…arraignment of NBA’s President politically motivated, attempt to weaken the Bar Says Lawyers can’t be prosecuted for money they earned as legal fees under money laundering act Frowns at too many-count charge by prosecutors Nurudeen Ogbara, a constitutional lawyer and human rights activist, believes the National Judicial Council, NJC intervention in Onnoghen’s case has brought decency and sanctity to the process and therefore be commended. In this interview with Saturday Vanguard, the former chairman of Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, Ikorodu branch, Lagos state, who was the Secretary of National Association of Democratic lawyers, and a Director, Citizens Assistance Center, also said the current travails of the President of NBA, Paul Usoro were politically motivated and an attempt by some elements to weaken the Bar.
What’s your take on the current travails of the president of the NBA, Paul Usoro, culminating in his trial for alleged money laundering of the payment of his legal fees by the Akwa Ibom state government?
The President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Paul Usoro has the support of the Nigerian lawyers who voted for him in the last bar election. A leader will have problem when his members are not supporting him; the Nigerian lawyers are fully behind him. That is not to say that there are no lawyers who are not opposed to certain things under him. But majority of the lawyers are solidly behind him. As a matter of fact what you called the travails of Usoro are political issues. Before the election, issues of money laundering and bribes to judges particularly at the National Industrial court were raised. To many of us, these issues were raised to create doubts on the candidacy of Usoro. Every lawyer who wanted to vote was aware of the issues and believed that these were not impediments to his qualifications and assumption of office of the President of NBA. The ones bothering on ethics were resolved as raised by a senior learned member, Chidi Odinkalu SAN, and the President responded that a judge of the National Industrial Court had approached him and requested for assistance that he wanted to do his birthday or something. Out of his generosity, he gave the judge his widow’s mite. He had no case pending before the judge concerned. He also stated that the same judge had also approached other lawyers and they equally gave him some money. Interestingly, all these lawyers were also invited by EFCC. The judge was actually funny as it were, extorting money from people. So, what offense has Paul Usoro committed? At every forum of the NBA, Usoro mentioned it even before the election. Justice Walter Onnoghen On the money laundering issue, I think it is very unfortunate that the NBA election has been heavily politicised. This is very unfortunate. Those who raised the issues were his opponents. But again, that can also be settled in a way because it arose before the election to stop Usoro. All the lawyers were aware that the allegations existed, yet we voted for him. So, what it means it that, no matter what it is, that is our choice. Therefore, having won the election, the question of moral impropriety is removed. They raised those issues to derail him, to blackmail him and make him abandon his vision but the man Usoro acts like a lion, he was not scared. He was vindicated by the result of the election. Again, why was he not arraigned in court before the election? Why did the opponents wait until after the election? I believe that the arraignment was done in bad fate and very unfortunate. Their intention is to weaken the Bar and I think that the legal profession is what all of us should cherish and protect. The Bar will remain united and like the rock of Gibraltar.
Without going into the details of the case because that will be subjudice, hypothetically what would be the implications of this case to the practice of law?
Yes, that is why I don’t want to go into the details. The implication, however, is that this development tends to promote impunity. There is a decision of Hon Justice Gabriel Kolawole that legal practitioners cannot be prosecuted under the money laundering act, and to the best of my knowledge, that decision has not been set aside. Yet, we are still arraigning legal practitioners under that, whether President of NBA or not, that is lawlessness and impunity. That is what happens when we refuse to do the right thing or follow due process. It is really a bad signal.
If this is another impunity and lack of due process, how can you juxtapose this scenario with Onnoghen case?
The two are different. The Onnoghen was largely declaration of assets with allegations of corruption especially with issues of questionable gift of vehicles. Again, remember Onnoghen is public officer whereas Paul Usoro is a private legal practitioner. Again, the way the issue was handled, including senior lawyers was not good enough. The senior lawyers did not do well at all. I make reference to some lawyers who appeared on the national television to say there was no charge and that the learned CJN should not go to the code of conduct tribunal. I did not agree with them. I refrain myself from public comment on the issue because sometimes, silent is golden. Constitutionalism, rule of law and due process imply that you follow what is good and do what is right. To say he shouldn’t appear in the first place is to rubbish the judicial process, and that is the height of impunity. As the number one legal officer in the country, the best example must always be shown by him. At the end of the day, see what happened, he appeared and the trial went on. So, why the brouhaha in the first place. Now, we heard that he has voluntarily resigned, after NJC had met and taken a decision. I commend the NJC on the way and manner they handled the matter. They have brought decency and sanctity to the process. For the NJC, some of us would have found it difficult to speak in the public and I think the legal professional body must commend the NJC for the prompt intervention.
Since the time of the military governments, the NBA has always been in the forefront of the campaign for Rule of law, how far can the Bar carry on this task in view of these developments of unethical allegations on the one side and impunity and lack of due process on the other hand?
I am very positive because the NBA has no other responsibility other than championing the rule of law. In fact, if you look at our motto, it is promoting the rule of law. It is our fundamental objective and MBA will continue to be in the fore front of enthroning rule of law and good governance because it is in such situation that the practice of law becomes meaningful. The Bar will continue in that task. It is true that there are challenges, that is part of life and the NBA will rise above these temporal and man-made challenges. We know that the Bar is seriously being challenged by some ethical issues, but it will still remain one and solid. I plead with the opponent to allow this gentleman to concentrate on his programmes, two years will soon be over and there is always another time to contest. They should forget whatever grievances they have in the interest of a united Bar. I also urge the NBA president to be broad minded and magnanimous and embrace the perceived enemies. He is the father of all the lawyers in Nigeria today and I pray he will be like the Wole Olanipekuns and the late Ala Aka Bashoruns whose records are yet unbeaten. He has started well and I wish him more successes.
There have been allegations against law enforcement agencies of impunity, what’s your take on it?
The law enforcement agents are not doing well in this regard, particularly SARs. You saw the lawlessness that led to the killing of a Nigerian who had gone to the watch football and another lady in Ijede, Lagos State. It is unfortunate. I think we need to do more where the leadership of the police will intensify efforts and go beyond occasional condemnation. It is not enough that the culprit will be put into the guardroom and later dismissed for wasting the life of promising Nigerians. It is more of psychological issue, and they need periodic in-house training, retraining, re-orientation. This is necessary so that every policeman will know that he is not expected to shoot at will either deliberately or mistakenly at the citizen.
Do you support the scrapping of SARs or its reformation in view of several cases of extra-judicial killings?
Yes, I agree totally that SARs has been associated with lawlessness and therefore should be scrapped. If we have a new body in place with new orientation from the beginning, it will engender mutual respect and bring about effectiveness in policing the society. They will see the citizen as a friend and a promoter of citizens’ rights and responsibility.
What do you think should be the panacea to the cases of incessant killings in Zamfara, Kaduna and some other parts of the country?
I think the incessant killing in Zamfara, Kaduna, Benue and of course Taraba must stop. There must be a holistic solution. The first thing to do is that the leadership should determine what the root cause of the problem and tackle it headlong. The problem is not the Boko Haram thing but ethnic colouration. I also can’t see religious colouration. There is conflict of economic interest. We can interrogate that. Is it because of farmlands? The state leadership must be able to identify that because they are closer to the people. If it is a matter of agitation for local government creation or wards, let it be. Those who are involved should also imbibe the spirit of forgiveness. All of us are stakeholders in this Nigeria project. The state governments should make recommendations to the federal government and put in place appropriate mechanisms to address their grievances. Mere deployment of security operatives does not address the root cause of the problem, it is only a temporary measure and once they are out of the area, the crises erupt again. So, the main issue is to address the major and the root cause of the problem. Peace will last forever only when there is justice.
What’s your take on the CJN Onnoghen saga and the war on corruption on the Bench?
I believe the anti-corruption war is on course. We only need to sanitize the way and manner it is being handled such that there is no room for victimisation and persecution. For instance, the Paul Usoro case is a typical case of persecution given the way it was carried out. First, it started as a political campaign, then to propaganga to stop him from winning the election. To their dismay, he won the election and suddenly, he was arraigned. That is not fair. Yes, if a lawyer committed an offence, he should be arraigned. The proper thing to do is to carry out investigation before the arraignment of the person and not the kind of public and media trial that we see in this country. I also want the anti-corruption agencies not to load lawyers with many cases. It is not good even for the lawyers and the system. Again, the method of arraignment of 36-count charge is preposterous. It slows down the court process. We can make 5-count charge instead of loading the court.