With their training and background, the initial reaction of the military establishment was “why should we be spending money on these criminals”. However, faced with the universally accepted theory of the presumption of innocence contained in our legal jurisprudence and applicable in the Common Law family which Nigeria belongs, the argument that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty and the point about the injustice of being detained “Awaiting Trial” for periods far in excess of the maximum sentence for the offence in question won the day.
In 1973, Dr. Ikeazor was elected Vice- President of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in 1974 he founded the Legal Aid for the Poor Scheme in Nigeria. He single handedly financed the crusade without financial aid from Nigeria or abroad. Infact, the seed money money that secured Nigeria’s place on the International Legal Aid body in 1974 was paid with my mother’s, Mrs. Marina Ikeazor’s Barclays Bank International Limited cheque with which he paid 48 Pounds to the International Legal Aid Association on February 22, 1974 and another Barclays International payment of 95 Pounds to the International Bar Association (IBA) on April 2, 1974. A letter of support to Dr. Ikeazor dated February 1, 1974 and signed by the then Secretary-General of the International Legal Aid Association (ILAA) with headquarters in London and sponsored by the IBA, Sir, Thomas Lund, C.B.E. reads:
“ I was most interested in your plans for Legal Aid in Nigeria which you outlined to me at our recent meeting in London. And I am writing to wish the Nigerian Legal Aid Association a long, useful and successful future
“ It is universally recognized that no man should be deprived of the right to receive legal advice, or where necessary, legal representation before the Courts or tribunals, especially by reason of his lack of financial resources. The ILAA welcomes the steps which you are taking to bring this basic human right to Nigerians. If there is any information or guidance which this association can give to the Nigerian Legal Aid Association, we shall be delighted to do so. We shall also look forward to welcoming the Nigerian Legal Aid Association as a member of the International Legal Aid Association”
In 1975, he was elected the Representative Director of the governing body of the International Legal Aid, the first African to be so elected. Several eminent lawyers and jurists agreed with him and worked with him in this crusade to give free legal aid to the poor. They formed the Nigerian Legal Aid Association of which Dr. Ikeazor was elected President, Prince David Akenzua was Vice-President, Chief Solomon Lar was elected Secretary-General, Ogada Ede was the Deputy Secretary-General, late Chief Debo Akande was the Director of Operations, Chief Edwin Ezeoke was Assistant Director of Operations, Dr. J. Ola Orojo, Chukwuemeka Udenze, Okey Achike, Mallam Abdullahi Ibrahim, H. T. O. Coker, N. O. Izuako, Alabi Masha, late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Felix Offiah were national Counselors of the association.
The thrust of crusade was that lawyers should take up the representation of aggrieved persons in court and that the State should make lawyers available for anybody who has a brush with the law, either as an aggrieved person in a civil suit, an arrested or accused person who finds himself in custody without money to brief a counsel.
ON November 26, 1976 the dream of these illustrious and patriotic Nigerians came true. News of the establishment of the Council was everywhere. For instance, the caption of the lead story on Daily Times newspaper was “ At last, Govt. backs the Scheme: Legal Aid Dream Comes True, fund established”
The happenings within the association did not escape the attention of the world, for example Reuters News Agency reported in a London Newspaper that three hundred prisoners had been set free at the instance of the Association. In Lagos, Nigeria it was reported that: “ At least 300 suspects held in Nigerian jails for up to seven years without trial, have been freed in the past two months. They were released not because the police failed to prove charges against them, but because the length of detention far exceeded the maximum penalty for the alleged offences.
“The crusade is spearheaded by the Nigerian Legal Aid Association, inaugurated last February, its leader, Mr. Chimezie Ikeazor, a 44year old lawyer from the war- scarred East Central State, launching the campaign says: “A speedy trial should not be a privilege, but a right. It is a cruel aspect of our litigation system that a man who does not have the services of counsel can hardly hope to obtain justice in full and quickly
Mr. Chimezie Ikeazor says: “our aim is to ensure that nobody is denied justice on account of poverty.”
In recent months some members of the Bench have been critical of the police for not bringing offenders to court in time. But it was not until the Association went into operation that prison conditions and the plight of many suspects came to light. A report compiled by leaders of the Association after visits to prisons in the Nigerian capital revealed terrible congestion and unduly long detention periods.
Ikoyi prison built to accommodate about 800, has nearly 2,000 immates; more that half were on remand and some had been held for several years. Labourer Adamu Katshine, freed on May 20, after intervention by the Association, had been held for four years on a theft charge.
Since the report the Chief Justice of Nigeria and nearly all Nigeria’s 36 State Chief Judges, have inspected prisons in their areas and moved to speed up the legal process.
And so it was gladdening that the activities of the Association has now been moved to world stage. Thanks indeed to the press, local and international. Equally gladdening was the fact that rights of the individual for so long brushed aside, is now being recognised.
The first beneficiary of Dr. Ikeazor’s campaign of free Legal Aid to the indigent was one Mallam Adamu Sokoto who was in prison custody for years awaiting trial for an offence for which if he had been found guilty, he would have been sentenced to a maximum of six months imprisonment.
I wonder where Mallam Sokoto is now, but I remember visiting Kirikiri and Ikoyi prisons with my dad as a young girl, no wonder I run a prison outreach today assisting Prison inmates, paying fines for prison inmates and securing their release.
Intensive media campaign
By 1976, after intensive media campaign, countless court appearances freeing scores of awaiting trial inmates who had spent several months and years in prison custody, the Legal Aid Decree No. 56 of 1976 was promulgated and Dr. Ikeazor firmly declined any suggestion or attempt to become chairman of the newly created Legal Aid Council or the Director.
Throughout their crusade, Ikeazor and his fellow crusaders never asked for or received any funding from home or abroad, the decisions were taken in order to protect the integrity and independence of their course. Dr. Ikeazor, the Oboli can look back and be saluted and proud of his six graduate children with scores of grandchildren from Obosi, Awgbu, Kaduna and Ondo.
The lawyers who battled to make free Legal Aid for the poor in Nigeria a reality spent their own money on the crusade, their tours and court appearances. I salute them all for their selfless service and join the Legal Aid Council community to celebrate a successful, remarkable and memorable 40th year anniversary.
Sharon Ikeazor is the Executive Secretary, Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate, Abuja