By Onozure Dania
How can institutions be strengthened to support democracy and social justice? This was the thrust of discussions at the 58th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, with the theme: Transformation, Transition and Sustainable Institutions. The week-long conference featured eminent speakers, including President Muhammadu Buhari and his Ghanaian counterpart, Nana Akufo-Addo and Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
With several plenary and breakout sessions featuring hundreds of speakers, the conference covered areas such as political transition and governance, technological disruptions, diversity and inclusion, sustainable economic development and rule of law and security.
Declaring the conference open, President Buhari urged lawyers to help improve the sanctity of Nigeria’s judicial and electoral institutions which play a fundamental role in the sustenance and growth of democracy. He reminded lawyers that the law could only be optimally practised in a Nigeria that is safe, secure and prosperous, restating his commitment to reviving the economy.
The President, however, sparked a huge debate that is still raging when he said his administration subscribes to the rule of law as the society’s foundation, but that the rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of national security and interest where they are threatened. Several lawyers have since condemned the president’s comment saying that on no occasion should rule of law be jettisoned for national interest which is usually subject to the interpretation of the government in power.
In his keynote address, President Akufo-Addo said for the African continent to meet the aspirations of its people and open-up opportunities for all, priority must be given to key institutions of state such as the legislature, judiciary, and fiscal institutions, amongst others.
Chief Justice Onnoghen, who described Akufo-Addo as “a vibrant legal practitioner of many decades,” emphasised the need to strengthen democratic institutions. “The significance of the ballot for sustaining democracy must be protected by all and sundry. The electoral body members must be thought to conduct themselves in the most acceptable manner. In the event of election disputes, the judiciary must be prepared to play its role with substantial credibility,” the CJN said.
Malami, Abubakar, Ganduje advise lawyers
The Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, Bauchi State Governor, Mohammed Abubakar and his Kano State counterpart, Dr. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje called on lawyers to use their skills to help build institutions that guarantee the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy, good governance and wellbeing of Nigerian citizens.
The AGF urged NBA to commit to the building of sustainable institutions in order to make the present initiatives permanent and definitely irreversible. “Strong institutions create enduring value, promote transparency and accountability and foster a system of predictability in the conduct of business and the application of the law. These are principles which will promote the practice of law in Nigeria, enhance our global competitiveness and ultimately improve the economic fortunes of all legal practitioners in Nigeria. I trust that in this quest, our objectives will remain common,” he said.
The conference had several breakout sessions during which various subjects were discussed, including those by various NBA sections. In a special session with the CJN, who was represented by the Chief Judge of Borno State, Justice Kashim Zannah, the issue of achieving efficiency in justice administration was addressed.
Justice Zannah said justice administration is delayed partly due to the use of outdated manual methods, adding that the judiciary must adopt technology in all its process or it will be left behind. He was of the view that full adoption of technology would fast-track justice delivery and restore confidence in the judicial system.
Several lawyers at various sessions criticised the NBA for being too quiet in the face of human rights abuses and rule of law violations. Former NBA president, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, who chaired the session with the CJN, urged the association to ensure access to justice and respect for rule of law.
He regretted that the NBA today “sees nothing, hears nothing and does nothing. “When we talk about the rule of law, what is the role of the bar association? You are the anchor. We have to remind ourselves what NBA stands for at all seasons. It is not just for bread and butter, jamboree or picnics. We have to remind ourselves about the years of yore, and what NBA was doing. So, NBA must rediscover itself when it comes to access to justice,” Olanipekun said.
Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, Executive Secretary, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, who chaired the session, said NBA did nothing to rein in lawyers who pocketed billions of Naira for doing no work in asset recovery. “If the NBA will not take a position and deal with the issue, we’re going to be going round in circles. And the implication is that majority of the practitioners are going to be left in the fringes. They will not be able to survive.
“It behoves the NBA to create mechanisms that will assure the public that it is dealing with the issue. Otherwise, you stigmatise the entire profession for the sins of a few.”