By Tonnie Iredia
History records that in 1929, a massive riot against colonial maladministration was held in Aba. The protesters had many grudges.
First, some idle young men were, in breach of culture, arbitrarily imposed on the people as warrant chiefs. Second, the people deprecated the harsh economic conditions of a depressed economy of the time featuring a fall in the prices of local goods like palm oil and kernel and an increase in the duties on foreign goods. Third, the colonial administration instituted an exploitative tax regime on the people.
These were no doubt grave issues but the main significance of the Aba riots of 1929 was that it was led by rural women. Eight decades later, Aba has continued to play host to protesters. These days, they are no longer rural women but lawyers and mostly men. A few days back, a group of them protested against the deplorable state of roads in the city.
The protesters who were also referred to as a coalition of human rights groups argued that if nothing was done to remedy the situation, Aba might face imminent collapse. The protest was the second in recent times reportedly master minded by lawyers. In May this year, the lawyers had also organized a protest in Aba over their unhappiness with the activities of Justice Theresa Uzokwe, a judge of the Aba High Court.
They accused the judge of treating lawyers with disrespect and disdain. Following a resolution, the lawyers proceeded to picket High Court 2 which she presided over. They then called for her immediate transfer from the city and threatened that if their demand was not met, they would continue to picket the court.
The grudges of the modern protesters are not in the same shape as those of the Aba women of 1929, but some of the grievances articulated against Justice Uzokwe are worrisome. To start with, she was alleged to have ordered a lawyer to remain standing for more than two hours behind the dock in the presence of litigants because his phone rang while the court was in session.
For the same offence, she reportedly ordered an elderly lawyer to kneel down. In another case, the police was ordered by the judge to smash the handset of a lawyer. The lawyers were also professionally incensed that Justice Uzokwe did not give a chance to the accused to defend themselves before they were punished and described as standing the law on its head, the punishing of a lawyer while he was still in his wig and robe.
While all these arguments have their points, it is difficult to support the attitude of lawyers who do not switch-off their phones in court. It is a distractive and contemptuous act of indiscipline which a judge reserves the right to impose punishment upon. Pity, the nature, type and scope of punishments for such acts are not prescribed in any document making the subject purely discretionary.
Thus one judge may choose to verbally warn an offender, while another may do differently. If however, such an archaic “Senior Prefect” type of punishment credited to the judge is true, it is only fair to recognize that a senior prefect can only function among students. This probably explains why the lawyers adopted a rather exuberant reaction by opting to picket a court as delinquent junior members of a trade union would do.
It is also interesting to hear that having found the judge intolerable, the lawyers decided to harp on her transfer from Aba. Why would lawyers in one city, negotiate the movement of such a judge to their learned colleagues in another city? Put differently, why should lawyers seek to transfer a problem instead of solving it?
In the same manner, the protest against bad roads in and around Aba is also intriguing. Anyone who watched the protest on television particularly the deplorable portion of the PortHacourt-Aba express way which is a federal road cannot oppose the protest.
Indeed, an Aba resident told this writer on phone that most roads in Aba and other cities in Abia State are all bad which confirms that the State Government has also not done well. It would therefore have had a greater impact if all the lawyers in that State were organized into the protest. As it is now, it appears as if Aba lawyers are patriots, while those in the other towns and cities are colluding with the government to defraud and dehumanize the people.
At the same time, the Aba patriots appear to be acting in vain by forcefully demanding the construction of roads during the rains. Where were they before now? If their Governor was mistakenly elected in 2007 why was he re-elected in 2011? If the protesting lawyers do not have a political agenda against those presently in governments, they have better options to explore.
For instance, the different sides of bad governance in our clime are too many to name; there is water everywhere, but none to drink; Medicare is awful- no drugs in hospitals sanitation is exceedingly poor etc. The patriots should consider taking government up on each aspect and at the appropriate time.
Protests against bad roads should hold regularly during the dry seasons, until the subject is addressed. Otherwise, the lawyers should help the citizens to know their rights and how to use the due process of law to follow such rights to the end.
Considering that elected office holders are in power at the pleasure of the electorate, it cannot amount to treason to mobilize unfavourable public opinion against a poor performer in government. Every day, we hear of one misconduct or the other by an elected executive and everyone says he has immunity forgetting that opinion moulders can legally lobby the legislature to impeach him.
Nigerians are also generally unaware that voters can demand the removal of a legislator from office through the recall principle in sections 69 and 110 of our constitution. All that needs to be done is to mobilize half of the registered voters in a constituency to sign a petition of loss of confidence in their law maker.
According to the constitution, the chairman of our electoral body must within 90days of receiving the petition conduct a referendum which would remove the legislator if a simple majority of the voters affirm the petition. If Nigerians find patriots to mobilize them to take these steps which are approved by the constitution, all ‘Ghana must go’ legislators and executives without vision as well as bad governance would vanish in the twinkle of an eye.
The other option is to wait till the next election to vote out of office those who could not perform and elect into office, persons of proven integrity with a track record of service. Unfortunately, the elites who should show the way usually do not register to vote. They only function as armchair critics who play to the gallery through fitful and intermittent demonstrations supposedly against poor governance- an approach which does not fly.