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Our experience as interns under late FRA Williams — Uko Udom, SAN

Our experience as interns under late FRA Williams — Uko Udom, SAN

17 October, 2020

Barrister Uko Udom (SAN) and his brother, Essien Udom (SAN), have so many things in common. The greatest is their striking resemblance which intrigues those who come in contact with them. However, they are not twins. But there is always the possibility of mistaking one for the other because they also work together in the same office as co-founders of Udom & Udom Legal practitioners. While celebrating Akwa Ibom at 33, the state government recognized the Udoms’ contribution to the state as Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN). In this interview with PAUL UKPABIO, Uko Udom reveals what it felt like to be under the tutelage of Chief FRA Williams and other sundry issues.


LET’S go a little down memory lane. What was life like for you, growing up in the Eastern part of Nigeria? Would you consider yourself a privileged child?

I was actually born in Ibadan, in Oyo State. My father was a senior staff member of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ibadan. We lived at the University campus until the riots and political crises that led to the civil war. I had my primary school education in Ibadan and started my secondary education there. However, we relocated to the east before the war started. I guess you could call my childhood a privileged one, by Nigerian standards.

 What do you recall about your early life?

I was privileged to grow up in a Nigeria that people dream about today. We lived in an area called the Senior Staff Quarters at the University of Ibadan campus. We rode in a school bus to school and we had free lunch and fresh milk served at school. The milkman delivered fresh milk at the doorstep of every house at the staff quarters. On Sunday afternoons, an ice cream truck went around selling ice cream. The only power outage I can recall that we ever had was caused by political thugs during the “wetie” crises in Western Nigeria, around 1964.

In what way did your childhood influence the person that you are today?

My formative years were in a residential environment that was multi-ethnic. We had friends across ethnic groups, attended the same schools, and ate in each other’s houses. Every family subscribed to the same high moral and ethical standards. Growing up in this social environment shaped my world view and mindset. My parents were very strict disciplinarians, like most parents of those days. We were taught that there was no substitute for hard work. If you came second in class, my father would ask why you were not first. The day you struggled to be first, my father would just smile and look away. He always tried to hide his emotions. But he had a way of surprising us, like when he took us to watch Millicent Small and Fela and the Koolalobitos when they played at the University of Ibadan.

In those days polygamy was popular. Was that the situation in your house?

No. We grew up in a monogamous home.

 What was your educational background?

We saw education as part of growing up. We all went to Abadina School, Ibadan for our primary education, then most of us ended up at the International School, Ibadan, before joining the exodus to the east before the start of the civil war. After completing my secondary education at the Holy Family College, Abak, in today’s Akwa Ibom State. I did a diploma course in Company Administration before proceeding to England where my brother and I took a degree in law at the Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Nigerian civil war has been written about severally; what are your memories of the war?

My first impression of the war was that it was a disruption of the cushioned life we were used to in Ibadan. I was too young at the beginning to fully understand the politics of it all. But then, losing almost two years of schooling, facing the scarcity of essential items, and watching people succumb to disease and deprivation, all these took its toll and reformatted my perception of life as a Nigerian.

Were there occasions that you thought you would not survive the war?

Not really. My parents and older siblings probably felt more endangered. We were at least 15-20 kilometres from the nearest active war fronts, although we faced occasional air raids. My father had constructed a very large underground bunker that could take the entire family and our relatives. Each time there was an air raid, we would all run into the bunker, which was covered with planks lined with vegetation. One of my brothers had built a periscope that we would use to see what was happening on the surface while we were underground. We faced more danger from defeated soldiers retreating from battle. They would raid our compound taking all the food and livestock they could find. They would demand to know whose side we were on. Our answer always depended on whose side the rampaging soldiers were on.

After all that, were you able to return to Ibadan to reunite with friends and acquaintances?

I went to Ibadan for the first time after the war with our state’s basketball team for the National Sports festival in 1979. I could not go around because of camp restrictions. But in the ’80s, I went back and visited my primary school, Abadina School, and International School. I went to see our family house at No. 25 Amina Way, at the University of Ibadan. I was transfixed and covered in goosebumps as memories of my childhood flooded back. Somebody came from the house and asked what I wanted, and I apologized and told him I used to live there.

Any regrets about the war?

Yes, I deeply regret the war, because so many people died needlessly. Worse still, our country has not learned any lessons from the war. Today, Nigeria is tottering at the precipice of a worse crisis; a war with no geographical boundaries. It could be a class war, or a generational conflict, or another internecine conflict. Our leaders must learn that no society can survive without justice and equity. The future of our young ones is mortgaged to feed the insatiable greed of a corrupt political elite.

You had to go abroad at some point for your studies, how did you find life over there, compared to Nigeria?

Yes, and for me, it was a low point in my life. I always wanted to study Engineering at the University of Ife but could not get admission. So I ended up in England, where my brother and I were admitted to study law.

What motivated you to return to Nigeria?

It never occurred to me not to return. In those days, we loved our country and wanted to be part of its development. We headed straight back after our final examinations and enrolled at the Nigerian Law School.

Did you and your brother share similar motivation?

Studying law was clearly fortuitous for both of us. We never went to England to study law. We were actually considering a degree in Business or Economics. The Student Affairs people advised that we were qualified for consideration in the Business, Economics, and Law faculties, but that the different faculties would make the decisions. So we got in the lift and headed up to the faculty offices. Law was on the 3rd floor, Business on the 5th floor, and Economics was on the 7th floor. At the law faculty, we were offered admission after a review and interview, so we decided that there was no point going to the other departments. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Why did you both decide to work together in the same law firm?

Once we decided to practise law, it was only natural that we practised together. When we were in college in England, all our friends called us Udom and Udom, and one of them, a Kenyan guy actually said back then, that we would in future practise law as Udom and Udom. We both did our Law School pupillage at the firm of Chief F.R.A Williams where the late Chief had three of his sons in his practice.

What was working with Late Chief FRA Williams like?

I did not actually work with Chief FRA Williams. It was a pupillage. It was an internship. It was a great experience that served us well in all our years of practice. Chief Williams was a gentle giant. In court, he was always well prepared and very intimidating. In the chamber, he was very gentle and considerate. He would speak with us as we read and reviewed files in the library. He made us all attend the “Black Table Conference” every week, where all the lawyers reviewed and prepared the cases for the next week. He would even listen to our opinion as law students, on each case.

Working with Chief FRA Williams, did that make your fellow lawyers see you as privileged? And did you feel being privileged?

We did flaunt it at our friends at the law school that we were interned at Chief Williams’ Chambers. It was a privilege because it was one of the top chambers in Nigeria.

When you started out as a young lawyer was it your dream to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria?

To be honest, as young lawyers, it was not our dream to become SANs. We were more focused on building a solid practice and excelling in our specialized areas of the practice. We naturally applied and took silk when it was clear that we were qualified, and had attained the standards set by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee.

Two brothers in the same profession and both are SANs, do you have other lawyers in the family?

As a matter of fact, there are four of us who are lawyers in our family. I have a senior sister who is about 46 years at the bar, and our last sister, who studied law in England but chose not to practise law.

How do you and your brother handle those who mix you up for one another?

Yes. This happened to us a lot. Most people assumed we were twins since we were in the same class in most of the schools we attended. Sometimes, we would be mischievous, and answer to each other’s name.

But who is older between you and your brother?

I won’t tell you who is older. We normally use the information to get free drinks.

What led to both of you being ready for the university at the same time, and being in the same class?

While in Primary 5 at Abadina School, I took the Entrance Examination into International School, Ibadan, and was admitted. So, I skipped Primary 6. From then on, we were always in the same class.

 If you were not a lawyer, what else would you have loved to be?

Like I said earlier, in my younger days, I had always wanted to be an engineer. But looking back today, if I were not a lawyer, I would have loved to be God. (I’m sorry if I blaspheme). But there is so much in the world today that I would love to change.

 Your role models?

My father was my role model, and I always wanted to be like him. My heroes, however, are Martin Luther King, Jnr, and Nelson Mandela.

And what do you do for leisure?

For me, nothing beats listening to cool jazz music and dreaming of Arsenal Football Club winning the Champions League.

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