By Akorede Habeeb Lawal
That yellow book – the Nigerian Weekly Law Report – easily qualifies as the Nigerian lawyer’s bible. One of the first nine cases ever reported by Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN the late erudite editor of the NWLR is Akintemi v. Onwumechili (1985) 1 NWLR 55 SC. The appeal which turned on the disciplinary powers of the university was argued by two legal giants – Chief Afe Babalola was for the Appellants while late Chief Olisa Chukwura, SAN represented the Respondents. At the centre of the facts of the case was a student – the Law Students’ Society President of the University of Ife. His name is Paul Usoro.
Reported in 1985, the facts that led to this interesting appeal actually occurred in July, 1980. I would rather lift the relevant parts from the lead judgment of the law lord – Irikefe, JSC at pages 71 to 72 of NWLR Part 1. “It would appear that in July 1980, one Paul Usoro, the President of the Law Society, University of Ife, wrote to the Dean of the Faculty of Law reporting allegations of widespread examination leakages and malpractices in all classes of the Faculty of Law and particularly in Part III, giving the names of students who would be able to give evidence in relation to these matters. Usoro’s report was eventually referred to the Vice Chancellor who set up a panel of five…The Panel at the end of its work submitted its report. It found sufficient evidence to recommend that eight students, amongst whom were the three appellants, be suspended. They were accordingly suspended for the remainder of that session…”
It was the time when values really mattered and the Nigerian universities were in the real sense of the word citadels of learning and buildings of character. Thus, Paul Usoro became an instant hero for being a responsible and responsive leader of students. How did I know? It was the testimony of a High Court Judge in Delta State who was a junior law student at that time in the University of Ife. How did the testimony come about? It was in 2018, the Judge had some EFCC counsel in her court for some other matters and she had to tell this story while decrying the unprofessional and malicious attitude of the agency in charging the then Bar President, the Judge’s students’ president, the same Paul Usoro to court on offences bordering on dishonesty. The Judge said Paul Usoro could never be guilty. She said the charge was trumped up. Fast forward to 2021, her lordship was right. It was a useless charge. It was dismissed. Paul Usoro has been discharged and acquitted. He did not even have to give evidence.
The most valuable currency of a lawyer is integrity. In vouching for the person of Paul Usoro, the Delta State High Court judge was paying service to a thirty year old memory of accountability that is evident in the role Paul Usoro – the student leader – played in Akintemi v. Onwumechili (supra). Admirably, Mr. Usoro, SAN brought this same virtue of accountability to bear in his leadership of the Bar. He introduced the quarterly publication of the NBA Financial Reports to all members and even went a step further by causing the NBA Constitution to be amended to reflect this financial probity initiative. The judgment of the Federal High Court delivered on 16th day of July, 2021 wherein he was discharged and acquitted of money laundering charges further exemplified this virtue of his.
It is however not to be forgotten that while majority of lawyers commendably stood by the NBA President in the heat of the EFCC mischief, there were lame calls by a few numbers of lawyers for Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN to resign his office as the NBA President. This unfair demand was amplified by the media trial of the then NBA President by the EFCC – an agency which has unfortunately established itself as a dreadful blackmailing and propaganda tool of the ruling class. It should now be apparent to those callers within and outside the Bar that the calls were misplaced. It was a moment that the NBA allowed politicians whose interest was solely the 2019 national elections to divide her ranks, but it took the strength and conviction of one man to stand up to the backlash and the blackmail and veritably saved the lawyers’ face and fate.
While the former NBA President was standing trial, it was the Bar in the dock. Aside the fact that he was charged while he was the NBA President, the peculiar facts of the appalling case mounted against him by the EFCC were such that the money making soul of the legal profession was literally under attack. The malicious case of the EFCC was built around the fact that Paul Usoro, SAN collected some money from the Akwa Ibom State Government as his professional fees, money which the EFCC stated that Mr. Usoro ought to know to be proceeds of crime.
With the upholding of the no case submission by the Federal High Court in the judgment discharging and acquitting Mr. Usoro SAN, it is settled that the fees earned by the former NBA President were not proceeds of crime. However, of more critical importance to the rest of us (lawyers) is the reiteration by the Federal High Court Judge of the recent decision of the Court of Appeal in FRN V. Mike Ozekhome CA/L/174/19 delivered on 14/5/2021 that “…it is not a requirement of the law that a legal practitioner would go into inquiry before receiving his fees from his client, to find out the source of the fund from which he would be paid.”
With gratitude to Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN, we are only left to imagine what would have happened to the rest of us had a foremost lawyer, a President of the NBA been convicted for not finding out where his client picked the money from before accepting his professional fees. Again, it is better imagined!
Akorede Habeeb Lawal is the immediate past National Assistant Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association.