By Innocent Anaba & Abdulwahab Abdulah

The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, on Friday, inaugurated its 13 man-committee to investigate the face-off between the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, and President, Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, over allegations of corruption against the judiciary and complaints against legal practitioners who aid corruption in the judiciary.

NBA President, Mr Joseph Daudu, SAN, who spoke at the inauguration, said “we have reached this unenviable point in the history of the legal profession in Nigeria where we do not wish to be”. This affliction, according to him, is as a result of the refusal or omission to maintain those strict standards usually required by the legal profession. He went on: “The Bar and the Bench usually require, at entry points, an oath being subscribed to, pledging that the person concerned ‘will not allow his personal interest to influence his official conduct or official decisions’ and most importantly ‘to do right to all manner of people, according to law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will; there are other constituents of the judicial oath but what is of importance is the mind state of every person in the legal profession. It must be fair, honest and above all truthful.

“These are the attributes that the public associate’s us with and that is why they entrust their disputes into our hands for adjudication and or resolution. This trust is a sacred one endorsed by the Almighty. Consequently, when this responsibility and trust are breached on account of unfathomable reasons, the very foundation of the society is breached and the consequence is anarchy. We may not have reached the stage of anarchy and confusion yet but events at hand point inexorably to that direction.

“I am being deliberately vague and non-judgmental because to reach any conclusion at this point on the issues at stake in the judiciary will be to over-reach on the very functions your esteemed commission is meant to perform. I will resist that temptation. There is however fire on the mountain and part of your responsibility is to put out the fire. You are also to find out the cause of the fire and provide counsel as to avoid future conflagration. This brings us to the main question. What is the fire presently threatening to burn our institution down? The judiciary has always been considered as the last bastion of the people. The stuff with which the men and women who man the judiciary are made up of must be impervious to bribery and other forms of corruption. Lawyers who appear before all our courts must resist the temptation to corrupt the bench.

“The exposure of our courts to political and election cases has introduced a new dimension into our justice system. This factor is the unscrupulous politician who will go to any extent to secure his seat or political office. Thus politicians now make it part of their political strategy to cultivate judicial officers and senior counsel on a long term basis so as to smoothen the acquisition of political power. What this translates to is a dislocation of the system when several politicians are out to play the same game.

“I have tried to give a semblance of the problem in the hope that this high powered committee of wise, tried and tested men of the legal profession will relate the issues analysed above to their terms of reference and provide urgent solutions thereto”.

Further, he said, “the question will naturally arise as to why the NBA is setting up an inquiry into the issues mentioned above. What is its locus standi if any and does it have the powers to do what it has set out to do? The starting point here is to say that the NBA is the umbrella body of all lawyers. To become a judge you must be a lawyer and after you have finished serving as a judge you are still a lawyer. Consequently, the Bar takes a keen interest in what happens in any or all of its constituencies. “The NBA is not an agency of government, it independently seeks to promote the interest of its members which is synonymous with the Rule of Law, Good Governance, Independence of the Judiciary, an independent Bar, the sustenance of fundamental rights for the citizenry, sound economic system for Nigeria etc. With its membership of over 70,000 lawyers, whose activities impact on the lives of millions of Nigerians, the NBA has the locus to ensure that the legal profession is not by commission or omission rubbi
shed by external or internal activities.

“Consequently, every self-regulating association has the inherent powers and rights to ensure that in the pursuit of its legitimate objectives, it does not go into oblivion, limbo, irrelevance or disrepute. The measures we are taking here is a product or expression of our survival instinct. As a profession with the kind of public reach that we possess, we have a right to exist and to continue to exist not only in the good books of society but in our consciences. It is therefore a duty on our part to get to the bottom of the issues referred to above. Failure so to do may present to us, consequences that we may forever regret. To answer the question posed above directly, yes, the NBA has the power, nay, duty and responsibility to set up a panel or committee to investigate the matters which have been identified above as being crucial to the continued existence of the legal profession.

“Like I said in the notice setting up this esteemed committee, it is empowered to regulate its procedure. It may wish in the course of its assignment to (i) call for memoranda, (ii) take evidence in public or camera, (iii) visit personalities that it may wish to confer with, (iv)mediate where necessary, (v) and adopt any procedure it may deem fit to take in getting to the bottom of the matter. However, the committee is respectfully enjoined to treat the issues raised herein expeditiously, it should however not sacrifice comprehensiveness on the altar of speed. Every true product of the profession awaits with bated breath the result of this Committee. I wish you God’s guidance and protection as you carry out this onerous assignment. Whenever you are ready with the report, please notify me so as to receive same. I will then transmit your report to all stakeholders for implementation”.

Meanwhile, a civil society organisation, International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, in a petition to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee of the NBA, has prayed the association to investigate the allegations of ethical misconducts leveled against some senior lawyers in the country over their role in the Osun and Ekiti States’ governorship judgments.

The group, in the petition, dated February 24, 2011, said: “we humbly write your noble Committee and, most humbly, request for proper investigation of the  senior counsel named in the petitions.
“The respected senior counsel, were mentioned in the petitions addressed to the NJC and the Presidency by the duo of Chiefs Segun Oni and Samuel Ojo-Williams. The petitioners insinuated that they engaged in unethical conducts by communicating telephonically with the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Salami, at periods considered harmful to the materiality of the said matters, while they were yet to be decided.

“There is need to carry out this investigation to establish whether the said senior counsel, in any way, breached the ethics of their profession. If they are not found wanting, they should be publicly exonerated, and if the contrary, ethical punitive measures should be visited against them,” the group added.

Meanwhile, some lawyers, who reacted to the controversy, including the NBA chairman, Ikeja, Omole Adegbamigbe, said “the NBA exco took the decision to probe the allegations against the CJN and the President of the Court of Appeal, because we felt the situation is becoming embarrassing. Adegbamigbe, however, said the probe can have a far reaching effect on the crisis on ground. “We believe that by the time the probe panel finishes its job, we are going to get clue to all allegations coming from Justice Salami as well as that of those petitioned against the Justices of the Court of Appeal. More particular is the allegation of attempt to pervert justice coming from the Justice Salami against the CJN that is so germane”, he stated.
“We believe that nothing should be done to erode the confidence of the people on our judiciary. Apart from being the last hope of the common man, it is only arm of government that is still retain its integrity out of the three arms of government. Asking for the removal of the two senior judicial officers is not the solution for the problems on ground. It does not necessary them from office, let them be investigated while they are in office. Afterwards, if any of them is found wanting, then let them be shown the way out.

“On whether the outcome of the probe will have the effect of removing the guilt from office. Yes, it will do. Though, NBA is not a court, it is a professional body as well as a pressure group. If at the end of the day, if any of them or both of them are found wanting, the Bar will ask for their resignation from office. If the person found guilty refused to quit, there are several options open for the NBA. It can call for the boycott of the court presided over by the persons indicted. Or also, the Bar can initiate an action a process that could lead to the removal of the person found guilty. However, the most potent weapon is for the Bar to boycott the court of anyone found guilty,” he added.

But while Mr Bamidele Aturu, a Lagos lawyer, said “what is happening about the allegation of corruption against the Justices is something serious, the move by the NBA to probe is not going too far. “First, there are lots of criticisms trailing the composition of the probe panel. The composition of the panel is doubtful. People have been raising objections to that. For instance, no female lawyer was part of the panel.

“Secondly, the panel , seems to be only the composition of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SAN, this does not reflect the diversity in the NBA. So, their view may not reflect what majority, especially, Nigerians and especially, that of Lawyers.

“The issue of corrupt allegation being probed is an issue that borders on public interest and anything that comes out of it will affect the masses and Nigerian public. Different levels of the members of the Bar should be involved as well as the members of the public. The public must have a say in the whole show. To me, and those who share my view, it is an  elite panel, and it may not deal with the issue as expected”. Aturu added.

While the controversy generated by the face-off between the CJN and President of the Court of Appeal had led to certain disclosure, which covering up would not be in the best interest of the Bench, the need for a thorough investigation has not only become imperative, but a must, if the trust of the Nigerians is to be restored to the judiciary, particularly the Bench, which has remained the last hope of the common man.

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