Interview: Nigeria needs constitution that won’t reward landmass, large population – Adegboruwa
Human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), talks about the allegation that the judiciary has been intimidated by the executive to cower in fear, in this interview.
You have been in the law practice for about 26 years, what experience during that period would you describe as unforgettable?
Honestly, there are several of them but I cannot forget Justice (Babajide) Candide-Johnson who delivered a judgment in favour of Mrs Effiong, whose daughter connived with somebody to sell her house as a widow. She was ejected and thrown into the streets. Her properties were looted and damaged and she started living in churches. We were on the case for close to 27 years. It was quite a day of joy for me when finally she got judgment and the court directed that her house should be given back to her.
I will never forget May 12, 2015 when I was arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and charged to court clearly because of my involvement in some cases which I believe was not palatable to the system and the fact that on a particular day also I was discharged and the charge was taken off.
So I believe that generally, the system of our legal practice accommodates courage, for those of us who are bold enough to assess the position of the law. Judges will continue to do what is right if lawyers push them right. We should at all cost eschew all manners of manipulations by way of corruption. We should get judges treat cases according to their conscience and according to law. We should not get to a position where lawyers are being used as middlemen to facilitate any form of corruption within the judiciary and I think that would be a challenge that I would like to see that we put to an end.
You’re a pastor in the Redeemed Christian Church of God and a lawyer, how do you balance these responsibilities with your responsibilities at home?
First of all, it is the succour in the legal profession and comfort within the faith that I practise. As a matter of fact, our laws originate from England. The law in England was given out from the Roman Catholic law and later on to the Anglican Church that gave birth to the laws in England that we adopted in Nigeria. So as a lawyer, it is like a blend for me to practise my faith about seeking justice for the oppressed, getting justice for the fatherless, motherless and widows and ensuring that ‘A’ is not called ‘B’ or that white is not called black. However, it is not easy to do the work of the church, especially when you know that our work as lawyer is service-based. It is when our clients have the time that they come to attend to us; they will go about their businesses during the day, so most lawyers actually use their evenings as their periods of practice and interaction with their clients. But I have Bible study, I have prayer meetings and I have programmes mostly fixed for evenings. But I believe that it is only somebody who is healthy that can practise law. I acknowledge the role of God in my life to preserve me and give me good health, so I like to divide my time to satisfy my clients and another time to satisfy God, in terms of impacting His people in the church. In that regard, because law preaches justice and my faith also preaches justice, it is easy for me to blend them, have a passion for both and do them effortlessly. But it involves a lot of sacrifices and sleepless nights.
The judiciary appears to have been caged by the Federal Government while many people believe that the human rights community is under threat. What do you think should be done to enforce the independence of the judiciary from the government?
I believe that generally after God, judges have the power to do and undo. After the decree of the Almighty God, the one that is next is that of the judges. I think what we have in Nigeria mostly is self timidity; there are times when the judges put themselves in the position of the ruling government and begin to think for the government but there are majority of them who have the courage to say it as it is. You will recall that in this country, a governor tried to impeach a chief judge in Kogi State and they went to court.
A judge in Kogi State nullified that process and was able to preserve the seat of the chief judge of that state. The judge is still there; nobody has sacked him.
So I believe that judges should take a cue from the past justices, especially Justice Kayode Esho, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, and Justice Ignatius Acholonu. We should look at the history of those judges that stood their ground even when the executive was involved. We should ensure that the judiciary has financial autonomy because he who pays the piper calls the tune. So in that regard, we have been agitating that the judiciary in the states should have financial autonomy and should not be made to meet the executives to access their funds. The funds for the judiciary should be paid directly into the account of the judiciary and supervised by the chief judge. So I think in that regard, we within the Nigerian Bar Association have realised that judges don’t have a voice, they cannot speak; so we have been speaking for them, we have been agitating for them and we will continue to do so. When we have cases of judges who are being intimidated or persecuted, we will intervene either by going to court or by taking steps to ensure we rescue them from intimidation, oppression or any form of persecution.
You are one of the students of late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who enriched the nation’s jurisprudence based on the things he did while alive. It appears that lawyers have deviated from that line.
What a lawyer considers in accepting or rejecting a brief are many; financial implications of the brief, the facts of the case and the consequences of prosecuting the case for your career, in terms of whether it would bring problem even if it will enrich you. You may need to prayerfully ask God for direction. It is true that Gani didn’t just take any case but what he did that helped him very well was that he invested in law reports and had independent means of sustenance apart from legal practice. Having become financially independent, it was easy for him to continue to maintain his adherence to strict principles of truth and justice.
I think the challenge we have now is that the economy is depressed, so most lawyers including activists, first of all, have to consider the issue of survival and briefs now seem to be dictated by its economic value to the lawyer, which should not be the case. We should still continue to ensure that the cases we handle bring value to the society than the money we can earn and when you are handling cases that affect the interest of the public positively, God has a way of rewarding you indirectly. So I believe that those of us who used to work with Gani Fawehinmi and are unable to keep up with the tenets of his progressive practice, are falling prey to economic challenges and I think gradually we don’t seem to be having a lot of such activists as we used you see in Gani’s time. But I think if the government makes infrastructure available, the economy will prosper and people will have means of sustenance. Then the issue of activism will blossom.
But for now, it is unfortunate though I believe it is a ‘bread and butter struggle’. People are trying so hard to ensure that they survive first before considering the issue of agitation for the interest or rights of the common people which unfortunately should not be so because even by the NBA constitution, we are supposed to pursue pro bono cases and be able to use our legal knowledge to assist people who are in need of justice.
Law lecturers are getting fewer in Nigerian universities; what does this portend for Nigeria in the future?
I think for the institutions that have scarcity of law teachers, they are not proactive or making efforts to take advantage of certain provisions of the law. Law teachers have benefitted from the law that granted them exemption because as a law teacher or civil servant, you are not supposed to appear in court in private cases but they have been granted an exemption by the General Council of the Bar.
So in that regard, any institution that requires law teachers should find a way to ensure that they are engaged on part-time basis such that they can be teaching students and still be going to court and in that process, they will be acquiring experience every now and then, which will be helpful to the students. However, I think that from what I have seen, the value in education is decreasing every day, especially as people do not seem to value degrees.
For us to redress this situation where some universities may lack law teachers, and thereby face accreditation crisis, I will suggest that the government should increase its allocation for education so that there will be more funds within the system and secondly, to ensure that even lawyers in active practice can be encouraged to render part-time services to universities by taking up lecturing jobs.
So in that regard, these universities should look for lawyers who are in private practice who can use this as an opportunity to assist students. Even as SANs, we are supposed to mentor young lawyers. So they can approach the Body of Senior Advocates to get SANs who may be interested in teaching, even free of charge, to impact the students who are in the universities; so there are a lot of opportunities. They can partner with the NBA, the Council of Legal Education, the Body of Benchers and approach lawyers who are willing to take up teaching jobs within the universities and combine it with legal practice as a way of giving back to the society.
Agitation for constitutional amendment has always been talked about in Nigeria. Which aspect of the constitution do you think should be amended for public good?
Our constitution requires more than an amendment, that document is a fraud as it encourages executive dictatorship. It was made by General Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd.), and the way they did it is such that they anticipated that retired generals will continue to venture into politics. So they needed to create some kind of avenue for them to practise civilian dictatorship.
In this present constitution, there are about 399 Sections that talk about the powers of the President. You have a constitution that gives the President executive powers; the constitution has created something like a monster in the executive – not just the President, but the governors too, with the immunity that they have and access to security votes. So I believe that the constitution is not just a matter of amendment, we need a totally brand new constitution that would address the issue of absolute power that is conferred on the President and address the issue of federalism.
When you look at the exclusive legislative list, everything that has value in Nigeria is in the pocket of the Federal Government. It has rendered the state useless. The local governments do not exist; governors and others always go to Abuja to ask for bailouts because everything that brings money to the federation is in the hands of government and it is because of the constitution. This constitution, for instance, says that the yardstick for sharing the revenue from the oil that is taken from my place in the Niger Delta is population and landmass and these two, I don’t have.
Because my region is producing oil, it is a swampy area so there is no land and because I am also from that side and probably a Christian; my faith does not promote polygamy so I cannot have population. So the two things that you use to divide revenue, based on the constitution, are things that I don’t have. The people who have the landmass don’t have the oil, the people who have the population don’t have the resources and yet they get the larger chunk of the money. So I think that the constitution is totally unworkable, it must be totally torn and a fresh constitution should be written. We need a constitution that will ensure that we are actually running true federalism because what we operate in Nigeria now is a constitution for a unitary system of government. Punch