In the history of the Legal Profession in Nigeria, there has never been an umbrella body for lawyers in the Nigerian Legislature. However, there is a new dawn for such lawyers as Rt Hon. Yakubu Dogara (Speaker, House of Representatives) has established an Association for them known as the “Legislative Lawyers Association of Nigeria” (LEGLAN). As this laudable initiative commenced exactly one year ago the Speaker, who is the Pioneer President of the Association, shared his experience as a Legislative Lawyer and milestones achieved within the short period of the existence of the Association in a conversation with May Agbamuche-Mbu and Tobi Soniyi.
In December 2015 you were appointed chairman, Steering Committee of the Forum of Lawyers in the Nigerian Legislature. What are the aims and objectives of the Forum?
Let me use this opportunity to thank you for recognising the fact that we are doing a yeoman’s job in the National Assembly. Like you rightly pointed out in 2015 there was a desire among some lawyers who are plying their trade in legislative houses that there was need for us to pull ourselves together to form an association that will serve as a pivot by which all of us will rally round ourselves, look critically into issues affecting the law making process and the lawyers who are serving in the Nigerian legislature. The development of this part of the profession was halted by the military incursion into government and it was just the advocacy of law, the interpretation of law and maybe the teaching of law that was allowed during the military era. As you well know in the military government there is a fusion of the governmental powers of the executive and the legislature, so the legislature was the Armed Forces Ruling Council or the Supreme Military Council. So, there weren’t many lawyers really, because there were no parliaments, there were no State Houses of Assembly, only Military Administrators or Head of States. So, because this aspect of the law is very important, the feeling was that if we provide a forum where all of us could occasionally assemble and discuss common issues, share ideas, then we will better equip ourselves to contribute meaningfully to the law making process. As you know law making is not as easy as a lot of people think, if I am a lawyer who is engaged in advocacy all I need to do is to look for the tools that have been delivered: the law reports, the law itself, and then I just put on my gear and go to court. But when you are drafting laws you are always looking at not only the present and the past, but you are looking at the future because if care is not taken by the time you are done drafting the law and it is passed, it is already obsolete because of advances in science and technology. It is very difficult to keep pace with modernity. So, that was the feeling that actually informed the formation of this association of lawyers who work in the Nigerian legislature.
How did you come up with this laudable initiative of an Association for all Lawyers serving in the Nigerian legislature, and what necessitated this initiative?
Well, I think I have partly answered the second part of your question but the first part how did we come about this initiative? Let me say that it wasn’t originally my idea I remember it had been mooted in the past, but nothing tangible was done until after I emerged as the Speaker. Three of our colleagues came to me, one distinguished Senator Ita Enang, Hon. Ozoma Abonta and the current Secretary of the Association, Barrister Mrs. Chidiogor Anyiogor came to me and talked to me about the need for us to give flesh to this idea that was mooted even in the previous assembly and having participated in the process of law-making itself and having seen lawyers who are serving here I felt that there was a need for me to utilise the office that God has given me to promote the formation of this association. So, we had the first meeting of the forum, and we decided that we are going to register the association and we set up a constitutional drafting committee of about 33 members, and the constitution came at the end of the day, we adopted it, we passed it, and I am glad to report that the association has been registered, but as for the reasons why we decided that we were going to coalesce, I have already stated that, it was just to enable us have a forum, a common platform that can serve our interest, a forum that can promote the interest of the lawyers that are serving in the Nigerian legislature, defending their interests and looking after their welfare as well, and then creating a specialised area of law, because the profession itself is rich, we can create other aspects or areas of law but it is the legislative law practice as a specialised area that we want to emphasise on.
Is the Association registered?
Actually, it was registered in February this year, and so we are good to go, we have our Charter now formally registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission.
What is the vision and mission of the Association?
The vision is that it is supposed to serve as a rallying point for all legislators in the Nigerian Legislative Houses and by that I mean not only the National Assembly but even the State Houses of Assembly as well including lawyers who serve in committees, lawyers who are members of the parliament themselves, all of us put together including lawyers who are outside the legislature. Provided that you are a lawyer who desires to develop along these lines, you are welcome.
What milestones have the Association achieved within this short period?
Well, sometimes you know it is very difficult to begin but like it is said you should not despise the days of little beginnings, we have started but we have started very small. Like I said before we have been able to register with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and we have a functionally equipped office right now and in terms of intervention, on behalf of our members, we have made a case to the National Assembly Service Commission as regards our members, about forty of our members who are employed were placed on level 9, but we all know as lawyers that working with the public service the requirement is that your first entry point should be on level 10 and we felt that should not be the case, we have made a representation to the chairman and members of the commission and we believe that would be dealt with. I guess one of the most important and fundamental outings we had recently, was regarding the bill to increase the number of Justices for the FCT High Court and I know that has been a serious problem for the High Court, a lot of cases are coming in with the expanding population in the FCT and as a result of the avalanche of cases coming before the court, cases were stagnating and there was a need for the number of judges to be raised from 37 to 75. That bill came to the House and we had a wonderful outing, there was a memo delivered by our team before the committee that conducted the public hearing and I am happy to report to you that the bill has passed third reading, so the House of Representatives is done and dusted with that bill.
What therefore is the role of the legislative lawyer in the law-making process?
Our role basically is something that I can say won’t be a matter of conjecture because everybody knows that what lawyers do in the legislature is to make law, to draft laws, not only just drafting but to be able to put flesh really in what they believe should be the law and because the law is a living thing like I said before; because you are always trying to anticipate the future, you are not just making laws that will be implemented within a year or two, so there is always the window to look at the society itself, trying to anticipate where it is going so that by the time you are drafting these laws you are using languages that are adaptable, that are flexible so that the law adapts to the ever changing circumstances in the society without having to come on yearly bases for a repeal or amendment to the law. So, that is one basic thing we do.
We are also involved in advocacy, in legal counselling and so many other things that are done on the floor of the House. So, a lawyer in parliament in the Nigerian legislature is involved in a whole array of things, giving legal opinions to committees, for instance; if it is a committee clerk or serving on a committee, he mustn’t be a member of parliament, and those who are in the legal drafting department after all arguments are made, try to invent the right words, really the words are there but you have to be inventive in trying to put them together in a way that makes sense, and in a way that judges can enforce without much problems, so that’s what we do.
How has your training as a lawyer impacted on your position as the Speaker of the House of Representatives?
That is a very difficult question because sometimes when you talk about being a lawyer a lot of people believe you are just being plainly arrogant. I remember those days in school when they say you belong to the noble profession, you are the learned people, others are just educated members of the elite, a lot of people don’t take kindly to that; so, we want to be a bit modest. But to be candid as a lawyer there is always a tool, an extra tool that is delivered to you as a result of your training or on account of the courses, abstract legal theories that we do in the University, for instance, Jurisprudence broadens your mind, and so when issues come before you that require almost an instantaneous decision you tend to leverage on that kind of training and some of the issues coming up may have been dealt with by some scholars before or some schools of thought in law that you have read before might have addressed them. So, the law broadens your mind and in every given situation that you find yourself there are an array of tools whether in terms of language, in terms of mastery of skills, that your training empowers you to reach out and use. That always places you a mile ahead and I can say that for those that have been watching proceedings in the House they will know that obviously anytime a lawyer is presiding over any of the Houses of parliament, it tends to be better organised or better run, but that is at the risk of sounding immodest.
Who then would you say is a Legislative Lawyer?
A Legislative lawyer is any lawyer who is employed in the services of any legislative House in Nigeria or any lawyer out there who wants to take that field as a specialised area for developing his skills.
How does the Association intend to assist the current administration in its fight against corruption?
This issue of combating corruption is topical, because it is a cancer that does no one good, it has been the bane of our development in Nigeria, I think it is not only the responsibility of legislative lawyers to assist the administration in combating this hydra-headed monster called corruption in Nigeria. It is the responsibility of all lawyers wherever they are, whether they are on the bench, whether they are practising in the court or they are teaching law or they are plying their trade as employees of legislative Houses. It is our collective responsibility really to fight corruption. But for us it is very simple, we will look at the existing laws to see how we can deepen them by way of amendment to give them some kind of bite, and I am happy to announce to you that we inaugurated a committee on law review last year comprising of very erudite lawyers, scholars and some Senior Advocates as well, to look at the entire gamut of legislation that we have in the country, the entire laws of the federation of Nigeria from 1900 that are still in application and advise the House as to how best we can improve them. I can report to you they submitted over One Hundred and Thirty (130) bills some months ago and out of the One Hundred and Thirty (130) bills, we have passed close to Seventy (70) and I think we are going to report on that tomorrow. Just last week in this very hall we came up with about a Hundred (100) draft bills which we have read for the very first time today on the floor of the House, they have passed first reading, they will still be selected for the second reading. The reason why we are doing this is because we realise that since democracy itself is due process and the rule of law, not the rule of man, no matter how brilliant, no matter how wonderful your ideas are, if you are in the executive, whether you are a member of the legislature, or any of the arms of government, you cannot implement them until you are backed by law, if the law is against it, whatever you do is illegal, so it therefore means that your democracy can only be as deep as your laws are, because that is what you are implementing, you are not meant to execute any other thing apart from your laws no matter how brilliant the idea is, it has to be backed by law. So, if you look at it from that point of view, you would see that by deepening our laws whether they aim to fight against corruption, or improve the ease of doing business in Nigeria, whether it is criminal justice administration that will cut the level of crime in the society.
We, as parliament are setting the pace. The lawyers that we have working with us either in terms of drafting these bills or trying to identify the particular laws that we must amend are doing an incredible job and so we continue to do that either to be inventive in terms of thinking outside the box and seeing areas that are not covered by law and amending the laws entirely to ensure that they give the needed bite or by drafting different legal frameworks. Assuming what is being thought of cannot be addressed by the amendment of an existing law, then we can draft another enabling legal framework to tackle that. That is what we are engaged in and we believe that with that we should be able to give the judges the tools they need to deal with corruption and then we will be able to put some tools too in the hands of advocates who go to court to really address the issue of corruption and as for the executive especially the Attorney General of the Federation, we hope to provide some kind of ease with which to prosecute criminal offences in Nigeria, so I believe that is what we do.
Does the Association intend to play any role in justice sector reform?
Of course, like I have said, our role is to look at laws to see how best we can draft them to meet the demands of society and you know that justice reform is part of the things that we must do if this country must move forward, we just have to reform the justice sector, and we all know the problems because we are insiders and some things are not right for me as an insider to say; as it is said that you don’t wash your dirty linen in public; but we all know the issues involved and as lawyers it affects us, some of us practice here but that doesn’t mean we are going to practice in the legislature forever, our eyes are always fixed on the ball, in the next few years who knows I could have a chamber and still be going to the court. So, the problem there, indirectly affects us almost directly, that is the situation and we are poised to sit down, look at the issues that have been raised, I remember the Chief Justice of Nigeria had delivered a paper on this issue and we have some of those papers, we will review them and look at them critically and then support whatever proposal that is being laid before us, I know it is only our members in the legislature that can give the needed push, by the time we are done with the work, we will ensure that from the drafting department to those who are in working committees, to lawyers who are advocating law on the floor or arguing on the floor that we immediately do whatever we can within what the law permits to ensure that it is quickly passed into law and we will commence implementing them, that is a commitment from us.
There are reports that you advocated for the award of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria to lawyers within legislative affairs, can you explain the reasons for your position?
That is a tricky one, but I can say it was not originally my idea, let me not be guilty of plagiarism. That argument was first made succinctly by Senator Ita Enang at one of the NBA conferences. I was not even in Nigeria when he made the argument but I saw it on my social media feeds. Some lawyers were even laughing and saying well if lawyers in the legislative houses want to be conferred with the title of SAN, why don’t they just simply make a law and say all of them are Senior Advocates. I thought to myself initially that it was actually a ludicrous and very laughable idea, until I started giving it serious thought. You know sometimes we don’t learn from history, most of the landmark achievements that we have now, started in form of those kind of ideas and I can say as you rightly know that women were not even entitled to vote even in countries like the United States, and the first time a woman activist got up to say that women must vote, everybody was laughing, how can a woman vote, it was such an absurd idea, everybody thought why would women vote, no we don’t want that, it was very unpopular but they pressed, they fought until finally, women won the right to vote. Remember too, in the ancient world it was Galileo who said that the earth was round but the people of that generation believed that the earth was flat, he was tried and even executed for daring to say that the earth was round, later they discovered that the man was actually was saying the truth and we owe him an apology. Also, if you look at it critically President Abraham Lincoln who himself was a former slave owner and whose party was saturated by men who were owners of slaves and never wanted to concede rights to slaves. He got up and said look this country cannot survive with half slaves and half free people, they thought it was crazy and stupid and later what happened? The same thing with William Wilberforce. So, on this issue my thoughts are like this. Now, in our profession you may distinguish lawyers into three; there are those that interpret laws, those that advocate the laws, and you have some in the profession that draft or make the laws. Now, ordinarily if you are to throw a question; which of these functions is even number one? If there is no law what would you be interpreting, if there is no law, what will you be carrying to the court to advocate, so you see the interpretation itself, the advocacy they all rest on the law, that means your interpretation and advocacy can only be as good as the law is.
So, if the man interpreting can be wonderfully rewarded by the profession and the man who is advocating what we have suffered to draft is wonderfully rewarded, what of the man who is drafting these laws? We are not saying lawyers in parliament or lawyers who serve in parliament should be made Senior Advocates, No, far from it, even the requirements among those who teach laws, among those who interpret, among those who advocate is that you must have distinguished yourself. I think that is the one word that we must underline, anyone who has distinguished himself in the act of making laws and there must be defined criteria just like in any other aspect of the profession that the person must meet.
If you go to the United States for instance, some lawyers who have been in parliament for thirty years, twenty something years or for even longer periods have become authorities in certain fields that they have chosen, in fact nationally when there is any debate about some areas that they have become the authority the whole country looks up to them. Now, in order to underpin some of the things that I am saying, look at it critically, the man teaching the law really does not develop the law except in a technical sense, the man interpreting it no matter how inventive he is, he is bound by the law, he must apply the law, that is the duty of a judge for instance you must apply the law, but even though judges can be inventive in terms of the interpretation and a whole body of judicial precedent can come into being, but if those precedents are not built on a solid foundation like the law itself they can easily be thrown away like Justice Oputa of blessed memory would say that you can’t build something upon nothing and expect it to stand. The basic thing is that a lecturer gives his opinion, he criticises the law and then no matter how succinct that his opinion is, even if he is a Senior Advocate, is a Professor of law, no matter how sound his arguments are, they can only be regarded as persuasive authority and not more than that. Lord Denning too all his opinions though they were found later to be right, you know at a point they were minority opinions.
That is the work of lawyers who are now I can say members of our association, Legislative Lawyers Association, they are the ones that draft these bills. I think all of us as lawyers would have to ask some questions and to reflect on the issues that I have raised whether you can reward someone who is interpreting the law, or someone who is advocating or someone who is teaching the law and say that those that are drafting these laws shouldn’t be rewarded, but we are saying that in whatever field of the legal endeavour you must distinguish yourself before you are so recognised. It won’t be the case that you are just in the legislature for four years and you are made Senior Advocate, no, far from it, or you have been drafting laws for two three years then you are made a SAN, so, you must distinguish yourself according to criteria that are manifest, transparent and defined, then if you meet the requirements why not, it is good to reward those that are drafting the laws, reward those who are interpreting them, those who are teaching them and those who are advocating them, and you know justice is indivisible, whatever is just for somebody who is advocating, somebody who is teaching, must be just for someone who is drafting and interpreting them.
But as long as you say no, you are creating injustice, even if you say invent another title for lawyers who work in the legislature, it is going to amount to a situation which the United States found itself in those days when it was declared that separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal, even if they are equal but they are separate, they are inherently unequal, that is the decision of US Supreme Court, that is one area that we will keep pushing, we will keep fighting for, hopefully one day, one day just like women who won the right to vote and by it came universal adult suffrage, just as Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce defeated slavery in those days, just like Galileo was proved right long after he had been executed, we may be executed now for saying this but later you will prove us right.