Sonnie Ekwowusi urges the present executive to help enthrone the rule of law
Olumide Akpata’s triumph at the general election of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) which took place last Thursday, for me, attests that a title does not make a brilliant and electable lawyer in the same way a hood does not make a monk. For 22 years, the NBA President prestigious seat had been occupied by only Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) (although Prince Lanke Odogiyo, a non-SAN, became President of the Bar from 2005–2006 because Chief Bayo Ojo (SAN) vacated the NBA President seat to become the Attorney General of the Federation) to the extent that unlearned public, and, even some young lawyers started believing that the most-exalted and most-coveted NBA seat was only reserved for SANs. But last Thursday quick-silver and dark horse Olumide Akpata broke the jinx, resulting in paradigm shift in the NBA Presidential election. As early as 7 pm last Thursday night, five hours to the completion of voting, Olumide was already coasting to a glorious landslide victory thus leaving his two opponents-Dr. Babatunde Ajibade (SAN) and revered Deacon Dele Adesina (SAN)- sprawling on the ground. At the end of voting, Akpata polled 9,891 votes out of the 18,256 ballots cast to beat his two SANs opponents-Babatunde Ajibade (4, 328 votes) and Dele Adesina (3, 982 votes).
But there is a snake in the bramble. Nigeria is engulfed in serous crisis of the rule of law. So this is not the time to gloat over NBA Presidential election victory. This is not the time for Akpata and his supporters to continue to beat their chests in the euphoria of election victory. This is not even the time for Babatunde and Dele to resign to melancholy for having lost an election. As far as I am concerned, there was no victor and no vanquished in the NBA Presidential election. Therefore, beyond the tongues of eloquence and sophistry regarding the election, this is the time for Akpata, Babatunde, Adesina, NBA Exco and, indeed, all Nigerian lawyers to forge cor unum et anima una, espirit de corps or consensus ad idem or unanimity of purpose in order to, first and foremost, salvage Nigeria from the grip of democratic totalitarianism strangulating her to death at the moment reminiscent of the death of George Floyd by the American Police. In order to achieve this feat, the Akpata leadership must insist on the supremacy of the rule of law in contrast to the supremacy of arbitrary and capricious exercise of executive power. Happily, Akpata is a business mogul. He understands that stronger rule of law is critically an important factor in determining the countries that attract dynamic flows of global investment capital. Akpata, I am certain, very well knows that countries with improved rule of law oftentimes experience higher economic growth whereas countries with a declining rule of law oftentimes experience low economic progress and societal prosperity.
So the Akpata-led NBA should work hard to re-enthrone rule of law in Nigeria. It is doable: the Akpata-led NBA is capable of bringing back our mad society back to sanity. The NBA has achieved such feat in the past. Those who think that NBA’s involvement in the re-ordering of chaotic Nigerian society is recipe for politicization of the NBA are gravely mistaken. Amid the multiplying evil effects of corruption, executive lawlessness, violation of the rule of law and disrespect for court orders in Nigeria between 1987 and 1989, the Alao Aka-Bashorun-led NBA was the bulwark of justice in Nigeria. It was the voice for the voiceless and the oppressed in Nigeria. In fact, at that time, the Alao Aka-Bashorun-led NBA acted as a sort of buffer which the Nigerian society depended on in tracing its way back to reason. The Agbakoba-led NBA (2006-2008) was also a force to be reckoned with. So the Akpata leadership should prove its mettle.
At the moment justice is in limbo in Nigeria owing to COVID-19 pandemic. Most judicial divisions/jurisdictions across the country especially the Lagos jurisdiction are yet to adopt the new-normal virtual court hearing procedure notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s okaying of it. This is sad. Happily Akpata has cut his teeth as a new millennial innovative lawyer. He has been harping on the new vista which the new technological changes and artificial intelligence have opened up for Nigerian lawyers in the 21st Century. So I expect Akpata to bring this experience to bear on his new job. Our judicial personnel- court registrars, court clerks, court bailiffs, court messengers, etc., are starkly untrained. So let the Akpata NBA leadership figure out ways of training these judicial personnel, (and even judges and practicing lawyers) on how to leverage on the new technology in order to ensure that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt owing to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Administrative injustice begets legal and even social injustice. If for, example, a court bailiff refused to serve the court process of a litigant or a court registrar neglected to bring out the case file of a litigant on a hearing day, the litigant would have suffered tremendous injustice even before his case file got to the judge. Therefore the Akpata-led NBA should get involved in the functions of the judicial personnel who play pivotal role in the administration of justice. Akpata and his team should also beam their searchlight on the Bench. Fiat justicia ruat coelom. “Neither the morning star nor the evening star are as glorious as justice” (Aristotle). “The brightness of virtues shines above all in justice” (Cicero). And who dispenses true justice? An incorruptible judge. A God-fearing judge. Therefore corrupt judges demanding and collecting bribes, especially judges selling ex-parte orders should be exposed. Conversely, corrupt lawyers reveling in corrupt and unethical law practice to subvert justice should be sanctioned or de-robed. The Bench should not be reserved for dead woods and lazy bones who could not make a head way in private law practice: the bench should be reserved for the best and the brightest in character and learning. Appointment and elevation of judges should be based on merit not on family connection, political patronage or prebendalism. The NBA knows the candidates applying to become judges better than the NJC. Therefore the view of the NBA should first be sought before and even after short-listing the candidates.
Success in private law practice is not only measured in terms of money in one’s kitting in the so-called lucrative areas of law practice: success in law practice is also measured in terms of securing ex gratis the freedom of detainees at the various police stations and the awaiting trial inmates (ATM) in our prisons or correctional centres. So, the Akpata leadership should put pressure on Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) (an expert in criminal justice system reforms) and the Federal Attorney-General and Minster of Justice to embark on the much-vaunted reform of Nigeria’s criminal justice system aimed at improving the effectiveness and efficiency in enforcing the fundamental human rights of detainees and bringing offenders to justice in order to bolster the confidence of the members of the public in the fairness of the system. Dumping of young suspects in prison without trial should stop. More juvenile courts should be established to try young offenders. Detainees and ATM who cannot be charged to court within two or three months should be released from detention as stipulated in our constitution. The EFCC and ICPC should be reformed.
History beckons the Akpata-led NBA to stand up and be counted. If the rule of law is continually subverted and the judiciary system is susceptible to political interference and manipulation by the executive, Nigeria will be doomed forever.