Securing Independence Of Judiciary: Way Forward – Olatunji, SAN

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How Nigerian Judges, Court officials Defrauded Govt of N4.8 billion – Audit Report
Judiciary

By Abiodun Olatunji, SAN

ALL the rights secured to the citizens under the Constitution are worth nothing, and a mere bubble, except guaranteed to them by an independent and virtuous Judiciary.— Andrew Jackson.

Introduction

The above evergreen postulation of Andrew Jackson, a highly cerebral American lawyer, first class general, and statesman of repute, who served as the 7th President of the United States of America (1829 to 1837) is very apt to today’s discussion qua lecture, due to the unwarranted and unjustifiable onslaught by successive civilian and military governments, over the years to erode the independence of the Nigerian Judiciary.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the Judiciary has run into troubled waters and unless drastic measures are put in place to stem the ugly tide, it is about to hit an iceberg akin to the iceberg which sunk the RMS Titanic Vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912 (on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York with 2,200 passengers and crew on board), a vessel hitherto considered unsinkable.

The Nigerian Judiciary is at  crossroads and has been unable to cross the ‘Red Sea’ of corruption, financial strangulation by the governments at both the state and federal level, widespread maladministration within the Judiciary itself etc., which have hindered it from successfully carrying its constitutional mandate as enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended).

This now leads us to the germane question that if the Judiciary itself has been hamstrung in recent times by the Executive constantly seeking to make it kow-tow to its whims and caprices by depriving the Judiciary of the needed funds needed to independently and effectively run its affairs, how can the rights of the citizens be adequately secured?

The imagery of this rather sad and appalling situation is aptly captured by the English poet and author, Geoffrey Chaucer, in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, wherein he quipped thus: “If gold rusts, what then can iron do?”

A nation without an independent Judiciary is not likely to enjoy either the rule of law or true freedom. The greatest proponent of the Rule of Law,  Professor A. V. Dicey, whose views on the doctrine remain the most globally accepted authoritative restatement stated thus:

“…in the first place, the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law, as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power, and excludes the existence of arbitrariness, of prerogative, or even wide discretionary authority on the part of the government. Englishmen are ruled by the law, and by the law alone, a man may with us be punished for nothing else. It means again equality before the law or the equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary law courts. The rule of law in this sense excludes idea of any exemption of officials or others from the duty of obedience to the law of the land which governs other citizens or from the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals.”

The independence of any nation’s Judiciary is hinged on the theory of separation of powers, a doctrine that is often believed to rest at the foundation of the Constitution of the United States of America. It holds that liberty is best preserved if the three functions of government—legislation, law enforcement, and adjudication—are in different hands. The modern idea of separation of powers is to be found in one of the most important eighteenth-century works on political science, the Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which states that:

“Political liberty is to be found only when there is no abuse of power… But constant experience shows us that everyman invested with power is  apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go … To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the nature of things that  power should be a check  to power … When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body … there can be no liberty; … Again there is no liberty if the judicial power is not separated from the Legislative and the executive… There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people to exercise all three powers.”

MABURY V. MADISON: What Breathes Life Into The United States Constitution?

It was the judgment rendered by Chief Justice John Marshall in the celebrated case of William Marbury v. James Madison  that breathed life into the US Constitution thus, saving the American State from disintegrating. The effect of the evergreen judgment of the erudite and highly cerebral Jurist was succinctly captured in the words of Ian Mc-Dougall thus:

“With a persuasive stroke of a pen, Justice Marshall defined what ‘checks and balances’ meant in practice and he clarified the role of the Supreme Court of the United States in shaping our culture. Marshall confirmed that the US Constitution was the supreme law of the land and the Supreme Court was the final arbiter of all legal disputes regardless of the parties involved-in this instance a part of a co-equal branch of the US government. Marshall starts with a critical premise with which no one, other than those who would champion revolution, could argue- the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and, as such, the Constitution explicitly provides that the judicial power of the United States culminates in the Supreme Court whose power is expressly extended to all cases arising under the laws of the United States.”

Balewa,  E.O. Lakanmi v. A.G. Western State & Ors,   Paul Unogo v. Aper Aku & 2 Ors,  Governor of Lagos State v Ojukwu,  Obeya Memorial Hospital v Attorney-General of the Federation & Ors.,  Garba vs. University of Maiduguri,  Fawehinmi v Akilu,  A-G. Bendel State v A-G. Federation & Ors. , Garba v Federal Civil Service Commission , Bello v A-G. Oyo State , Olaniyan v University of Lagos , Military Governor of Ondo State v Adewunmi.

THE BANE AFFECTING THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE JUDICIARY IN RECENT YEARS- MATTERS ARISING

Dispensation of Justice in a Unitarized Judiciary

As at 1979, and up to November 1993, the State High Courts in Nigeria exercised unlimited jurisdiction on all matters, whether between citizens, inter se, in the respective States, or between citizens and governments of the various States or between governments of the States and federal agencies therein. A case in point is when the Shagari led Federal Government attempted to deport Shugaba Abdulrahman Darman in 1982, it was a Borno State High Court, sitting in Maiduguri that initially granted an injunction restraining the deportation exercise, before finally going into the merits of the case to prohibit the Federal Government from deporting the citizen.  The unlimited jurisdiction of the State High Court  was also depicted in -Barclays Bank v. Central Bank of Nigeria ; Bronik Motors v. Wema Bank  and  Jammal Steel Structures Ltd v. Africa Continental Bank Ltd.

Sequel to the above, unlike the 1979 Constitution which was truly federal in nature, as far as the jurisdiction of the State High Court was concerned, section 272(1) of the 1999 Constitution now subjects the jurisdiction of the State High Court primarily to section 251, which vests exclusive  jurisdiction in the Federal High Court in relation to certain defined matters. It is pertinent to state that the entirety of section 251 of the Constitution constitutes relics of the military incursion into the Nigerian political space, particularly the emergence of General Sani Abacha’s administration in November, 1993. The military administration of General Sani Abacha promulgated Decree No. 107 of 1993  to delimit the jurisdiction of the State High Court and expand that of the Federal High Court to include, amongst others, any matter or cause involving the Federal Government or any of its agencies.

The Plague of Forum Shopping

The plague of Forum Shopping is a reprehensible phenomenon where courts of concurrent jurisdictions give conflicting judgments qua rulings with more or less the same parties on the same subject-matter.

The Court of Appeal in Ibori v. FRN  condemned the practice of forum shopping when it held thus:

“There is no provision in the EFCC Act, to the effect that it can pick and choose at will or randomly, which court to arraign and prosecute an accused person. Forum shopping is not a practice recognized or approved under our laws. Indeed, it is frowned upon, regarded and rightly too, as an aberration and an undisguised wilful attempt to punish an accused person before a verdict of guilt is returned in his criminal trial. By no means and with whatever leverage should prosecution be converted to persecution, victimization, discrimination, deprivation, open denial of fair hearing and an assault on well-defined principles of natural justice and the 1999 Constitution. You cannot take an accused person from Lagos to Gashua for trial just like that without the law as your forte.”

Other cases in which the ugly and retrogressive practice of forum shopping was condemned by the courts include but are not limited to: Dalhatu v. Turaki,   Dingyadi & Anor v. INEC (No. 1) (2010) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1224) 154 at 195-196, paras. E – G.

Corruption

Corruption is a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the fabric of our nation, bearing its poisonous, deadly and life-threatening fangs on every facet of our national life, including the legal profession. It is incontrovertible that corruption is a hydra headed monster that is capable of bringing any society to its precipice, including the Judiciary, the third arm of government. Perhaps, apart from genocide, (crime against humanity), there is nothing as lethal, pernicious and virulent as corruption in any society.

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Recently, a damning Report titled: “Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a pilot survey” covering a period of 2018 – 2019, which placed the Judiciary on top of the Nigeria Corruption Index was released by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) through its Chairman, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye. The said Report stated in part thus:

“Six female Judges reported that they were offered N3,307,444,000 billion and five male judges reported N392,220,000 million…Overall, the justice sector had the highest level of corruption with a score of 63. The level of corruption in the justice sector was heightened by stupendously high amounts of money offered as bribes to judges by lawyers handling high electoral and other political cases…The total amount of money reported by the Justice sector respondents as corruptly demanded, offered and paid between 2018 and 2020 was N9, 457, 650,000.”

The devasting effect of a corrupt judge on the society could not have been more appropriately captured than that stated by Hon. Justice S.O. Uwaifo, JSC in his Valedictory Speech on 24th January, 2005 titled: “May the Supreme Court never become an Undergrowth” in condemning any Judge who is corrupt stated thus:

“A corrupt judge is more harmful to the society than a man who runs amok with a dagger in a crowded street. The latter can be restrained physically. But a corrupt judge deliberately destroys the moral foundation of society and causes incalculable distress to individuals through abusing his office while still being referred to as honourable.”

The stench emanating from the level of corruption in the judicial space is heart wrenching. As stated in clause 40 of the famous MAGNA CARTA, 1215, Judges should be able to say with all good conscience and without any hesitation whatsoever that “Nulli vademus, nulli negabimus, aut differemus rectum, aut justiciam” meaning “to no one will we sell (justice), to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice”.

THE WAY FORWARD OUT OF THE DOLDRUMS FOR THE JUDICIARY

Establishment of State Judicial Councils

The essence of establishing State Judicial Councils is to ensure that issues relating to recommendation, appointment, payment of salaries and punishment of Judges etc., are handled at the state level rather than over burden the National Judicial Council with the herculean task of dealing with the said issues from all the courts in all the states of the federation. The establishment of State Judicial Councils will require an amend to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended).

Meting out stiffer penalties on corrupt judges by the NJC

There is a need for the NJC to met out stiffer penalties including outright dismissal of errant judges who engage in corrupt practices. There is no gainsaying the fact that keeping bad eggs in the system will send a wrong signal to other judges and the general public. Late last year, three judges of courts of coordinate jurisdiction were penalized by the NJC for granting ex parte orders to the same parties on the same subject matter. Two of the judges were warned and estopped from being promoted for two years, while the third judge was slammed with a five-year moratorium from being promoted. To my mind, the NJC should have wielded the big stick.

The American Judicial Disciplinary Example

Let us take a cue from the United States of America when in 2019 the jury convicted Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado, 65, of Edinburg, following a six-day trial of one count of conspiracy, three counts of federal program bribery, three counts of travel act bribery and one count of obstruction of justice. As a State of Texas District Judge, Delgado conspired with an attorney from January 2008 to November 2016 to accept bribes in exchange for favorable judicial consideration on criminal cases pending in his courtroom. As part of the investigation, Delgado also accepted bribes on three separate occasions in exchange for agreeing to release three of the attorney’s clients on bond in cases pending before his court. The first two bribes totalled approximately $520 in cash and the third bribe – in January 2018 – totalled approximately $5,500.

The Assistant Attorney-General of the State of Texas, Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division had this to say about the action of the convicted judge: “Rudy Delgado used his position to enrich himself… Delgado’s actions unfairly tarnish all his former colleagues. No one – especially a judge – is above the law. Corrupt judges erode the confidence we have in our judicial system, but this verdict goes a long way in restoring that confidence.”

Merit based appointment

Appointment of persons to the Bench must be merit based and not politically influenced. Sections 231, 238, 250, 256 and 271 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended) relating to the appointment/qualification of legal practitioners to the Supreme Court, Court, Court of Appeal, Federal High Court, High Court, FCT and High Court of a State respectively only stated the number of years for any legal practitioner to be qualified to be appointed to the Bench of any of the courts. No reference was made as to the required “character traits and depth of knowledge” expected of such a legal practitioner. I want to propose an amendment of the relevant provisions of the Constitution mentioned above, expanding the definition of qualification beyond the number of years the said legal practitioner is qualified. This is to prevent politicians from nominating/appointing their cronies who are not qualified to the Bench. Persons to be appointed must be of unassailable integrity, character and sound learning.

Appointment of Cerebral High Court Judges to the Supreme Court

It is pertinent for the Judiciary to revive the practice of appointing brilliant, cerebral, diligent and Judges of sound character from the High Court Bench straight to the Supreme Court. Examples abound of industrious, sound and cerebral Justices who set the Supreme Court alight with their forensic and evergreen judgments, who were appointed from the High Court Bench to the Supreme Court. – Hon. Justice Kayode Eso, JSC, CON, Hon. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, JSC, CFR, Hon. Justice Chukwunweike Idigbe, JSC, Hon. Justice Ebenezer Babasanya Craig, Hon. Justice Mohammed Bello, JSC, GCON, Hon. Justice Anthony Aniagolu, JSC, Hon. Justice Andrew Obaseki, JSC and Hon. Justice Saidu Kawu. Their noteworthy contributions to the expansion of the frontiers of our jurisprudence through their sound judgments cannot be washed away by the footprints of the sands of time.

The American Example- Chief Justices of the United States Supreme Court without prior judicial experience

In the United States of America, 9 out of 17 Chief Justices had no prior judicial experience before their appointment as Chief Justices of America at different times in the American judicial trajectory. They include John Marshall, Roger Taney, Salmon Chase, Morrison Waite, Melville Fuller, Charles Evans Hughes, Harlan Fiske Stone, Earl Warren and William Rehnquist.

Supreme Court of Canada

In the Supreme Court of Canada, only one out of nine justices of the Supreme Court of Canada has no prior judicial experience – The Honourable Suzanne Cote who, was prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada was a Partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.

Security of Tenure for Judges/Justices

There must be security of tenure for Judges/Justices to enable them carry out their duties dispassionately as Judges/Justices without any fear or inhibition. The removal of Chief Judges of some of our High Courts for flimsy or no reason at all must be nipped in the bud.

The American Example- Security of Tenure for Federal Judges & Justices the Supreme Court

While the executive and legislative branches are elected by the people, members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Federal judges can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. Judges and Justices serve no fixed term — they serve until their death, retirement, or conviction by the Senate. By design, this insulates them from the temporary passions of the public, and allows them to apply the law with only justice in mind, and not electoral or political concerns.

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution.  All Justices are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and hold their offices under life tenure. Since Justices do not have to run or campaign for re-election, they are thought to be insulated from political pressure when deciding cases. Justices may remain in office until they resign, pass away, or are impeached and convicted by Congress.

Remuneration/Welfare of Judges/Justices

It is an open secret that Judges both at the federal and state level are underpaid, which makes them susceptible to accept or take bribes/kickbacks when offered by desperate politicians. The salaries and allowances of Nigerian judges at the Federal and State levels have remained static for nearly 15 years till date. The last time salaries of judges were reviewed in the country was by the “Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc.) (Amendment) Act, 2008’’, which came into force on February 1, 2007.  In June 2022, a letter duly signed by 14 Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria was all over the social media space captioned: “The State of Affairs in the Supreme Court of Nigeria and demand by Justices of the Court” and addressed to the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Tanko Muhammad. In the said letter the eminent Justices were complaining about their poor welfare packages and other sundry issues negatively affecting them in the discharge of their judicial duties. This is very embarrassing to say the least.   An upward review of the remuneration/welfare packages is required urgently. I tried to no avail to get the remuneration earned by Judges/Justices at the State and Federal level of the Nigerian Judiciary. However, in a few seconds, I was able to lay my hands on the earnings of federal judges of the United State Courts in the past 54 years (1968-2022),  by doing a quick google search  to check for the Annual payment of Federal Judges of the United States Court between 1968-2022  (https://www.uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/judicial-compensation). Unsurprisingly, the data available on the website of the Federal Courts of the United States of America, showed an upward trajectory review of the earnings of the Judges of the US Federal Courts.

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The raid/arrest of Judges/Justice in October 2016 and the unceremonious removal/conviction of the Chief Justice of Nigeria in 2019- Intimidation of the entire Judiciary must come to an end

The attack of the residences of some Judges/Justices in gestapo style by men of the DSS in October 2016, ransacking their homes in the process in the search of hard currencies puportedly given to them as bribes at midnight shocked the entire Judiciary to the bone marrow. It caused a huge embarrassment to the legal profession. It was/is apparently clear that the Executive sees the Judiciary, not as a separate and distinct arm of government, but as a mere department under it. Also, the conviction of the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen by the Code of Conduct of Tribunal on the ground that he failed to properly declare his assets was the final nail in the coffin. The legal profession was at its lowest ebb and is yet to recover from the assault suffered by it. These despicable attacks on the Bench must stop forthwith; our Justices/Judges must not be gagged.

The Financial Autonomy of the Judiciary must be guaranteed

The quest for the financial/judicial autonomy suffered a setback when the Supreme Court in Suit No- SC/CV/655/2020- A.G. Abia & 35 Ors. v. A.G. Federation of Nigeria by a split decision decided 6-1 to nullify Executive Order 10, vide which the Federal Government of Nigeria had sought in 2019, to give effect to Section 81 (3) and Section 121(3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), with regard to the financial autonomy of the respective 36 states judiciary and legislature, which had been observed more in the breach by state governments and their Chief Executives. The Governors of the 36 states of the Federation had kicked against the Executive Order describing the said Order as an aberration which inhibited their rights under the 1999 Constitution. It is clear the Judiciary must go back to the drawing board to find its way out of this conundrum.

Need for more lawyers to get actively involved in governance by seeking for elective positions in the Executive and Legislature

There is no gainsaying the fact that there is a need for more lawyers in Nigeria to be actively involved in governance by seeking for elective positions in the Executive and the Legislature. For instance, first world countries like the United States of America and Singapore have been piloted by lawyers. Lee Kuan Yew, who is regarded as the father of modern Singapore and who positively turned around the fortunes of Singapore was a lawyer, ditto for the United States of America which has produced 26 Presidents (out of 46 Presidents in its history) who were lawyers.  A former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who was regarded as a world citizen and widely respected was a lawyer. Curiously, Nigeria has not produced a single lawyer as President. In the National Assembly, we have only a handful of lawyers, yet the National Assembly is purportedly supposed to have as its core mandate the business of ‘law making’. How ironic!

The United States of America for instance, in the last Congress, 39 percent of the House members were lawyers, along with 57 percent of U.S. senators. Four new lawyers were elected to the Senate and 16 were elected to the House in 2014, according to a list published by the National Law Journal. 169 Members of the House (38% of the House) and 57 Senators (57% of the Senate), held law degrees. 19 House Representatives have doctoral (Ph.D. or D.Phil.) degrees. The Congressional Research Service notes that the vast majority of Members (95 percent) had an academic degree: 168 Representatives and 57 Senators had a law degree. Of these, five (three Representative and two Senators) also hold a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree.

Promotion/elevation of Judges should not be determined by the Executive.

CONCLUSION

I will close this paper with the instructive words of Sir David Roy Lidington KCB CBE, a renowned British politician, who was the Member of Parliament for Aylesbury from 1992 until 2019. He stated thus:

“The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary underpin our democracy and lie at the heart of our way of life. They are the very cornerstone of our freedoms”

The question is whether or not they have the right to do what they have to do. If you ask me, they have the right to do so, because the Constitution in Section 40 grants us the right to freedom of assciation,” Okutepa said.

But three former Presidents of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, — Dr. Olisa Agbakoba,SAN, Mr. Joseph Daudet, SAN and Mr Augustine Alegeh, SAN, at separate times, told Vanguard that they were not in support of the move by some northern lawyers to form a new association, even though the Nigerian constitution grants citizens right to freedom of association.

For instance, Agbakoba said any plan to set up a new NBA will face an uphill task. “I think many decisions of the Courts state that membership of NBA is legally interlinked with being a Legal Practitioner, so there is in my view an uphill task confronting an association of lawyers leaving the fold of the NBA,” he said.

On his part, Daudu noted that the lawyers seeking to break out from the NBA should have first exhausted the internal mechanism of dispute resolution within the association before setting out to form a new body.

He also observed that it was wrong for the lawyers to base the formation of their new association on the sole ground that Governor Nasir El-Rufai was not allowed to participate as speaker in the ongoing virtual annual general conference.

He said, “I have not seen the letter that the new northern association sent to the Attorney-General of the Federation on the formation of their own NBA, but I must state that it is within their constitutional right to associate and form any group whatsoever.

“It is their right and no one can deny them that. My position, however, is that they should have exhausted all available option of dispute resolution within the NBA before taking such action. Personally, I am not in support of any split in the NBA now. Basing their decision because they are aggrieved to me is also wrong.  What is the assurance that there will not be further disagreement within the new group they are proposing and so, if there is disagreement, are they going to split even in the new body when similar contentious issues arise? There are better ways of address these issues and I don’t think forming a new association is an immediate solution to such issues.”

On his part, Alegeh said the NBA remains an indivisible body and any group of lawyers within its fold that is aggrieved should seek solution using internal mechanisms in the association.

“NBA remains an indivisible entity. Like every organisation, there may be issues that will come up from time to time, but that should not give room for break up.   Within the NBA, there are mechanisms for resolving conflict. Whatever the issues are, I strongly advise those seeking to form a new association, to have a rethink. They should rather seek for better ways to resolve their complaints

“Moreover, a new leadership has just been elected and should be given the privilege and time to address some of their complaints.”

Former Secretary General of the African Bar,Association, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, though is also not supporting balkanization of the NBA, he however argued that under the law, lawyers are at liberty to belong to association of their choice.

According to him, “In making a strong case for the compulsory membership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) by all lawyers who have been called to the bar, not a few colleagues have placed a high premium on the Court of Appeal case of the Nigerian Bar Association. v. Kehinde (2017) 11 NWLR (PT 1576) 225.

“In the leading judgment of the Court, her Ladyship NIMPAR, JCA, had held that “The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) was established for the purpose of regulating the affairs and conduct of all legal practitioners in Nigeria and upon being called to the Nigerian Bar, there is automatic membership to the NBA on a lawyer. See Chinwo v. Owhonada (2008)3 NWLR (Pt.1074)341. Hence, as long as one has elected to join and remain within the noble profession, he is a member and ought to comply with the directive of the Association.”

“With respect, the law does not support the statement of the Court of Appeal that the NBA has been founded “for the purpose of regulating the affairs and conduct of all legal practitioners in Nigeria. Indeed, the NBA was founded in 1900 as a friendly society to protect the interests of the first generation of Nigerian lawyers led by the late Mr. Sapara Williams.

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“The NBA Constitution has since been registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission as a voluntary professional body of lawyers with full and honorary membership. Even though the NBA is represented in these statutory bodies, it does not have the legal capacity to regulate the conduct of any lawyer who has been called to the Bar in Nigeria.

“Therefore, while the NBA is a Legal association of lawyers because it has been incorporated under the CAMA, other associations formed by lawyers are lawful whose members are entitled to associate for the protection of their interests pursuant to section 40 of the Constitution of Nigeria.

“Notwithstanding the automatic membership of the NBA by all lawyers, the Constitution of the NBA has accorded recognition to other associations of lawyers representing regional, religious, ideological and other interests. Such associations include the Arewa Lawyers Association, Eastern Bar Forum and Egbe Amofin,” he added.

Although the Northern lawyers could not go far with their aspiration, one major point was made to the effect that lawyers are free to belong to or form association of their choice.

Again, another group of lawyers moves to split NBA

More than two years after the failed attempt of the two Northern lawyers, a group of lawyers, towards the end of October 2022, sent a letter to the Body of Benchers (BOB) to formally intimate it of the existence of a parallel association of professional lawyers operating under the name of Law Society of Nigeria (LSN).

The new group also took advantage of the correspondence to unveil its pro tem national executives to BOB for future interaction.

The letter was dated October 24, 2022 but was not leaked to the media until October 30, 2022.

It was addressed to the Chairman of the BOB, Chief Oluwole Olanipekun, SAN. The Body of Benchers is a professional body that regulates the legal profession in Nigeria.

The new group, in the letter to the BOB has the following legal practitioners as its pro tem executives: Kunle Ogunba, SAN – President;  Nimi Walson-Jack , Vice President; Abdulqadir  Sani,  Secretary; Olasupo Ojo,  Welfare Secretary; Chioma Ferguson, Treasurer and Douglas Ogbankwa, Publicity Secretary.

Others are Zara Yakub, Financial Secretary; Alice Awonugba,  Assistant Secretary and Hassan Sherif, Assistant Publicity Secretary.

Moments after the letter got to the public space, a prominent member of the inner bar who played an active role in the resuscitation of NBA after it went comatose in 1992, Ahonaruogho issued a disclaimer to call on Nigerian lawyers to disregard the group.

In the statement dated October 30, 2022,  Ahonaruogo said the group was actually not new, claiming it was registered far back in 1994.

He said he came up with the idea of forming the Society in 1992 shortly after the NBA went comatose and was therefore the convener and Founding Secretary of the Society.

Ahonaruogho  whose name was missing on the list of the Pro tem Executives of the new Association further said the Society was registered by him and others with the CAC in 1994 to save the NBA from self-destruction following the 1992 Port-Harcourt crisis.

The disclaimer issued by Ahonaruogho reads in part: “My attention has just been drawn to the purported Executive Committee of the Law Society of Nigeria (NLS) and hereby wish to assure all Legal Practitioners in Nigeria that the purported Executive Committee is unknown to the Law Society of Nigeria (NLS).

“The Law Society of Nigeria (NLS) was incorporated on 28th December, 1994, by my good self, Richard Oma Ahonaruogho, as Convener and as Secretary with Mr. Charles I. Idehen as Chairman.

“The idea was to save the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) from self-destruction after the 1992 Port Harcourt crises and we have over the years reviewed the need to keep the Nigerian lawyers under the main umbrella of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).

“Recent events in the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) have led to an increasing agitation for the full commencement of activities of the Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) for which some representatives of the persons now claiming to be Executives of the Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) held a meeting with me and one of the promoters of the Law Society of Nigeria on 6th October, 2022, in Lagos, where their appeal for the commencement of full activities was tabled, considered and deferred for further consultations with some of the other key promoters and the sole surviving Trustee.

“That consultation is ongoing and the hasty announcement by the said letter with reference number LDN/BOB/C/2022/Vol. 1/001 , on the indicated subject ‘LAW SOCIETY OF NIGERIA: NOTICE OF EXISTENCE AND NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE’ to the Body of Benchers of its pro tem National Executives of the Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) are with respect to them unknown to the Law Society of Nigeria (NLS), and should be disregarded by all Nigerian Lawyers and the Distinguished Body of Benchers of Nigeria to whom the letter dated 24th October, 2022, was written.

“The logo and the Motto – Justice For All on the purported letter claiming to be that of the Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) are alien to the Law Society of Nigeria (NLS) and amount to the tort of passing-off.

“That the offices known to the Law Society of Nigeria (NLS) as provided for in Article 6 of the Constitution of the Law Society of Nigeria dated 10th February, 1994, and submitted to the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) are as follows: President; President-elect; Chair of the House of delegates; Secretary; Treasurer; Secretary-elect; Treasurer-elect; Executive Vice-President.

“In conclusion, on behalf of the Promoters of the Law Society of Nigeria (LSN) and as Founding Secretary, I hereby state categorically that NO EXECUTIVE has been appointed for the Law Society of Nigeria as at today, Sunday 30th October, 2022, and that the purported notice should be disregarded,” he signed off.

Many lawyers had thought that the disclaimer by Ahonaruogho (SAN) on the purported executives of the new group had taken the wind out of the group’s sail until when the purported Publicity Secretary of the new group, Douglas Ogbankwa issued another statement to claim that there was no cause for alarm and that the association remained hale, hearty and kicking.

According to Ogbankwa, “The attention of the Protem National Exco of the Law Society has been drawn to a comment from Prince (Dr.) Richard Oma Ahonarurogho, SAN, on the publication by the Protem National Executives of the Law Society of Nigeria. Prince Richard Ahonaruogho is a respected Member of the legal profession in Nigeria. The Law Society of Nigeria wishes to respond on the above indicated issue as follows”.

“The Law Society of Nigeria duly consulted with a sole surviving Trustee of the Society and current Exco, obtained all the necessary consents and approvals before going public even as further consultations shall be intensified to carry the past and current stakeholders along in the hazardous journey ahead

“The Law Society of Nigeria is indeed alive and here to stay .We are glad it is receiving rave reviews and this indicates the frenzy with which the resuscitation of the LSN is being accepted.

“It is not a walk in the park to create a change and we have factored this in as we continue to engage with all relevant stakeholders in ensuring that we make the necessary inroads to give our dear Society all the support required for its success.

“It is important to state that Prince Ahonaruogho has not claimed to a Trustee nor a current Exco Member of the Law Society of Nigeria (since membership of an exco cannot be in perpetuity and the current National Exco as constituted is properly constituted following due process and notwithstanding his lack of capacity to issue such a disclaimer, the Pro Tem Executives will leave no stone unturned to address all issues that our publication has generated particularly his friendly rejoinder and assure him of an enduring partnership with the collective interest of all practitioners in view.

“We shall, in the coming days, release more information on the activities of LSN. We thank you all for your overwhelming emails, calls and messages and we promise to give you the best of leadership expected of an innovative and trail blazing organization like ours.

It is indeed a new beginning”.

In his further reaction, Ahonaruogho, said: “No one from Kunle Ogunba SAN group formed the NLS, not one of them. I, Richard Ahonaruogho came up with the idea in 1992, after the Port Harcourt crises but I did not get the necessary support from the other promoters until February, 1994, and we submitted our application to the Corporate Affairs Commission in April, 1994 and got incorporated on 28th December, 1994.

“Richard Ogbeche did not consult any of the Promoters or myself as the Convener and Founding Secretary. Not even Mr. Charles  Idehen, the Chairman of the Law Society of Nigeria. I was just 7 years at the Bar in 19943 .

“Ogunba team of J. K. Gadzama SAN and Olasupo Ojo held a meeting with me and another Promoter, Chief Kunle Uthman on Thursday 6th October 6, 2022, at the Southern Sun Hotel, Ikoyi. We are still consulting the other promoters of NLS and the sole surviving Trustee, Richard Ogbeche,” he added.

From all indications, it is clear that though the association is already registered with the CAC, the controversy surrounding its reappearance may work against it. Although the reappearance of Law Society of Nigeria, this time, as a rebel group, is another test case for the NBA, it does appear, barring any unforeseen gymnastics, that the professional association of lawyers , like a cat with nine lives, will survive the gathering storm unscathed.

(Vanguard)

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