By Wilberforce Ikoro
The first time I met him was in 2000 during the auctioning of the Digital Mobile Licenses (DML) by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) then led by Dr. Ernest Ndukwe.
You could not miss him in the crowd of telecommunications industry players and lawyers, who were milling around the Hilton Hotel, venue of the auction with his trademark bow ties.
I watched him closely as he interacted with journalists and demonstrated remarkable knowledge of the process. I later learnt that Usoro, a very senior lawyer and member of the inner bar-a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the local equivalent of a QC, drafted the Nigerian Communications Act 2003, a robust and enduring piece of legislation that regulates the Communications industry till date.
He also drafted the Nigerian Communications (Enforcement Process etc) Regulations, 2005 as well as the Mobile Number Portability Regulations 2014 among several other major contributions to the Nigerian telecommunications industry.
Aside the telecommunications industry, Mr. Usoro and his firm, Paul Usoro & Co also made considerable contributions to the reform and development of laws in the Maritime industry. He has worked with both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the areas of drafting and advocacy to see the laws and reforms through, from bills to laws. His has been a truly remarkable story of erudition and intellection in the practice of a profession that has given him so much and also taken so much from him in return.
Indeed I have been following the trajectory of progress of this brilliant Akwa Ibom State-born lawyer and boardroom player. His firm, PUC, ranks at the top perch of law practice in Nigeria. I’m also aware he spent over 15 years at Airtel Nigeria (formerly Econet Wireless), where he represented Akwa Ibom State on the Board. It is noteworthy that long after Akwa Ibom State had divested from the telco, successive owners of the business consistently found him of significant usefulness in directing its affairs at the topmost level. He has also served at various times on the board of several blue chip companies including Premium Pensions Limited, CR Services (Credit Bureau) Plc, PZ Cussons Plc, Nigerian Bulk Electric company, Marina Securities Limited and Access Bank Plc, probably the biggest bank in Nigeria today.
In his career as a lawyer and boardroom player, Usoro kept a low profile, avoiding the limelight but rather letting his track record of excellent performance speak for him. There was literally no noise around him until he indicated his interest to run for the coveted presidency of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the powerful umbrella association of legal practitioners in Nigeria. It was like he headed off a nest of wasps and they descended on his otherwise spotless body stinging him all over. Not only did he face fierce and sometimes very dirty opposition, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) came after him. It seemed as if there were some hidden forces working behind the scene in concert with the EFCC and his opponents in the NBA election to deal with him.
In spite of sundry obviously cooked-up allegations including vote-buying, manipulation of voting materials and e-rigging, Mr. Usoro emerged the President of the NBA to a tumultuous acclaim. All effort to use the EFCC to stop him collapsed in the face of strong support from the various branches of NBA nationwide and his excellent track record both in the Association, the legal profession and in society generally. He has been leading the NBA for about six months and the feedback is that things are happening; good things. It is indeed a new era in NBA, many seem to say-and I have absolutely no reason to doubt this vocal majority saying good things about the Usoro leadership. This is not unexpected given Usoro’s disciplined disposition, his comportment and immense experience from the corporate world. Add to this, his expansive network of contacts and friends within and outside the NBA, the government and the corporate world and you can begin to visualize a glorious time ahead for the legal profession.
The EFCC’s case against Usoro is in court and therefore subjudice, but it will be interesting to know why Mr. Usoro is being prosecuted without a petition from anybody. The N1.3b he is being prosecuted for, from all indications, is his legitimate earnings, some from representing Akwa Ibom in various cases and some from acting as coordinator of the legal team that represented Gov. Udom in the case challenging his election in 2015. The case will come up at the Federal High Court, Lagos on April 17th, but until then some of us are beginning to think that this might be a witch-hunt after all because of Usoro’s astute representation of Dr. Bukola Saraki, the Senate President, in his case against the EFCC. It may be not more than the friend of my enemy is my enemy-and that will be extremely dangerous for the legal profession and the fight against corruption which President Muhammadu Buhari has laid as one of the major anchors of his government’s policies.
I am aware that there is an existing precedent on this matter when the same EFCC froze Mike Ozekhome’s accounts for receiving N75m from former Ekiti State Governor, Mr. Ayo Fayose. The Senior Advocate of Nigeria sued the anti-graft agency and won. Also, the decision on Trustees of NBA vs EFCC and CBN has shielded practitioners from criminal liability on money laundering. So, I don’t know what this matter of laundering Akwa Ibom State funds is all about.
In actual fact, Usoro claims the state still owes him in excess of N5b for representing it in various matters. I truly hope the state government steps forward to clarify its stand on this.
I am supremely confident that in the end justice and reason will prevail and this good man will be let off the hook by whoever is leading this furious, relentless charge to damage his good reputation. He deserves otherwise for the good things he has done and the many good things he is doing and others he will do for the NBA and the country as a whole. I urge all lawyers of good conscience to join hands in condemning the developing pattern of hounding lawyers. Today it is Usoro. There is also the case of Mr. Ubani, who is being detained by the EFCC. Who knows who is next?
- Ikoro is an Abuja based public affairs analyst.