DSS Raids: Managing Fallout May be More Challenging than Actual Raids

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From litigation to banking, legal journalism and back to litigation, she has left her mark in all her professional endeavours. Reaching the pinnacle of law practice for most female lawyers is a feat that can only be dreamt of, but Ms. Funke Aboyade, SAN who was elevated to the rank in 2013, is privileged to be amongst the very few female Senior Advocates of Nigeria who have taken silk, just 20 since its inception in 1975. In a chat with Onikepo Braithwaite, Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi, Aboyade who many describe as the Christiane Amanpour of Nigerian legal journalism was at her best, as she spoke with candour about recent developments in the polity and the legal profession, including the midnight raid on judge’s homes, the Chibok girls and #TheOtherRoom…

You belong to the privileged few female lawyers, who have earned their way into the Inner Bar. Many have expressed concern over the dismally low number of female Senior Advocates. What, in your view, could be responsible for this paucity of female lawyers, in the Inner Bar? How can this trend be reversed? Do you believe that you faced more challenges than the men in becoming a SAN?

Indeed, there are just 20 female Senior Advocates out of 451 elevated to the rank since inception in 1975 and I’m grateful to God that I am one of the privileged few. Women typically have attained the rank at a later stage in their career than their male counterparts. The reasons are not farfetched, somewhere along the line after your call to bar life, well, happens. The work-life balance for women is more challenging, especially for those who are or have been married or have children. I had similar challenges as I had a marriage that did not work out and two children who were fully my responsibility.

In my 1983 set at the Nigerian Law School for instance, Yusuf Olaolu Ali was the first to take silk in 1997. By the end of the ‘90s, other classmates like Antony Idigbe, Eyimofe Atake and Demola Akinrele had also taken silk. I took silk in 2013, at God’s appointed time. I am thus far, the only female member of my set to take silk out of about 21of us who have since attained the rank.

I began law practice at the firm of Fani-Kayode and Sowemimo where my colleagues included Abba Kyari now Chief of Staff to the President, Seyi Sowemimo now a Senior Advocate, Niyi Ademola now a judge of the Federal High Court and Femi Lijadu now a partner in one of the top law firms. My principals were Chief Remi Fani-Kayode QC, SAN and Chief Sobo Sowemimo SAN both of blessed memory.

I ventured into banking and was Company Secretary/Legal Adviser at one of the merchant banks before returning to law practice but unable to undertake much litigation due to the work-life balance I mentioned earlier.

I then ventured into legal journalism before returning to active litigation and law practice whilst continuing with the law pages purely as a passion and hobby.

That was my trajectory. It will of course differ for others. That said, I did not face more challenges than my male colleagues in attaining the rank. I hardly thought about myself as female. In any event, the criteria for silk is the same for male and female. You simply have to make the grade to attain it.

For female lawyers who aspire to the rank perhaps it may be helpful to have female role models.

At the University of Ibadan where I spent most of my childhood were Chief Folake Solanke, who went on to become the first female SAN, Chief Phoebe Chiadikobi Ajayi-Obe SAN, and Mrs. Bola Williams, now Mrs. Akinjide SAN,who went on to be the second and fourth female lawyers respectively to attain the rank. They were, for me, exemplars.

Today, the Nigerian economy is officially in recession, and the masses are the worst hit. What would be your suggestions as a quick-fix panacea to come out of the present economic doldrums?

I was, and still am, one of President Buhari’s ardent supporters even from previous elections and I gave of my time and resources, financial and legal, to campaign in my own little way for him. I however do not blindly support anyone and have never done; where there are missteps or risk of derailment it is my duty to speak out. I’m amused no end by the so-called wailing wailers and hailing hailers and their vicious social media spats. They miss the point entirely. This is not about the adoration or deification, or not, of one man.

I’m not an Economist and do not pretend to be one. That said, I think some things are commonsensical. Even if one cuts the President some slack in that he inherited a grossly depleted treasury and foreign reserves, coupled with the mind boggling looting of public funds which is even now still being unraveled and the crash in crude oil prices soon after he assumed office, his tardiness in constituting an economic team and a cabinet – a cabinet he, whilst on a foreign visit, curiously described as noisemakers even before constituting them – thus failing to hit the ground running also contributed to the sorry pass in which we now find ourselves.

For someone who had sought this office four consecutive times one would have thought he would, by the time he finally attained it, have had finely honed ideas about how to get things moving, irrespective of whether the situation he was confronted with was much worse than he’d expected.

The president has demonstrated a pattern of taking his time to come round to making the painful decisions required to move things forward, thus inadvertently inflicting hurt without assurance that it is now enough to deliver long term benefits.

This I think is as a result of an inflexible mindset which has also, quite regrettably, resisted private sector participation in and therefore the unquantifiable value they might add to the economic team.

The quick-fix panacea as you put it, begins with the president. He must consciously develop less rigid attitudes in respect of the economy.

His legacy may ultimately depend on how the economy performs rather than the fight against corruption or the insecurity in the North East and Niger Delta which are laudable too. However, he’s well into the first half of his term and there’s not much time left.

It would give me no pleasure were the President to fail.

How do you rate the economic policies of the Government of President Buhari after almost 18 months in office? There are arguments that, if anything, the indices that are used to measure positive development in a country are negative. For instance, crime and unemployment are on the rise, the Naira is at an all-time low against the Pound Sterling and Dollar, GDP growth rate has also been on the decline for at least the past 2 quarters.

I think my answer to your previous question addresses this one. The President simply put, needs to step up his game. The buck stops at his table. While the foundation for the current recession may well have indeed been laid by acts of commission or omission of the previous government, he should keep it moving and get us out of it. That’s why we elected him.

On 13/10/16, 21 girls out of over 200 Chibok girls were released by Boko Haram after over 900 days in captivity. Do you see this as a worthwhile achievement by this Government? Do you think Government is adopting the right approach to bringing the girls back? If not, what other steps would you advice Government to take to ensure the safe and speedy return of the rest of the Chibok girls?

Of course, whether 1 or 21 girls, it’s a worthwhile achievement! These are real individuals with real lives. Imagine if it were to be your child; and I speak from a position of perhaps having personal experience of such trauma, I know what the parents went through.

I celebrate the release of these 21 girls as well as the rescue of one of them some months back. My prayer is that they will all be released or rescued alive and well.

I watched the reunion of the girls with their parents during the Thanksgiving service held for them in Abuja. I must have watched it countless times, back to back. And no matter how often I watched it, I shed tears. So yes, it’s a worthwhile achievement by government.

As to whether they’re adopting the right approach my thoughts are that government needs to engage and communicate more effectively with the citizenry, particularly the #BBOG group which has done a stellar job of keeping government’s feet to the fire.It’s a great disservice to Dr. Oby Ezekwesili and her group to now portray them as the enemy and mete out the shabby treatment we’ve been seeing on TV to them. The truth is that but for them this country would have long moved on and conveniently forgotten about our Chibok girls. I salute their tenacity even in the face of provocation, ridicule, intimidation, discouragement and threats since inception of their advocacy till date.

This government may have good intentions but must do a better job of communicating and demonstrating these intentions with a generous dose of empathy and back them up with tangible results. Thank God we are beginning to see those results. I rejoice with those parents who are still alive to see their children return and I look forward to the rescue or release of the remainder. I salute President Buhari for walking his talk about bringing the girls home.

It’s not for me to give advice to or micromanage government on how to ensure the safe and speedy return of the other girls in captivity. There may be security dynamics we are not privileged to know about.

Do you think that the recent DSS raids and arrests of Justices and Judges was in order? Some have said that if the Judges are corrupt they must be brought to book by any means available. That this move by Government against the Judges will go a long way to bringing some order to the legal profession and the judiciary. Others, like the NBA, argue that due process was not followed and Government displayed a blatant disregard for the rule of law with the DSS exercise. Which school of thought do you belong to? Why?

The arguments for and against the legality of DSS’ actions, including the weigh-in and justification by the presidency, are already in the public domain and it’s unhelpful if I adopt one or the other. What should agitate our minds is how we descended into this self-inflicted abyss. And, more importantly, how do we get out? There was a time when our Judges were literally seen as gods. I remember my good friend, Yemi Candide-Johnson SAN whose father was Chief Judge of Lagos State, some years back regaling me with stories of how pedestrians actually removed their shoes and tiptoed across the gate when passing a judge’s house!

I need not belabour the fact therefore that judges were once held in the highest esteem and their importance to the very fabric of society and of course, the justice delivery sector was not to be trifled with.

In this county too, not that many years ago, a judge’s salary was more than that of the CBN Governor.

That said, the fight against corruption in the Judiciary is a laudable one. I recall that Aloma Mukhtar CJN almost made it a mantra and tried to draw attention to it and warn of the dangers ahead. Well, the rest is now history unfolding.

The question now is: assuming the raids were legally justifiable were they expedient? As we know, and as even the Scriptures say, everything is lawful but not everything is expedient. 1st Corinthians 10:23, ‘All things are lawful but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful but not all things edify’.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. There’s great wisdom in the Federal Government exploring those other ways. The Department of State Services claim they have video, CCTV and other electronic and banking evidence of some of these alleged acts of corruption.

It was unnecessary to demean and humiliate their person and in turn their offices thus further eroding the confidence of the public in the institution.

You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. DSS’ permutations that the judges would be suspended by NJC the only body constitutionally empowered to do so, thereby allowing them to immediately and conveniently arraign them have not quite panned out. The risk also is that other judges, sufficiently intimidated by recent events and or mindful of their dignity and integrity, may recuse themselves from hearing any cases or appeals involving DSS or any of the security agencies for fear of harassment. Managing the fallout of the raids may be more challenging for DSS than the actual raids themselves.

We have upright judges in the system who have now been unfairly tarnished with the same brush. The narrative that the entire or most of the Judiciary is corrupt is untrue, unhelpful and unfair to them. The judges who were arrested will have their day in court. Whether or not they’re exonerated the damage has already been done to them and the judiciary.

Sting operations do not necessarily have to involve jackboots.

That said, I agree with my old lecturer Prof. Itse Sagay, SAN and retired Supreme Court Justice, Samson Uwaifo that corrupt judges are a menace to society and such judges should be prosecuted and if convicted the law be allowed to take its course.

Some of the Judges that were recently raided and arrested are said to have resumed work and started sitting this week. Comment on the propriety of their actions.

They are innocent until proven guilty. In so far as they have not been suspended by NJC nothing stops them from sitting. Whether this is wise or will inspire the confidence of the litigating public and of counsel is however an entirely different matter. Indeed, they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Last Thursday’s call by the NBA that they recuse themselves from further judicial functions until their innocence is fully established may offer them a dignified way out this dilemma.

You are one Nigerian lawyer who for over 16 years has consistently attended the annual conferences of the International Bar Association, even when the venue is at the furthest location. While many have complained that the IBA is more of a bazaar for Nigerian lawyers, some like you, have without fail continued to attend. What are Nigerian lawyers missing from IBA conferences? How can the participation of Nigerian lawyers, be made more profitable for their local practice?

Indeed, from Argentina to New Zealand and all the countries in between I have participated in IBA, as well as Commonwealth Lawyers Association, conferences over the past two decades. The advantages are many. Capacity building, networking, keeping up with global legal trends – for instance I first learnt about the so-called Tesco law firms at such conferences, the opportunity to interact with those who shape the news or are in fact the news. I remember Madeleine McCann’s dad being on a panel at one of such conferences; my heart bled for him. It was also at one of such conferences I ran into and interviewed CNN’s Christian Amanpour.

Benefitting from those conferences depends on what your focus is and whether you’re there to learn, soak in new cultures, make new friends and cement old friendships, see how other lawyers in other jurisdictions run their law practice and learn how other judicial systems work effectively or whether you want to go on a shopping spree as happened when the conference held in Dubai a few years ago.

Happily, the incidence of attendance at such conferences by lawyers who have less than bona fide intentions many of whom were in all probability not paying their own way has greatly reduced with the advent of recession and cost cutting. At this year’s conference in Washington DC Nigeria had, thankfully, a modest delegation and did not attract the negative attention it had sometimes garnered at previous conferences.

You were a trail blazer in legal journalism as the pioneer Editor and creator of THISDAY LAWYER. What is your assessment of this genre of journalism presently? In print and electronic formats, have law newspapers effectively serviced the legal industry? What improvements would you suggest?

I had absolutely no knowledge of or training in journalism when I accepted the challenge by THISDAY Publisher, Nduka Obaigbena, to take charge of the law section. I was in legal practice, had my own chambers and wanted desperately to learn and keep abreast of legal issues, but what I did know was that wading weekly through one or two dry pages – such as they were – in a couple of national newspapers was tedious, boring and uninspiring. Whenever I travelled abroad I would read the law section of The Times of London and marvel at the stark contrast. Remember, these were the pre-internet days.

Happily, the Publisher gave me free rein and with my vivid imagination coupled with the support of other senior editors with whom I soon developed a camaraderie, I daresay a revolution in legal law reporting was born.

What then happened was that other newspapers sat up and took notice and pretty soon almost every newspaper worth its salt had a weekly law robust section. This was not limited to the print media as the electronic media also joined the train. Law magazines also quickly sprang up.

We very quickly became the go-to medium to learn, debate, disseminate or indeed feel the pulse of the Nigerian legal profession. But it wasn’t all knowledge, sometimes we veered into the softer or perhaps, the other, side of the law. I remember for instance, a Valentine’s Day Special we had in which we featured couples who are lawyers. And yet another, a Christmas Edition inwhich our cover story was of the Nigerian version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Sometimes we featured lawyers who had gone on to other ventures. Bolanle Austen-Peters for instance, who runs the highly acclaimed Terra Kulture and has produced many musicals and now films. Uche Nwokedi SAN whose passion outside the courtroom includes producing musicals. There were golfing Justices and badminton-loving ones. During a discussion with Justice Sola Oguntade (JSC retired) whilst he still sat at the Court of Appeal Lagos he had mentioned golfing which I’d promptly declared boring. He persuaded me to come along on his next golfing expedition. I did and was sold. A cover story resulted. A similar scenario played out with Justice Sulaiman Galadima (JSC who recently retired) regarding badminton. There was the sax-playing governor, Donald Duke. So we had many such covers. We were able to show that lawyers and judges were not after all the stiff, dull, insipid and unapproachable lot the public often assumed them to be.

Provocatively, we once ran a major story on an LGBT female Nigerian lawyer, a transgender Nigerian young man and a gay Nigerian pastor who founded a church for gays, for which I received a lot of hate mail.

We had a Travelawg in which I chronicled in a humorous way my travels to far flung places. My most memorable ones include my son’s encounter with a grizzly in Vancouver, my experience of Hurricane Irene in Turks and Caicos and a legal claim I instituted in Singapore and which was resolved in just one day.

We covered international conferences and litigation from New Zealand to the Americas.

We covered many human interest angle stories; I shared their pain. The young medical doctor in Ibadan who died at childbirth leaving two children including the baby behind. I sat with her sister who’s a lawyer and the rest of her family, all professionals. They alleged medical negligence. The married lawyer in an abusive marriage who had finally gathered the courage to call it a day, and so on.

We discovered practising lawyers who wrote great poetry with a legal slant and those who wrote witty courtroom jokes, as well as our columnists Rookie Lawyer, Pedestrian Lawyer, Oily Briefs, The Unstarched Collar, even Eaglet lawyer and many more.

I wrote a weekly column, The Wig & Skirt, where no topic was sacrosanct and where I often spoke truth to power.

We always, always pushed the envelope and defined our own boundaries. I enjoyed every minute of it. And it made me a better and enriched practising lawyer.

For the over 13 years I was Editor I’m both extremely humbled and proud to say that we remained unbeaten and were the industry standard.

That said, it is not for me to say whether the law pages of newspapers are now effectively servicing the profession nor indeed to proffer suggestions for improvement, suffice to say it’s not something you can do successfully if you’re not creative or lack imagination or even the zest to learn and work hard. And also that there’s always room for improvement.

I believe I lit the flame, it remains for others to run with it and keep it burning.

President Muhammadu Buhari recently stated that his wife, Aisha, belongs to his kitchen, his living room and the other room. What is your opinion of this statement? Do you find the statement derogatory, with regard to the President’s perception of what a woman’s role is? Do you think women have been given as much recognition as they should be given in this Government?

Though he appeared to double down on those comments when subsequently interviewed by a Deutsche Welle journalist one hopes that the president has since realised the egregious nature of his comments which included his claim to superiority. The irony of course was that he made those comments standing right beside one of the world’s most powerful political leaders of one of the world’s largest industrialised democracies and who just happens to be female.

I remember one of my flat mates, Evamaria, during my time at Cambridge. She was proudly Bavarian. I learnt a lot about Germany from her. She told me that after a certain age, every German female takes the title Mrs. irrespective of whether or not they’re married so as not to face discrimination or societal pressures because of marital status. I thought that very instructive. Fast forward 32 years and the democratic president of the most populous black nation on earth and an emerging economy makes those unguarded statements in that same country.

In my view, he misspoke and his comments were condescending, patronising and unhelpful because they tended to reinforce negative cultural and religious mindsets about the place of women in our society.

I doubt though that he intended these unfortunate consequences and fallout. The president really needs to learn how to give much more measured responses to issues. He must never forget he’s a statesman and our number one marketer or salesman. Agreeing with David Cameron whilst on a UK visit for instance that we’re fantastically corrupt was unhelpful. So was the public put down of his wife especially abroad, irrespective of the wisdom of her decision to voice her concerns and the furore this had generated. All he has succeeded in doing is creating boundless opportunities and fodder for memes and other social media jokes on #TheOtherRoom, as well as fueling suspicion that all might not be well in his household.

Have women been given their due in this government? I think not. It compares unfavourably with the previous dispensation. Touting the fact that the Finance Ministry is after all headed by a woman is neither here nor there. What percentage of other critical and substantive ministries or agencies are currently headed by women?