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Only common man goes to jail in Nigeria – Babatunde Benson (SAN)

Chief Babatunde Olusola Benson (SAN) is our guest this week. He recently marked his 50th years as a practicing legal practitioner. He was a member of the Body of Benchers as well as member of the Disciplinary Committee of the Bar. He also published and launched his autobiography to mark the 50th anniversary at the Bar to showcase his experiences as a lawyer.

In this interview, he delves into some ranging issues, especially the declining standard of the legal practice in Nigeria, and the game of politics in the country. He was of the opinion that nothing positive has changed in Nigeria politics since independence.
Excerpts :

Recently you marked the 50th anniversary of your call to Bar. How do you see the practice of law over the years?

In our days, things were quite different from now. That time we were less than 1,000 lawyers in practice. Presently lawyers are more than 4,000. As at that time things were completely different. I will classify our contemporaries as at that time as general practitioners, but today we have specialities in all aspects of law. One can say that the standard now is not as high compared to that time.

I remember an occasion, I went to the Supreme Court, handling a case, by the time I came back to the Chambers, my uncle who was then the Minister of Information phoned me, asking about what I did in court. He said somebody phoned him about what I did in court. Certainly one of the judges must have told him certain things about me. That time, you were being monitored.

The discipline was very high. Lawyers get away with murders these days, because issue of discipline is not properly handled. I was a member of the disciplinary committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) for several years. Petitions we received against some lawyers are dirty ones.

I recall an occasion, when a lady who was in the University of Ife, did not get her papers right. She presented the Ife graduation list and was accepted at the Law school. She was called to the Bar. So, some members of her set whose sins were not covered petitioned. I sat on the tribunal that looked at the case.

I remember that her call to the Bar was later reversed  for a year or two. There were so many cases like that. In those days when you apply to the Bar or Inns-of-Court, notices are pasted at the High Courts and the Magistrate courts. They will ask you, which part of Nigeria you came from, they will ask the town, they will send the detail to your district to confirm whether you are fit to be called.

From what you have said, can we now attribute the problems to the increase in numbers of lawyers, nowadays or lack of discipline?
One has to consider the population. About two years ago, I was the external solicitor to Lagos State University (LASU), I cannot imagine the people in Alaba International market were law students in LASU. It was when a certain problem came up and we were investigating that we realized that the man was a trader. These days , everybody wants to read law, once they get their G.C.E. results, they are admitted. Then, it was not so. There was another case where a student from polytechnic was rusticated in Enugu. He left there for University of Jos and did his degree in law. When he finished he went into the law school. He was asked the question, whether he had previous criminal record, he did not answer properly, he told a lie.

Chief Babatunde Benson(SAN)
Chief Babatunde Benson(SAN)

When he was to be called to the Bar, he needed to get a bencher. One of those Bencher was Mrs. Hairat Balogun. He got through, he went on to do post graduate  program me in University of Calabar. There he needed his scripts from the law school, he go went there got hold of the file , inked it and do what he usually do. He was apprehended, I realized Mrs. Hairat Balogun and one senior lawyer had to go and give evidence. It was argued that the ink was not there. I think he is serving his sentences now. So many issues like that are now rearing their heads.

What is the solution to this problem?
During our time, the Inns-of-court, did not pass anybody, they will say, you have been admitted and they don’t admit more than one third of those who sat for the exams. So, when we get back here, we say that is good, but our Northern counterparts objected, they said we Yorubas are all lawyers.  The first Yoruba lawyer was produced  in 1841, first Igbo lawyer was in 1936 and first Hausa lawyer was in 1956. So they said, we  cannot at this time start cutting their numbers. That is part of the problem.

For your over 50 years as a lawyer, what are the land mark cases you have handled?
There are so many cases, I have handled. All are written in my published book. However, one of them is a chieftaincy matter in Lagos. The matter got to the Supreme Court. What happened was that my client, said that his family was the only ruling house.

This other man said, no, and that at the time of his fore fathers, he was an Onikoyi for 37 years. What my client said was that his father had about 9 or 10 children, when he died, the eldest was a female and she could not be a chief. The female got married to another person and there was no issue, so she picked one of his step-children to fill her father’s stool. Because she was a very strong woman, nobody dared her.

That man was on the stool for 37 years. In Lagos, it was not like here in Ikorodu, the chieftaincy lineage are three. We have “Omo Oye”,the direct descendants, we have “Alabagbes”, the neighbors, who enjoy the royalty because they stay in the compound. The others, were no more called slaves. The last ones are treated better than “Alabagbes”, because that means, somebody must have bought his ancestors as slaves.

As such, they share part of the chieftaincy. So, the man claimed that apart from his father being there for 37 years, we were sharing the land equally. There was another one I just completed in Lagos, the “Arotas” they called them, are sharing the same things. So, he claimed, “I am part and parcel of you”. So, the court ruled that there were two ruling houses. There were several other ones.

With your experiences and age, how would you compare our politicians of old with today?
Let me say, firstly, I am not a politician. Because, I did not approve what was happening in the 60″s, I was with my uncle, Otunba T.O.S Benson. To me the practice has not changed.

It has not changed for good, the systems are part and parcel of our politics in those days. There was a case, of this fellow, who was anti of other ruling party. A leader of the party asked his boys to go and cut somebody’s ear. Also, there was a lawyer in Ogun state, because he was against another party, he was maltreated and had his eyes removed. So, there was no difference. I remember a politician said sometimes that all parties rig.

Is it not so? Recently, the Speaker of the House of Representataives,Dimeji Bankole was requesting Ooni of Ife to pray for the survival of our democracy. So, it is prayers that we need. You are a journalist, you can see the extent to which people steal government money. It was too much. How many of them have been sent to jail, since E.F.C.C started. It is only the common man that goes to jail .

It would be difficult for people like us who are not partisan to say things are better or worse, because if you know what was happening in the 60’s then you will know, that things are not better. The difference was the magnitude. Of course, there was no much money then. These days, they now earn millions of Naira. You can imagine, in the East, somebody kept N250 million in the car. What happens thereafter ?

You are the chairman of Conference of Leaders in Ikorodu Division, what is the plan on ground for realization of the division to produce the governor of the state in 2011?
We have nine qualified Ikorodu indigines contesting. I believe from what he did however, Adesewe Ogunlewe could have won in P.D.P,  but they quarreled with each other. So far we have divisions among us, nothing could be achieved. So, we need to see politics not as a do or die affair, we need to sit tight. A.C too will sit right and realize that it is not impossible to unseat them in Lagos. So, we need a divine intervention in this area.


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