In just 2 years, Oluyemi Orija, through her non-profit organization, has secured the release of over 200 inmates pro bono and is committed to filling the gaps in the criminal justice system that leaves citizens exploited and forgotten in prisons. In light of this, this conversation took us through 3 emotional states; first, the obvious excitement for the amazing work that she is doing for the criminal justice system in Nigeria, then the shared despair at the state of this system that propelled her to do this work, and finally, a grasp at optimism as I asked the question “how can we help?” She was kind enough to tell us.
Tell us a little about yourself
My name is Oluyemi Orija and I’m a lawyer and the executive director of Headfort Foundation. I’m from Nigeria. I am 33 years old and I’m married with a child, a son.
Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Yes. My dad, who unfortunately passed on a few months ago, was a local chief in my village. Being a village girl, I saw him act as a judge on cases of people. If villagers had issues, they would bring them to him for settlement. He was a very intelligent man and was like a justice of peace. And I was like, what is it about this man that everyone wants him to adjudicate over their cases? I saw all those traits in him and thought I would like this. I would love to be part of people’s businesses. I think that was where I got the inspiration from. Of course, I worked to channel my academics towards the arts and becoming a lawyer but I think I got the first inspiration from him.
So you went ahead to study law at the university?
Yes, I did.
It seems like you had a vision and you stuck to that path. I know that it takes laser-like focus to do that so I want to commend you. Did you start practising immediately after graduation?
Yes, but you know, the vision was clear from a very tender age but when I got to the university, I understood that there are so many aspects of law and that you don’t necessarily have to practice law in the courtroom. You could practice law in other places like in multinational companies, being an in-house lawyer and all of that. I caught interest in that, and I wanted to go corporate. I didn’t want to be the courtroom lawyer, I wanted to be the corporate lawyer. So, I started taking professional courses. I did quite a couple of professional courses to fit into the corporate world. I think I had that change of mindset at the university because I learned or heard that law practice in Nigeria wasn’t lucrative, that you won’t have money if you were a courtroom lawyer. That you will struggle so I thought to myself I’m not sure I want to go that route. Everybody wants money at the end of the day. That was what changed my perception of law practices. But, when I went to Akwa Ibom state to serve, I served in a law firm, a core practising law firm. I saw that all I heard was a lie. Aside from the fact that I was actively practising in that firm, I was also part of the accounting people so I knew how much was coming into the firm. I was part of the people who deposited money in the bank and I was like come on this law practice is lucrative, what do you guys mean? So I thought back about becoming a practising lawyer. And immediately after service, of course, I came back to Lagos, I joined another law firm, I worked for about 3 years then I started my law practice
What gave you the confidence to start your practice?
So, I consider myself a very brilliant person. In the first three years of being a lawyer, I worked in 3 different law firms and I saw different aspects of law. I worked with a firm that was focused on criminal litigation, I worked in one firm that was purely corporate. I worked in another one that was more about land matters, succession and all of that. So, I had a good experience in all these areas of law. I didn’t have the money but I had the experience and the knowledge of the law. I relate with people well so those are the things that helped me.
I started in my room in Ogudu. I was living in one room then, so when somebody says I have a property somewhere, I need you to draft me a deed of assignment or a tenancy agreement, I would get small money. It wasn’t frequent, it was just once in a while. So with that money, I would buy a printer today, buy a stapler tomorrow, next tomorrow I’d do a letterhead. We started like that and in less than a year, I think I got a retainership with the then Diamond bank to recover debts for about 10 customers. So with the money I made from that, I took a very small office in Lagos island, like a 25 square meter room and I started there with one secretary and myself. I was the only lawyer running up and down and we continued to grow. The tenacity was there, the persistence was there, and we also made use of social media.
This time, when I look back at older lawyers who started law practice without social media, I keep wondering how did they do it? Because social media plays a vital role, I made use of it a lot. I put my knowledge out there so people could recognize that I was not just a lawyer by the book but I was a practising lawyer who is active, persistent and ready to work.
How long have you been running Headfort Chambers now?
How would you explain the work that you do at Headfort Chambers to the average person?
Our firm is an SME-based law firm. We are interested in small start-up businesses that need legal services. You may have heard the statistics that most businesses run down in the first 5 years of their existence. It’s true, and we can tie that failure to so many things. Some people say funding but if you have funding and you don’t do the right thing, it is not going to last. What our firm is interested in is ensuring that start-up businesses do their due diligence, do their paperwork, their compliance, and none of any government agency is on their neck.
However, we also have in our firms, lawyers who are specialized in other areas of the law like matrimonial cases. We have an aspect for that. The way our firm is structured, while SME is our focus, we still have lawyers specialized in other things. So, if you come into our law firm and say I have a land and somebody is about to snatch it away from me, we have a lawyer to handle it. Anything you bring, somebody is there to handle it.
So let’s talk about Headfort Foundation. What birthed the idea?
Okay, the idea has been there since I was called to the bar and I started practising in Akwa Ibom State. Most lawyers have had some experience of being a lawyer, probably at the university in what we call moot and mock trials. But for me, it was different because I had never been to a courtroom until my first day in court as a lawyer. So, the very first day I got to court was the day I appeared in court as a lawyer. Being in a court for the first time, I saw that people were being brought from prison to the courtroom for just minor offences. Sometimes, let’s say 2 people fought, and one person had an edge, they charge the other guy to court and he is in prison for 5 or 6 months, and he has no lawyer because he can not afford one. And there is no witness to testify that this person that you are charging, he actually committed this offence. So they keep adjourning cases like that and you’ll see that a case could linger for 10 years or 5 years. So I asked myself why is it that no one is representing these guys?
The government has a department called the legal aid department but it is not being run properly. It is government work and you know how government work can be. I witness daily, a lot of people who come to court without lawyers, and I know that if they had lawyers, even if they went to prison, they wouldn’t spend that long in prison. What they are being charged for, it is either they are innocent or it is so minor that nobody should be in prison for it. Imagine being in prison because you broke a crate of eggs or because you stole a loaf of bread. Okay, a guy was in prison because the police said he was standing in a dark place and he can commit a crime. He had not committed the crime o! And this guy spent 3 months in prison.
I saw all these things and thought that there should be an organization bridging this gap, representing these people. Because the truth of the matter is that it is expensive to contract a lawyer, especially in an urban city like Lagos, it is very expensive. So a lot of people who need these services in the prison, will not be able to contract these services, because of financial constraints. This was even before I started Headfort chambers, I knew that I wanted to do something about the criminal justice system in Nigeria, but I didn’t know how to go about it, and with those firms, I was working for, I could not represent anybody, whether pro bono or paid because I had a contract of employment – I was only supposed to do cases that belong to the firm. What this meant was that I couldn’t do anything until I had a law practice of my own.
In 2015, when we started Headfort chambers, we were struggling, it was hard, very hard o! But we thank God sha. So, in October 2018, that was the very first time we went to prison. I told my staff and a friend of mine what I wanted to do. I told them we need to go get the cases of those in prison, those who cannot afford any lawyers. So, we went to the prison. At first, we took about 25 cases that very first day. We represented them and in no time, we were able to trash all those 25 cases and those guys were released from prison. The joy on their faces, the kind of prayers – they will even call you in the middle of the night and pray for you – these were people that had already lost hope and never thought that anybody could come for them. Their families also appreciated it, they were so thankful.
For me, seeing that I’m able to help somebody without spending a dime except for logistics and a few things was exciting. That excitement propelled us to keep on, so we started like that and we would go take cases, represent them, go back, take cases, represent them. It was getting bigger than we expected and when we now show up at Ikoyi prison, those inmates too, now know that these people would do your case, they would not just come here and not do anything about it. They will do your case and ensure your release. So the inmates wanted us to take their cases and of course, we were short-staffed, we needed more hands, we needed money for logistics.
At this point, was it just you and a few friends?
Yes, I have an elder sister who is also a lawyer, she was also very good. Then at the time I had taken one more lawyer as an employee, and the secretary who is not a lawyer, and a few other friends that I could just tell We have one case at Ogba magistrate court, can you please attend to it? They would say no problem and attend to it. In March 2019, we decided to register that initiative as a non-profit, so that it can function on its own, get volunteers officially, and instead of doing those small cases we were doing, we could do as many as possible. So in March, we registered the foundation and that’s how it has been going since then.
Headfort runs an all-women team. Was this always your intention?
No. When we started, we did not intend for it to be that way, but this foundation needs you to be very passionate. You have to be justice driven, and I realized that a lot of men are money-driven. They wanted money but we didn’t have the money, even now we still don’t have the money. Sometimes, I look at how hard these women work, and I think that they should be more motivated than this financially, but unfortunately, we don’t have the resources.
We had 2 men join us at the beginning, but we had to lay them off because they were not passionate. Also, they wanted money and we didn’t have it, so when we tell them where we are going, they won’t even bother. So, at some point, we just thought it’s like the women are more into it. Sincerely, I am indebted to my team in so many ways. They love the work they are doing, they are fulfilled doing it, and they would give anything. That’s how passionate they are. Women are justice driven, they will not look away when they see injustice. At that point, last year, we told ourselves, this has to be an all-women organization, and now, all our staff and management are women.
It seems like your team is fighting a very difficult battle against the system. I mean there are so many factors at play in the state of criminal justice; poverty, corruption, etc. How do you navigate all that?
It is as difficult as anything you can think about. I mean it is not even just about poverty. Yes, they do not have the money, however, the government realized that this kind of problem will arise, and that is why the department of legal aid is in existence. I can say that 99% of the Lagos population do not know about the legal aid office in Lagos, their office is somewhere in Ikoyi. Now, the issue is people do not even know they exist, so how are they taking cases? Are these guys even motivated to take on cases? I’ve been to that office a couple of times and I can see how lackadaisical the staff are, I could see how unbothered they are. At the end of the day, it is government work, you will still get your salary at the end of the day. Unfortunately, what the government wanted to achieve, I’m not sure they are achieving it.
Now, the organization is existing; helping the inmate, helping the court, helping the system. The corruption is even worse, it starts from the police station and it ends in the prison and the court is in between. Corruption starts from the police station – someone is being arrested for standing on the road and doing nothing, and the police want to extort. That is most of the cases – the police want to extort you, but because you don’t have money or anything they can extort from you, then they threaten to charge you for any offence that comes to head. You might be lucky, and they give you stealing or wandering, maybe some years back they would give you cultism, but now if they give you cultism, it is a capital offence that is not bailable anymore. I have seen cases where they give you armed robbery that is not even bailable and you will be in prison for heaven knows when.
The police will charge somebody for murder and take the person to magistrate court knowing fully well that the magistrate does not have the jurisdiction to entertain that case, but because they want to remand you. So the magistrate will remand you in prison and tell the police to go and get DPP advice so that the DPP will tell whether this person has a case to answer or not. If he does, the DPP will tell you to charge him to a higher court which is the high court. This one or two statements that I just said can take 2 years to happen and don’t forget that person is behind bars during this period.
If you have ever been to the prison, or you know someone who has been and they tell you their story, you would want to be a part of the team that brings a change to the system. The system is so bad that anybody can be a victim at any time – nobody is safe, especially in urban areas like Lagos and Port Harcourt. It could be anybody, the police don’t care. At the end of the day, this is what the Headfort foundation aims to correct, but it has been tough and we cannot do it all by ourselves, we need all hands on deck.
I’m glad you said that. How can we help?
Many ways. First, if anybody that is ever going to read this is a lawyer, they should remember that our skill is to help humanity. As long as we all want to make money in our craft, we also need to impact lives with our skills. So, I always urge lawyers to render help. Headfort foundation currently has about 95 volunteers across Nigeria, but we need more. People could volunteer for Headfort and any other organization doing the same thing. That way, more cases can be attended to, more lives can be touched, more families can be made happy.
Second, if you are not a lawyer, your resources could also help. There was a time, Headfort foundation was looking to partner with mental health professionals to help ex-inmates as they come out of prison. It isn’t just about getting them out now, we don’t want them to go back there again, so we need to reintegrate them back into society and also empower them because I can tell you that there is no rehabilitation going on in the prisons. So, it’s like they are coming out even worse. As a mental health professional, you can help. You can partner with our organization because we keep a record of our beneficiaries, we have a relationship with them and sometimes we even organize seminars with them just to help them be stable. Some people have been in prison before Uber came out, and now they don’t even know what that is. I know a guy that has been in prison since 2009 and he is still in prison right now.
You can also fund organizations that do this work. You may not have the skills or the time, but your resources can do the work. There is a guy who came out of prison and is going to school (National Open University) sponsored by one of our donors.