Justice Onnoghen Saga: NBA Should Tread Softly By Ibrahim M. Attahir

It is a rule known to lawyers and even non-lawyers alike that if a case is pending before a court of law, discussion on it should be avoided. It may amount to interference with judicial process. I admire the path followed by the 20 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) that are tagged as “Reformers” or “G20”on this Justice Onnoghen saga. They avoided commenting on the issues that are subject of litigation before various courts. They, however, advocated for reform to cleanse the Judiciary. Therefore, I will also avoid commenting on the aspects that are before courts and the attendant confusion and legal acrimony generated. My contribution will be on the role played or being played by the NBA so far. That is not before any court of law.

In my humble opinion, this is not a good time for the legal profession. If any lawyer says he is happy since the news of the Justice Onnoghen saga broke, he may not be saying the truth. Office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) is an exalted position. He occupies the highest position in the judicial sector and in the legal profession generally. As head of the Judiciary, he is, by protocol, the number five citizen of Nigeria. His office is a national symbol. Therefore, it must be accorded the respect that it deserves not only by lawyers but by all authorities and persons in the country. Even if I am not a lawyer, my religion, my culture and my upbringing teach me to respect elders and constituted authorities.

The NBA is a professional association that has statutory recognition in the justice sector. Its core objectives include, inter alia, protection of independence of the judiciary, separation of powers and rule of law. The NBA should always guard these core objectives jealously. In Gombe Branch of the NBA we had cause to fight the then Military Administrator when he maltreated a judicial officer. That was when the State was not up to two years old.

The NBA may not like the suspension of the CJN. But bearing in mind the surrounding circumstances, litigation should have been the last option. We were taught about the psychology of litigation in the Nigerian Law School. It is not always that you advise your client to go to court or resort to legal acrobatics. A lawyer should be candid enough to tell his client whether he can get what he wants in or out of court. That is why ADR is the trend in all jurisdictions and under all systems of law. Plea bargain in criminal matters is also in the same direction.

I know we have so many differences of religion, region and tribe. The way we see things in my own part of the country may differ from other parts. But at least, I know that we are all Africans and we share certain cultural norms. One of such norms is that elders are not allowed to fight because it may bring so many unpleasant consequences for the family or clan or community. For example, if your father and your mother or your father and your uncle are fighting, you may not have the capacity to call them to order. But the solution is not in you joining one of them to wrestle the other to the ground. Ignoring them will also not help matters. If you join one to defeat the other or you ignored them and they strip themselves naked, it will cast a stigma on the family. The best thing for you is to get some of the respected elders in the community to intervene.

Luckily, for the legal profession, we have many past CJNs alive. We have past Presidents of Court of Appeal alive. We have past Attorneys-General alive. We have many past Presidents of NBA alive. I, always cite example with past President of the NBA Mr. O.C.J. Okocha, SAN. He had cause to intervene in so many occasions when the NBA had challenges. His views are always respected. I witnessed one such occasion in 2006 in Ladi Kwali Hall of Sheraton Hotel, Abuja during the NBA NEC Meeting wherein tension was high. Lawyers almost started throwing chairs at one another. However, when the learned silk spoke, it was like he poured water on the raging fire. Everybody became sober. Some of the said personalities I mentioned have the capacity to earn respect not only because of their professional standing but also because of their age. That is the beauty of having elders. We can tap from their experience and wisdom. In the circumstances we find ourselves, I see nothing bad in the NBA and the senior lawyers consulting even some respected elders that are not lawyers. It is a national crisis.

Therefore, when the crisis of the suspended CJN began, I expected the leadership of NBA and the senior lawyers to go beyond calling for NBA NEC meeting or calling of meeting of Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN). It should have consulted some of these big names in the legal profession. The NBA is in the best position to play mediatory role since it is not a government agency. All the person and bodies that are one way or the other involved in or affected by the crisis (CJN, Ag CJN, AGF, NJC, CCT, Prosecution, Defence, etc) have regards for the NBA.

However, the NBA got it wrong when it virtually joined the arena. Another great mistake was the decision of the NBA NEC meeting to embark on court boycott and street protests. I saw lawyers on the streets carrying placards. Where are we supposed to promote rule of law? Is it in the courtroom or on the streets? If we cannot solve a legal problem in the courtroom and have to take to the streets, what do we expect the pedestrians to do? The problem of embarking on “peaceful” protest is that it may be hijacked and turned to something else by the hijackers and the organizers can hardly extricate themselves from what the hijackers will do.

I saw a video clip of one lawyer during the protest in Abuja disparaging the Ag. CJN and even saying that he was not called to the Bar! That is a serious disrespect not only to the Acting CJN but to the NJC that cleared and recommended him for various judicial appointments up to the Supreme Court. I also read in the social media that an NBA branch chairman attempted to disrupt proceedings of the Court of Appeal in one of its divisions. If all these are true, it is most unfortunate. Could all that be what the NBA intended with the court boycott and the street protest? I am not aware whether the NBA leadership associated or disassociated the Bar from what those lawyers did. But my belief is that the NBA will not support such conduct.

Whether we like it or not, the perception of an average Nigerian on lawyers generally is negative. They see lawyers, especially the senior ones, as persons who can turn black to white to free crooks when they run afoul of the law. Nigerians abuse lawyers but when they are in trouble, they run to lawyers. Similarly, the perception of the common man on the judiciary is, consciously or unconsciously, bad. The handling of this crisis by the NBA may make uninformed people continue with their negative perception on lawyers and the judiciary.

In the pursuit of the noble objective of defending independence of the judiciary, separation powers, rule of law, constitutionalism and all that, we must not be seen to be selective. The NBA was there when OBJ, in flagrant breach of the constitution, purported to sack Atiku Abubakar as Vice President. The NBA did not call for court boycott. OBJ was also caught red handed attempting to insert a clause not passed by the legislature in the Electoral Act, 2002. The NBA did not call for boycott of courts. Was that act not abuse of the separation of powers? During the time of GEJ, Hon. Justice Salami was suspended. The GEJ government neglected and refused to reinstate him even when the NJC cleared him. The NBA did not call for court boycott.

There are cases of lawyers killed in cold blood or maltreated over the years. A member of NBA Gombe Branch was shot dead by a trigger happy Mobile Policeman in 2004. The NBA did not call for court boycott. I cannot recall whether the national body of the NBA sent any condolence to the Branch. Recently, a senior lawyer in Gombe Branch of the NBA was beaten up by Prison Warders for going to the Prison to visit his client. The NBA did not call for court boycott. There are so many less-privileged persons that suffer injustice in the hands of security agents or powerful individuals over the years. The NBA did not call for court boycott. The society is watching us. If we are seen as selective, the credibility of the Association will be eroded.

Let me conclude by stating that I am not aware of what happened in the NBA before I became a lawyer. However, since the restoration of NBA leadership at national level in 1998, there was no time Branches of the NBA openly refuse to comply with a decision of its NEC Meeting as in the resolution on courts boycott. This is an indication that the decision did not go down well with many of our colleagues. This should serve as a pointer to the present and future leadership of the NBA to be careful in taking decision on crucial issues that are capable of polarizing the Bar. The NBA should thread softly.

May God save us.

Ibrahim M. Attahir, Esq.
Past Chairman, Gombe Branch



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