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Presidential system of govt has failed us — Shitta-Bey

By Abdulwahab Abdulah

Senator Sikiru Ayodeji Shitta-Bey, a lawyer and front-line politician is one man that would not be prevented by his old age  from carrying out his daily practice of law and politics. In his days as politician, he was elected as a member of the Federal House of Representatives and a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

As lawyer of over 49 years, he had participated and handled several cases including the famous trial of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He was one of those who fought for the creation of Lagos State when he was a Federal lawmaker.

He marks his 78th  birthday today, preparing next year for his 50th year anniversary as a legal practitioner.

In this interview, he called for the return of the country to the old parliamentary system of government to save the nation’s democracy and the hard earned resources of the country. Beside, he said the time is now for the National Assembly to remove the management of the nations energy and power generation from the Federal Government by allowing the states to generate and distribute electricity on their own. He also spoke on other sundry issues.

You have been practicing law for upward of 49 years now, how has it been as a lawyer?

Law practice to me is one thing I enjoy doing. It is a profession I love. I have been called to the Bar for almost 50 years now, I practice law and I enjoy the practice. Before I went to England to study law my aunties and Mum then referred to me as ‘lawyer’.

Sometimes, because of my tenacity and flair for argument, my mum will say don’t “lawyer” me, that is, don’t query me, go and become a lawyer rather than querying me. So, I studied hard as a young man because I love the law profession.

Within this period can you point to one or two landmark cases, you have handled in the course of your 49 years at the Bar?

One of my significant cases is the suit I handled over the property we are presently occupying as our, new chambers.

This place was given to us. It was a residential apartment before it was converted to office use. However, in our own case, we applied to the government for the change from residential to office apartment. It was approved.I was taken to court for using the place as mixed development by Professor Kasumu.

I defended the case at the High Court before Justice Candide Johnson. I led three other lawyers in the chambers and won and that formed part of the history of this building, because as far as I am concerned, the character of the neighborhood here has changed.

It might have been originally meant for private residential, but the area is now being used for mixed development. Professor Kasumu appealed against the ruling of the High Court at the Court of Appeal and I won again at the appellate court.

I consider it a landmark case because it is now an authority, particularly for Lagos State that is using it now to support their claim that they are entitled to approve plans for such purpose because land generally is vested in the governor of the state.

There were many others, but a particular one I can recall immediately again was the case of Papa Awolowo, which I appeared with others before Justice Sowemimo in the case of treasonable felony.

It was really a question of law but there was no doubt that politics was involved, and Papa was indicted with others for treasonable felony.  I was a counsel in the case with late Chief Bola Ige. But one thing I will continue to remember vividly is that Papa Awolowo was not being fairly treated at the trial and, as a young man at
the bar, I had to protest in court.

I had some trouble with the judge who threatened to send me out from the court. But I said to him, I had a duty to defend my client and I must see to it that justice was done. Before he could go further, I packed my books and went out of the court. Five minutes later, he continued with what he was doing.

That sent a message to other senior lawyers who were there as they took the courage and all of them walked out of the court. Later on, there were entreaties, we were talked to and we went back to court but not that day.  Also, recently we got a judgement against the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital over the sack of one of its staff. I led the case, the Teaching Hospital won at the High Court, we however appealed and won at the Court of Appeal.

What was the reason that made you walk out on the court?
The Judge was trying to prevent proper evidence from being tendered and you win or lose a case on the strength of the evidence before the court. And the judge appeared to be a bit biased.

I don’t know why he appeared to be so, but I felt he was biased and I showed my feeling openly in court. By my action, I succeeded in calling the attention of the whole nation to the injustice being meted out to Papa Awolowo because all the newspapers carried it, I was on the front pages of all the papers.

How would you rate the practice of the law profession by the new legal practitioners now. Don’t you think that the quality of legal practice is going down?

The profession of law is growing. There is no reason to condemn the practice of law now. Those of us who have been called to the Bar long ago have done our own best, the new generation lawyers are doing their best too. The young lawyers are learning, we also listen to them, because this is an era of competition.

In our own time, we did not use the computers, now it is one of the tools used by lawyers. The standard is not falling in the law profession. If you go to court, you will be impressed by the performance of the lawyers.

Some people have been calling for the removal of the Attorney-General of the Federation arguing that he has not been performing very well. What is your own view?

In the first instance, I am not happy about the way he is going about his official duties, about how he has been handling cases of those charged with corrupt offences. We learnt he has been a lawyer to some of the governors accused of corrupt practices. People have challenged him that he was a lawyer to some of the governors accused of corruption. If that is the case, we are in trouble, because he will use his office to cover them. He has been accused by people on that. So has progressive and objective.

Senator Sikiru Shitta-Bey
Senator Sikiru Shitta-Bey

There are some provisions in the exclusive list of the 1999 constitution and is affecting the development of the nation. What do you suggest to be done in improving the situation?

We need to amend such provisions in the constitution, to enable the states have powers to deal directly for instance on issue of electricity. The states must be given power to generate and distribute electricity, because power we are in trouble.

The federal government has not got the capacity and the will to provide electricity for us. It has no leadership to do it. So, they should decentralize it. Let the state take over.

For instance, if the state is allowed to do so, I am sure, Lagos State will provide electricity to its people. We are calling strongly that the issue of electricity and other related provisions be removed from the exclusive list to concurrent or residual list, so that states can have constitutional powers to deal with such issues.

You were once a lawmaker both at the Federal House of Representatives and the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Are there any significant differences in lawmaking process  during your time that are different from what operate now?

When I was first elected into the parliament  in 1965, we were operating parliamentary system. My experiences have shown that we need to return to parliamentary system of government. It is the best and ideal for Nigeria. Now, we did not vote for the majority of those ruling us, be it the ministers or the commissioners, they were only appointed by their governors or the president, who were elected by the people. So, parliamentary system is the best for Nigeria.

We should dump this Presidential system of government. It is very expensive, cumbersome and dictatorial in nature. There are too much powers concentrating in one person, that is, the President and the governors.

I seriously advocate a return to the parliamentary system. When you appoint somebody into the parliament, it is not on a full time basis. When I was in the parliament, in the First Republic, I do my practice as a lawyer and was in the parliament. Those people there are just sitting down dwindling the revenue of the nation.

After completing your education abroad, did you return to Nigeria?

Immediately I finished my education, I came back home, where I joined the Chambers of I. A.S. Adewale and Co. He was a popular lawyer then in Lagos. I was there for about four to five years before I established my own chambers.

When I was in the chambers, he even allowed me to have my own private clients. When I became more matured, I moved to my own chambers, a rented apartment at Kakawa Street, Lagos. From Kakawa Street, I moved to Broad Street, from Broad Street, I moved to this new chamber, Jabita Court. This office is an investment from our law practice. The chambers has everything with a well equipped library. We thank God that the chambers is growing.

At 78, I thank God that I am still able to do all this kind of things. Look at the time, 7:30 pm when you are interviewing me. I don’t leave the chambers until 8.00pm each day.

How do you rate today’s politicians?

I am not happy about the present situation in the country. I think the President, Alhaji Umar Yar’Adua has to brace-up. I was closed to his late brother Sheu Musa Yar’Adua. To me, the time is now, he must do something to improve on electricity. It is now number one option. His 7-point agenda, that is, electricity. When power comes everything come.

Now, we are only relying on oil as source of our revenue. We can use electricity power to get other things done. If there is regular electricity power today the people will be happy, their businesses will flourish. They will be comfortable and not dying the way they are dying. Like I said earlier, the National Assembly should amend the constitution to make power to be in the concurrent list.

How do you combine your profession with your social activities?

I am a member of several social clubs in Lagos such as the Yoruba Tennis Club, Moderate Club etc.

Despite my membership of all these clubs, I still attach so much importance to my law practice. If I have a case, I abandon all other things to prepare myself for the case. Sometimes for a week or three weeks we don’t go to any club. We have to sit down and prepare for our cases.


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