What are We Doing with Our Law? – Johnson O Esezoobo

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One of the things that trailed the passage of our highly revered Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN) was the circulation of a speech he reportedly made at the presentation of a book by his namesake Richard Akinnola some years back. I took time to reach Richard Akinnola and Chief Bolaji Ayorinde (SAN) to confirm certain facts before making this piece on my feeling about our law and us.

Sometime in 1981, I was doing a matter that brought me close to late Chief GCM Onyuike (SAN). In our interaction, he bemoaned the fate of the Bar and asked when I was called. I told him. He lamented the state of our law and said: “… take away Chief Williams, take myself away, who is left?” I then said: “What about GOK?” Nodding, he said:  “Yes, yes, yes…” There obviously were a few others then who may not have been Senior Advocates of Nigeria; but they had integrity.

All these great men of law, just like our great Gani Fawehinmi are no more. But what are they remembered for? A question for all times! Please, share the following experiences with me: One, sometime 1997/98, I met Bolaji Ayorinde (SAN) in a matter. He told me he had been looking out for me because of the article I wrote about his father who was then CJ of Oyo State. The learned CJ had been placed on suspension by governor Kolapo Ishola and he went to court. Following delayed hearing, he cried out through the press. I then wrote the article in question that he should not complain because if while in office he had put right the process, now that he had become ‘the common man’ that the court is meant for, he would benefit. According to the learned silk, perceiving that I might have been a paid agent of the learned CJ’s adversaries, he took the paper to his father in Ibadan and asked if he knew me. His father read it and said he did not know me but that what I said was true. I count it honourable for Baba to have accepted the truth in good faith; mark of greatness!

Hypocrite? No! Writing to improve the law. Then followed the Ogoni tribunal saga of 1995. I wrote legal objections to the Ogoni tribunal trials, where I criticised the proceedings. And in 1997 I ran into Hon. Justice Auta, the then chairman of the tribunal, in the chambers of Justice Edokpayi of blessed memory. As soon as I was introduced, Auta said: “You are Esezoobo, you are a hypocrite. You human rights activists, you are all hypocrites! You are writing to get recognition and get government appointment.” I then replied: “No, my lord, find out about me. You can ask you learned brother, whether I belong to those you classify as hypocrites. I write to improve the law for your benefit, and my benefit and for the benefit of generations coming behind. I can see my lord clutching a cellular phone. As a regular High Court Judge, you cannot afford it. But as a tribunal chairman, you can. I am against that…” And he said: “Mr. Esezoobo, that’s alright, that’s alright…”

Three, you have no power to do injustice! Then I got this brief that brought me before Zone 4 of the defunct Failed Banks Tribunal where Justice Edokpayi of blessed memory was chairman. It was a very simple matter that emanated from Owerri. The client said he had paid off the loan. But Emeka (not real name) claimed otherwise. Yet he refused to submit the bank statement of account for verification and possible settlement. And the Judge said: “Mr. Esezoobo, why don’t you advise your client to pay, this is a small amount…? You know under the decree, I have very wide powers.

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I responded thus: “My Lord, I concede that under the decree, my lord has powers to do anything under the sun. But one thing my lord has no power to do is injustice because that is now between you and your God by whom you swore and said, so, help me God.” The learned Judge cut in and said: “Mr. Esezoobo, that’s alright.” And turning to the Bar in a friendly chat, he said: “You may not know that Mr. Esezoobo and I are friends, we were in the Law School together!” To his suggestion: “Mr. Johnson, if you take just one brief from NDIC and the 10 percent, you can take a holiday to London.” I retorted: “My lord, that is part of our problem. NDIC has become the common client of lawyers. Nobody is thinking of developing the law. Human beings like us developed London that we are proud to take vacation and go to rest. Great jurists developed principles of law that guided the conduct of the society and make it a place of attraction. But here, we have found a new law; we now have Failed Banks Tribunal Law Report.” He then turned to Emeka, and asked why he was finding it difficult to deliver the statement of account for verification of the claim. Emeka took adjournment and abandoned the case, which was later struck out.

Thus, what are we doing with our law? He also presented government as “a cult or a secret society” suggesting somehow that we should live with the ‘problem’ Lugard created for us perhaps, until Lugard resurrects to fix it.

Perhaps, this is what GCM Onyuike (SAN) alluded to in 1981. I then remembered Justice Okeke’s response to my submission sometime on why “Arabella’s case” needed to be reviewed. The Judge recalled with nostalgia “if it was the time of Chief Williams, he would take this point up to the supreme court. But now, once the oracle there in Abuja has spoken…” I recall asking: “My lord, are now going to be ruled from the grave? Is our law going to stop where Chief Williams signed off?” He smiled and left the issue.
Now, Chief Akinjide’s daughter said: “law was his passion while politics was his hobby.” This makes my question more important. What are we doing with our law?

What seems undisputable is that we come, take advantage of the bad system to build private wealth and go away. Seldom do we consider what improvement can be done with the law we know and have passion for so as to be remembered for some contributions. Lord Denning of blessed memory blazed a trail in this regard. His passion was how to review principles of law laid down by the judges in the 19th century, “however suited to the social conditions of that time” to meet the “social necessities and social opinion of the 20th century.” He was so concerned with what he could do to influence law reform, if not now, then later, either by parliament or the law reform commission.

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This is the 21st century and we are still saying a pre- independence problem that has bedevilled Nigeria to date should be left as we found it. This is where the late sage got it all wrong. This generation ought to reject that advice. If with his position in government from beginning, and passion for law, he could not influence any change, let him not sway us to his way of thinking but leave us to consider what we can do now for the benefit of coming generations; to live more comfortably with and build on.

The last encounter was more terrible; a criminal matter. It was clear the learned trial judge who is now late was determined to convict my client. The bank of which my client was MD did not fail in the first place. My client did not commit any offence under the decree. His problem arose from boardroom politics when he insisted on enforcing the policy/decision of the board without fear or favour. He thereby annoyed several of the members who wanted the rules bent for them. They framed him up and he was arraigned before the tribunal. The judge overruled our no case submission and insisted on putting the client in the box for his defence. She however, adjourned to the next day. And God showed up; as the client alighted from the Black Maria to his cell in the Enugu prison, a lunatic emerged from nowhere and smashed his head with a big stone. The man was in the pool of his blood for hours until he was taken to UNTH and that stalled the proceedings for a while.

I then went to the press. The agitated board members invited my client’s brother to a meeting where he was told that of the 12 counts of which his brother was arraigned, five were very strong and seven weak, and that they had decided to send a delegation to the judge to discharge and acquit the (client) on seven weak counts but caution and discharge him on the five very strong counts. The client confirmed that a delegation had been sent to him but he insisted he would rather die in jail where he had been for over two years than plead guilty to any of the counts, as he did not commit any offence. I then got the prosecution counsel to meet the judge together to confront her with the facts.

In chambers, the judge said her first impression would have been to send me out of her chambers. And I said: “…even then my lord, I would have satisfied my conscience that I have borne my mind open.” Back in Lagos, I was invited by a retired Vice Marshall who got me to meet the MD of the NDIC for a chat in Abuja. They got me a ticket and I flew to Abuja. Curiously, but by His divine purpose, the MD referred me to the legal adviser who in the course of discussion let the rat out of the bag, “Mr. Esezoobo, we have been reading your arguments. We have also been reading your articles. Well, let’s see how it goes about the judgment.”

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The glory of God is too much for man. I returned to Lagos with information that judgment had been fixed in a matter in which the accused was yet to open his defence. I advised the client appropriately and kept away from the tribunal. The judge tried hard to persuade the client to get a lawyer at Enugu to conclude the trial. But the client insisted on waiting for Esezoobo to get well from the hospital. The pressure on the client became clear when it was announced that the judge had been elevated to the court of Appeal.
The end was yet to come. Suddenly, decree 11 of 1999 came out mandating judges elevated to the court of appeal to go back and conclude the part heard matters at the tribunal. We then sued the judge together with the AGF claiming that it was unbecoming and scandalous for a judge announced as having been elevated to the higher Bench, whether or not he had been sworn in, to abase himself and the profession by coming down to an inferior tribunal to sit under any guise. We were at this point when the military exited and as AGF Bola Ige, (SAN) of blessed memory got hold of the file unsolicited, and without any petition quipped: “How did this file get to the tribunal?” He directed the case to be withdrawn forthwith. That’s how my client escaped the evil proceedings.

One point of emphasis here is that we, lawyers and judges, cannot pretend not to know that what we were doing then was wrong.  Learned colleagues, this is not a show off. It is to show how lowly and cheaply we played during military rule to bring ourselves and the profession down to where we are today. Ordinarily, we can use the law to get the government to be accountable. We can use the law to make public officers to be responsible and not see State money as meant for sharing. We can use our law to inspire and enforce the provision of security and welfare for the people rather than for the political ruling class. We can use our law to reorganize the distribution of wealth to bridge the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. We can use our law to fix our social infrastructure including health care services. Indeed, we can do more, but we must first distinguish ourselves. Taking advantage of the bad system to build up private wealth and wait for emergency times to dole out some palliatives is not it at all, if we can use our law to redistribute the wealth. Since May 1999, our problem has been how to reorientate ourselves to adapt to democratic norms. The second part of this treatise, which follows hereafter will show the negative impact of our shameful outing during military rule and why our democracy is not making progress.
Esezoobo, a lawyer writes from Lagos.

Culled: The Guardian

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