Yunus Ustaz Usman (SAN), who hails from Igeme in Kogi State, was influenced by his uncle, Abdullahi Ibrahim, one of the first SAN from northern Nigeria and was under the tutelage of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammad Lawal Uwais. He read English Law and graduated from the famous Ahmadu Bello University Zaria after acquiring a diploma in Law, Sharia Law.
Where did you work before becoming a Senior Advocate of Nigeria?
My uncle, Abdullahi Ibrahim, the first SAN from northern Nigeria introduced me to the former Chief Justice of Nigeria when he was a justice of the Supreme Court in Lagos and who gave me his guest house to stay in while I was at the Nigerian Law School in Lagos. He sharpened my life though I didn’t know that people in high position of authority could be humble and kind. I still pray for my children to be as humble as Justice Uwais. He was so humble that one day, when the light bulb in my room went off, he himself climbed a chair and screwed it back into place for me. As a party enthusiast in Lagos then, I one day, went back home hungry. It was around 3am; he saw me from his study and brought food from the kitchen for me. We need people like him in Nigeria. I worked under the firm of my uncle before moving on.
When did you establish your own chamber?
I established my chamber in November 1989.
What cases contributed in making you famous and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria?
God knows that I am not better than many people. But the case between Ila Alkamawa and Bello, both residents of Sokoto State over Shufa in Islam, was remarkable. In Shufa, if you want to sell your house, you are required to first talk to your neighbour to see if he is interested before selling it to any other willing buyer.
My client did not want to sell his house to his neighbour because they were arch-rivals. One of them was in the Izala sect while the other was a member of the Darika sect. The case went to the Supreme Court. The presiding judge was Justice Wali, another very humble and friendly person. I argued that there is “no compulsion in Islam,’’ and in Nigeria we practice the Islamic Maliki school of thought. And there is no such provision in Maliki. I won the case. It is enshrined that you can now sell your house without the consent of your neighbour.
Why are retired Supreme Court justices still in the National Judicial Commission (NJC) instead of making way for the younger ones?
A judge is like wine, the older he grows, the more mature, tolerant, humane and experienced he is. I am one of those that are advocating to convince the National Assembly that judges should not have any retirement age, just like in the US and UK. The first black man to be the justice of the Supreme Court in the US, Justice Thurgood Marshall, retired voluntarily at the age of 89. From my little experience, the older ones are more experienced. If at a particular time a judge said he is tired or not well, he can go. Some are stronger than me today.
Cases involving people who steal billions of naira in Nigeria are hardly concluded; but a pickpocket is mostly summarily tried and sentenced within few months or even days; what is your take on this?
Too many factors are involved. You need a lot of evidence to carry the case, or they throw it out. I don’t blame them because they need to do a lot of research. My quarrel with our prosecuting system in Nigeria is: why do you convict a pickpocket; why not just let him return the money and go? This is why we have a lot of congestion in prisons.
Is insurgency affecting speedy dispensation of justice in volatile states?
Of course, yes. The courts cannot sit when there is no peace. And you cannot transfer a state case to another state because the limit of the jurisdiction of a state High Court is limited within the state.
Do you encourage out-of-court-settlement?
Yes, I do. In most cases it pays more. In the Nigerian psyche, if you take somebody to court he becomes your permanent enemy. But if amicable settlement is arranged, they continue their normal relationship.
Why are judicial system and judges difficult to understand for laymen?
A judge has no power to deliver judgment based on what is in his mind. It is as you present the fact to him. Even if a judge saw somebody killing another person and the case is brought before him, he cannot rule on what he saw, or leaves his post to serve as a witness.
What is your advice for younger lawyers?
My own daughter became a lawyer at the age of 20. Age is not proportionate with competence in law at all. My advice is for them to try and make a good name before money. When you make a good name the money will run after you. But the moment you run after money before you make name, you will lose both.
Do you support parliamentary system of government for Nigeria?
I think the presidential system has not failed us. But our legislators should operate on a part-time basis, just like what is obtained in America and Britain. I am 57 years old, so I need to say my mind now as I may no longer live for more than 20 years. If you do not tell the truth you are killing your society. If they don’t make that amendment it would mean that they are not sincere. Remember that 70 per cent of our budget goes into servicing them, even when the hospitals are empty.
It is said that oil companies are above the law in Nigeria. When there is oil spill in the US they quickly pay compensation, but in Nigeria they say they are not registered here?
As long as a company is doing business in Nigeria, if it commits any offence, the Nigerian court has the right to try it. If a company is registered abroad, it must also be registered here before it can do business here. Section 158 of the Companies’ Law and Allied Matters has it. But our own lawyers defraud us mainly when it comes to draft agreements. There is always this arbitration clause. You sign that when something happens, you go to France and so on. It is nonsense; we enslave ourselves.
What is your take on the continuous contempt of court by government officials?
Any government official that refuses to obey court ruling is not worthy to be there. And we should have a sincere National Assembly to ensure that impeachable offences are enforced.
It is very dangerous for the country when people disobey court orders. I have more respect for the court than any other arm. This is because, without the court, the other arms will not be there; there will be complete anarchy.