The 20 SANs and Their Commitment to the Legal Profession in Nigeria – Mike Utsaha

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Mike Utsaha Esq.

It takes a lot to be conferred with the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). The most basic requirement is admission to the practice of law in Nigeria, and for a period of not less than 10 years. Consequently, to have practiced law for 10 years there is a rebuttable presumption of familiarity with the basic tenets of the law, and this is moreso the case when such a practitioner has been conferred with the prestigious rank of SAN!

It is against this background that I read with a lot of dismay, and deep misgivings too, the well publicised statement issued a few days ago and credited to some well respected Senior Advocates of Nigeria.

Let me state here, perhaps for the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, that the learned SANs are well within their right as citizens of Nigeria and as lawyers of “distinction”, not only to hold opinions, but to robustly express same, and on any issue of national significance that may be of interest to them. But, when in enjoying this fundamental constitutional guarantee, citizens leave more questions than answers, then it calls for concern, and perhaps some regret too.

In the first place, I am shocked that this group of erudite members of the profession “feel embarrassed and deeply concerned by the recent events surrounding the suspension of Honourable Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria”, but are probably unperturbed by the unconstitutional manner in which a new Chief Justice of Nigeria was appointed, and swiftly sworn into office.

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If anybody is in any doubt whatsoever about the motive behind that hurriedly written statement that contains some grammatical and spelling errors, then that doubt is cleared by the first justification for the statement. This is what they said.

“We feel obliged to make this intervention for two primary reasons: (i) a recognition that the events which have resulted in this debacle is in fact a manifestation of and response to a deeper malaise in the administration of justice and justice delivery in Nigeria; and

(ii) a concern that the crisis of confidence that is currently shaking the judiciary and the legal profession in Nigeria is unprecedented”.

So, in a country where a state agency, probably acting on the basis of intelligence reports, invaded the residences of high ranking officials of the judiciary, including a justice of the supreme court, a country where some judges have been tried and appropriately sanctioned for complicity in graft, in a country where decisions of judges with respect to election petitions have been overturned by superior courts under circumstances that leave one in no doubt about what may have transpired between judges and litigants, and in a country where a Senior Advocate of Nigeria have not only been tried and convicted for graft related cases, and in a country where causes and matters before the various divisions of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are already being adjourned to 2027 for hearing, and in a country where senior advocates pay ridiculously low wages to lawyers, and I can go on and on, it took the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria for them to notice a “deeper malaise in the administration of justice and justice delivery in Nigeria”

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In what seems like the most contradictory and politically correct statement ever since 1999 the learned senior advocates take an exculpatory position that has all the trappings of a feeble attempt to pull wool in the faces of unsuspecting Nigerians.

Hear them “In making this intervention, we do not propose to delve into the merits or demerits of the respective positions that have been taken by the different actors regarding the suspension of Justice Onnoghen”, and yet, this is what they say:

“Certain facts are hardly contestable. There is a widespread perception that there is corruption in the judiciary and this perception is supported by anecdotal evidence” and this “In our view, the incessant examples of contradictory decisions that have afflicted Nigerian jurisprudence in all facets of law further fuel the perception of incompetence and corruption by the Nigerian judiciary and the legal profession”

What is particularly shocking and disappointing in the entirety of the statement by the learned senior advocates is the fact that in a statement slightly longer than 1000 words written with the aim of an overhaul of the justice administration process and the judicial branch of government, there has been no single mention of the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, or the role of the current occupant of that office in the current imbroglio, and yet he is a senior advocate like them. But then they are quick to position themselves for a possible role in “implementing a process that will lead to the review and reform of the following critical aspects of our justice delivery system”

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Let me conclude by thanking the learned senior advocates for their selflessness, love and commitment to the legal profession, especially as exemplified in this declaration “We will commence our work immediately, and we will operate on the basis of transparency, objectivity and inclusiveness. We will soon publish details of how we propose to engage and collaborate with all stakeholders, especially the Nigerian Bar Association”, but to quickly remind them that apart from the NBA there are such body of lawyers like the General Council of the Bar, the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee etc and that we may not be requiring their services anytime soon.

Mike Utsaha, Esq. an Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) Human Rights Fellow, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, is a Private Legal Practitioner based in Abuja

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