Valerie Azinge (SAN) served as the Secretary General of the National Conference. She was last Monday conferred with the title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria ( SAN ), making the Azinge family the second family in Nigeria where the couple are both SAN. In this interview, she speaks about immunity, the conference report and other sundry issues. Excerpt:
It is now common to see about 50 lawyers defending an accused person in court especially in celebrated cases like Saraki and Ricky Tarfa, what is your take on this?
Nothing is wrong with the practice and it is not to intimidate the court. It has to do with research and knowledge. People see issues from different perspectives. The more lawyers you have, it opens up the horizon; if you can afford more laywers why not? They all do their research from different perspective and culminate when they aggregate together, they can now X-ray the different ideas that they have and narrow it to a logical presentation in court. That is what its all about. They can either do it by physical representation or by having meeting in chambers. They may later resolve that Mr. X’s idea is more brilliant than Mr. Y’s idea, since X understands why he puts it that way. “Can we after announcement ask X to actually argue that one in Court”. Coming from a research background that is my view.
Do you support the call for immunity for the National Assembly and the Judiciary?
There is immunity in the three Arms of government. Yes, that of the executive is so categorical and relates to the president and executive governors. When you come to the National Assembly (NASS) they have immunity on what ever transpired on the floor of NASS. Whatsoever they say there, they are immuned from litigation. They can abuse anybody while they are there. That is legislative immunity.
The judiciary and judges also can say anything to anybody inside the witness box, (even lawyer). Whatsoever the judge says while on the bench he is also immuned. But when we carry immunity to a ridiculous extent, then we have problems. So immunity cuts across the three arms of government. It is doing us good as so far provided by the constitution.
To be more specific, the entire gamut of Dr. Bukola Saraki’s trial dove-tails more on the realm of politics. There is also no doubt the legal aspect of it but that is why we say its a political trial and a special case.
What would you have been doing if you were not a lawyer?
As a child, I told my dad I would be a lawyer and appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC ). That I have achieved, but be that as it may, to divorce me from law is very difficult because all my life I have practiced law. It is something that I understand very well, I dream it, I see it, it has worked out so much for me and it gives me joy that I don’t think I can derive from anything else.
When you put in your industry and the court does not agree, you can go up on appeal but no matter what happens you will be satisfied that you have put in your best. Outside law, if you push me, I would like to be an architect, but for the fact that I do not know how to draw straight lines, I feel a laguna there.
Coming back to the National Conference, are you happy at the non-implementation of the conference report?
I will not say that I am unhappy that the report is not implemented. When I was approached to be the Secretary-General, I requested a free hand and I was given a completely free hand from the then President Goodluck Jonathan.
Jonathan never one day called me to interfere in the work of the conference. Therefore, I asked myself what should be the agenda and the way forward. I articulated 20 Committees with different thematic issues. We were first looking for a hall that will suit about 500 delegates. Where are we going to house them and which compound can accommodate vehicles of 500 delegates and the principal officers.
Through my chairman, My Lord Justice Kutigi, we were able to get the National Judicial Institute ( NJI ). Having gone there I looked at the committee rooms and it could only accommodate 10 committees at NJI, and the money we had can only give us 10 more committee rooms in town. So we rented 10 committee rooms at NICON and 10 at NJI. But 20 committee rooms could not accommodate what I wanted because I actually wanted between 25 – 30 committees. So I had to merge some committees that had related issues.
I thank God that we charted a way forward of all that is happening today in Nigeria. There is hardly any issue that was not discussed there and answered profusely there.
When this government started there was the issue of how many ministers should we have. The President felt 36 ministers was unwieldy but he had to obey the constitution.
We had discussed this extensively and narrowed it down to geo-political zones, so you can have 6 or 12 effective ministers. The issue of herdsmen and greasing right was discussed extensively. There were solutions given as well as issue of restructuring Nigeria which was discussed with statistics backing it up. There is hardly any issue in present day Nigeria, even recession that is coming in now that was not discussed.
I do not think that I am taken aback by the non- implementation of the report because at the end of conference we told the committees to put in their recommendations in 3 stratagem – Constitutional, Statutory and Policy.
In other words, for the purpose of implementation, we did not need entirely the executive alone to implement the report. The NASS can take the report where we stated things to be done by the NASS – that is things to be changed in the constitution and in the existing laws. The NASS and State Assemblies or both can change for example creation of states.
When it comes to the executive arm, it is not only the responsibility of the president, it goes beyond the president. For instance policy. There are so many aspects of our lives that have no policy such as agriculture, and the conference had recommended that areas where we have no policy should come up with policy. The implementation of the conference report is a joint responsibility.
There are reports that lawyers were nabbed writing exams for law school students. What is your take on the plight of the young lawyers?
Nigerian youths have lost focus; we have to bring back civic education and introduce constitution into our training. We have to change our work ethics. If we get these right every other part will key in, not just lawyers. We have to go back to the basic.
What is your advice to young lawyers?
You must have passion for whatever you do in life. When I was at the Law School, the then DG late Ibironke consistently used one word which we felt he over used. He always said “the profession you chose, do not come here to tell me that the wig, books etc are expensive or lawyers read too much. If you have passion for it you won’t even feel it.” The most important thing is that if you have passion for it you must work hard. There is no short cut to success, hard work is the key.