Once upon a Bar
The many records of the unsettling affairs or events surrounding the Nigerian Bar (used here advisedly to represent the justice delivery system) have made pundits to ruefully ruminate regarding the obvious departure from the early cherished history or beginnings of the once elegant profession of the Bar. Many have romanticised the then direct correlation between contemporary political experience and the criticism from the Bar devoted to society’s corrective or reformist quest. It is significant to recognise that many civil society platforms, notably the Bar, reproduced the fire and polemical ardour of the Aka-Bashorun hue in the early days of the nation’s return to democracy. Their criticisms took a clearly discernible aluta continua posture regarding our social and political difficulties. Not for that glorious Bar the seduction or enticement of complacency, the avoidance of responsibility to the general public or the cheap or vain hope or desire for political preferment or office. It is worrisome that the tradition of social criticism that we inherited and whose influence was pervasive even during the military era has waned.
It is tempting to always want to take the charm or allure of old for granted. We are quick nowadays to glamorise the past even as we are faced with the sobering difficulty and danger of attempting to dogmatise about the standards of legal or moral behaviour effectively observed in the days of old. Like many generally-held opinions, the views concerning society’s presumed ornate past are universal or cosmic. They probably contain intrinsic truths than fibs or taradiddles. The civic appropriateness of the Bar as a disquieting spirit or as a disturbing presence among us particularly in moments of the threatened or objective official infringement of personal liberty of the restriction of fundamental human rights or of the abeyance of the rule of law is today unfortunately viewed only in historical perspective or significance. Even as our state-society relations are at dismal variance with our deep-seated sensibilities regarding propriety, normative patterns and the centrality of justice in the affairs of men, our Bar has curiously carved for itself the un-enviable image of a mere demotic inscription on a conspicuous wall – reminding us merely of its past pomp, glory or majesty. Any special study of the times cannot fail to recognise the primal position of the Bar as a major critical platform for opening up the democratic space and for the achievement of the goals of our social contract. The Bar, properly positioned, is able to subvert society’s inclination towards complacency or resignation. Our general limited imagination and the bogus or primitive self-interest of our leaders can be rationally challenged by an enlightened or truly learned Bar.
It is proper to identify the Bar as being in the eye of the storm regarding our threatened democracy. The Bar must therefore acutely sense its pride of place respecting the requirement for reasoned combativeness, thoroughness or product knowledge and its unique centrality for resolving many of our socio-political problems. It is required that it should jealously pursue its undoubted right to interrogate the validity or fairness of administrative acts of ministers, ministries, agencies of government and local and subordinate authorities. The inexplicable electricity supply conundrum, the Fulani herdsmen brigandage, the poor or failed performance of government regarding its expressed promises or manifesto, the threatened official restriction of the fundamental right to hold opinion or of association, or of peaceful protest, the un-federal nature of our Federation, etc. are live matters which find their place at the very heart of Nigeria’s complex of historical or social engineering. The Bar has lost its voice even to condemn the open betrayal by government of the people’s expectations or of otherwise solemn promises made in the fierce glare of the public. Policy somersaults or the numerous 360 degrees freaky capriccios that have become the stained badge of a government that rode on the crest of a popular change mantra have all gone unchallenged by a Bar burdened by a conflict of moral choices.
This year’s Bar Conference in its thematic and substantive dimensions has been, in truth, a “flight to Afghanistan” – an implied analogy to denote a filibustering smug discussion of goings-on in a forlorn far-away land as an escape from a requirement to frontally address the realities of an objective situation at home or in the local environment. The conference held at Lagos for “the strategic discussion of issues surrounding the business environment in Africa.” In a year in which the reasoned discussions of the untrue nature of Nigeria’s federalism are at fever pitch and have rightfully taken the centre stage regarding a wide-spread denunciation of the cant, when the future of the polity is threatened by up-beat separatist agitations, when government seems to have lost its bearing concerning the recognition of cherished values or the performance of vaunted policies, when the nation’s constituent units are clamouring for a re-negotiation of the terms of their co-existence, it is grotesque for the Bar to play the ostrich or take a flight of fancy to Afghanistan or to Outer Mongolia.
At a time when a menacingly vindictive or vengeful “Hate Speech” Bill threatening the constitutionally-guaranteed free speech milieu, has been promised a peremptory passage in the National Assembly, it is immoral for the leading lights of the Bar to engage in the frivolity of a conference on a putative African Business which aim is “to explore the possibilities of business penetration through institution building.” The Bar must distinguish itself away from the identified Nigerian malaise of critical lack of a profound sense of history. It must learn from the inexorable lessons of history. In 1965, when the disturbed peace in the Western Region of Nigeria was threatening the stability and good governance of the entire Nigeria federation, the Balewa government ignored the glaring signals of an implosion as it curiously pre-occupied itself with the organisation, in a fiesta-like fashion, of top-level talks for finding a “diplomatic solution” to the Rhodesian [now Zimbabwe] independence impasse.
The fangled discussion of the business environment or of its projected fortunes or attractiveness in Nigeria especially or Africa generally, even of the practice of business in its world-class prescriptions of refinement and subtlety can only be meaningfully predicated on the existence of an underlying structure in the form of an enabling socio-political order. The peace, order and good government of Nigeria are themselves the necessary pre-requisites for the formulation or establishment of an effective legal framework for the practice of business in Nigeria and for African business to penetrate through institution building. The Bar must not suffer from a dissociation of sensibility.
Rotimi-John is a legal practitioner.