Meet Ms Jennifer Oghenewaire Nikoro, a young hardworking Nigerian lady who was able to achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer against all odds in spite of being physically-challenged from birth.
The graduate of Ambrose Ali University (AAU) and the Nigerian Law School in Kano Reveals how she drew strength from disappointments, heartbreaks and other discouraging circumstances to surge forward.
Were you born with a disability?
Yes. I was born like this. I was born without the right forelimb.
Tell us about your childhood experience
I am the third child in a family of six. Only one of us is a male while the rest of us are females. My growing up experience was not so normal, because I could not socialise because of my condition.
I used to be very shy. My peers avoided me while the courageous ones formed a pity party around me. People wrote me off as a result of my disability.
But thank God for my family who was very supportive. They gave me strength. My parents treated every one of us with equal love.
When they allocated duties at home, I had my own responsibility. My mother made sure I was not left out in the house chores.
When I started schooling, I realised that the attention was always on me. In my mind, I thought I was a beauty queen, little did I know that it was because of my condition.
It really made me sad though, because they felt I was not worthy to be in school. They thought that I ought to be at home or in the streets, begging for alms.
What dream did you nurse as a child?
I have always wanted to be a lawyer. My family did tease me as a child that I talked a lot and I liked to win arguments even when it was obvious that I was wrong (laughs). So being a legal practitioner has always been my dream.
Were you able to start school at the right time, considering your condition?
Yes, I started school as and when due. As I said, there are six of us, and every one of us went to school as and when due. But one thing my parents did was that they kept me in one school from nursery to senior secondary.
With that, I was familiar with everyone and everyone was familiar with me; only a little stigmatization from bullies, which to me is normal.
And any new student coming into the school would have to adjust and adapt to the system of me being in the same class as them. Sooner or later, they adapted and we flowed well.
Teachers liked me a lot because I was a very intelligent girl while in secondary school. At a point, I was at the top of my class in terms of grade.
What are the challenges you encountered on your career path?
I encountered many challenges, I must say. Firstly, let me talk about my youth service experience when I was posted to Lagos.
The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) actually posted me to a place of primary assignment (PPA), which I really did not like.
I tried to change it, but to my amazement, I could not get an alternative PPA as I was virtually rejected everywhere I went.
I applied to different law firms, but when I went for interviews, they underrated my capabilities and wondered why I had chosen to go to school when the street is the right place for my type, even though I introduced myself as a lawyer.
Their attention was always on my deformed hand. They asked ridiculous questions like, are you sure you can do this job? Can you type with Microsoft word?
Even when I tried to convince them that I am proficient with Ms Word, Excel or PowerPoint, they found it hard to believe me.
They told me to go home and wait for feedback, only for me to wait in vain. I had to confide in a friend over the situation and she was like, ‘This is Lagos, a commercial city where the labour market is highly competitive.
Nobody will give you a job just like that because they will feel you are not capable due to your condition. And nobody wants to hire someone they will start pitying.’
I went for several interviews but had similar experiences. I was really disturbed because I know I am hard working.
What were some of the biggest barriers you had to break to get to where you are today?
One of the barriers I had to break is not letting my condition affect my mentality. The pity party did not get to me. I don’t like people pitying me. I prefer to show people that I am capable of exceeding their expectation.
I had to break the barrier of being an object of pity. The second barrier I had to break is the fact that society will always tell you who you are; not you telling yourself who you are. I motivated myself with the word of God to do anything.
Do people still stigmatise you within and outside the court premises now that you’re a lawyer?
Tell us about your journey in the law profession
I got my LL.B from Ambrose Ali University (AAU). I later went to the Kano Law School (2017-2018) where I got my BL.
I got called into the Nigerian bar on November 27, 2018. I am two years at the bar now). I recently passed the Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (AcARB) examination.
The certificate will be issued maybe by December at the induction ceremony date which is not yet fixed. I am also an Associate Member at the Chartered Institute of Mediator and Conciliators in Nigeria (ICMC).
The move to broaden my horizon was borne out of the stigmatization I face due to my disability. People tend to intimidate my sense of worth in the labour market as Lagos is a competitive environment and only the strong get going. I wanted a better life for myself; I did not want my disability to tie me down.
After I applied for mediation at ICMC, I got a job at a law firm in Lagos. But It was not enough for me because I wanted to have a successful career.
I applied again at the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators to become an arbitrator, which is a recent application I made and I passed the exams.
I really want to be relevant in my society so I can advocate for people who are disabled. I also want to develop myself and become an expert in my field, so that people will no longer doubt me.
I still want to go further, get my master’s degree abroad if I am opportune. I also want to become a human rights lawyer. At the same time, I want to own an NGO.
Generally, Law is tasking: the reason one has to be up and doing. Even those with two arms and two legs are not finding it easy, not to talk of someone with a disability.
But with determination, nothing is impossible. Coping with the stress as a disabled person has not been that easy but for my determination, which has been my stronghold.
That has taken me through the discrimination I have always encountered in the field and currently facing. I believe I am not a mistake on this earth, for I believe God has a plan for me and such a plan must come to pass.
I most times follow my principal to court on contentious matters, and the only times I appear alone is on moving applications in court, which every young lawyer does. I often times wear my artificial hand, which is called prosthetic hand.
What can you do?
I can type. I am proficient with Microsoft word and conversant with Excel. I type my briefs myself.
What are your hobbies?
Sharing God’s word, advocacy, writing, reading, travelling and swimming. I also like to bake a cake in my free time. I cook my food too and I also do my laundry all by myself and without any external support. I live alone.
Have there been times people tried to take advantage of you as a result of your disability?
People price me less because of my disability. Those who offer to give me a job when they see me oftentimes want to cut down the salary because they feel I have no choice and I cannot do much for them.
Are there things you think your deformity has robbed you of?
Apparently, many things. I may not remember all, but I know that at so many points, I felt depressed. People don’t want to associate with someone with a disability.
They feel you are not part of this world. Some people see you as a second class citizen. They feel you are not equal to them and you are less human.
For instance, when I was in university, I could not mingle with the high-class girls. Sometimes I would not want to come out of my hostel because I realised I had become popular for my disability, as people describe me with it.
In 2012, I was so excited with the hopes of travelling abroad. My parents wanted to renew their passports’ so they decided to take everyone along with the intention of renewing theirs and obtaining one for each of us.
Upon arrival, my parents immediately did the needful. They paid the official fee. In less than an hour after payments were made and documentations were finalised, we were called one after the other for fingerprint impression and facial-biometric.
When it was time for me to be captured, on getting into the capturing room, proudly seated, the officer in charge politely beckoned to my dad and said to him, ‘I’m sorry sir, but your daughter cannot be captured here in Benin; she has to go to Abuja for a fingerprint bye-pass, and such cannot be done in Benin.’
Truth be told, everyone in my family did their biometrics and had their passport that same day. I was the only one who went back without a passport.
Sometimes, it is no fun being disabled, I must say. Life beyond disability is for those who understand their difference and choose to live life through it.
What has your experience been with men, especially finding true love and acceptance?
I once had a guy who asked me out but I told him I was not interested. Despite pressure from him, I still maintained my stance.
Then he called me one day and angrily told me he was only trying to manage me but I was not yielding to his advances.
According to him, he only pitied and wanted to do me a favour by dating me. He then told me he was sure no other man would marry me since I didn’t accept him.
Well, I actually turned down the guy because as a Christian, I believe in the doctrine of Christian morality, the doctrine of the faith.
Happily for me, I was actually praying about it even when I said no, but his reaction just showed that it was not God’s will that we should be together. You don’t intimidate someone into marriage.
I had a similar experience with another guy. We were flowing together, trying to see if we could bond. We were actually at the initial stage and I was thinking with time, things would get serious with us, only for him to call me one day, telling me he did not think his mother would be able to accept me. Immediately he said so, it actually got me down.
I was like what do you mean, but I already got the code. I didn’t even want him to continue because I knew it was due to my condition.
He later told me to hang around to see if he would be able to convince his parents, but I wasn’t the one to hang around; I had to move on with my life. That was how we parted ways.
I also get to see men who admire me, but at the end of it all would go after somebody else, maybe a friend of mine.
Such is life though, and I have outgrown that, because one thing about my Christian faith is that I believe when it is my time, it is my time.
I will never out of pressure or my condition submit to anything or everything.
What is wrong is wrong, I won’t out of pressure do what is ungodly or what I know would affect me in the end, either in relationship or marriage. Marriage is by choice.
At the same time, you don’t pity to marry. I don’t want any man to marry me out of sympathy but love. It is better to be single and happy than to be married and unhappy.
Besides, my parents have never put any pressure on me to get married. They’re after my development so that at the end, I will be the one selecting men, not men selecting me.
What advice do you have for people facing challenges?
I will advise them to believe in themselves, trust in God to make everything alright. Anyone can succeed at anything once you put your mind to work at self-development.
With hard work and the favour of God, you can become anything you have ever dreamt of.