At the just-concluded yearly conference of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), speakers, including President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), were unanimous that the nation’s quest for reawakening and sustained growth is imperilled without the support of the judiciary.
They suggested ways law could be effectively deployed as a tool for national development. Eric Ikhilae reports.
For eight days last week, lawyers gathered in Abuja to examine, among others, ways to improve society through the law.
From August 21 to 28, speakers and other conferees examined the suitability of the nation’s legal framework, identified some flaws and recommended ways the Law and the judicial system could be effectively deployed as agents of national development.
The event, the 55th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which was well-attended, attracted dignitaries, such as President Muhammad Buhari; Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mahmud Mohammed; Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya, Dr. Willy Mutunga, and key players in the critical sectors.
About 39 papers, touching all aspects of legal practice, were presented by experts, who were both lawyers and non-lawyers.
Drawing from the broad theme of: Lawyers and national development, speakers at the various breakout sessions, addressed issues affecting every facet of the nation’s sector and suggested how, with everyone diligently playing his/her part, the required growth and development could be attained.
Areas explored included: “the role of lawyers in national development; contribution of lawyers in public office to national development; providing legal support for talent based industry; special focus on movies, music, comedy and sports; law officers and national development; the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in election petitions; ending the scourge of abandoned projects in Nigeria, anti-corruption: Fresh strategies, new initiatives.”
Realising the importance of the involvement of the law community in his administration’s anti-corruption stance, President Buhari, while inaugurating the conference on August 23, urged lawyers and judicial officers to partner with the people in this crucial period of national reawakening.
Buhari, while enlisting the lawyers’ support for his administration’s resolve to combat corruption and impunity in the land, acknowledged their professional responsibility of defending their clients. He urged them to do so without compromising their professional ethics and the integrity of the legal system no matter how lucrative the brief may be.
The president drew the lawyers’attention to how pervasive corruption and impunity, which signposted past administrations, have combined to deny the masses access to basic needs.
“It is the reason pensioners are not paid and potable water is scarce. In effect, corruption diverts public resources meant for millions of people into the private pockets of a greedy few, thereby causing a lot of suffering, deprivation and death. In my view, there can be no greater violation of human rights.
“Viewed in this way, I think we can all fully appreciate the gravity of this oppressive and destructive evil. This should rouse us to fight it with the same zeal and doggedness as we deploy in the defense of fundamental rights.
“I am convinced that law, lawmakers, lawyers, law courts and the law enforcement agencies all have pivotal responsibilities to discharge, if the change we seek is ever to materialise,” Buhari said.
While speaking on the topic: “The role of law in national development,” Prof Osinbajo laid before the gathering, the policy thrust of their administration on the reform of laws necessary for economic growth and strengthening of legal and institutional framework of key justice institutions in the country.
Osinbajo, who assured Nigerians of the commitment of the Federal Government at ensuring the effective management of the nation’s resources for the benefit of all, said the government will ensure that all avenues of leakages were plugged and take steps to change every aspect of the economic value chain, while working to improve infrastructure, food production and power generation.
The Vice President, however, noted that there was need to reform the justice sector to enable it function in aid of government’s objectives. This, he said, was imperative, because the effective interplay of the components of the justice sector will largely affect the performance of the national enterprise, which elements include security of lives and property, the economy and rights protection.
Osinbajo stressed the need for players in the justice sector to work with the government to effectively deal with “theft, official corruption and the privatisation of public resources” to allow for the attainment of the anticipated national growth and development.
“We have to deal with the issue of integrity in our judicial system even as we deal with general problem of corruption. There is no question at all that, if we don’t handle corruption squarely, if our justice system is so degraded, that it will be practically impossible to get very much done or to encourage anyone to come into our environment.
“We should be able to hold people to account; to ensure that people cannot escape justice. The self-seeking ways of a few should not be allowed to stall our national enterprise,” he said.
In apparent response to the challenges thrown at his sector by the President and Vice President, Justice Mohammed assured of the support of the Judiciary and his commitment to sustain the ongoing reforms in the judiciary, which include the review of the process of judges’appointment, deployment of information and communication technologies (ICT) to aid court process and moves to ensure commitment and dedication by judicial officers.
The CJN, who blamed the delay in court proceedings on mostly lawyers, sought an enhanced collaboration between the Bench and the Bar for the court to effectively play its role of justice dispensation.
“While it must be acknowledged that our Judiciary is not perfect, we cannot overlook the role of counsel in facilitating the onset of delay.
“As we all are aware, delay in most instances are either occasioned by the lack of diligent prosecution of a case, antics of counsel such as the use of interlocutory appeals to stall and frustrate a legitimate expectation of justice, or indolence on the part of some Judges.
“My learned colleagues this state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. It is one thing to talk the talk, but I am also determined to walk the talk.
“As we continue to fish out and discipline indolent and lazy Judges by showing them the way out of the system, we must also acknowledge and praise those judges that are diligent and hardworking. To this end, the NJC’s Judicial Officers Performance Evaluation Committee has also been strengthened to perform its functions,” the CJN said.
He called for enhanced financial allocation to the Judiciary to enable it meet the expectation of the society.
The conference, in one of its breakaway sessions, emphasised the importance of infrastructural development in the realisation of a nation’s quest for development. It was the general position that there was the need for a synergy between the public and private sector for the nation to overcome its current infrastructure deficit.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Wale Babalakin, argued that the government has no reason to abandon any ongoing project on the ground of paucity of funds. He said with planning and proper management of resources, the scourge of abandoned projects in the country will end.
Babalakin, who spoke from a private sector perspective, warned that the nation’s hope of developing critical public infrastructure as a vehicle for economic development, will remain a mirage without a change of attitude by public officers.
Relying on his experience as private investor in public infrastructure, Babalakin contended that the prevailing practice, where public officers violate contracts and agreements at will, perceive private investors in public infrastructure as either competitors or inferior partners, would only help sustain the scourge of abandoned projects.
Babalakin said it was impossible for the government to fully meet the nation’s infrastructure need without the involvement of the private sector, particularly in the face of dwindling national revenue from oil sales.To him, achieving success requires conscious effort by the government to protect private investors from the activities of self-centered public officials.
Citing cases where negative attitude of government officials have destroyed beautifully conceived private initiatives in the past, Babalakin noted that the lack of cooperation from government officials helped to frustrate such projects that would have helped resolved the infrastructure deficit.
He argued that, had government officials planned, the current fall in government earnings from oil would not have had any major impact on government’s spending capacity because there were sufficient indicators before now of impending fall in revenue.
The conference also examined the role of lawyers in the protection of consumers’ rights in Nigeria: Lessons from the telecoms and power sectors in view of the realisation that the interplay of market forces and the investor’s quest for enhanced returns mostly work at the detriment of the consumers.
Speakers, including the Chairman, Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), Sam Amadi and, Joe Gadzama (SAN); Head of the Consumer Protection Council, Mrs Dupe Atoki and Moyo Onigbanjo (SAN) examined the nature of violation of consumers’ rights in both sectors, issues of enforcement and effectiveness of the Consumer Protection Act, and how the legal profession can contribute to the promotion and protection of consumers’ rights.
Amadi, who recently queried the court’s right to question his commission’s decisions, attempted to defend the nebulous charges his commission and marketers of power impose on Nigerians,
Superior arguments, however, prevailed and it was the general opinion that these charges, particularly the fix charge was not justifiable, and amounted to multiple taxation, a position the NBA adopted in its communiqué, and which it specifically sought the abolition of the fixed charge.
On how to improve the legal and regulatory framework of the petroleum industry, speakers, including the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr Ibe Kachikwu, and Senator Victor Ndoma Egba said there was an urgent need for the review of the regulatory framework in the oil sector if the country seeks to improve its earnings from the sector.
They reviewed key fiscal, commercial and regulatory changes proposed in the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), discussed how the Bill could address the challenges in the sector and suggested an urgent passage of the Bill into law, but with some amendments.
Some of them recommended that emphasis should not only be on the upstream subsector for export purposes, the downstream subsector should also be emphasised for job creation and diversified developmental purposes
They advised that a review of the Bill should include provisions to ensure that oil companies causing environmental degradation, shall, in addition to fines imposed by the government, pay a fair, full and adequate compensation to any persons aggrieved as determined by a judge sitting in the jurisdiction of injury whether state or federal, provided that the sum payable shall be as determined by an advisory ad hoc multi-disciplinary college of referees appointed by the judge comprising toxicologists, surveyors and values, whose fees shall be charged to the polluter.
They also suggested the streamlining of the new agencies, which have overlapping functions, the removal of clauses, which disregard the right of citizens to legal redress in the courts and the reduction in the overriding powers of the Minister for Petroleum, before the PIB is passed by the National Assembly.
Presenting the conference communiqué last Friday, the NBA President, Augustine Alegeh (SAN) reassured the commitment of the body to support the government’s anti-corruption effect and all other efforts aimed at the good of the society.
“The NBA shall play a leading role in the fight against corruption; the NBA shall continuously pursue systemic reform of the legal system in Nigeria in order to enhance national development.
“The NBA shall make as a cornerstone of its advocacy, transparency in the appointment of judicial officers as critical to building confidence in the judicial system, a necessary plank in national development,” Alegeh said.