‘NBA Must Have a Verifiable, Foolproof Voting System‘

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Legal education in Nigeria, has come with its huge challenges. With so many Lawyers being churned out of the Nigerian Law School, arguments have been rife as to whether Nigeria really has the capacity to gainfully engage this huge number of Lawyers. Mr. O.C.J. Okocha, SAN has been former Attorney-General of Rivers State, past NBA President, past Chairman, Council of Legal Education, and now Chairman, Body of Benchers. In a chat with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, he gave insights into various areas and issues in the profession, including the reason why the National Open University of Nigeria was recently stopped from admitting law students into its programmes. He also commented on the state of the nation and the insecurity that has engulfed our land, while lending his voice to the calls for the restructuring of our nation to reflect true Federalism

 

The increasing co-mplaints over the conduct of national elections of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is of great concern to many Nigerian Lawyers. The last election was seriously faulted by many. As a former President, what are your suggestions on ensuring free, fair and credible NBA elections going forward?

I humbly suggest that to ensure free, fair and credible NBA elections, the electoral system and processes need to be made efficient and effective. The duly accredited voters must be known, and the electronic voting system needs to be made foolproof, efficient and also verifiable.

Would you subscribe to a return to the old system of voting through selected delegates from the branches, thereby dumping universal suffrage, or should we retain the present electronic system, even with its many imperfections?

No, I do not subscribe to a return to the old system of voting through selected delegates. Universal suffrage is a progressive development, the present electronic system of voting should be retained, but systems analysts and computer experts can be invited to improve on the process, and eliminate the imperfections.

The Covid pandemic has foisted new challenges on Lawyers globally, but Nigeria is worse hit because a larger percentage of Nigerian Lawyers are not computer literate. In what ways can young Lawyers survive under the present harsh economic conditions occasioned by the Covid pandemic?

The reality of the situation we are in, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, indicates that all legal practitioners, all Lawyers, need to upgrade their communication skills. For so long, we have been talking about computer literacy. As things stand now, most of the courts, even the Supreme Court, have decided to embark on electronic filing of cases and appeals. The systems in place have to be upgraded, and Lawyers must update and upgrade their competences in electronic communication.

The Council of Legal Education of which you chaired, until recently has been accused of over-producing Lawyers. An average of 7,000 Lawyers are called to the Bar every year. In your opinion, does the Nigerian economy have the capacity to meaningfully sustain such a growing population of Lawyers?

Yes, the Nigerian economy has the capacity to absorb the number of Lawyers being produced yearly by the Nigerian Law School. It will interest the public to know that, the total number of Lawyers produced so far by the Nigerian Law School, is not even as much as the total number of Lawyers in New York or California, two of the most populous States in the United States of America. If the economy was thriving in Nigeria, we would not have any problems with the number of Lawyers. The Lawyers do not all need to go into law practice, some can actually find employment in other sectors of the economy such as business, banking, politics, etc etc. Lawyers who believe they can only work in Law Firms, the Ministry of Justice, the Judiciary, etc are restricting themselves. Furthermore, new areas of Law Practice are emerging. I know a young lawyer whose name is Inemesit Dike, the Legal Concierge, and she has these yearly programmes that deal with what the Law School does not teach you. Young Lawyers should tap into her programmes and learn one or two things about how to keep themselves employed, and capable of earning legitimate income.

Many Lawyers have had their names struck off the roll of legal practitioners in Nigeria, in recent times. On the average, we now have well over 100 Lawyers who are disbarred annually. What does this say about our profession? Is it that entrants are not properly screened at the point of admission to the Bar? What other measures can be employed to improve the quality of Lawyers being admitted to the Bar?

I do not think it is that bad; the records do not show that over 100 Lawyers have been disbarred annually; but, the situation is bad enough and we all worry about the rising cases of professional misconduct on the part of Lawyers. The profession is still the Honourable and Noble profession which it has always been, and the few bad eggs will not change that fact. I agree with you however, that we must take steps to ensure that cases of professional misconduct on the part of Legal Practitioners, are reduced to the barest minimum.

Entrants to the profession are properly screened, and the problem is not with them. The problem is actually with those who veer off the track, and engage in professional misconduct. And so, the Body of Benchers, and particularly the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, should more speedily attend to reported cases of professional misconduct.

The Body of Benchers received widespread criticism over the way it handled the Amasa Firdaus hijab matter. To eventually allow her to be called to the Bar with a modified hijab, further heightened the apprehension that there is a religious agenda in Nigeria. She claimed openly that, she wore the hijab to the call to Bar deliberately. While some argued that Section 38(1) of the Constitution allows her to adorn the hijab, others use Sections 10 and 42 of the same Constitution, to back their position that she should not have been permitted to have her way, especially as we have our traditional dress as Lawyers, which cannot be modified to suit people’s whims and caprices, when even Reverend Sisters for example, removed their habits to adhere to the dress requirement for the call to Bar. Is hijab now part of our dress? Where will it end, if everyone demands to add their religious dress to the wig and gown? Kindly, shed some light on this.

Let me say that, I agree with those who maintain that all persons in a profession that has regulation dress codes must abide by such regulations, and religious sentiments ought not to be allowed to be introduced into such matters. Are there any oppositions to Military and/or Police uniforms, on the ground that members of such organisations are not allowed to wear their religious garbs? How will it look when, as you said Reverend Sisters, Priests, Native Doctors who enter the Legal Profession will expect to be allowed to wear their religious or native doctor garbs to appear before courts like the Magistrate Courts, High Courts and the other superiors courts of Nigeria? Muslims and Buddhists who practice before the High Court in England, wear nothing else but the traditional garbs of Barristers. The problem with us is that, we always like to bring religious and political sentiments to bear on serious matters. This should not be so.

Why did the Body of Benchers approve the proposal from the Nigerian Law school to admit graduates of law from the National Open University?

The reality was that the National Universities Commission had earlier granted approval to the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), to run a Law Degree Programme for the award of the LL.B. Degree. That was normal, and what should have followed was for the NOUN to seek accreditation of its Law Faculty by the Council of Legal Education. This was not done, and NOUN proceeded to admit, train and graduate some 1800 Law Graduates. The Council of Legal Education refused to admit the affected students into the Nigerian Law School. This was in keeping with the resolutions made by the Body of Benchers, the Council of Legal Education and the Nigerian Bar Association several years ago, which banned Part-time Law Programmes. The concerned students of NOUN even took the matter to court, and lost. Now, following meetings held by all concerned, and this was under the supervision of the Attorney-General of the Federation, it was resolved that the 1800 or so Law Graduates should do a Remedial Programme for one year, in which they should be made to study core Nigerian Law courses and, upon passing the requisite examination thereafter, they would enter the programme for the Bar Finals. We have to admit that virtual learning, just like distance learning, have become relevant, especially in this Covid-19 era. Knowledge is never to be wasted, and all concerned have agreed to give the 1800 students a chance. But, it has also been agreed that with the several Faculties of Law in many Universities in Nigeria, NOUN should stop running Law Degree Programmes. I am happy that this matter has been finally and fully resolved.

The Body of Benchers which you presently chair, has been accused by some as hijacking the role of the NBA. On the other hand, others have accused the Body of remaining silent on many issues that it should maybe have an opinion on. Kindly, comment on this. What exactly is the role of the Body of Benchers, apart from signing forms of Law School students, and eating dinners with them?

The core mandates of the Body of Benchers are :-

(i) The admission of persons into the Legal Profession, Call to the Bar; and

(ii) The discipline of Legal Practitioners who have been tried and found liable of professional misconduct in the Legal Profession.

The Body of Benchers has not in any way hijacked the role of the Nigerian Bar Association to regulate its own affairs as an independent association of Lawyers, in accordance with the aims and objects of the Association as enunciated in the Constitution of the NBA.

Let me also say that when you consider the mandates of the Body of Benchers, you will agree that it actually does extend beyond signing sponsorship forms for those seeking to be admitted into the Legal Profession, and eating dinners with them. The dinners are actually part of the old traditions of the Bar, and we still need to ensure that Lawyers cultivate the mannerisms of Gentlemen, as the profession is one of gentlemen of culture and good breeding.

Recently the ICPC gave mind-blowing figures of the volume of money in bribes they alleged were given to Nigerian Judges. This shows that despite the 2016 raid and prosecution of Judges and senior Lawyers for corruption, this monster is far from being vanquished. What in your view, is the panacea to judicial corruption?

May I say, with every sense of responsibility that the report said to be issued by the ICPC has no factual basis whatsoever; otherwise, why has the ICPC not moved to prosecute such Judges who were alleged to have received bribes? While it is true that stories are rife about corruption in the Judiciary, we need to have concrete facts of such allegations; and the ICPC, EFCC, the Police and indeed, the National Judicial Council must be up and doing in the rooting out of corruption in the Judiciary.

As you are aware, the 2016 raids on Judges did not amount to much, and no Judge or Senior Lawyer was ever convicted for the wild allegations that were behind the raids. In my humble view, those raids were actually carried out to intimidate the Judiciary, but they failed; and most of our Judges are still administering justice without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.

There is the ongoing controversy over the list of appointments into the Upper Bench, with the list of the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA) allegedly being jettisoned by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) in favour of its own. What advice can you give on how to resolve this delicate matter, considering the fact that the courts are seen as the last hope of the common man, and the allegation is that the list which was meticulously drawn up by the PCA based on merit, expertise, requirements and federal character has been jettisoned in favour of that of the FJSC which allegedly has not properly taken any of these key elements into consideration?

I had served in the past on both the Federal Judicial Service Commission and the National Judicial Council. The problem is that nominations to Federal Courts, i.e, the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court are still being dogged by the seeming need to comply with the Federal Character Principle. I have to say that, I do not agree with the application of Federal Character Principles in the Superior Courts. Merit, learning and ability should dictate appointments to the Federal High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Political interests may dictate appointments into State Courts, but a specialised court like the Federal High Court, and the appellate courts like the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, should consider learning, merit and ability to fill any vacancies therein.

The country is presently undergoing turmoil due to the terrorism either in the form of banditry, kidnapping or insurgency etc, which seems to be getting worse. How can Nigeria get out of this horrible situation? What, in your view, is a viable solution to the crisis between Herders and Farmers? RUGA, Ranching? What about the issue forgiving of Insurgents? Some are saying that if the Niger Delta Militants could have been forgiven by the Jonathan administration and rewarded with goodies, so also should the Insurgents

Terrorism, Banditry, Kidnapping and Insurgency are all politicised terms for criminality; and all who are involved in any of them should be arrested, investigated and prosecuted. Law and order cannot and ought not to be politicised, and our Law Enforcement Agencies, especially the Police, must be given the necessary impetus to deal with those crimes. Sadly, the Police is rather too poorly organised, and its structure is not helpful if we hope to restore Law and Order in Nigeria.

I agree with those who hold the view that Nigeria is a Federation and we should have State Police/Security Agencies, and even Local Government Force/Security Agencies. The crises said to be between the Herders and Farmers are Law and Order matters, and should be dealt with accordingly. Those who herd cattle should restrict themselves to their own lands and establish cattle ranches, and those who are farmers should be allowed to farm on their own lands without any disturbance.

The Niger Delta Militants had their legitimate grounds for their agitations, and amnesty has solved that problem; but that militancy should not now be equated with the terrorism, banditry, kidnapping and so called insurgency issues of the present day.

As an indigene of the South South zone, what is your opinion on the restructuring of Nigeria and resource control? Is it necessary? Is the 1999 Constitution an adequate document, or should it be completely jettisoned for a new one?

I am for the restructuring of Nigeria, so as to adopt Federalism in its true sense. The 1999 Constitution is not an adequate document, and we need a new Constitution to be modelled on the 1963 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Minerals Act, the Land Use Act, the Petroleum Act and all such laws that deny the peoples land rights that rightfully belong to them, should be abrogated.

Almost six years in office, how would you rate the performance of the Buhari Administration vis-a-vis the fight against corruption, insecurity, and revamping the economy?

The recent report issued by Transparency International is a serious indictment of the present administration, and we all need to be concerned about the so called ‘War on Corruption’ that does not appear to have solved the problem. Ditto for insecurity in the land, and ditto for the economy. I heard the Minister of Finance recently telling us that Nigeria’s economy is out of recession, even during a time that most world economies have been badly hit by the Covid-19 Pandemic. The Federal Government should be honest with itself, and with Nigerians, and admit that it has failed in all those sectors, and begin to take credible steps to fight corruption and tackle insecurity and revamp the economy.

Thisday

 


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