ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION (NBA), PAUL USORO, SAN DELIVERED AT THE NBA NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE (NEC) MEETING HOLDEN AT THE NBA SECRETARIAT IN ABUJA ON 20 JUNE 2019
My Dear Colleagues
1. It is my privilege and honor to welcome you to the 2018/2019 Quarter 3 NEC meeting of our great Association. We thank the Almighty for for journey mercies from our various destinations and we pray that he continues to envelop us in his protective arms and grant us wisdom for today’s deliberations. It is perhaps not by coincidence that we are holding this meeting only weeks after the winners of the 2019 National Elections at the Federal and States levels were sworn into office on 29 May 2019 and after the celebration of our Democracy Day on June 12, 2019. While we congratulate the newly sworn in elected officials, it behooves us, as an Association of Learned Men, to hold them to account and constantly remind them of their pact with the Nigerian people. In that regard, I crave your indulgence to raise two critical issues of urgency that affect us personally and as Nigerians, no matter our regions of origin, religion, stations in life or professions.
2. The first is the issue of security of lives and property or more correctly, the pervasive insecurity of lives and property in our land. To make the point, I will relate to you the events concerning three of our colleagues, Honourable Kennedy Ofuezuem Amin Nwashindi of Asaba Branch, Frank Promise Igwe of Port Harcourt Branch and Lowuruga Obadiah Yabura of Wukari Branch. Kennedy was kidnapped by armed hoodlums at the gate of his home in Asaba on 16 April 2019 at about 1903 hours.
He was kidnapped with his wig and gown which tells one that the kidnappers knew him to be a lawyer but were not deterred howsoever. Kennedy’s abductors, in the all-too-familiar practice of kidnappers in our land, named their ransom price in exchange for his life. His family promptly rallied round and paid the ransom in the expectation of receiving back their husband, son, father, uncle and brother. But that was not to be. Kennedy was killed by his abductors after receiving the ransom and his body and his wig, without the gown, were recovered from the scene of the gruesome murder.
3. Kennedy would have turned 54 on 24 July but for his assassination. He had garnered 18 years Post-Call experience as a lawyer having been called to the Bar on 23 January 2001. In short, Kennedy was at the prime of his life, full of hope and promise for his community, our country and our profession. I spoke with his widow, Omosetemi, our colleague as well, on Tuesday, 18 June 2019 and my heart bled not just for Kennedy’s family but for our society. Temi did not only lose a husband, she lost a friend, a confidant, a brother, a protector, a shield and the father of their 4 children – the oldest being 15 and the youngest 9. It is difficult for us to imagine the pains and trauma of Kennedy’s immediate family. Temi struggles to understand and decipher why Kennedy was killed by his abductors, despite the payment of the ransom. I personally wonder where our governments – and these include but goes beyond our law enforcement agencies – were while Kennedy was being murdered and the hopes and aspirations of his family and children destroyed. Where was our governments? Why are the governments, complete with their security apparatchik, so helpless in the face of intruding anarchy in our land?
4. I now turn to our colleague, Frank Promise Igwe of Port Harcourt Branch, a young man with quite some promise. Promise was born 45 years ago and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2006. On 12 April 2019, Promise was dressed for and on his way to Court when his car was intercepted by criminal elements who shot him dead, in broad daylight, in the morning hours, in the city of Port Harcourt. Promise’s life, with the promise that he held for his community, society and our profession, was cut short. How does one begin to console Promise’s aged mother who survived his son? How does one explain the murder of Promise to his two daughters and his wife? How does one explain to Promise’s family that governments have primary responsibility for the security of lives and property? Why are our governments failing us in the discharge of these crucial responsibilities? Why are we all so helpless?
5. Our third colleague, Lowuruga Obadiah Yabura, was the former Chairman of our Wukari Branch. We cannot say whether Yabura is alive or dead. He has not been seen since he was kidnapped along Wukari-Takum Road in Taraba State on 02 April 2019. Not unlike Kennedy’s case, ransom was paid for Yabura’s life. Indeed, so indescribably daring were his abductors, I am told, they set up a bank account where ransom price was paid into, in instalments and drips and the amounts were fully drawn by the criminals. Do you blame the family? No, I cannot. In my function as the President of the NBA, I have so very often spoken with families of our kidnapped colleagues and almost always, there is always that dread of fully involving law enforcement agencies for a number of reasons. And so, it is not uncommon for the families to rely on self-help by paying ransom prices and scrupulously following the instructions of the criminals in the hope – which, as we all know, dies last – that their son, their breadwinner, their father, their husband, their brother would eventually be released. In the case of Kennedy, that never happened. In the case of Yabura, his abductors are not even communicating with anyone anymore and we have no way of knowing whether he is still alive or dead. Again, how do we explain this to his family and dependents? How do we explain the disappearance, without trace, of this our former Chairman who was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1986? Where is the responsibility of our governments in securing lives and property?
6. My dear colleagues, as you would observe, I have given you three illustrative instances of the insecurity that pervades our land from the three NBA Nigerian Zones – East, West and North – and that, by itself, makes the point that no part of our country is safe. Just yesterday, 19 June 2019, The Nigerian Guardian newspaper reported that the United Kingdom had issued travel advisory warning against travels to 21 States in Nigeria. In the South West region of Nigeria, it has been reported in the last couple of days that the son of the immediate past Minister of Health was kidnapped. No region is safe, and no tribe is safe. No one indeed is safe. And yet, we have governments in place, at the Federal, State and Local Government levels and the primary business of governments is the protection of lives and property. Indeed, without security of lives and property, everything else grinds to a halt. As the saying goes, “safety first”. Only those who are alive can enjoy medi-care, educational facilities, infrastructure renewal, economic boom and all the other tangible and intangible benefits of a democratic society. And, by the way, not to be forgotten or diminished by our politicians in power is the fact that only those who are alive can vote in the next election. Only those who are alive can trigger boom and prosperity in our economy. Only those who are alive can benefit from and applaud the government for the war against corruption. It is therefore in the interest of the government as much as it is in the interest of the governed for lives and property to be secured and safe. We therefore demand from our governments at all levels this basic minimum of their debt to us, to wit, security of lives and property in the land.
7. The second issue that I must address is the state of the rule of law in our land. I must state that, in my respectful opinion, the rule of law lies prostrate in our land in quite some ways and areas. We could, for example, talk about the penchant of our governmental authorities to disobey court orders and also the various bottlenecks and glitches that encumber and inhibit access to justice by the citizens of our country. These are indeed areas that cry for attention and we would continue to focus on these and other troubling areas. However, my focus in this Address is on what I term as the twin “independence pillars” of the rule of law – i.e. independence of the judiciary and independence of the legal profession.
8. I start with the independence of the judiciary which we all understand to mean not only the independence of tenure and control of funds but also the latitude to have an independent and uncontrolled mind to reach decisions and dispense justice fairly to all manner of men without fear or favor. No many if anyone in this auditorium would doubt that our Judges, from the lowest to the highest cadre, today operate under an oppressive and pervasive climate of fear and insecurity. Our Judges are threatened, intimidated and blackmailed mostly by the executive arms of government and their agencies both at the Federal and State levels. Ask any Counsel of note who will be willing to honestly share his or her experience with you these days and you would be told that a significant consideration in planning the strategy for the prosecution of any case that the government, notably the Federal Government has an interest in, is the concern whether the presiding judge has the backbone not to be looking behind his or her shoulder to decipher how the government wishers the matter to be determined.
9. There is the pervasive concern that government and its security operatives have dossiers on judges, real or imagined, and could unleash inquisitorial terror on judges if they decide issues against governments and its agencies. Even those of our judges who are whistle-clean – and I believe that most even if not all are – may not be willing to go through the inquisitorial processes of the various security agencies to prove their innocence. And so, we have Judges walking on egg-shells, notably, where governments and their agencies have interest in matters that they adjudicate. This totally undermines the independence of the judiciary and the ability of the Judges to act confidently without fear or favor in dispensing justice to all manner of men. The irony of all of these is that the men of power today may be the ones who most need the independence of the judiciary tomorrow when they are out of power or are competing for political power. It reminds me of the IBA bye-line: if you take care of the rule of law, the rule of law will take care of you
10. I will give some other illustrative examples of the systematic erosion of the independence if the judiciary. Recently, it was reported, and it has not been denied that a Chief Judge was walked out of an official function at the instance of the executive arm of government. In another State, we are told that the Governor has taken it upon himself to displace a sitting Chief Judge without any input from the National Judicial Council. During the Onnoghen CJN’s saga, the NBA had warned that if the undermining of the judiciary’s independence was not checked and nipped in the bud, it would spread like cancer and consume Judges both in the Federal and State Judiciaries. Sadly, we are seeing now the manifestations of that spread and, by extension, the denigration of judicial officers and the erosion of the independence of the judiciary.
11. In the midst of all of these, it is heartening that a Judge of the High Court has again pronounced, within the last one week, that no Legislature or Executive arm of government has the right to attempt the removal of a Judge without first going through the NJC processes. It remains for us all to encourage the NJC to rise up to its statutory mandate and protect the independence of our judiciary. The NBA stands ready to work with our Judges in that regard. Our Judges cannot deliver justice under a climate of fear and intimidation. Justice thrives where and when there is an independent judiciary. There can be no such independence when there is no security of tenure for our Judges. There can be no independence of the Judiciary when our Judges are intimidated, threatened and blackmailed by State agencies and their officials. There can be no independence of the judiciary when our Judges are actively coerced by State officials to think and reason only in the manner that those officials and, presumably, government want them to think.
12. The robustness of the judiciary lies, not only in the soundness of its judgments but in the inherent right of judges to dissent even amongst themselves and to make independent judgments. If Judges can dissent amongst themselves, then it should be expected and it is a right that inheres in the office for Their Lordships to dissent from the opinions, wishes and thinking of State officials, whether at the Federal or State Governments. Such dissent should not result in the casting of aspersions on the Judges and/or the blackmail and intimidation of the Judges. These ignoble and destructive practices must stop. The government must guarantee and we – the Bar and the Bench – must rise up to protect the independence of the judiciary and the right of our judicial officers to have independent minds in the discharge of their onerous responsibilities. We would, by so doing, be promoting and protecting the Rule of Law in our land as well.
13. I now turn to the other twin independence i.e. the independence of the legal profession. Permit me to state that it is impossible to have the Rule of Law without lawyers and the independence of the legal profession. The independence of the legal profession is threatened when lawyers are not able to practice their trade without let or hindrance. That independence is seriously threatened in our land today. That independence is assaulted when lawyers are branded as criminals merely because of their professional functions and responsibilities. The independence of the legal profession is eroded when lawyers are targeted as a group and stigmatized merely because of their professional duties. And this is happening in our country today.
14. It is now the practice for lawyers to turn down certain types of briefs and clients in order not to be perceived as being anti-government and/or its agencies with the attendant inquisitions that go with such stigmatization. Nowadays, lawyers discriminate against briefs and instructions, not on professional grounds, but because they do not wish to attract the inquisitorial attention of government agencies nor to be stigmatized by those agencies. The same climate of fear and intimidation under which our Judiciary operates, that the same climate pervades the practice of law today. That is an absolute erosion of the independence of the legal profession and a destruction of the Rule of Law. Like I said earlier, the irony is that the men of power of today who strike fear into our hearts and destroy our independence may be the ones requiring the services of lawyers tomorrow and wishing for or desiring an independent legal profession.
15. The two issues that I have raised in this Address have profound impact and effect on how our society operates. Without the rule of law and security of lives and property, society gradually descends into a state of anarchy and democracy becomes a mere pretension. Democracy itself cannot survive without the rule of law. These twin elements – rule of law and security of lives and property – are what drive society and the economy. It would be revealing if we were to have proper and verified statistics on the investment opportunities that have been lost to Nigeria because of these twin pervasive challenges – i.e. insecurity of lives and property and the erosion of the rule of law. As an Association of Lawyers, we must constantly rise up to challenge our leaders on these twin fronts. We must hold our leaders accountable for security of lives and property while also defending and promoting the rule of law in our society. Our leaders must also understand that by holding up these two tenets – security of lives and property and the promotion of the rule of law – they secure their own lives and wellbeing as well, for, as we must continue to emphasize, if you take care of the rule of law, the rule of law will take care of you.
16. On a good and harmonious note, I must conclude this Address by mentioning that we have fulfilled our electoral promise to remit 10% of the Bar Practice Fees to our branches. A number of the Branches have already received their remittance and the others will presently join the ranks of the recipients. Our colleague, Rabiu Ayuba, the young man that won a car during the 2018 Annual General Conference but which we were not able to fulfill due to the state of our purse now has cause to smile. This afternoon, during the break period, I will be joined by some of the elders of our Association to present the car keys to him. We have also continued in the path of financial prudence, transparency and accountability by publishing to you our Association’s Q4 Financial Statement. This is a commitment that we made and which we will continue to keep.
17. I mention these fulfilled promises merely to make the point that electoral promises can be kept when there is the will to keep them. I am pleased that the NBA under my watch is displaying these exemplary conducts which I hope our national politicians and society at large is taking note of. It surely should be possible for our governments to also fulfill its electoral mandate of securing our lives and property and promoting the rule of law. By the way, we still have many more milestones to achieve. One of these is the recommencement of our insurance cover which will be concluded very shortly. There are also outstanding our electoral commitments to our young lawyers and our various other Forums which we would also fulfill presently. All of these and much more would be fulfilled, by the Grace of the Almighty.
18. Once again, I welcome you, my distinguished colleagues, to the third NEC meeting of the present administration. I wish us very fruitful deliberations. Long live the Nigerian Bar Association. Long live our Independent Judiciary.
Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Paul Usoro, SAN President