Dr. Monday Onyekachi Ubani is gradually becoming the crime buster for the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). In this interview by LANRE ADEWOLE and SEGUN KASALI, he speaks on his recent investigative missions.
Is Nigeria’s judiciary headed in the right direction?
You must not assess the judiciary without taking into cognisance their limitations. They are operating in a very difficult environment. We are still struggling with the issue of financial autonomy. Remember that they had to go on strike and that has not been sorted out. Just yesterday I learnt that a governor has just increased the salaries of judges. I think it is the man in Ogun State. So, if the judiciary is financially autonomous, why would a governor be the one increasing their salaries or allowances? It still means that they are still an appendage of the executive and it should not be that way. To answer your question, the judiciary has done the best it can, even though it can do better within the limited environment. It is headed towards the right direction even though I also feel that there are some certain deficiencies it should have taken care of, even within the limited environment it found itself.
Can we have those observations of yours?
Expeditious disposal of cases is an issue. At the Supreme Court now, it would take you a minimum of five to six years to get a date, including Court of Appeal. And most lawyers now, when you get judgment against them, they know it would take time and so they would just file any appeal, whether frivolous or not. People are latching on that. This means you have to wait for many years to get justice because justice delayed is justice denied. It is a very big problem and we need to solve it. Also, we must insist that judges who are appointed into the bench are people who are really called to be at the bench and that they are there to dispense justice. We must have men of integrity and honour at the bench. There should be nothing other than justice. Getting the (right) kind of character to come into the bench has always been an issue. And everyone is still pointing to the fact that the recruitment process in the judicial sector is still not transparent as it ought to be. The entry point is still not transparent.
The communiqué from NBA NEC talked about secret recruitment of 22 judges.
Yes, they mentioned it. We should be careful because it gives some people the leeway to question the integrity of the judiciary. Every person relies on the judiciary as the last hope of the common man. The moment the common man does not believe in the judicial system, hope is lost. The process must be seen to be very transparent. Recruitment process and the issue of expeditious (disposal of cases) are the basic issues I think is a clear minus on our judiciary and the issue of basic infrastructure. We should get the judiciary to be very comfortable, to prevent having cases of caved roof like what happened in Abia State. The magistrate court had adjourned. Few minutes thereafter, the roof caved in. If they were there, we know what would have happened.
Attempts were made to recruit senior lawyers into the Supreme Court but practically all of them turned it down.
No, they did not. Government did not go ahead with the policy. Agbakoba and others were happy about it and were all ready which was what was obtainable in the 70s. Most people that were recruited into the bench then, the Oputas of the world, were from the bar. When they were excelling at the bar, they were taken to the bench. And we had the best era even under the military dispensation.
You must have a message for the NJC on this?
My message is that they should begin to look at those brilliant lawyers with character and then take them straight to the bench. You can invite them, to say, we want you on the bench. It is important they have the right character. You can be brilliant as a judge but if you don’t have character, your brilliance is nonsense.
Did you interact with the affected lawyers in the conflicting order saga, in the course of your investigation?
No, we did not. It was the process we looked at. We don’t have power for such. It is at the disciplinary level. Ours is fact-finding. We just reviewed it but we found out that something was fundamentally wrong.
From your findings, are you worried that the bar is a bit corrupted?
No, I am not even alleging corruption. I am only alleging the issue of observance of ethics. It is not corruption. And we should not be used by politicians to do some of the things they do. You must review some of these things. In the context of your ethics, is it right?
Is the issue of ethics not professional corruption?
I don’t want to use the word corruption. Yes, it is unethical but we know that there is a committee that deals with unethical practice which is the Legal Practice Disciplinary Committee.
NJC has done its own part by punishing three judges.
They should tell us the findings on the APGA case. There was a petition which I am sure of.
What should we expect from the LPDC?
I cannot speak for them because they want to hear the lawyers themselves. You know we do much of fair hearing. You should evaluate the evidence on ground and you then take decision.
Considering precedents, what do you think would be the outcome?
Disciplinary measure can take effect just like they did to the judges by placing ceiling on their promotion within a specified time.
A Senior Advocate wondered if the affected judges were even planning to be promoted?
Any measure is a discipline. If I ask you to go and cut grass or frog jump even though you may not exert so much stress, the fact is, it shows that you are liable. The adequacy of the offence is not even the issue but that you are found liable. For me, it is deterrent enough.
Did you also interact with the NJC in the course of the assignment?
We are dealing with our own colleagues. But we made a recommendation that the NJC must also take the lead in looking at the judges and their roles. It is part of the recommendation to the NBA. Perhaps it would reach out to them.
Looking at Odili’s home invasion as the investigator, how troubling are your findings?
I am yet to give NBA the full report because I am yet to get the police side but you would get that soon. All the other personnel were very interesting and they wanted to cooperate: the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the victim Mrs Odili, the Attorney General himself, the magistrate that was involved and then the CJ of FCT.
You mean the CJN too was willing to talk to you?
Yes. I spoke to all of them and we are all worried. The CJN even made a profound statement that they would not like to be intimidated as an arm of government.
What exactly is the excuse from the police?
I don’t know. They have not communicated because I wrote everyone including them to give us a date. But the good news is that they have arraigned those guys.
Provided that they are the real culprits.
Well, let me believe so. So, we look at whatever the proof of evidence is.
Would they be stalling on something like this if they have nothing to hide?
I don’t want to say that they have something to hide but I believe that as a public institution they should have allowed NBA to have access to them and those people who were allegedly arrested.
And you are not thinking of invoking the Freedom of Information Act?
I don’t want anything that would delay this process. We strategised and we agreed that there are other means to reach out, to get the information needed. But if the information I have or I would receive from the source we are going to depend upon is not sufficient, then we can invoke. But, for now, let us make do with whatever we can get in order to complete my report. That is what I want to say.
Are you worried about your findings so far?
I won’t like to divulge my worries and findings because the first constituency that I would present my findings to would be the Nigeria Bar Association. But, I am happy with the progress of the report and NBA is happy with the role so far by setting up a one-man panel rather than relying on what is written on social media. Meeting the person one-on-one and asking direct questions is most preferable. You can now look at all the affidavit that was sworn. You know materials were placed before the Magistrate and he acted on them. So, we would know whether it was a sufficient material or there was a bit of carelessness. So, these are issues we need to look at critically in the report.
Nigeria must be in for a shocker then.
No, no, no. I won’t like to say that. There is no shocker. There may be some information on social media that may indict someone. But, they might not be true. Lawyers deal with fact. You can’t indict without proof of evidence. So, that is why I am saying that it is not good to rely on social media or any other media. So, it is better you ask some of the troubling questions so you can get the right answers. That was exactly what I did.
Your probe seems all-inclusive. Will it not be better for the police to cooperate with your team?
Police would be angry that you are even coming to get the correct information. From their body language, they would never want you to get the correct information because sometimes the way we operate in this part of the world is that we love things done in secrecy and use it to bamboozle people and all that. If not this, why won’t the police cooperate with one of the highest professional bodies in the country in terms of membership? NBA is the highest pressure group in the country apart from the Nigerian Labour Congress. We have over 160,000 lawyers and they are interested in the judiciary and that is their calling. We defend the judiciary. It was NBA that set up the panel.
What if your report eventually contradicts the police findings leading to the ongoing prosecution of suspects?
I won’t divulge anything. When we get to the bridge, we will cross it.
Are you going to interact with the suspects?
Yes, I will certainly but not necessarily directly because they have put down things. My second strategy is that after getting the information and it is not sufficient, then I can now know what to do. But for now we have the strategy to hear from those people who have been arrested.
How soon do we expect the report?
I don’t want to give a timeline. Just allow me to use the word that it is going to be very soon. NBA has a major interest in this issue. You know the role of NBA in the judiciary. We don’t want a judiciary that is intimidated but one operating under democracy. A judiciary that is independent will bring out the best. We don’t want this invasion here and there.
The ruling of a judge is his considered opinion. But does that mean he can have opinions on issues affecting him. Must the bench remain mute in the name of being conservative?
I think that is changing. The leadership just said we can bark and bite, which is a departure from the usual practice of being mute. But you cannot continue to be mute forever and you know this is changing. The world is changing. A judge remaining mute and not having a right of reply won’t continue. A time would come when a CJN would say we cannot continue to be mute anymore.
The media arm of the judiciary doesn’t also talk much too, in defence of the judges.
No. You know they operate under a very structured system because little information you put out there, can put you in trouble. But it will change. It is just the right kind of leadership. Thank God for this current leadership of NBA. That is why we are taking this particular position and going to this extent.
What is going on between Chief Adegboyega Awomolo and the NBA President?
I don’t think that is a problem. I think it is a measure of misunderstanding. But I think the leaders at the bar have started intervening.
He openly opposed his election by writing a leaked letter to SANs.
Yes, that was during the election. But now that the man has been elected, he is the president of the bar for both the junior and the senior. He ought to be given every support to succeed.
Is there a dichotomy between the inner and outer bar?
There is no dichotomy in the bar. We don’t have it. We don’t recognise it.
But Akpata’s election was regarded as a mutiny within the NBA.
I don’t know. Maybe few people regard it that way. Was he not qualified for the presidency?
And there were non-silk presidents in the past.
Then what is the issue? I was once the chairman of the NBA Ikeja branch and during my tenure all the senior advocates of Nigeria attended all our programmes. The Femi Falanas of this world, the Dele Adesinas and many more. And this is because I reached out to them. I have a relationship with all of them. So, what is the issue that somebody is privileged to be president and then he is no longer a lawyer. No. I won’t discriminate against someone who is a non-lawyer not to talk of a lawyer because I am a Senior Advocate. No. It doesn’t place me in the position of a god. It is a privileged position that would even make me more humble. That recognition has been given to me as being learned. That I don’t use it to intimidate. That I don’t use it to brag. I only use it to serve humanity and enhance the legal profession as a contribution of my quota to national development including legal development. The central focus is to ensure the development of the law and development of Nigeria. So, it should not be a position you occupy and you begin to use it to intimidate people. That means you don’t understand why you are being conferred with it. That is how I feel it should be.
Maybe it is about the leadership style?
I think the president himself is the most simplest I have ever seen. This is a man you would call, even if he is in a meeting, he would pick and tell you that he would call back. And he would do that when he finishes the meeting. He is such a humble person. And I also think that he reaches out to every person. He has produced SANs in his office. So, what is the issue? He has regard and respect for the senior advocates of Nigeria. Remember he is not a junior lawyer too. He is a senior lawyer. He is well known as a business lawyer and he is one of the best in Nigeria. So, if SAN is being conferred on business lawyers, he would be qualified to get it. I don’t think he disrespects the seniors. But, I also think that he must reach out to every senior. He must carry everybody along. Inclusive leadership is very key.
So, there should be a shift on both sides?
Yes, they are the leaders of the bar and he is the foremost leader of the bar, I mean Olumide Akpata. He could just reach out to the leaders of the bar. Akpata is loved and so, I don’t want him to have problem with the senior advocates. I won’t like that.
So, bar leaders are attending to the crisis?
Yes, I can assure you that they would sort it out. I had been in a place where conversation is ongoing and they said there should not be any problem between the NBA president and other members of the bar. He is not cut out for that. He did not come out to divide the bar but rather to unify it. It is also to prove a point that once you are qualified to be an NBA president, you can hold your own intellectually, maturely, defend the rule of law and dissecting Nigeria’s problems and proffering solutions. We are almost talking about two billion naira in our account for just one year and he is planning to do more to have an NBA that is very vibrant, financially buoyant and then attending to all problems, saying lawyers must not be harassed in the course of performing their duties. He has created a body that should interact with all these security agencies to create a harmonious relationship. He is attending to every need of the lawyers because the argument of lawyers had been what they get in NBA despite contributing so much. He has come out with various insurance schemes to help lawyers. In the last conference, lawyers were given free online reports of cases. Immediately you pay your practice fee, you are given your stamp and seal. Some of them free-of-charge before you can pay for the others. So, he is addressing the issue of welfare in the bar which has always been the bane and complaint of the junior ones. He is addressing everyone’s problems even to national issues. We now have our office restored at the National Assembly so that lawyers would be there every time in the law-making process and that we are not taken aback on some certain laws that are made without the input of the legal profession.
In terms of performance, this is one of the best presidents I have seen, who is very sincere in terms of performance. He is just one year and the man has done so much in terms of raising the bar of the NBA and whoever is coming in must sustain the tempo.
Election is next year and it is the North’s turn. Have you seen any aspirant that will carry the bar forward?
All the candidates are qualified. They are more than qualified to take the bar to another level. I don’t want to go into specifics. Three of them that I know have come out.
What is the problem with the Legal Practitioners Act?
The issue is that every law must be amended to reflect new realities. There are some processes that are being amended. But some of our members who are in the house are trying to push for those amendments. It must be done in accordance to the interest of the bar. Don’t go and create another LPA all in the process of amending LPA. That is what we are against. We believe in one, united bar.
Is the position of the NBA different from that of the AGF on Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners?
You mean the rule that was amended? He said he was not the one who amended it. I have interacted with the AGF and I think he is for a united bar.
So who is misrepresenting him?
You remember I went to court when they amended that rule wrongly. The process was not even followed at all. Akpata appealed to me to withdraw believing that the AGF will correct that error. But up till now, nothing has been done. NBA is going back to court over that same matter.
Do you believe the executive is interfering in the affairs of the judiciary?
If they do not grant them autonomy, then they are interfering. That is all I would say.
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