The only ministerial position directly created in the Nigerian Constitution to perform some specialised duties is that of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. Wale Igbintade writes that the ministerial nominee, Chief Lateef Fagbemi, who has a legal career spanning four decades, has enormous opportunity to make a difference
Of all the ministerial portfolios, the only one that is directly created by the Nigerian Constitution is that of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice.
For instance, while Section 151 (1) of the 1999 Constitution specifically states: “There shall be an AGF who shall be the chief law officer of the federation and a minister of the government of the federation,” sub-section 2 of the statute book specifically defines the qualifications or criteria for the occupant of the office.
Section 174(1) goes ahead to state that the AGF shall have powers: (a) to institute and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court of law in Nigeria, other than a court-martial, in respect of any offence created by or under any Act of the National Assembly; (b) to take over and continue any such criminal proceedings that may have been instituted by any other authority or person; (c) to discontinue at any stage before judgment is delivered any such criminal proceedings instituted or undertaken by him or any other authority or person.”
Subsection 2 states that “the power conferred upon the AGF under subsection 1 of this section may be exercised by him in person or through officers of his department.”
Subsection 3 states that: “In exercising his powers under this section, the AGF shall have regard to the public interest, the interest of justice and the need to prevent abuse of legal process.”
While the powers of the AGF cover the entire federation, those of the state attorneys-general are limited to their respective states. For instance, Section 195 (1 and 2) of the Constitution states thus: “There shall be an attorney-general of a state who shall be the chief law officer of the state and a commissioner for justice of the government of that state.”
This makes the position stands out as the sole position officially recognised by the 1999 Constitution which everybody looks up to for stability, adherence to rule of law and law and order not only in the governance structure, but in the affairs of the nation.
The tenure of the immediate past AGF and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) was characterised by impunity, disobedience of court orders, intimidation and harassment of the judiciary, arrest with trial, or inter-agency squabbles.
This is why many Nigerians are looking forward to a new era with Chief Lateef Fagbemi, an accomplished lawyer who became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) at a record time of 10 years at the Bar.
Tomorrow, President Bola Tinubu will swear in Fagbemi in an elaborate ceremony in Abuja, marking his official role as the 24th Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice.
With a legal career that has flourished with professional achievements for close to four decades, Fagbemi, the longest-serving lawyer and the second SAN on the list of nominees, stands tall as not just one of the most distinguished professionals.
The 64-year-old, who hails from Ijagbo in Oyun Local Government Area of Kwara State, is coming on board loaded with experience. He graduated from the University of Jos, Plateau State, with a Second Class Upper degree in Law in 1984. He bagged a master’s degree in Law (LLM) from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in 1987.
A year after completing his law degree at the University of Jos, he was called to the Nigerian Bar in August 1985, marking the beginning of his 38 years of flourishing legal career. He became a SAN after just 10 years at the Bar, the minimum statutory period of active legal practice a lawyer must reach to qualify for the rank. By the time he was sworn into the rank the following year, he was 37 and the youngest person, then, to ever hold the rank.
Fagbemi cut his legal teeth and honed his skills under the tutelage of a renowned lawyer, Afe Babalola, for 11 years.
His law firm, Lateef Fabgemi & Co, also known as Temitope Chambers, which he established later, is now 21 years into practice. The law firm handles cases for clients across the country from its offices in Oyo, Lagos, and Abuja.
With diverse areas of law practice in arbitration, alternative dispute resolution, commercial law, and land and border disputes, the ministerial nominee has handled some high-profile political and corruption-related suits.
The jurist has deployed his legal arsenal in defence of the All Progressives Congress (APC) both as the major opposition and the ruling party.
Being a member of reputable local and international bar associations, Fagbemi has contributed immensely to the development of Nigeria’s jurisprudence – teaching and delivering lectures across universities in the country.
He deploys his mastery of the law in rendering consultancy services for key government institutions and state governments in Nigeria.
However, he will face an inefficient justice system where he has worked in for 38 years.
Fagbemi will inherit a rotten justice system that is grappling with massive corruption, disobedience of court orders, executive lawlessness and impunity by law-enforcement and security agencies.
He will also face the rot created by the past administration’s misuse of pardons and withdrawals of cases.
Interestingly, he had acknowledged these challenges during his Senate screening, where he emphasised that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Department of State Services (DSS) must not defy court orders. Responding to inquiries about federal agencies disregarding court directives, Fagbemi, accompanied by over 10 senior advocates during the screening, discussed the need for the DSS and EFCC to investigate before arresting, rather than arresting before investigation.
Regarding a President’s response to the violation of court orders, he added, “I think with respect, you will not find the President flouting any order because the Attorney General will be made a party to.”
He also suggested the merger of the EFCC and ICPC. According to him, one of the anti-graft agencies should be for the sole purpose of investigation while the other exclusively pursues prosecution.
He underscored the importance of thorough investigations into corruption cases, exemplifying this with the case of an international fraudster, Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, more commonly known as Hushpuppi, who the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted an extensive covert investigation leading to his conviction by a United States court.
When queried by the lawmakers about his approach to handling cases involving unexplained wealth, Fagbemi expressed, “Truth be told, we fight corruption but at the same time, the way it is being fought in Nigeria leaves much to be desired. That is the truth.”
Will Fagbemi be an AGF that will properly advise the government on the constitutional and legal issues, one that upholds the rule of law and denounces lawlessness like disobedience of court orders? Will he hold a promise as an AGF that truly represents the interest of the public in legal proceedings for the enforcement of law and the assertion and protection of public rights?
Given the fact that it is the function of the Attorney General to advise the government on the constitutionality of policies and actions taken or embarked upon by the government, in addition to providing legal services to support law enforcement agencies and every department or institution of government, a lot of issues on rule of law and constitutionality in a nation definitely rests on the office of the AGF.
With his enormous wealth of experience, it is expected that he will tackle these challenges frontally.