‘Barriers Shouldn’t Exist in African Legal Community’


The diversity the African Continent presents, also transcends the legal profession, where three distinct jurisdictions are in operation, Common Law, Civil Law and Islamic Law. In the face of these seeming legal and also language barriers, the Bar Associations and Law Societies of the Continent’s 54 countries, have managed to come together to tackle the Continent’s sociopolitical, legal and economic challenges. The African Bar Association (AFBA), has provided an umbrella platform, to seek to address the various challenges in its member states. Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi spoke with the AFBA President, Mr. Hannibal Uwaifo, on how the body which was founded in 1971, has fared so far since its resuscitation in 2013. He also expressed concern over the growing impunity across African countries, and how AFBA can be of assistance

In the past few years, there have been reports of rising human rights abuses across African countries. What is your continental Association of lawyers doing about this?

The African Bar Association (AFBA) was formed in 1971 as the “Fearless voice of the Legal Profession”, and between that time and when it went dormant in 1999, Human and People’s Rights was at the centre of its activities.

Since it was revived in 2014, Human Rights has remained our priority. We have even added Women, Children and Minority Rights.

Reports of Human Rights violations in our Continent, are very rampant and frightening. Since the Association does not have weapons to fight the Government, and individuals that perpetuate these crimes, we have evolved a method of making those involved, to get properly educated about their duties and obligations to those they injure by violating their rights in all circumstances. In some cases, we have intervened directly to release detained individuals by entering into dialogue. In other deserving cases, we have used our legal team to get justice, using the judicial process.

All in all, the African Bar believes that more education and good governance, will help in eradicating abuse of Human Rights.

It seems that many African Governments and their agencies, do not seem to have regard for the rule of law or obey court orders. Take Nigeria for example, despite the courts granting bail to the former NSA, Rtd Col Sambo Dasuki and Sheik El Zakzaky and his wife, they still remain in custody. How can we change this narrative in Nigeria and indeed, Africa?

The rule of Law is the bedrock of modern civilisation. Good leadership and good governance, begins with the observance of the rule of law. The rule of law presupposes that everyone, the Governors and the Governed, are under and subservient to the principles of law as enshrined in the various Constitutions and other laws, made for the good and orderly administration of the affairs of each Country. It encompasses the principles of Natural Justice. Everyone is equal before the Law, including the Government and any citizen affected by State action, has a right to seek redress before properly constituted Judiciary and whose independence is secured. The rule of law, also encourages the principles of separation of powers between the Executive, the Judiciary and Legislature. The three functions, in a division of labour manner to form a single Government, not three separate Governments, as most political office holders may want us to believe.

These rules, are enshrined in the various Constitutions and Laws of African States. However, for most, the practice is in the negative. We have cases of flagrant disobedience of Court orders, by agencies of Government. This negative practice is bad governance, and is not restricted to Nigeria alone.

At our Rebirth Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe in 2016, issues of the violations of the principles of the rule of law by several Governments across the Continent came to the fore-burner at the plenary session. Zimbabwe, the host Country was cited. Nigeria, Egypt, Congo, Cameroun, Burundi, Gambia and some other Countries, were also indicated. Zimbabwe made some changes.

Our general approach, is to deeply investigate these negative behaviours, and advice Governments and their agencies to comply. We did advice Nigeria and we recorded a measure of success, and have been given the assurances that Government will not violate Court orders. We were also assured by the judicial authorities, that incidences of conflicting Court judgements and corruption, will be addressed. To us in AFBA, I believe the judicial authorities in Nigeria are presently doing the right things, although there is still a long way to go.

The cases of Col. Sambo Dasuki and the religious Leader, El Zakzaky, are somewhat difficult to understand, I see a measure of politics in them, but Court orders must be obeyed, while the Government sorts out the politics politically.

I therefore, call on the Government of Nigeria to release these Citizens who are now captives, since they have been ordered released. Government has a right to continue to pursue the cases against them, and that is when they can get public understanding.

Africa can only change in the positive direction of the Citizens, wake up to their responsibility of asking their Governments to account. At present, we play politics with everything. Condemn when it suits us and praise when it suits us. Ethics and religious colorations are seen in everything. There is no Yoruba or Ibo Human rights. There are no Kenyan or Congolese Human Rights. Human right is Human right the world over.

Southern Cameroun seems to be boiling, and many innocent citizens have been clamped in detention, including the Vice President of the African Bar Association. We understand that this has arisen from the demand by Southern Cameroun, for bilingual status, being an English speaking section of the country. What steps has AFBA taken to ensure that your Vice President is released from detention and peace returns to the region?

The issue of Southern Cameroun is very pathetic, and anytime we sit to discuss the matter, everyone is filled with rage.

Cameroun is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples rights. The Constitution of Cameroun provides for a bi-lingual state. Under that Constitution, the State is under obligation to guarantee the rights of all Citizens, whatever language they speak or creed they profess. The right to free assembly and peaceable protest is guaranteed.

For a very long time, the people of Southern Cameroun have been treated as second class Citizens in their own Country. They are denied basic rights. They are frequently discriminated against, because they don’t speak French, the language of France, Cameroun’s Colonial Master. Common Law Legal System is what applies to Southern Cameroun, which is English speaking while the part of the Country that chose to speak French, practice Civil Law. The attempt to impose Civil Law on the English speaking people of Cameroun amongst the various illegalities and human rights abuses by the Cameroun Government, led to a general protest by the people and a strike which paralysed all activities in Southern Cameroun. Lawyers, Teachers, Traders, Captains of Industry, Politicians, Judges, Magistrates, everybody went on the protest which was ably led by Mr. Felix Nkongho, the Vice President (Central Africa) of the AFBA and President of the English Speaking Lawyers in Cameroun.

The Government of President Paul Biya, who has been in power in Cameroun now for more than thirty-eight (38) years, responded with acts of oppression, intimidation and in a Gestapo-like manner, unleashed security agents on innocent and defenceless citizens. Some were murdered in cold blood, others were maimed, beaten black and blue. Judges of superior Courts, Magistrates Lawyers were arrested, tortured and are languishing in jail.

Our Vice President, Felix Nkongho, was tricked into believing that the Government wanted a peaceful solution to the crises, and when he showed up, he was beaten up thoroughly and clamped into detention since January, 2017. Now he is facing a military tribunal on trumped up charges of Treason and other offences, that carry the death penalty.

For protests which started in October 2016, we had thought that the Cameroun Government will be responsible enough to engage its aggrieved Citizens and the stand-off, but no, the situation is getting worse. We have been appealing to the Cameroun Government to act wisely and responsibly.

We have engaged the authorities of France, who have influence on President Biya and his Government, and other notable world Leaders and Institutions. We have done practically everything humanly possible to help Cameroun normalise, but like the proverbial dog destined to get lost, the Government of Cameroun isn’t listening. France has done practically nothing to check its appointee, President Biya. We are going to move to the next stage, but I won’t tell you here now, what it is, but it will shock the Cameroun Government and its Colonial Master, France. France lives and enjoys European freedom, it preaches democracy.

We appeal once again to the Cameroun Government to have a re-think and France and other well-meaning world Leaders and Institutions, to prevail on Cameroun to release Mr. Felix Nkongho and all detained Citizens, and immediately embrace dialogue. AFBA, will be willing to join the process.

The Nigerian Army, recently reported that it has set up human rights centres around the country, to handle human rights abuse cases, involving military personnel. AFBA has indicated its intention to engage in this initiative. What kind of involvement can we expect from your Association, and on what specific issues, apart from the reports of victims of Boko Haram suspects?

What the Nigerian Army has done is very commendable, and I urge all other security agencies in Nigeria and other Countries in Africa, to emulate this. I thank the authorities for believing and acting on the tenets of Democracy, as this leads to Good Governance. The matter was discussed at the plenary of our 2017 Annual Conference, which recently ended in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria.

AFBA would like to engage the Nigerian Army and the Armed Forces, to see that the Human Rights desks set up outside the Barracks are independent and have all the tools to function, not just to set up a desk. The desks must be manned by qualified personnel and its activities, investigations and solutions, must be carried out methodically to the satisfaction of Nigerians and the International Community. The AFBA has the technical know-how, and knows the issues at stake. We would like to assist the Army, and also be in position to advice or defend them when the time comes.

General Buratai and his Lieutenants, should be commended for taking this first bold step.

AFBA recently took the position that many African countries have, through unnecessary stringent policies, hampered businesses on the African continent, which discourages the inflow of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). Issues that AFBA highlighted include amongst others, poor transportation infrastructure, bad and corrupt customs departments, denial of visas to foreigners without cogent reasons, etc. How can this be ameliorated?

As the fearless voice of the Legal Profession in Africa, and one that understands the need to have a Continent that can compete with other Continents as a way to prosperity, we understand that there is unnecessary poverty in the midst of plenty.

This is due to bad governance, lack of strong institutions, abuse of human rights, corruption, nepotism, redtapism, slow judicial process and so on and so forth. Add all this to our self-imposed blockades like visa, lack of co- ordinated air, road and rail connections. We have uncoordinated Customs and Immigration rules, poor infrastructure, poor planning. We are suffering in the midst of plenty. While all the roads, air and rail are open in Europe, Asia and America, we are here protecting fiefdoms and serfdoms. An Asian or European Citizen, can walk through the U.S, Canada, Europe and Asia with a single visa or a single passport. And we are busy issuing funny visas here and there, and collecting bribes at borders, and we say Africa is the Continent of the future. That is a big lie and self deceit. While the slogan is true, we must work hard for it.

While Heads of States in Africa enter their private jets and fly to A.U and U.N meetings, it is practically impossible for their citizens to get connecting flights to destinations across the Continent. When we intervened in the Gambian Crisis, to return to Lagos became a problem when Arik stopped flying. We had to spend 15hrs in Casablanca, Morocco, to get connected to Lagos. We have to change these things. AFBA is thinking for Africa and we are also proffering solutions.

You chose Port Harcourt, Nigeria as the venue of the recently concluded AFBA 2017 Conference themed “Overcoming The Legal Challenges of Doing Business In Africa”. Nigeria especially, seems not only to have legal challenges of doing business, but may be generally a more difficult place to do business than for example, Zambia. Being from Nigeria in particular, how do you think we can overcome the legal challenges of doing business here? What do you think of Nigeria’s new Ease of Doing Business drive? Is it making any difference to FDIs in Nigeria? What other steps do you believe that Nigeria can take to attract FDIs?

I believe the Nigerian Government is taking steps in the right direction, with the Executive orders given to ease of doing business in Nigeria. These steps will definitely paint Nigeria in a good light.

Other Countries like Tanzania, Egypt, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Togo, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire have taken similar steps. Zambia is also getting it right. What we need to do is to synergise, work on the bureaucratic structures, build capacity, promote competition, build on our micro-economic successes, reduce taxes, open our borders, reform our judicial systems, kill and bury corruption in all its facets. If we do these, FDIs will flow in and can be sustained.

Port-Harcourt was very beautiful, and the Conference could not have been held in a better place. We thank Governor Nyesom Wike for his support. Everybody enjoyed themselves and contrary to rumour mongers, Port- Harcourt is safe, sound and secure. The sparkle of the Garden City has returned.

Your Association has expressed concerns over judicial corruption across the continent. Several arrests and dismissal of judges were made in Nigeria and Ghana. What is the situation in other African countries, and what ideas is AFBA bringing into the fight against judicial corruption?

The judiciary is a constitutional institution, and problems affecting it must be addressed within that context.

Let me first of all say that AFBA salutes Judges and other judicial officers, who continue to do their jobs courageously, in accordance with their oath of office. There are very many Judges in this category. There are also some very bad ones, who are soiling the image and good work of the Judiciary.

The Judiciary in Africa has real problems. We can’t hide from it. While I agree that we must be careful not to bring down this all important organ of the ancient and modern world, the position of AFBA is that corrupt judicial officials, must be fished out and severely punished, no shielding, no rhetorics. They must go down with their accomplices in the legal profession, no stories. If a Judge condescends to the level of collecting bribes and living in opulence, I don’t believe he should be invited nicely, wear tie and come to an air conditioned room to explain. The place to explain is at the Police Station. Like every other Citizens, Judges are not above the Law. They should not be given any preferential treatment, if they desecrate the altar of justice. However, due process must be followed. Short cuts are not allowed, like every one of us, they also have rights. Media trials are very unhelpful.

At the level of AFBA, we are working on a document that will be helpful to Governments across the Continent. We will need to look at the structures, access to justice, recruitment, slow judicial process and so on.

What can AFBA do about the plight of young lawyers with regard to poor remuneration and welfare?

The issue of young Lawyers, is a very touchy issue amongst the leadership of AFBA. Young Lawyers in many parts of the Continent are poorly paid and their work conditions are not clear. Yet, the economic situation is challenging.

These young Lawyers, are also expected to conduct themselves in the best tradition of the Bar. Dress nicely and neatly. How can they command the respect they so richly deserve? This is the paradox.

Our position at the AFBA, is that National Legal Associations must face this matter squarely, we must methodically engage our colleagues and their concerns. We had a very beautiful young Lawyers Session, at our 2017 Annual Conference which just ended in Port-Harcourt. Various solutions were proposed, and they are currently being processed by the Young Lawyers Forum. I believe we should wait for them to conclude and make recommendations, then we can add ours.

What is the relationship of AFBA with other regional bodies like the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), West African Bar Association (WABA), AHADA, etc?

The African Bar Association will like to have cordial relations with all regional bodies and Bar Associations.

The Pan African Union, is a body of Lawyers that have done well for themselves and the aims they seek to project. You will notice that of recent, some individuals who claim to be associated with them, have made it a past time to say negative things about AFBA. Our irrepressible Chairman of the Governing Council, Joseph B. Daudu, SAN, has publicly stated our position.

However, I want to add that, PALU is not a replacement or a successor of the African Bar Association. That is a fallacy and an irresponsible joke. The AFBA went to sleep as a result of several regrettable issues which the last President, Mr. Charles Idehen has spoken extensively about. You can interview him. The last known full meeting of the African Bar Association was held in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Myself and the likes of Chief Ofulue, former Chairman, NBA Lagos, Late Mr. Akinola Aina also former NBA, Lagos Chair, Chief Kunle Uthman, Late Mr. Obi Okwusogu, Chief Richard Ohanaruogho, to mention a few attended from Nigeria. I remember that the present President of Ghana, Mr. Nana Akufo-Ado also attended. Mr. Josef Joof of Gambia was Vice President to Mr. Idehen, he presided because Mr. Idehen could not make the meeting due to some circumstances beyond his control. After this, Mr. Idehen never authorised any meeting again, and none was even held anywhere in Africa until 2011, when the move to resuscitate the Association began in Kampala, Uganda and I was there in 2014 at the Annual Conference of the IBA, Mr. Idehen wrote to all Lawyers present on the need to re-start the African Bar Association. This was followed through till September, 2015 when an interim Executive Council was formed in Dar es Salam, Tanzania. The Council was later confirmed at the maiden stakeholders meeting held in Abuja in 2016, and the Executive Council elected a Governing Council with Mr. J.B. Daudu, SAN of Nigeria, as Chairman. I, having earlier been elected President. The then Vice President of the Tangayika Law Society, Mrs. Flavania Charles became Secretary-General and so on. Since then, we have moved on, held the maiden Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe and recently in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. Next year, the African Bar Association Annual Conference, will be staged in Nairobi, Kenya.

I need to add that Mr. Idehen, the last elected President of the AFBA, came forward and handed all properties of AFBA to me and similarly handed over to J.B. Daudu, SAN as Chairman of Council, since Mr. Idehen was also former Chairman of Council.

For the record, we want PALU to exist in its own right, and pursue its own programmes. AFBA will encourage them. It is just that, some misguided individuals amongst them, need to stop making irresponsible remarks about African Bar Association, AFBA is the father of all.

We have recently signed a co-operation agreement, with the International Institute of Human Rights and Criminal Justice formed since 1947 and based in Italy. We are in full co-operation and in partnership with the International Criminal Court Bar Association based in The Hague, and we will sign a partnership agreement this month. There is a proposal on our table for AFBA to hold a Regional Conference with the International Bar Association next year. We will work with and cooperate with all bodies, including PALU.

How does AFBA handle language issues amongst its member Associations and law societies. Some are Francophone, Anglophone and Luxaphone and of course, jurisdictional issues? Some operate civil law, while others operate common law.

As the oldest Continental body, AFBA must ensure that every part of the Continent is carried along. You have a right to be anything in the Association whether you speak French, Arabic, English or Portuguese.

We are not where we should be yet, having just been re-launched, but we will get there. At the Port-Harcourt Conference, we had French and English translations that went well. The Headsets worked perfectly. In Nairobi, Kenya in 2018, we are going to add Arabic and Portuguese.

Despite language barriers, we still communicate effectively. Some understand a little English, some speak little French. Recently, I was in Bamako, Mali as a Guest of the Malian Bar Association, and we were able to deal without language barriers. No barriers must exist in the African Legal Fraternity. AFBA will ensure this.

There are other factors responsible for this, including self-inflicted ones like brazen corruption and impunity, but the main issue was marginalisation and discrimination against them by the so-called majority. This is what has led to the problems in the Niger Delta that almost crippled the entire Nigeria. These are the problems in Somalia, in Sudan, Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, etc.

The AFBA has a Women, Children and Minority Rights Committee. What has it done to stem the tide of child marriage in Africa and genital mutilation of the girl child in the name of female circumcision? How has the Committee made an impact in its field in Africa?

The importance of women, children and the minority in a Community cannot be over-emphasised. They probably represent the weakest in the society, and the most vulnerable. The Constitution protects them. However, in practice, these people are often cheated or taken for granted. The result is catastrophic.

Our children are made to do hard labour, sell recharge cards, pure water, crayfish and many other odd jobs, at such tender ages, when they should be under our loving care and should be in school or some training centres preparing for the future. Our children in the Universities fend for themselves and have to do this through all manner of ways. Some trade and have little time to study, while others go into prostitution. The rest are on exile abroad or dying in their thousands in the Mediterranean Sea, while fleeing for greener pastures.

Minority rights, have led to several conflicts in our Continent and other parts of the world. Women are often taken for granted, whereas they are the pillar of a Great Society. Children are ignored, and told to keep quiet and just obey blindly. In most African Countries till today, they are maltreated, even though their rights are constitutionally and traditionally guaranteed. Yet often times, they make the greatest contributions. Take as an example Nigeria, the so- called minority tribes of Southern Nigeria are the wealth of the Nation, but what have they to show for it? Although, we are in serious trouble in Africa. Kidnapping and money making rituals are prevalent. Some are so idle that they have to take on jobs as hired assassins to make a living. Yet our Leaders hold A.U, ECOWAS, U.N, E.A.U and other regional, sub-regional and international meetings every time. No cohesion, no concrete plan to stem these monsters.

For us in the African Bar Association, we are not only interested in passing laws, but in their practical implementation, children must be taken off the streets, women must be respected in the true sense, naturally and by positive affirmation.

Iyom Josephine Anenih is the Chairperson of our Forum for Women Lawyers. She is doing a great job and as a practical person, which she is, we are working quietly. Very soon, you will hear us loud and clear. We are working on the Child Rights Forum. In Nigeria, Lagos State is at the fore-front of Women and Children’s Rights. They have done so well, that their experience and focus is helping us in creating a methodical approach across the Continent.

Now, I can assure you, we are ready to take on Governments and Institutions, who do not respect these rights. They are scared and we are prepared to go to Legal War for them.

It seems that Africa still has quite a distance to go in perfecting the electoral processes in many of the countries. Aside from African Presidents looking for ways to become sit-tight Presidents for life, there always seem to be pre and/or post electoral issues, sometimes erupting into violence. Even the just concluded Presidential election in Kenya. The opposition who seemed to be more than dissatisfied with the results, went as far as asking the people to boycott work on 14/8/2017, while there was burning of tyres etc in some areas. What could be the reason for the incessant electoral problems?

The problem in Africa is that we think that election is an end in itself, No. election is a means of choosing people amongst us, to work for us and gain our trust. Election is about choices. It is about our future. Unfortunately, both the Politicians and those of us who vote, have a different things in mind. We want to vote in our friends, relations, tribesmen and women. We want to vote those that share the same religions, beliefs. Of course, we vote according to economic considerations. We want to be appointed into positions of advantage, and seize the economic benefits. Politicians’ eyes are fixed on how to amass wealth, to the disadvantage of majority of the citizens. Key issues that bedevil the polity are left to the dogs, but pretence is made about some manifesto. Some road maps, blueprints for recovery and all the big talk. In most African States, it is all a sham. Those who eventually get to power have no reason being there. They get there by accident or by sentiments. Some by Federal character. So you have electoral violence. Elections are manipulated. Election results are falsified. The contests are so fierce, that they have led to wars, civil strife with divesting social and economic consequences. Take Liberia, take Sudan. Look at Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Burundi, Nigeria, Gabon, Central African Republic, we can keep counting.

In the case of Nigeria my Country, it is all about looting the treasury. The sheer magnitude of corruption being revealed everyday, speaks volumes. Not that it has ceased, but the present Government has revealed more than can be imagined, but what is happening? The Citizens are quiet, struggling for the crumbs. Fighting religious and ethnic arguments. The Country keeps sinking. Nobody is punished for what has brought the Country to its knees. Everybody is discharged and acquitted. There is no evidence. The Prosecutor failed to prosecute properly. The investigation was a sham. Yet impunity reigns. There is evidence that the treasury has been looted. Nobody is held accountable. We are in a rat race. Fighting ourselves and stealing from ourselves. Killing our Country and killing our future and the future of our children. Generations yet unborn, accents yet unknown.

Kenya’s case is not different. At every election, the Country erupts in violence. The loser is unwilling to accept defeat. The seat belongs to me or no one else. I am too loved to lose an election, they mobilise religions and ethnic sentiments. Then the Government panics, and in desperation, makes Constitutional mistakes.

We need to warn all those who fan election violence in Kenya, that the AFBA will hold them accountable to the people of Kenya. Election results as announced by the electoral umpire, must be respected and the legal avenues as provided by law, should be used to redress grievances. Any other method, no matter the anger, is a violation of International Law and AFBA, will explore international and local remedies to save Africa from this dangerous malaise. We shall be working with the Law Society of Kenya, to ensure that justice is done. We support all that the LSK has done so far, and we will be monitoring the situation, and give useful advice when necessary or requested.