On the Irresponsibility of Replying Critics & Divergent Opinions with Insults & Mudslinging – (A word of caution by Sylvester Udemezue)


“I May Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death, Your Right to Say It”

 The declaration above has at different times been attributed to Voltaire, to François-Marie Arouet, to S. G. Tallentyre, to Evelyn Beatrice Hall, and to Ignazio Silone. Even Douglas Young and Norbert Guterman are said to have used the expression at some point. The fact that the quotation is attributed to many great philosophers is an indication of the pride of place the wisdom in the declaration occupies in human relations. But there is no country where that statement of advice/caution more urgently needed, to bring people to the path of sanity, than, I think, it is in Nigeria. Nigeria, where some adults talk and behave as kids while kids are now compelled to assume the position of “the father of the man.” Nigeria! I leave it here. However, I need to point out that a situation where one sees every other person opposed to one’s views as an enemy is inimical to progress and prosperity. No country has ever made any progress with majority of its people operating within that myopic, childish, old-fashioned and one-sided mentality.

Prof. Ernest Ojukwu (SAN) recently hinted of his plans to advise Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) to “step aside” from the position of President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) pending the final determination of the charges filed against him (Paul Usoro) by the EFCC. Additionally, Prof Ojukwu has instituted a court action against the NBA under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking some reliefs. On both points, I have disagreed with Prof Ojukwu’s stand and I have communicated my disagreement to him in a most respectful manner. In particular, on the call for Paul Usoro’s resignation, I have written and circulated more than ten articles and several other short comments, explaining and amplifying why the call is grossly unnecessary and offering my reasons, based on what I objectively believe is in line with extant laws in Nigeria and also in view of stiflingly prevailing trends in Nigeria that need to be halted in the best interest of governance and sustenance of rule of law in the country. All this notwithstanding, my respect for Prof Ojukwu has not diminished an inch, because my position, as his, is based on principles.

I have however noticed that some of our colleagues, apparently dissatisfied with Prof Ojukwu’s position, have recently launched verbal and social media attacks and hurling malignant insults on the person of Prof Ojukwu. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that it is silly, irresponsible for one to insult others merely because those others take a stand that is opposed to one’s own views or position, and that such attacks are usually counter-productive. Such attitude is oppressive and amounts to intimidation, which does not argue well for the profession. First, one does not win any argument by intimidation and coercion. Nothing is achieved by shouting down and consequently silencing one’s opponent, except making one’s position worse. Because the opponent’s views remain his views, still unchanged, and would continue to reside within him. If you really wish him to change his views about things and begin to see things your own way, you ought to achieve this only by advancing credible, stronger and more convincing argument based on valid, verifiable and logical premises.  In this way, if he agrees with you, you have won him; he is then on your side. This is the way to argue!

Further, how do we expect to add to our reservoir of knowledge and wisdom if we are fed with only one side of every arguments with no opportunity of having access to the other side of the coin? Impossible, because we would then remain stagnant. And that’s a major problem in Nigeria, our country. When we reject people only because they’re different, or because they think differently, we deny them the respect they deserve as human beings and at the same time make a statement about our own ugly character in the process. We all need not hold the same or similar opinions on all issues, neither does our having different opinions make us different or divided. We would remain if we learnt to accept, respect and live with our differences and difference of opinions. “Give others freedom to be themselves; appreciate the differences between their ways and yours, and you’d be wiser and greater” (Jennifer Chen). To suppress free speech is tantamount to committing a double wrong: it violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. No man can put a chain about the ankle of his own fellow man without in the end finding the other end of the chain fastened about and around his own neck (Frederick Douglass).

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I recall that on 23 August 2018, shortly after the 2018 NBA Presidential election that was won by Mr. Paul Usoro, Prof Ernest Ojukwu had openly announced his intentions to NOT challenge the results of the elections. He had gavin reasons for the noble decision:

“… but because of my long and selfless commitment to regenerating the Bar, and the need not to create tension in our legal profession, I shall not contest [the outcome of the elections].” (See https://punchng.com/nbas-quest-to-offer-nigeria-model-electronic-voting/). (See also https://dnllegalandstyle.com/2018/for-selfless-reasons-i-accept-the-nba-election-results-prof-ojukwu-san/)

Prof Ojukwu had then proceeded to assure that he would remain a loyal member of NBA despite his grouse with the manner of the elections and the results. Since then, I had held the view that Prof Ojukwu would not initiate, engage or participate in anything that would directly or indirectly create tension within the NBA nor calculated to discredit its leadership, because Prof Ojukwu himself has contributed a lot in building the NBA; you do not try to pull down a house you helped to build. It is contradictory and would amount to what has been described severally in Latin as “frigus flante calidum simul” (blowing hot and cold at the same time), approbating et reprobando (approbating and reprobating) or et facit aliud contrarium (saying one thing and doing the exact opposite). Besides, whatever you would not want others to do to you, you just should not do the same to others. I am sure that Prof Ojukwu, if he had won, would not have expected that any one of his opponents during the elections would turn around and try to engage in actions calculated to undermine his leadership. What is more? Prof Ojukwu is an excellent lawyer, distinguished academic and outstanding bar man who, I expect, would never stoop low to begin to engage in anything that would lead to rancor or division within the NBA. He once personally informed me of his selfless love for the NBA and how he would always work for its progress. I respectfully expect that Prof Ojukwu would not change only because he is not the President of the NBA!

Now, a question may be asked, Has Prof Ojukwu created tension? I think not because his is an expression of a mere opinion, to which he is rightfully entitled and he ought to not be crucified for holding his opinion, however bizarre or unwelcome anyone thinks the opinion is. Second, although I have my questions about the suit said to have been instituted by Prof Ojukwu, yet the suit ought to not generate tension nor attract any insults against the person of Prof Ojukwu. It is his right to go to court, over anything, even if there is nothing to go to court for. So, I humbly suggest, let the NBA, through its lawyers, roll out its defences and meet Prof Ojukwu in court, or initiate steps to settle amicably out of court as commanded by Rule 15 (3) (d) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007.

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Moreover, NBA under Paul Usoro does not lose its legitimacy merely on account of the suit filed by Prof Ojukwu. If anything, the administration of Mr. Usoro would come out of it stronger, healthier and better prepared to face future challenges. As regards challenges and the distractions caused by actions such as the suit, good leadership is not absence of conflicts or opposition. Conflicts and opposition do come. It is how the leader handles conflicts and crises that makes or mars the leader. Says Ronald Reagan, a former President of the United States, “peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.  A good leader or manager doesn’t try to eliminate all conflicts; he rather tries to keep crises from wasting the energies of his people. If you’re the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong, even if you are right, that’s healthy. Mary Case summarizes it this way: “No pressure, no diamonds.” Says Epictetus, “the greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”

I therefore advise those who abuse and malign the person of Prof Ojukwu and members of his school of thought, to forthwith cease fire and stop the unnecessary attacks and character assassination.  One big lesson most Nigerians learnt from the just-concluded Vice Presidential debate for the upcoming 2019 general elections, is the value of focusing your energies, in argument, on issues and not against personalities. The only reason I love that debate is that, barring some few gaffes, it focused majorly on issues rather than on the “hate speech,” slander and blame-game that appear to have become the bane of Nigeria’s politics. Additionally, I advise our colleagues that loyalty to or with a leader does not lie in insulting, nor does it give one the license to insult and malign, anyone else who doesn’t agree with the leader. As I have said above, when you engage in such act, you cause problems for the leader. If you truly are a loyal admirer or acolyte, you can show this through so many means other than descending low to speak and act like motor park touts and street urchins whose stock-in-trade it is to engage in foul talk and irresponsible slanderous invectives. We are lawyers, not street urchins.  Any supporter of any leader whose only way of showing support for the leader is to malign, attack and insult the leader’s opponents is a disloyal loyalist.

I accordingly urge our leader, Mr. Paul Usoro, to immediately do away with any morose sycophant and brainless brownnoser around him who takes pleasure in slander and smear campaign against his opponent, because fans such as that are enemies in disguise. They need to be taught that the mere fact that one holds a contrary opinion does not, without more, make one bad or evil neither does it diminish the leader’s status, capability or popularity rating. Any leader that doesn’t have any opposition or detractors at all is headed for his Waterloo.

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In conclusion, I pray all our colleagues to not forget that, notwithstanding difference of opinions, we all are still Learned Gentlemen and Noble Colleagues, Barristers and Solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, who have a prime responsibility to not fight dirty and wash our dirty linen in public. We are the light of society to whom other members of the public look up for guide, in actions, speech and behavior.  No doubt, it is part of our business to argue and disagree. This is why Joyce Carol Oates, an American writer, once observed: a lawyer is basically a mouth, like a shark is a mouth attached to a long gut. The business of lawyers is to talk, to interrupt one another and to devour [one another] if possible.” Nevertheless, it is my humble view that, as learned shining examples, we ought to learn to talk and argue and disagree with due respect. Argumentum ad hominem (argument to the person) is an informal logical fallacy that occurs when someone attempts to refute an argument by attacking the claim-maker, rather than engaging in an argument or factual refutation of the claim, by attacking the source of the claim rather than attacking the claim or attempting to counter arguments. Although ad hominem is not exactly the same with an insult, both are examples of weakness in arguments and must be avoided. Neither of them helps nor wins any argument. If one hopes to win supporters to one’s side in an argument or debate, one ought reasonably and objectively to dwell on relevant issues of substance and not on irrelevant issues of personalities and characters, except one has motives other than those related to sane, logical deduction and respectful, legal reasoning. Everything boils down to the words of the renown US journalist and writer, Don Lemon, which I recommend to guide us: “if I have my opinion about something, you have your opinion about something, we don’t have to fight over it. And we can have a conversation. We can also disagree without being disagreeable, and we can just disagree, which is fine. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, or you don’t like me. We just disagree.”

Let me use this opportunity to reiterate my advice to Paul Usoro: it is not necessary for you to resign over mere unproven allegations that have nothing to with, and are not connected with, your management of the affairs of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). Punishment before conviction is an abomination before the law and our constitution. Convictions are not secured nor guilt established on the social media. Let the prosecutor go to court and prove its case against you beyond reasonable doubts, if it has evidence to that effect. But let the state prosecuting counsel understand that they are not parties to the case but mere officers in the temple of justice whose only connection is to ensure that justice is done, one way or the other. The start-off point for pure justice in this case, because of its special nature, is for you to stay right there in your position as the NBA president while the case goes on and until final determination of the case. So, I urge you, in the meantime, to remain strong, courageous and focused on delivering on your mandate as the President of the NBA. Do not get distracted!

Long live NBA.

Long Live Nigeria!

Sylvester Udemezue (udems)

(17 December 2018)


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