Lawyers in Diaspora: Collaborating for effective dispensation of justice in Nigeria
Being a paper presented by Femi Falana, SAN, at the Gala Night by the British Nigeria Law Forum at Hilton London Docklands, U.K. recently
REINTEGRATION ofNigerians in Diaspora: In the past ten years, there has been an outpour of ideas and strategies particularly from Nigerians in Diaspora about how Nigeria can develop.
In the previous dispensation, under former President Obasanjo, a few Diaspora Nigerians were brought to help the administration and many of them made impressive impact on policy and development in Nigeria in the interests of imperialism.
The economic team of the regime led by Nigerians from abroad ensured that the sum of $12.4 billion was paid by the Federal Government to the London/Paris Club to settle fraudulent external debts while subsidies from social services were cancelled as public enterprises were sold at give away prices in the name of privatization. Scientific studies across West Africa have also shown that countries such as Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria hugely benefit from remittances from their citizens abroad.
Indeed some scholars have done a comparative study between such monetary remittances and the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), and found out that in certain cases remittances are far higher than ODA. This has made some people to question the continued relevance of ODA, if its quantum and social impact in Africa is meager.
However, there are three major realities about the Nigerian Diaspora. A large number of them are well trained, highly skilled and competent and they are doing well abroad. Second, a large number of them are very patriotic and proud of their country in spite of the leadership challenges facing Nigeria. Third, and as a corollary to the foregoing, a lot of them are keen to help their country in any way they can, if the conducive atmosphere exists. Unfortunately, while little is known about the patriotic Nigerians who are helping to fix the problems of many developed countries so much is reported by the western media of the few Nigerians living abroad who are involved in criminal activities.
Frustration by political class
Conversely, in spite of the willingness of Nigerians in Diaspora to return home to contribute to the development of the country, many have been frustrated by the political class and they are themselves being consumed by the system they want to change. The first problem many of them are confronted with is that they have to patronize somebody in order to be accorded attention or recognition. The spaces and places where they can make impact have either been blocked, non-existent or have already been taken over by a mediocre and candidates of a “godfather”. They realize that nobody is imaginative enough to create entrance for them or visionary enough to take initiative, or is confident enough to work side by side with them.
They realize also that merit does not count in Nigeria and cannot work, neither will anybody because of their special talents and skills give them attention or consideration. Even where they choose to set up their own private enterprise- may be a clinic, a construction company, they discover that what they are required to secure bank loans, and government approvals and access to clients required much more than what is decent.
In a nutshell, they have to replay the rot they left behind many years ago, prior to their sojourn abroad. Even those who seek to participate at the government or policy level may find out that unless they become a stooge, a lackey of some big wig in the party or government, they will never get recognition or core appointment that will make them deploy their skills to good use and in the public interest. To this effect, the first step towards reintegrating the Nigerians in Diaspora, in my opinion, is to understand that the Diaspora is socially, professionally and politically multi-faceted while at the same time they have some glaring commonalities.
Accordingly, there is a need to find entry points at the level of federal, state and local governments, and then at the levels of agencies, civil society and communities where the Diaspora can make an impact. Everything should not be seen as being related to holding a government appointment or getting attention of federal government.
There are several levels and layers in which the Diaspora can contribute their quota and make an impact in the Nigerian society. Hence, in order to ensure a level playing ground for Nigerians in Diaspora and encourage them to take an active part in the socio-economic reformation of Nigeria, we as Nigerian lawyers either under the auspices of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA; the British Nigeria Law Forum, BNLF; or other organizations of Nigerian lawyers abroad must come together to fight for the enthronement of rule of law, judicial independence and social equilibrium including voting rights.
Voting by Nigerians in Diaspora: Voting rights for instance, remains one of the fundamental rights of Nigerians in the Diaspora but due to its non-inclusion in the 1999 Constitution, a lot of Nigerians of voting age living abroad have been constitutionally disenfranchised and discriminated against. Considering the number of Nigerians living in the Diaspora and as stated earlier, their, enormous contributions to the economic development of Nigeria; they deserve to be given an opportunity to take part in the country’s electoral process and to exercise their voting rights.
It is an institutional discrimination under color of law, which has no basis whatsoever under international law, customs and conventions for the rights of people. Interestingly, Hon. Abike Dabiri, the Chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora made an unsuccessful attempt to include the Diaspora voting rights in the 2011 Electoral Act by introducing a bill for the recognition of the voting rights of Nigerians living abroad. Much as she tried, the bill could not pass through the first reading as the House of Representatives rejected it on the ground that the project was too expensive and essentially unripe for Nigeria. In rejecting the bill, the House forgot that the issue of voting right is not a privilege but a right that must be protected by them and be guaranteed by the Constitution.
Happily, some concerned Nigerians abroad have taken up the task of championing this cause and have even challenged its validity in Court.
In the recent case of Akeem Bello & ors vs The Independent Electoral Commission, INEC, (2008), an unreported Federal High Court case in which I represented the Plaintiffs, the Court held that Nigerians in the Diaspora are entitled to participate in the Government of Nigeria by voting for candidates of their choice.
Registering and voting abroad
Precisely, the Court was of the view that “the time is ripe for Nigeria to give its citizens living abroad the opportunity to register and vote abroad in any election in Nigeria without having to travel to Nigeria for that purpose”.
The Court however, noted that the Nigerians in the Diaspora could not enforce that right in the absence of an enabling legislation because the 1999 has no such provision under it. As one of the steps to set the ball rolling and get the Constitution amended to reflect the judgment and the right of Nigerians in the Diaspora, the Court admonished the INEC to approach the National Assembly “by sponsoring a bill for the sake of Nigerians in the Diaspora and in doing so, borrow a leaf from the countries that have already adopted the external voting”.
Be that as it may, there cannot be a better opportunity for revisiting this issue than now when the National Assembly has embarked on yet another review of the 1999 constitution. To this effect, I urge your group to take a principled position by joining hands with other patriotic Diaspora organizations and other Nigerians both at home and abroad who are at the forefront of championing this effort.