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NBA leadership must make young lawyers focal point of its activities, says Obiaraeri

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Former dean, faculty of law, Imo State University and legal essayist, Prof. Nnamdi Obiaraeri in this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, suggests agenda for the new leadership of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). According to him, NBA must immediately focus on improving on the welfare of young lawyers, champion the emancipation of the judiciary from the suffocating influences of both the executive and legislature among others.

What is your agenda for the new leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)?
The NBA leadership must be prepared to provide 21st century leadership in a COVID 19 ravaged era. The realities on ground do not require anything short of a multidisciplinary and multifaceted creative leadership. The momentum and direction of the NBA election campaigns reveal a disturbing trend. It seems the bug of disunity afflicting the general Nigerian polity has crept badly into the fabric of NBA affairs. The Bar is seriously disunited and there is obvious tension, misunderstanding and leadership gap begging for attention.
  
Honest Bar men eagerly look forward to a leadership that will among other things herald a new dawn, promote professional camaraderie and radically transform the perception of the Bar and Bench in the society and restore the sagging morale of the greater majority of the Bar membership, being those who are presently struggling to find their feet in the profession, being the young lawyers.

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Without exception, the young lawyers feel betrayed by the very senior and established lawyers who pay them “monkey wages” and care less about their welfare and professional growth. The very older lawyers who are indisposed on health or other grounds feel that their profession cannot offer them succour. A situation where the take home pay of a lawyer, whether young or old, is not able to take him home metaphorically speaking, is disaster waiting to happen.
  
The economic downturn and absence of equitable social safety nets in the country has impacted heavily on the quality and quantity of legal services available. It has also impacted negatively on other sectors of our national lives. A serious minded NBA leadership must therefore make the welfare of young lawyers the focal point of its activities by listening to the compelling core demands of the young lawyers forum, while encouraging training and retraining of all strata of lawyers on emerging trends in the profession.
 
The Bar also speaks for the Judiciary. In your view, what should be the first primary intervention in that sector?
The Bar is truly the mouthpiece of the Judiciary. The Bench and the Bar can be likened to co-joined or Siamese twins because one is firstly a lawyer before being appointed into the bench. What affects one affects the other, that is how it is with the relationship between the Bench and Bar.

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The Bar must champion the ongoing crusade to free the Nigerian Judiciary from the suffocating clutch of the executive and overbearing intrusions of the legislature. The priority of the Bar leadership and membership should be how to create a virile and truly independent judiciary. The Bar should strive towards cleaning the poor image of the Nigerian judiciary and stemming the tide of corruption and corrupt tendencies in the judiciary. An independent and incorruptible Bench is key in a democracy because the judiciary remains the bulwark of democracy.

It is disheartening that the efforts of the many honest and courageous judicial officers that populate our judiciary are being rubbished by the few bad eggs amongst them. To achieve near purity, excellence and independence, the Bar must go all out for full financial autonomy of the Judiciary. This must be vigorously pursued and achieved with clear collaboration of the relevant stakeholders. Financial autonomy of the judiciary should go beyond the minimal prescriptions of the now withdrawn Executive Order No.10 2020 and be made a clear, unambiguous and enforceable provision of the national constitution.
 
How can the dignity of the profession be restored, considering that lawyers are today facing all manner of disdain? Security agencies now arrest, beat up and detain lawyers without reverence, and there are little or no consequences. The Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) has just barred lawyers from its premises. What do you think about all these?
These regrettable indignities being meted out to lawyers are reflections of the decay in the society and lack of respect for rule of law. A lawyer is a social engineer and must never be prevented from discharging his responsibilities to the society. NBA should be able to protect their own and in appropriate cases, file court actions, even on public interest litigation basis when non-lawyers are involved, to check the excesses of the security agencies. The Motto of the NBA is “Promoting the Rule of Law”. You cannot promote rule of law in an arrogantly ignorant society. With the greatest respect, the level of legal ignorance in the polity is appalling and this affects how we treat each other and how our public officials treat the average citizen. To my mind, it is legal ignorance and lack of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms of others that will make a security agent to kneel on the neck of a citizen who is not armed and dangerous.
  
NBA must come out of its cocoon or shell to engage the security agencies and public authorities on the need to respect the rights of citizens and to treat them with dignity. The NBA must embark on intense enlightenment and aggressive advocacy, awareness or campaigns on citizenship rights and fundamental freedoms to all stakeholders and the populace. No lawyer will be accorded his right and dignity either in the facilities of the Police, Army, Department of State Security (DSS) and the like or even the CAC when the security officers, without exception, engage in extra judicial killings and other forms of brazen violations of the rights of citizens unchallenged and unpunished. There is a compelling need for mental restructuring amongst the members of the Nigerian security agencies and public officials and the NBA must lead this.

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The leadership of the Bar seems to be helpless in all of these issues, resulting in apathy towards the NBA by many lawyers. How can the Bar promote the welfare of its members and get their interest revived?
The leadership recruitment process is important in every organisation, the NBA not being an exception. NBA has become what you call “a toothless bulldog” because its fine ideals have been compromised to the extent that it is difficult to differentiate between campaigns conducted in the regular political parties and campaigns for NBA offices either at the Branch or National levels. This is sad and very disturbing, although I do not agree that the NBA is a toothless bulldog. The NBA has teeth and can bite but it is weighed down by the internal contradictions that are negatively affecting other professional groups and societies in Nigeria. NBA should be in the lead and provide leadership. What does the average lawyer gain in practical terms from membership of the NBA? Answers to this key question should form the new narratives for the Bar leadership. It must be succinctly stated that lawyers who stay away from NBA activities are not helping themselves aside not being good Bar men. Isolation is never a solution to an appalling situation.
 
The Bar has been described as toothless bulldog in recent years due to its inability to fight for social justice by being very vocal and challenging misrule in all levels of government. What do you think accounts for this? 
This tie clearly with the explanations offered earlier. If people literally have to pay through their noses to take office either at the Branch or National levels of the NBA, it shuts out the greater majority who may want to aspire but are handicapped by financial resources. Why must every NBA presidential election end in litigation? Is it no longer service to professional colleagues? Those of us who have served in the Bar in the past are worried stiff about these sad developments in NBA. If those who are at the commanding heights of the Bar leadership are shuffling between one court or the other defending one allegation of criminal wrongdoing or the other including that the election that brought them to office is not free and fair or was rigged, that will be a moral millstone. Such an official has lost the moral high ground to be in the vanguard of fighting misrule and injustice. Only a Bar leadership that is not carrying legal baggage or moral impediment can vigorously fight for social justice, challenge executive lawlessness, legislative rascality and judicial high handedness.
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How can you juxtapose the experience during the time of the late Alao Aka-Bashorun and these days?
It will be uncharitable to continue to live in the past. Overtime, NBA has not done badly in standing for the Nigerian people and promoting the rule of law but we insist that it can do better. There are many lawyers who can provide responsible and responsive leadership in the Bar that can replicate, improve and surpass the olden days you referred to but will the dysfunctional system allow them to mount the saddle of leadership? I am optimistic that the Bar can get back its elevated and respected role in the society but something must give. A new normal is possible!
 
Some Nigerians have criticized the Judiciary for deciding to go on two months’ vacation after months of staying at home as a result of the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. What is your reaction?
The world is at war with an unseen enemy called COVID-19. Even the more developed nations shut down their public institutions completely in reaction to it and they are gradually and cautiously reassessing their public engagements presently. The COVID-19 pandemic is real and there is no cure or vaccine in sight. The figures in Nigeria are galloping and this should be a source of concern to all. There is no blameworthiness for the States and Jurisdictions that did not forfeit their annual leave. Life has no substitute. The demon in the air called COVID-19 is still lurking around and it is no use to throw the courts open when there are no protocols on ground to contain the pandemic in the courts.
  
On public health and safety concerns, we need judicial officers, the staff of the judiciary, the lawyers, litigants and members of the public to be alive instead of encouraging deadly community spread of the COVID-19. Only recently, Ebonyi State was forced to shut their courts that have been open when the demon of COVID-19 bared its fangs. China is having a fresh outbreak of COVID-19. It is better to err on the side of surplusage than to die in avoidable circumstances. We must be careful with public gatherings now as it is the most sensible and reasonable thing to do. Public health advisory from the World Health Organisation (WHO) insists that the countries of the world thread with caution. Health first! Once more, life has no substitute. In any case, there are vacation judges to take care of urgent and pressing legal matters.

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Part of the proposal for the judiciary is that it can adopt the conventional method of individual judges choosing their own month within the year to proceed on vacation so that the system would not be totally grounded with only vacation judges attending to urgent matters. Would you subscribe to this idea?
This is not right as it conveys the wrong notion that only judicial officers deserve to go on vacation. Every hardworking and self-respecting lawyer should also go on annual vacation for health or pleasure purposes. Too much of everything is bad. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Ideally, every working person should have a time to go on vacation and cool off to come back rejuvenated. There is nothing wrong with the current arrangement, which streamlines the vacation period for judicial officers and lawyers who are ministers in the Temple of Justice.
 
How do you see the revelations emerging from the House of Representatives’ Committee on the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the Justice Ayo Salami’s panel investigating former acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)? 
Let me say that the fight against corruption is getting both intense and interesting. The revelations from the NDDC probe and investigation of the former EFCC Chairman is good for the fight against corruption.  The modus operandi of dropping the allegations is getting messy as well, even as it seems the dramatis personae are taking the Nigerian people for a ride.

Speaking legally, until the so called revelations flying up and down are reduced into criminal charges and those linked with them are formerly arraigned, tried and convicted in courts of competent jurisdiction, they remain within the realm of suspicion. The settled law is that suspicion, no matter how strong, is not enough ground for criminal responsibility. Besides, the constitutional presumption of innocence under section 36(6) of the 1999 Constitution as amended avails all persons linked with the allegations so far. The irreducible minimum of the Nigerian people is that the anti-graft agencies should be able to do the needful concerning these allegations and that there should be no sacred cows. Whether the different reports of the Probe Panels will see the light of the day or will be allowed to gather dust like the many others before it remains to be seen. The open revelations as opposed to concealment of these cases shows that the present administration is fighting corruption but you can see that corruption is also fighting back fiercely.

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What is your take on the increasing level of insecurity across the country, especially the carnage going on in Southern Kaduna?
Section 14(2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution as amended clearly provides that the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government. The carnage in Southern Kaduna is a crime against humanity. The perpetrators should be brought to book and steps taken to forestall re-occurrence. It is not out of place to call on the Federal, State and Local Governments to redouble their efforts towards securing the country. Without security, there can’t be peace and progress.
 
A number of people have criticized the government for imposing a six per cent Stamp Duty levy on Tenancy Agreements. What is your reaction?
It is an anti-people initiative or policy. The timing is wrong, as the devastating pangs of COVID-19 on the economy are still very much in the air. Government policies must be humane and appropriately timed.
 
What is your position on the debate about virtual or online court hearings? 
The world has never been static and will not be the same after COVID-19 is over. Nigeria is part of the fast changing world. The reality of ICT age and digital world is here. We are now in a global village. Our adjectival laws cannot afford to remain analogue and unresponsive to contemporary realities. The Supreme Court was right to have held that virtual hearing is not unconstitutional when striking out the two suits filed by Lagos State and Ekiti State respectively challenging the constitutionality of the virtual court sittings procedure. This development is most welcome as virtual or online court hearings is the new destination and all stakeholders are expected to adjust accordingly.

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