‘There are Supreme Court Decisions backing President, VP, Waiving their Immunity, if need be’

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A Lagos based Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Ade Adedeji, last week spoke with selected journalists, including Akinwale Akintunde, on the state of the nation. He also reacted to the recent statement credited to the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN that he would waive his constitutional immunity conferred on him under Section 308 of the Constitution, in order to clear his name over the N90 billion he is accused of receiving from Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS)

Please, tell us about yourself
I have been in law practice, for 31 years. I read Social Science as my first degree and Law as a second degree from the University of Lagos (UNILAG). I also did my Masters in Law at UNILAG. Effectively, I was at the University of Lagos for almost 10 years: I gained admission to UNILAG in 1979, finished my first degree in 1982 and did my NYSC, 1982-1983. I returned to UNILAG to study law in 1984, graduated in 1987, finished from the Law School in 1988, and I was called to Bar in 1988 the same year. I returned to UNILAG in 1990 for my Masters in Law, and I’ve been in practice ever since.

What informed your choice of law, as your career?
I was never counselled, as they do these days. By the way, neither of my parents was a Lawyer. I became interested in law, through my association with very good friends of mine. After we left school, we started thinking of what to do, and because we were young, we took a conscious decision that, we needed to be in school for a longer period than what any Masters degree could offer us at the time. So, the first option was to consider Law, which, perhaps, would keep us in school. For a 21-year old, you probably still wanted to be in school for another three, four years.

What is your view on the Federal Government’s anti-corruption war? 
I think the policy of the government on corruption should be applauded, for so many reasons. We have reached the stage in this country, where corruption has become so endemic, and it is indeed, an understatement, to state that unless something is done about it, we cannot go anywhere. What do I mean by that? As a nation working hard to move to the next level of industrialisation, to grow the economy generally, we surely must address the issue of corruption.

Lawyers often raise concerns about the manner the anti-graft war is being fought, especially the constitutionality of some of the government’s actions. What’s your take on this? 
The way we address corruption, must be such that everybody must be carried along. It must be done in such a way that, the government that is leading the campaign, must be at the forefront of carrying the whole nation along and essentially making the point that, unless we all come together to fight this cancer, we cannot survive, either in the short run or in the long run.

In doing that, however, one thing seems very clear to me: the government must do it constitutionally; it must do it in accordance with the law. We cannot fight corruption, when we continue to disobey orders of court, we cannot fight corruption when the rule of law is grossly abused, we cannot fight corruption, when, indeed, the people that are leading the fight are corrupt.

What do I mean by that? The leaders who are leading the fight could be said to be corrupt, when they grossly disobey orders of court. For instance, when they abuse the rule of law. Abuse of rule of law, in my view, is in itself corruption, when things are not done in accordance with the law, in accordance with the laid down rules, it can only amount to corruption. So, if you’re going to lead the campaign, you must be seen as clean in every area, particularly in those areas as I have mentioned.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, has offered to suspend his immunity and head to court, following an allegation that he is involved in a $90 billion campaign fund scandal. Some Lawyers have said that the immunity is constitutionally imposed on him, so he cannot suspend it. A few others have also said that, he can suspend it in a few instances. What are your thoughts on this? 
His Excellency, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, has shown clearly to those of us who are watching from outside, the quality and integrity of a person in office that we all look forward to, in this country. I think that statement alone, let me start by saying that, I am most impressed, because it has proven beyond reasonable doubt that, this is a man of integrity; this is a man that can be trusted when all the chips are down; this is a man that we can use as a model of people that should be voted into office, in this country. The reason for that is simple, it’s very rare and unusual, for us to have somebody of his status coming out to say: “Look, I am ready and prepared to suspend my immunity, if need be”. By merely saying that, he is also telling us that, if anybody is in doubt, he doesn’t have anything that is hidden or shady about his conduct, and performance in office as the Vice President of this country.

Now, on the question of whether or not he can do that, I think there are a couple of Supreme Court decisions on whether or not he can waive his constitutional immunity, and the verdict is to the effect that, the President or the Vice President, the Governor or his Deputy, can waive or elect to suspend such immunity. I believe that he must have looked at all the ramifications, before he came to that conclusion.

But, I also believe that, the adversaries and these people who, for political reasons, for reasons of getting to power (are making these allegations) will get the message that, no matter how hard they try, they may be fighting a failed battle, and that is my view on that issue.

Prof. Yemi Osinbajo is a man of integrity, and I believe that, when all the chips are down, everybody will see that clearly, and all the people that are drawing knives now, that they’re beginning to look at future election, will have themselves to blame, and it is just question of time.

Trial delay is a major problem in the Nigerian judicial system. Cases often spend years before being concluded. How do you think judicial proceedings can be speeded up? 
Cases are delayed in our courts, for a lot of reasons, some of which are lawful. For instance, parties to an action must be served, and in some cases, personally. Where the court is unable to serve a party personally, the rules of court require that a formal application shall be brought, to request for an order of court for substituted service, like pasting on last known address, etc. All these efforts take time, and the issue relating to service is fundamental. It is a serious issue of procedure that things must be done properly and in accordance with the rules.

But, having said that, there is no doubt that, there are so many instances of delay in proceedings, that are unlawful and distasteful. Lagos Judicial Division, for instance, is the 3rd jurisdiction in Africa with highest volume of actions instituted as at 2016 (after Cairo and Johannesburg). There are a lot of cases that I call frivolous, that should not even be in court. I believe efforts at mediation and arbitration, are beginning to address these issues. Of importance, however, is the abuse by litigants and counsel. It is therefore, my argument that, incessant or frequent review of our rules may really not work, if we do not change our attitude. I think it is about time we considered awarding huge penalties against parties and counsel, who are deliberately involved in sharp practices, to stall proceedings.

Just 38 Lawyers were sworn in as Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) last month. Some Lawyers feel that this number, as is usually the case, is too small, considering the large number of applicants. They have suggested that all qualified applicants, irrespective of region or State of origin, should be conferred with the rank, in other words, that there should be no quota system. Do you agree?
The rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is meant for advocates who have distinguished themselves in advocacy, and have excelled or contributed to the development of law and practice. I can confirm to you that, our nation is blessed with Lawyers in various fields, who have contributed to the growth and development of law and practice, and are deserving of recognition. I believe for instance, that there are Solicitors (Lawyers) who deserve recognition. Same for Administrators and Legislators. But, these categories, are not advocates statutorily qualified for such awards. Just maybe, a different award should be created to recognise them for their excellence.

With respect to advocates, I believe there are so many more advocates who daily prove their mettle in court rooms, but are unknown due to their areas of practice. I believe we need to constantly reform our laws and rules, to recognise otherwise brilliant Lawyers in this category. I have some colleagues/contemporaries and many of us know them due to their industry and brilliance, but, unfortunately, may not be recognised, because the rules provided to prequalify them, do not allow them to come forward. If the nets are cast wide, I believe an elevation of 40 Lawyers to the Inner Bar, may even be more acceptable.

Former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, proposed appointing senior Lawyers straight to the Supreme Court? What’s your view on this? Will it help to enrich the Bench, if experienced Lawyers are appointed directly to the Court of Appeal or Apex Court?
I will argue that, an injection of eminent members of the Inner Bar always adds value to the quality of our decisions, and that diversity is always a good thing.

I have listened to contrary arguments, and I am inclined to support the view that, a career in the Judiciary should not be jettisoned to achieve this objective. In the circumstance, I think we should encourage senior Lawyers even before attaining silk and others from the academia, to consider entering at the Court of Appeal level. I think the problem we currently have is that, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, having reached the pinnacle of his career, is being considered an intruder in a judicial career that he never prepared for. We need to address these issues.

Following the exit of Justice Onnoghen, it has been suggested that the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) is, unlike other courts, not really subject to the National Judicial Council’s authority. Some Lawyers even consider it as a tool of the Presidency. What is your view? 

The Code of Conduct Tribunal, for all intents and purposes, is an inferior court. Apart from Lawyers, even the judicial officers in the course of proceedings, regard themselves as something close to an appendage of the President. It is my view that, considering the huge functions and responsibilities of that Tribunal, and in order to enhance its status, there is need (urgent need) to appoint highly qualified and senior judicial officers, to sit on the Tribunal.

Young Lawyers often complain about poor remuneration and welfare. What was it like, in your time?
I was lucky to start at one of the top law firms at the time in 1989, 1990, 1991; Allan and Ogunkeye, and then Western House. They’re still there, but a bit old now, the Partners are a bit old now. Allan and Ogunkeye was one of the topmost law firms in those days, and Western House was a beehive for the best Lawyers in the country, at the time.

The reason I am saying that, is that we were better paid than most of our contemporaries, so we couldn’t complain when others were complaining. But, for the most part, our contemporaries used to tell us all sort of stories, some of them not even earning half of the salaries we were earning at the time. For those of them, yes, I can confirm that, it was not too good. Things have changed a great deal, but, unfortunately, the bad habit of the past, still flows into what we still experience. I believe we need to address it, I believe a lot of firms can do a lot more, than what they’re doing.