Frank was about to write his ‘Bar Part II’ examination at the Nigerian Law School when an incident occurred that would have a profound effect on the direction and course of the rest of his life.
Before this time, Frank was living the dream, and a life which held so much promise. He had graduated summa cum laude from the University. In fact his life had been a miracle up till that point. How he even managed to get the funds for his law school education remained a mystery even to his closest friends who knew his background. One of his coursemates at the university, who was also an official in the State Government casually asked him one morning how he was preparing for law school and he summoned courage to tell him he had no money and may not make it that year. The next day, the man handed him a cheque of three hundred thousand Naira, just like that.
Frank was very confident heading into the examination period. By his reckoning, with a first class at the law school to match his University result, he was guaranteed a slot in a big law firm, the likes of Banwo & Ighodalo, Aluko & Oyebode, Templars, Babalakin & Co., and the few other firms that paid decent wages to their lawyers. His plan was to put in a few years under the smart and experienced lawyers there, learn the ropes and thereafter pursue his postgraduate studies and move on to something bigger, maybe even open his own law firm. He also dreamt of being appointed to teach in the University or the law school where he would put in a couple of hours a week and receive his bumper cheque at the end of the month. Frank was set for a great future, and then it happened.
He had done his best to ignore or conceal it when he first experienced it. He went about his lectures and then the preparations for the bar examinations as normal as possible, trying hard to deny the discomfort which soon grew into genuine pain, all the while hoping that it would fade away, as all minor ailments did. This attitude mirrored his medical history. Like most Africans, he diagnosed himself with malaria each time he fell sick, and hardly took medication, except in cases of extreme necessities. And so when the pain resurfaced just before the examination period, he did the usual thing, looked the other way.
The law school exams were arranged in such a way that the general objective test paper is taken on the first day, usually a Saturday, thereafter each of the five subjects would be taken each day of the next week. Now, the first four papers had gone well by his reckoning. On the eve of the last examination, he finished his last minute revision around midnight, said his prayers and went to bed. Then it hit him.
Frank woke up with a stinging sensation in his lower abdomen. He rolled from one edge of the bed to the other as he writhed in pains. After about ten minutes in which the pains had not let up one bit, he slowly, wearily opened his eyes and managed to sit up on the bed as he groped in the darkness for any source of illumination. Seconds later, he found it where he had left it, on the floor at the edge of the bed. He pressed the unlock keys and checked the time, 2:00am sharp. He sat in the dark for a little while, breathless, terrified, his heart pounding rapidly. What was happening to him, he wondered. On the eve of his last paper.
Meanwhile the sharp pains were getting worse and now threatening to rip apart his abdomen. He prayed for it to stop, wishing that the whole thing was a bad dream that would fade away once he woke. All this while, Timi his roommate was fast asleep. He then mustered the last strength left in him and called out his name. That was the last thing he remembered.
When he came to, the next morning, at the law school medical centre where he had been rushed that night, the Doctor told him he had appendicitis, and was fortunate that it had not ruptured that night, which could have resulted in peritonitis, a usually fatal upshot. The Doctor recommended an immediate appendectomy, which Frank forcefully rejected, until after the examination of course. After minutes of endless wrangling, he was given an injection that would momentarily minimize the pains for a few days to enable him complete his exams. Frank managed to complete his exams, but in truth did not remember writing anything. The pains resurfaced intermittently although not to the level of the previous night. He was certain he had flunked the exam. The next day while other students vacated the hostels back to their homes for a well deserved rest, he headed back to the hospital to prepare for surgery and await the result of the exams.
This is only a fictitious story, culled from a novel I flirted with the idea of writing immediately after my university education, while waiting for law school. Being a work of fiction, the characters and storyline are of course made up. However it mirrors a regular occurrence Nigerian Law School and with the latest results released by the Council of Legal Education, the need to share this story has become all the more compelling.
A little past midnight on 12th October 2014, the Nigerian Law School authorities released the results of the 2014 Bar Part II Examinations which took place in August 2014. While the law school is yet to come out with an official breakdown of the results, unconfirmed reports have it that out of approximately 6,000 candidates who took the exams, only 2, 172 students passed, thus a whopping 3,800 or so failed. The result mirrors the 2012 results, rated as one of the poorest in the history of the Nigerian Law School. The 2012 results saw a meagre pass rate of 1625 out of about 6,000 registered students.
It has now become an annual ritual about this time every year once the law school results are released, majority of the students would fail and cry blue murder, a few stakeholders would call for the review of the law school examination system while the rest of the society would offer mere consolations and generally move on while waiting for the next year to repeat the circle.
This development in a critical sector of the society is appalling to say the least and is deserving of more than a passing consideration. A scenario that witnesses 60 per cent failure in the examination that produces lawyers in Nigeria (in whose hands the justice system and sometimes the government is left) should be treated as a national disaster.
I read with dismay, publications in several blogs this past week where aggrieved students laid the blame for their failure on the Director General of the Nigerian Law School, Dr. Olarenwaju Onadeko, whom they accused of plotting to destroy their careers by failing them, and subsequently demanded a review of their results. While I do not see the basis for such accusations, it has however raised the need to take a critical look at how the Nigerian Law School result is marked, graded and computed.
Except you experience it, what transpires at the law school during examination periods is the stuff of legends and a script only fit for Nollywood. Examination period in Nigerian Law School is a totally different proposition from what obtains elsewhere in the world. There is this pervasive atmosphere of palpable tension, with all manner of stories, must of them dumbfounding, flying around, mostly fuelled by the high stakes involved and the fear of failure. There have been cases of students falling sick on the eve of the examination, some failing to remember anything inside the examination hall, but once the examination ends, their memories would flow back in torrents. There have also been several instances of students instinctively leaving the examination halls with their answer scripts and submitting their question papers instead. Some students no longer indulge in ordinary handshakes for fear of someone snatching their brains and memories. It gets that serious.
In addition to the personal and family pressure on you to do well for obvious reasons, graduating with a First Class or Second Class Upper at the University but failing to meet that standard at the law school is usually the recipe for being treated as an outcast as it cast doubts over the standard of your University as a whole. So it is incumbent on you to put in your best, seeing that you have the extra pressure of carrying the weight of expectations of your family, school and State. Plus the little matter of our love for titles (e.g. Eld. High Chief Barr. (Mrs.) Ekanyin Rose Asuquo) as a country and the fact that we value class/grades (1st Class!) over substance.
One of the big issues with law school examinations has always been the marking scheme. Although they officially deny it, the grading system at the law school is such that you are graded in accordance with your least result. For instance, if you made four As out of the five courses but made a Pass in one, you’ll graduate with a Pass. Also, while someone who makes four As and one C in the University thereby gets a GPA of 4.5 (1st Class), by contrast, that result at the law school leaves you with a Pass. Haba!
For the law school, it is a one off thing. And in a country where the system is designed to kill you, apologies to Ayo Sogunro, anything can go wrong. Thus if someone (otherwise very intelligent) is say sick on the day of one of the exams, that is it. No matter how well he writes the others. It is fail one, fail all. While this article is not about the generality of the law school examination system (and it is the view of this writer that the law school has one of the best, most predictable and transparent education system there is) however, truth be told, as regards the examination/grading aspect of the system, the Nigerian Law School grading system is by no means the best there is, and that is putting it mildly.
I know a lot of very smart folks who went to the law school full of hope and expectations. At the end, they barely passed law school while some even had to resit the examinations. Not because they were not good. While excelling in law school raises a presumption in favour of a person that passes, an average or even a poor result at the law school is by no means an indication that the person is not good, unfortunately however, it raises such a presumption and the person is left to carry the burden of proving himself for the rest of his life.
Students have made 1st Class at the Universities (with all the attendant ills and obstacles that students perennially tackle in Nigeria) over a 5 year period only to make a ‘Pass’ at the law school. And once you do not make that 1st Class or 2.1 at the law school, that is it. Some peoples’ confidence are deflated and shattered, for life! In other words, there are several Franks out there whose life aspirations have been cut short. For one, you lose the chance of being employed by the top firms in Nigeria (most of which require a minimum of 2.1 at the Universities and the law school), no matter how good you are. Luckily, I know of a number of law firms that do not place much value on the law school grading system. The only unfortunate thing is that such firms are few.
The law school administration continually supplies ammunition to conspiracy theorists to suggest that the law school examination system is deliberately designed to reduce the number of persons who succeed. First they price it beyond the reach of the common man – N300,000.00 the last time I checked – then if he scales that hurdle, they ensure that he fails to pass. That should not be the case. It is not as though infrastructural facilities in the campuses except maybe Abuja Campus is anything to write home about, but that is a subject for another day.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this line of reasoning should not be seen as making a case for students who clearly have no business in the profession (and indeed the writer believes that that there are a significant number of such persons). But it is beyond cavil that over the years, there has been a decline in the standard of education at all levels of the education system in Nigeria from the primary school level, up to the University level and this of course reflects in the overall performance at the law school. Add to this the usual factors like the lack of political will and commitment on the part of government to stop the decline – of course their children and wards are not trained in Nigeria – unclear government policies and programmes on education, parents’ attitude to education and lack of seriousness on the part of students, its the ‘selfies’ generation remember.
The poor performance of students in the law school examinations should be a genuine cause for worry to all stakeholders in the legal field and indeed the education sector in Nigeria. Some have called for the abolition of the grading system in the law school examination such that people only simply pass or fail as opposed to being graded from 1st Class to Fail grade. A significant number of people oppose this. A former DG of the Law school cited public policy reasons as justification for the continued retention of the system.
Whether it is abolished or retained, one thing is certain, the least score system is unfair and does no one any good in the end. The failure recorded in the law school in recent times is alarming, disturbing and unacceptable. But is the law school likely to change it? I do not think so. So by this time next year? The vicious circle continues.
Orji Uka is a legal practitioner with one of the top law firms in Nigeria. He was admitted as a Barrister & Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 2012. He is a member of The Trent Voices. An alumnus of Abia State University, Uturu (ABSU); he is past team lead of ABSU Law Clinic of the Faculty of Law and was actively involved in the provision of free legal services for the underserved. He led a team of law students who succeeded inter alia in securing the release of seven detainees illegally detained on trumped up charges in various prisons across the country. Orji is politically aware and in his spare time actively contributes to the topical politico legal issues around. Orji, who is a soccer aficionado currently resides in Lagos, Nigeria and tweets from @orjiuka.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.