PAUL USORO

A landmark event is set to take place in Nigeria’s legal history, as for the first time, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN), will come together in the city of Lagos to hold its maiden Dinner. The event which is slated for November 11 at the Oreintal Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, will also welcome the newly inducted memebers of the Inner Bar into the Body. Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi spoke to Paul Usoro, SAN, the Vice Chairman of the Event Planning Committee about the details of the upcoming Dinner.  He also gave an insight into the forthcoming Conference of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, and his role in the legal team that secured a discharge and acquittal for the Senate President at his trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal

Learned SAN, we understand that the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) is organising a first of its kind Dinner for Senior Advocates on November 11th, and you are the Vice Chairman of the Event Planning Committee. What informed BOSAN’s decision to hold this event, especially when there have been agitations that the rank of SAN should be abolished? Should we expect it to be an annual event from now on? Kindly, provide us with the details and highlights of the event. Apart from the social aspect of the evening, what useful outcomes does the BOSAN expect from the event that would be beneficial to the legal profession as a whole?

The planned dinner event, is part of a whole, and should not be viewed in isolation. It is part of a three-pronged activity plan by BOSAN, that would benefit the legal profession generally, and not only the members of the Association. The other two legs of the plan are a continuing education program for members, and a scholarship scheme for students. A Committee under the chairmanship of Chief Felix Fagbohungbe, SAN, was constituted by BOSAN, to implement these programs and three Sub-Committees were created under the Fagbohungbe-Committee to focus on each of the 3 activity plans – Dinner, Continuing Education, and the Scholarship Scheme. It is in the context of these tripartite goals, that the dinner activity needs to be adjudged and critiqued.

On the dinner itself, it is planned for it to be an annual social event and a forum that will be used, in part, to welcome new members of BOSAN. The recently conferred members, will be introduced to existing members during the dinner event on 11 November 2017. There will also be a dinner lecture which is planned to be intellectually stimulating, and the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen, GCON, will have some words for the BOSAN Members and so will the Vice President of Nigeria, HE (Prof) Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON, himself a distinguished member of BOSAN. The dinner lecture, will be delivered by Dr. Christopher Kolade, CON, former Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and renowned intellectual and titan of industries. There is therefore, considerable intellectual content in the planned dinner program, which will be of great benefit to the BOSAN members and indeed, the profession generally.

The BOSAN was recently sued for not being a registered body under Nigerian laws. What is the status of that case? Has BOSAN now been registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission?

To the best of my knowledge, BOSAN has no pending litigation whatsoever or howsoever.

 

It has been observed that BOSAN has chapters in major Nigerian cities. How does the body intend to bring these chapters together – as branches or as individual members?

BOSAN is not structured as a confederation or even a federation; there is only one BOSAN. However, members in different States and locations, are free to congregate and group themselves into units that will address common issues within their jurisdictions. Those regional groupings do not howsoever, compete with, threaten or contradict BOSAN. When it comes to BOSAN, all the members subsume their respective regional affiliations and groupings, under and into the common central platform and body known as BOSAN, and there has never been any conflict or issue in that regard.

 

Paul Usoro & Co. berthed about 32 years or so ago. Your wife, Mrs Mfon Usoro, is also a partner in the firm. Why did you decide to set up shop with your wife? How has your experience been working with your wife, especially in this day and age that couples do not always confide the details of their work and earnings with each other?

Factual correction first: Paul Usoro & Co. (“PUC”) was established in late 1984/early 1985 as a partnership that did not include Mfon and that’s because, at the time of PUC’s formation, Mfon was not then a lawyer. I’ll now let out a little secret that may not be so commonly known! Mfon’s first degree was in Sociology (she made a 2:1 in that program from the University of Calabar), and it was after our marriage in 1984 that she proceeded to take a law degree in Buckingham University, graduating again with a second-class upper degree. Subsequently, she received a Masters degree and specialised in Maritime Laws at the University College, London. It was however, after her Buckingham law degree and Nigerian Law School qualification, that she joined Paul Usoro & Co., and subsequently, attained the status of a Partner.

I must however, be quick to point out that Mfon had always been a part of the PUC formation, and the cornerstone contributor in regard to its structure right from the Firm’s inception in 1984 and well before her qualification as a lawyer. That’s easy to understand for those who know that Mfon and I started out as childhood sweethearts with a deep and strong bond of friendship which we’ve maintained and built upon over the years and up to date and, yes, until death do us part, which I expect, by God’s Grace, won’t be soon. Mfon has always been my best friend, and she makes critical inputs into my decision-making processes. Before qualifying as a lawyer, and even before our marriage, Mfon was routinely attending courts with me and was literally inducted by association into the lawyers’ club and thinking processes, and it was therefore, easy for her to make critical and very useful inputs into the inception and execution processes that culminated in PUC. By the way, anyone who remotely knows Mfon, will confirm that she has an extremely sharp and brilliant mind and brains, and is very quick on her feet, in terms of learning and intellect.

As a Partner in PUC, her contributions have been invaluable and immeasurable. As the Firm’s Managing Partner and the head of Transactions Practice, she takes a huge load off my shoulders. By the way, there’s sufficient work in the Firm for us not to get in each other’s way, and we are both imbued with confident personalities and mutual respect for each other’s intellectual competence and capacity, and egos do not therefore, get in the way howsoever. After these many years of marriage and a rock-solid friendship, neither of us has anything to prove to each other intellectually or otherwise, and we therefore, work most harmoniously, as partners and friends, in and out of PUC. God has also vested us with the spirit of contentment apart from blessing us materially and with generosity of spirit, all of which constitute the basis for our joint ownership of all that we are materially blessed with, without the need to be suspicious, insecure and/or bicker over such mundane things like earnings, material possessions and/or acquisitions.

 

Tell us about the unfortunate incident of 2006, when the Bank of Industry building where your office was located collapsed. How were you able to weather the storm and bounce back, especially as the means of livelihood of you and Mrs Usoro were both tied to that office? How did the Bank of Industry compensate its tenants?

God has indeed been most kind to us and, yes, you are right, our means of livelihood has always been tied solely to our law practice, and it was a most traumatic experience when our offices in the BOI building were completely gutted by fire, and the building itself collapsed because of the infrastructural damage that was occasioned by the fire. But then, as the Bible states, God does not put us through trials and tribulations, that He knows are beyond our capabilities to withstand and even then, He always finds a way out for us and, in that instance, He found ways out for us through the friends, too numerous to list out here, that He gave us. Those friends rallied round us and helped us secure an alternative office location and space, furnish and equip the office, and continue with our practice without missing a beat howsoever. Our colleagues in the Firm, were also magnificent. They did not for a moment see the disaster as “Mfon and Paul’s disaster”; they saw it as our collective disaster, and they stretched themselves to the limit, to ensure that we did not miss a step and that the Practice proceeded apace with very minimal disruption.

In all, we return thanks to God, the Almighty, and remain indebted to our friends and colleagues in PUC who stood with and by us in those terrible moments. With regard to the Bank of Industry, both the management and staff were most sympathetic towards us, seeing as we bore the brunt the most of that incident, but we never received any financial compensation from the company and really, that was never our focus and we do not hold that against them howsoever.

 

As a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, how would you rate the use of Arbitration and ADR in Nigeria? Does Nigeria have any special role to play in achieving the theme of the upcoming 2017 Conference “Strengthening the Blocks of Arbitration in Africa”? Of what benefit would it be to the man on the street?

ADR has its entrenched place in Nigeria’s dispute resolution processes, and that position cannot be challenged howsoever. Like any process however, it requires periodic fine-tuning and strengthening, for it to meet and address the dynamic demands of the moment, and it is in that context that I understand the theme of the 2017 Conference to be “Strengthening the Blocks of Arbitration in Africa”. The theme of course, talks about “Arbitration in Africa”, because, we must remember that there are cross-border arbitral proceedings that arise, literally on a daily basis.

How does ADR benefit “the man on the street”? ADR, it must be remembered, goes beyond arbitration, and includes mediation and conciliation. More often than not, the disputes that involve “the man on the street” are resolvable through mediation and conciliation, without the need for costly and energy-draining litigation. There is therefore, a place for “the man on the street”, even in ADR processes.

 

Where do you stand with respect to the clamour for Constitutional Amendment, and the Restructuring of Nigeria, or are you satisfied with the Nigerian arrangement as it is today?

Restructuring, in a general sense, whether of Nigeria or any other entity, is always a dynamic process based on exigencies of the moment. My understanding of the clamour for the restructuring of Nigeria is situated in that sense, to wit, a continuous review of the Nigerian structure in order to make it more efficient. That, by itself, is not negative, howsoever. However, since we are a country that submits itself to and is governed by laws, what is required, is for us to follow due process of law in initiating and sustaining the discourse on the required restructuring of Nigeria, based on and pursuant to our extant laws, notably, the Nigerian Constitution. That is also what is required in regard to the clamour for constitutional amendments – due process, based on the provisions of our laws.

 

You were one of the leading Counsel who defended the Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki, in his recent Code of Conduct Tribunal Trial, which ended in the Tribunal upholding your team’s no case submission. How were you and your team able to achieve this?

The discharge and acquittal of Dr. Bukola Saraki, was really God’s work using us, the legal team, as the tool therefor. He gave us the wisdom and the intellectual acuity to strategise and come up with winning arguments that set an innocent man free. It was also a collective work by the legal team, led by the most respected Kanu Agabi, SAN, CON, former Attorney General of the Federation. His leadership of the team made a huge difference. His ability to weld disparate personalities into a single and efficient working group was and is always amazing and deserves emulation and commendation. His own intellectual sagacity is also outstanding and stunning. These sterling qualities made him lead from the front and by example in the Saraki trial and it was quite easy for the rest of us to follow his lead. I must also mention that the Senate President was a great client to work with. He has an extremely sharp and brilliant mind and his quick appreciation of complicated legal issues was quite amazing and indeed helped greatly in the discussions and formulation of legal strategies. He was available at all times to work with the Legal Team in designing strategies, and he made quality inputs thereto. For me, it’s always a delight working with such brilliant, albeit, demanding clients – that, truly, is when the intellectual depth and quality of a lawyer, shines through.

 

How do you see the CBN Policy on the BVN? Can the CBN lawfully issue such a directive? Does the Policy do more damage than good to Nigerians?

I presume you are referring to the recent Interim Orders of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja Division that, amongst others, ordered the forfeiture to the Federal Government of the monies in bank accounts that do not have BVN particulars, except the owners of the account can within a specified timeframe show cause why the forfeiture should not be effected? I have read the Enrolled Order and I would first like to correct the impression that the orders were made at the instance of the Central Bank of Nigeria. They were not.

The Central Bank is actually a Defendant in the Suit, and the Plaintiffs are the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Attorney- General of the Federation.

In answering your question, it is important to separate the BVN Policy as set out by the CBN, from the afore-mentioned Court Orders and the pending litigation. Does the CBN have the legal mandate to issue the Policy? Yes, it does, pursuant to the provisions of the CBN Act and BOFIA which mandates the CBN to make such policy guidelines from time to time. The question is, does the BVN Policy, as set out by the CBN mandate the forfeiture of monies in accounts that do not have BVN? I have read the CBN circulars on the BVN project, as well as the CBN’s BVN Regulatory Framework and I see nothing in any of those Directives and the Regulatory Framework document, that mandate such forfeiture of monies. I indeed, know no extant law, that mandates such forfeiture of monies in accounts without BVN to the Federal Government.

It is also not quite clear to me, why the Federal Government should be the one purporting to execute and/or enforce the CBN BVN Policy or any CBN Policy at all. The CBN, is vested with its distinct corporate personality, with which it can sue and be sued; it is the only body mandated by its enabling legislation, to enforce its Policies. Any other person purporting to act on its behalf in that regard, with all due respect, is considered by the law as a “meddlesome interloper”.

To answer the last leg of your question, in my very humble opinion, the forfeiture suggestion harms the Nigerian public as well as the financial subsector in multiple ways. For one, by requiring the owners of accounts without BVN enrolment, to prove their innocence or face forfeiture of their funds, the forfeiture directive turns on its head the sacrosanct principle of presuming a person innocent until proved guilty. No such presumption of guilt ahead of proof, is allowed by our Constitution.

Indeed, it cannot even be presumed that all owners of accounts without BVN details, are engaged in illegal or illegitimate businesses. The circumstances that accounts may not have BVN are varied, and include circumstances where the owners of such accounts may have been deceased, or where the account is the subject of litigation or dispute, and it is not immediately possible to determine who the operators of the account should be. These are only illustrative instances of circumstances that could result in the non-completion of BVN enrolment by account holders and owners, and it would, in my most respectful view, be illegal and unjust for the monies in such accounts, to be forfeited to the Federal Government consequent therefor.