby came but she couldn’t get the nanny until after the baby arrived. So I thought, well, we’ll convert one of the rooms in the boys’ quarters into a crèche. We did it up, put a bed, fridge and TV. So when she had her baby, she was able to come to work with her baby and her nanny. They would be in that comfortable place and she wouldn’t worry. She could go in there for feeding and come out. As if it wasn’t bad enough, my receptionist got pregnant as well, meaning I had 2 women who were going to be away from the office right about the same time, and these were women I really needed at work. You know, I give it to them that while they were away, they were still doing the little bit that they could remotely. When they did come back to work, they came back with their babies and they were as effective as if they hadn’t been away. They are still with me till today and we’ve gone on to the 2nd babies (general laughter).
I think it is a myth that women are not able to do the work as well simply because they have to go away on maternity leave. I think employers just need to think a bit more outside the box and see how best to accommodate the women in their employ who are willing to work. You need to make the workplace conducive for them to do the work.
You do deserve some applause for that, because…how many people do that? (general applause), what is your specialty area?
I do litigation, so I would handle any subject area that’s brought to me in litigation. We do a lot of corporate work. That said, in Nigeria, we don’t specialize. It is only the really large law firms that would tell you they have a commercial department, medical law department, music law department, etc. We don’t have that, we do largely anything that comes our way.
What are your thoughts on social media as a pressure tool? Also, how can we be more deliberate about forming or educating people about creating pressure groups?
Pressure groups work. For me it is, just try and get your message across however you see best within the ambit of the law. Conscious efforts at getting people to come together? Well, we have one here in Friendraiser. There are lots of others, not necessarily consumer issues but nothing stops you from using any forum you find yourself in. experience has shown that the Consumer Protection Agency is willing to help when issues are brought to them. On the part of the courts and dispensing justice, the courts only work with what is available.
Perhaps by and large it comes down to the lawyers, because it is just so expensive to hire a lawyer, sometimes it is as if the cases are tactically being delayed as in the NITEL staff case presently in court. All things in consideration, nobody will, because of a packet of juice go to a lawyer and pay money. Then again, if we start complaining, we just might see how far we can help the country go?
I know how many FCDA people they have sent to me to assist because I worked in FCDA (Federal Capital Development Authority). ‘oh madam, somebody has taken my land, can you assist me? I have no money, retirement plan, I can’t engage a lawyer’. Some of these you have to turn away, some you take. I’m personally at a point where my staff say to me, when they come, send them to us, don’t talk to them. So I understand the constraints and I know it is expensive to hire lawyers, but like the lady said, where you can’t hire a lawyer, do your own little bit in your corner, but whatever it is that you do, it is better than just folding your hands and doing nothing.
In terms of the justice system and delays, our judges are overworked, underpaid, and to be honest, I feel sorry for them because they take the brunt of it all.
How would you appraise the legal profession now, borrowing from the calibre of law graduates, would you think that law as a profession should be taken as a first degree or second degree?
For me, I think that is not the problem with the quality of lawyers that we have. Doing law as a second degree is not the solution. I feel, and it really is the case, that the tool of our trade as lawyers is language. You need to be able to speak it, you need to be able to write it, and you need to do both quite proficiently. As an employer of labour, I would say that I am hard pressed. It is very difficult to find good quality legal staff. Our recruitment process is very simple and we’re a small firm of 4 lawyers. I’ve been very lucky it’s been the same set of people I’ve had since we started, and a few for 3 years, so I haven’t had to recruit, which is fantastic.
I will however say that before I got the set that I have, we went through a lot of CVs, interviewed quite a lot of people. We would always start the assessment with the CV. What we found was that people did their CVs rather shoddily and you could see that there was no attention to detail. It gets you thinking, if you couldn’t be bothered to put your best foot forward, then I don’t think I really need to meet you. So that was always the first elimination process. Those whose CVs were well done, we would invite them for an informal chat and you discover they didn’t write the CV. You would ask them when they graduated and it is on their CV but they’ll come up with something else. The few that get through, we say to them, you will do a written test. What is this written test? I say to them, ‘I just went to see the GM of XYZ Company, he gave us an appointment, we went, had a meeting with him, now we’re back at the office; please write to them saying “Thank you”. Now, this is a letter that should be 3-4 lines, “thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedule to see us. Our meeting provided very useful insight on bla bla bla…” but it is so difficult, they just won’t be able to do it and that eliminates them because it is the most basic thing you would be doing in a law firm; constantly having to write letters, legal opinion, court processes, etc so you need the language.
Back to the question, the issue is with the foundation. Making them do Law as a second degree course won’t solve the problem. It is not a problem you have only in the legal profession, it is everywhere. We have a lot of unemployable graduates and it is very sad. These people are going to be leaders of tomorrow, our presidents. There is someone who wanted to run for office and we said to him “why would you do that? Only crazy people do that,” and he said, “so what does that make you if you sit and allow a crazy person rule you?”. If things remain as they are and we keep churning out graduates that are not able to do what they should, then we have a problem, we will have a problem, a bigger problem.
Before you opened your law firm, you were working, what made you decide to leave?
It was always in the grand plan. I didn’t start work immediately, I graduated, had children, that slowed me down a little bit but I always knew what it was I wanted to do. When I was in FCDA, it is an environment where you can choose to work or not and no one will trouble you; at least in the legal department. So I went in there and chose to work. I got to know those who were serious in the department, attached myself to them, started doing the work. Obviously, when you start working, your bosses will know that you work. Every boss likes an employee that makes his or her work easier. While I was there, I knew that I couldn’t be there for too long because I didn’t want to get sucked into that system. Sometimes, no matter how hardworking you are, they would mock you. In fact, it was so bad at FCDA at the time that I used to come to the office with my own printer and laptop because at the time, lawyers didn’t have individual laptops so you would write your process by hand and give it to the typist who would only type it if you find something for her or she’s in a good mood. Ofcourse, with that, if you then go to court, they will call FCDA matter and nobody will stand up or they’ll say “FCDA, you haven’t filed anything”, and you will say “err…my Lord, it is correct, I haven’t filed, but by the next adjourn date, I will file”. These create the delays in the justice system and you see where it comes from, a typist who couldn’t be bothered about whether your process is filed or not. So these are some of the things that made me decide I didn’t want to be there for too long. I was there for maybe 2 years before moving to another FCTA Agency, then Abuja Urban Mass Transport Company, with greater responsibility and more work. So I decided I would set up on my own but I got a call to join ADB for 6 months, which got extended until I put my foot down. It was daunting, not too much for me because of my circumstances but I was very worried about the people depending on me for their daily bread, being able to pay their salaries alone was the driver. In the end, once you’re sufficiently driven, that’s it.
Isn’t that what we always say, once you’re sufficiently driven, then you can go the extra mile. Thank you very much Ije for sharing time with us.
Thank you for having me.
Chioma Ezekwesili. Happy Birthday!