•‘Nigeria does not exist except on paper. And what we do every day in court is a charade’

By Henry Ojelu

Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, is a very passionate man. In his quest to fulfil his dream for a better Nigeria, he has moved from civil rights activism to the murky terrain of politics. At 65, he is not happy that Nigeria remains underdeveloped. In this interview, Agbakoba shares his frustrations.

* Olisa Agbakoba

You are one of the few lawyers the people still see as a voice of conscience for this country. How has the experience been?

The experience has been very fulfilling. I have been doing this for 40 years. The later part, that is, the last 10 years, has been downward spiral because the Nigerian state has disintegrated. Nigeria doesn’t exist except on paper.

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All the institutions have collapsed; so the fulfilment that came in the early years of law practice is no longer there. You go to court, the judge is not there. You go to court, the judge is there but he doesn’t understand the law. You go to court, the judge is there but he is distracted. You go there, the judge is there but he has over 60 cases and just can’t cope.

You go there, there is no electricity and so we all find ourselves in the heat wearing our fake white hair that has been abolished in the UK. So the little bit I regret is the failure of the legal and judicial institutions. So many lawyers are frustrated about what is going on.

Of all the issues in this country, which one worries you most?

Very simple issue… I am so unfortunate to be a product of a country of grossly incompetent leaders. Leadership is easy. We can resolve our issues if we have good leaders. It worries me that we have natural, human and financial talents but no one is interested. Unfortunately the wrong people keep going in (as leaders).

As a lawyer who has been in the struggle for a better Nigeria for years, do you see a future for this country?

I don’t see any future for this country. Where is it coming from? I don’t see any future here.

Even as a parent, you don’t see a future for your children in this country?

I have children but that is a shocker. If you have been around as long as I have been, you will appreciate what I am saying. When I came here, Apapa was the golden district of Lagos. It was so clean and well organized. Look around and you can see that everything is deteriorating. I live in Ikoyi. The Ikoyi of 1980s when my kids learnt how to ride bicycle on the streets is longer the Ikoyi of today.

Let’s be honest, I am not the kind of person to be engaged in argument on patriotism. On the current form, all the systems have broken down and I am unable to see a future. Look at my friend Charlie Boy for instance. He was saying the other day that he couldn’t understand why when he calls for protest, the youths he is speaking for don’t come out. But they are on social media abusing each other. Where are the youths? They are not employed, they are in misery. Life is not good for them. When we organize to assist them, when we look back, we don’t see anybody.

So where does the disconnect lie?

The disconnect lies with the fact that the youth themselves are trapped in poverty. They are trapped in unemployment, so there is no way they can see. Idealism requires a certain sense of purpose but if the youths we speak of are busy drinking and smoking, then, of course, they can’t be useful.

And that is exactly what the politicians are capitalizing on. As the leader of the Third Force Movement and the political process, I was initially convinced that change will be seen in 2019 as a result of the new small parties which are very strong on the social media. Like the ones headed by Durotoye and Sowore. But they can’t even talk to themselves.

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They tried and they failed. I hope that people would understand that voting for Buhari would eclipse Nigeria. You judge a man by the four years he has ruled. Atiku has not been tried. A lot of things have been said about him, but I would rather vote for him than for Buhari although my first preference is to go for this basket of Third Force political parties and, hopefully, we can get the house in order.

You paint a picture of hopelessness for this country. Why? 

I am happy to shock you. God did not say he will fix Nigeria. We have the freewill to fix our country. We are not allowing our God the opportunity to help us to fix things. Nigeria is one of the world’s most religious countries but we are spiritually bankrupt.

Which governor does not invoke God or Allah? They all do it but they are all thieves. Let them first declare that their security votes will no longer be used. We will be looking at trillions of Naira. I don’t know where you have been but the reality is that Nigeria is in such a bad state. In the index of failed states, Nigeria is at a position described as low grade civil war.   Most of the states are unsafe. The police are helpless, the institutions are in a bad state. Despite all these, in Abuja, the politicians are enjoying.

Don’t you consider yourself a failure for not being able to produce young ones that will take over from your generation?

I can take you to the stream but I can’t force you to drink water. I have my boys scattered all over the place, the Nigerian Bar Association, civil society and all over. But that is not the point. Where are the followers in spite of the training? They are not there. They are interested in Yahoo, 419, social media. The social media now is an evil tool. (Oby) Obiakwesili Bring Back Our Girls campaign, has she ever recorded 500 people?

Some people have suggested that revolution appears to be the only solution in this country. Do you support that idea? If you do, what type should it be?

It should be a bloody revolution. It cannot happen by magic. Don’t you see that there is enough anger in the system?   I have written; I have spoken, I have been on social media; what else am I supposed to do? March on the road myself. I can’t do that. If there is a movement and they say ‘help us address the movement’, I will say yes. But the youths are not interested. They are only interested in listening to their fake music and jumping around.

We should deal with the 2019 election by asking Mr Buhari why he wants to come back. We should ask Atiku Abubakar, ‘You want to be President, what do you have to offer?’ If all the new parties give us one candidate, that person is likely to win because the youths have about 20 million votes. They have the votes but they are not using it.

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With the picture of a troubled country you have created, how do you sleep every night knowing the problems are still there?

I just tell myself I have to manage. It is an issue that have been engaged with in the last 40 years. I think about it every day.   At a point I was happy that what we did had a result. Incidentally under the military, it was easy to confront them because the line was clear. But now we have politicians who are the worst thing that has ever happened to this country. To be honest with you, if you go to Nigerians and say ‘what is your problem?’

They will say the usual thing: Hunger, no job, etc. But if you tell them, ‘let us remove the word, democracy, and bring back the military’. You would be very surprised that Nigerians will ask for the China model of government. Do you think China is practicing democracy? I sometimes ask myself this question. Is democracy really the answer?

General Gowon is 84 years old now. If he were to drive round Lagos, he will ask himself, ‘what is new?’   He was in power 45 years ago. Lagos is essentially what Gowon did.   The structure of Lagos has not altered. We have not seen new massive residential buildings, factories, employment, energy, etc. Where is the 40 years of post Gowon government?   In the pocket of politicians!   How can you have one man called Bola Tinubu remaining in power since 1999? He is my very good friend, but I criticise him. This is a city of 25 million people, how can you have one man running Lagos?

You sound as if you prefer the military government. Are you calling for a military takeover?

It is called déjà vu. The military will be laughing at us now. All the generals would be saying now, ‘They (Nigerians) thought that everything will be alright when they drove us back into the barrack’. The truth is that civilians are more corrupt that the military. If you know the level of corruption in this country, you will not eat. The challenge is, how do we respond? Sincerely I don’t have the answer.   I have tried all.

How do you compare law practice and the quality of lawyers we have now to back then when you started?

We are dealing with legal failure. If a man has heart failure, what happens next?   Death of course! The Nigeria legal system is dead. It does not exist. What we do every day in court is a charade. We just play out a charade. We put on our wigs and go to court, nothing is happening in our legal system.

Some people have also blamed lawyers for being part of the problem. Politicians steal money and lawyers defend them in court. As a lawyer, what determines the type of case you take?

As a lawyer, when we were in law school, we were trained about the law. In the university, you are trained about the theory of law. So in law school, an answer was given to this question you asked. It is called the Cab Rank Rule. So if you get to the taxi park, if you go to the first taxi, he is bound to carry you. He cannot say no, even if he discovers that you are going on a five naira journey.   So in law practice, we have adapted the English procedure called Cab Rank Rule. You must take all the clients that come to you. You are bound to play by the rules. The job of a lawyer is not to lie in court on behalf of his client.

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The job of a lawyer is to present his client’s case.   Unfortunately, Nigerian lawyers have deviated… Years back, I defended a guy on death row, he had been sentenced to death but it was clear to me that the circumstance causing the death was purely accidental. His friend had just been promoted in his office and there was drinking and, while they were arguing, he casually threw a fork and it hit his friend on a soft part of his brain and he just died. So clearly, he didn’t intend it. I didn’t see him as a murderer; so I took up the case.

Today someone will ask, would I defend a politician who has stolen money?   The answer is yes. A lawyer who defends a politician who has stolen money should not go to court to say this man has not stolen money when it is obvious that he has. But the man is entitled under the law to a day in court. It is the lawyer’s duty to present his client’s case. Unfortunately, lawyers have now gotten a bad name because we are roped into the crime. They say we are the ones causing delays.

Generally, I try not to take corruption cases. I don’t think I have done any corruption case which is not to say that if someone came to me, I will say no. I am bound to as a lawyer. Let us take (former Governor) Ayodele Fayose for instance.

If he had contacted me, I might defend him. But I am not going to tell the court whether he is complicit or not. That is not my job. My job is to advise him on how he should conduct himself in court. If the evidence is so overwhelming, there is nothing I can do. Unfortunately, lawyers have gotten enmeshed that they are seen as not offering legal service. They are seen as accomplices.

The traffic situation has practically sent every company out of Apapa. Why are you still here?

The situation in Apapa is horrible but I am not going to be defeated by running away. The situation here can’t break my spirit. I have other means. I have a bigger office in Ikoyi. I come here by boat sometimes. But to say that as a result of the ineptitude of government, I hereby close down my office, no, I won’t do that. We are surviving.

How did Apapa get this bad?

Bad government! It is a result of a government that is not thinking. When the colonial powers were here, they were here because we had natural resources. Apapa was essentially an export port. Since 1960, we have expanded our import trade. Even the colonial masters can’t believe the level of traffic coming to Apapa.

It got so bad that a task force was set up to decongest Apapa of cement. That was the time a right thinking would have said ‘no, this cannot happen. We have to do things differently’.   If you study the movement of cargo, you will find that a lot of them end up in the (South) East. Seven out of 10 containers end up in the East. The reason Apapa is congested in not because of the bad road, it is overwhelmed. We need feeder ports. The feeder routes by train to the port are no longer there, so the only way anything can be evacuated is by trucks.

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It is not about repairing the roads, there is large logistic issue. We need to unbundle Apapa. We need to apply what I call the multimodal facet logistic approach where the train and tank farm and the port are connected.

If you go to Dubai, as small as it is, it feeds 4.2 billion people in a bloc called the Middle-East North African bloc. You won’t find traffic there. Everything is so well distributed. It tells you the type of leadership we have.   Every day we have a new transport minister. They talk but do nothing. That is the helplessness we find ourselves in.

The Vice-President visited Apapa recently announced a long and short plan to tackle the problem there. How do you assess the measures so far put in place?

I was actually lucky to have been seated close to Jumoke who is his Senior Special Adviser on Economic Affairs.   I told her that this problem can be resolved in a holistic approach which I just described to you. I said, ‘Let us first start with the low hanging fruits-the ones you can pluck. Fix the road within six weeks and create a very strict order of truck movement’.

There are two problems. The main problem is the policy one. The second one is the logistic one. Misbehaviour!   I feel sorry for those truck drivers. Some of them stay one month on the road inside their trucks. So if you have the Vice President flying to Apapa to see things for himself, what he should have done is to constitute a strong task force that would insist that if you come without being called, your truck will be seized. If you do that for seven days, everybody will fall in line.

So, sometimes, the rules will be enforced; at other times those charged with the enforcement will relax. There was a particular naval officer that was in charge at a time. He was a no-nonsense man. While he was there, Apapa moved freely. Immediate he left, the chaos returned. The third part is sitting on the road all in the name of constructing it. This is something they should have done in six weeks. The guys doing the construction are working at their own pace. Nobody is supervising them.

You remember when Abuja International Airport was closed and everyone had to go through Kaduna. Because the big men were directly affected, Julius Berger finished and delivered it in six weeks. Apapa can be done in six weeks. It is just laying of concrete. The slab are all there but the workers are doing nothing. I blame the incompetent President Buhari government for what is happening in Apapa.

Talking about President Buhari’s government, how do you assess his four years in office?

This government is totally bad. I am not in government but I can take them at their face value. They promised us three things: Strong war on corruption, strong economy and national security. Which one have they done well? None? With all the loans they have taken for security, Boko Haram is still waxing strong. They are still kidnapping and killing.

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The national security architecture is obsolete, laughable and a disgrace. I concede that Boko Haram is sort of quiet now, but it is still there. It has gone down in a more dangerous way. I rather fight with an enemy I can see than a guerrila I cannot see. Boko Haram has entered into the system. I am not going to give them pass mark on security. Corruption is zero. I thought an anti-corruption programme would mean that they would conduct it in a clear way. After you build a strategy, there is supposed to be an institution that can deliver it. But you can see that the Attorney-General and the EFCC are not in good terms.

The President recently issued a travel ban on persons being investigated for corruption. Was that right?

I think the ban was unnecessary. Most of the people on that list are already in court. Some don’t even have passports. So why ban them when their passports are already with the court. What government needs to do is to strengthen the institutions responsible for ensuring their conviction.

Some state judiciaries recently announced a new civil procedure rule. You were at the venue of the review for that of Lagos State. What is your assessment of the new rule?

I applaud the Lagos State Judiciary for being proactive. I have actually been instrumental to some of the reforms in the state judiciary. The state has done largely well in terms of reforms and innovations. Having said that, let me say that no Nigerian Chief Judge has any understanding of how to run a modern court.   Not a single one. Court administration has gone so far. Administration of justice is different from administration of court.

The substantial cause of delay is on the way the courts are run. It is archaic. Everything is still paper form. If the courts are open 24/7, it changes everything. So in my room after I have filed my claim form for my client, I file it online. I just pay.   I can’t file a claim now at 4 pm because the courts would have closed. Court does not close. When the court is open, there will be more work done. Again the courts need to be supported with artificial intelligence. Judges now need to understand that they are case managers.

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They have the power to control the court. But they are still timid and then pass the blame on lawyers. When a lawyer sees that a judge is firm, he will sit up. Am I a judge? Can I give myself adjournment? If a lawyer insists on an adjournment and the judge also insists that if he wants adjournment, he must pay N100, 000, the lawyer will sit up.

The attitude again is not in who is leading but in our judicial culture. In arbitration, there are no rules. But there is nobody who is going to arbitration to ask for adjournment. That is because we all have arbitration sense that it must be flexible. What particularly the Lagos State Judiciary is doing is good but I will like the judge’s mindset to change. Why must a judge spend six hours reading a judgement when he can just mail it to parties? There is no rule or law anywhere that says that judge must read their judgments.

You portray an image of someone who is always articulate. Can you recall any embarrassing moment in your career?

There has never been a time when I had an embarrassing moment.   I told myself very early in life that law requires hard work and the only way you can impress your client is to be well prepared. I have never for once been caught off guard.

What would like to be remembered for?

That I have done my bit.


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