Mrs. F. Boma Ayomide Alabi is a former Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) President. Recently, her law firm, Sterling Partnership Solicitors, merged with others to form a mega law firm. In this interview with Legal Editor John Austin Unachukwu, Mrs Alabi shares her views on the challenges of law practice, the fight against corruption, globalisation of legal services and sundry issues.
What is your appraisal of the anti corruption war?
What do you mean by this?
That means painstaking investigations, equipping and training their personnel in the anti graft agencies and raising awareness amongst the citizens to ensure their buy-in and active co-operation. Attempting to take a short cut such as the recent ‘Ex Parte’ order forfeiting funds belonging to depositors without BVN, is an example of a shortcut that will lead to an arid desert, which can never be fruitful. How do you appropriate monies belonging to citizens because they have not complied with a CBN directive? It simply beggars belief! I am an administrator in an Estate that has not been settled over 20 later. So, if there are bank accounts belonging to the deceased, the beneficiaries will lose their entitlement because they could not wake up the dead to be finger printed? What about Nigerians in the Diaspora with bank accounts in Nigeria? Many are not in touch with Nigeria and unaware of these directives. There are so many different scenarios that can result in the lack of a BVN on an account through no fault of the bank or the depositor.
How can anti-graft war be strengthened to reduce loss of high profile cases?
The outcome shows that the EFCC may have rushed to Court without taking their time to investigate and prepare for the cases. Strategic preparation is the key to victory in any litigation, including prosecution for financial crimes. For instance, the EFCC generally will charge the accused with numerous counts of various offences at the same time. As you well know, the onus is on them to prove each and every count, but I would approach it differently.
How would you approach it?
I would take just one or two counts that I am certain I can prove to the very high standard required in criminal prosecution, that is, “beyond reasonable doubt’ and ensure that I adduce sufficient evidence to achieve a conviction on one or the other or both. The more cases the EFCC lose, the more the tendency to impunity so they really have to make more of an effort to ensure a higher success rate as a deterrent.
Should EFCC focus be limited to financial crimes?
Corrupt politicians are also more often than not, accused of financial crimes and, therefore, come under the purview of the EFCC, when, as it invariably does, the alleged act of corruption involves money. I don’t think the issue is who prosecutes, rather it is how well they prepare their cases before rushing to court.
Presumably, legal opinions are sought prior to the decision to prosecute. That’s usually the case with prosecutions initiated by the Attorney General’s office, at least, at state level where I assist with prosecution. If that is the case, a lawyer from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) usually provides his legal opinion. Naturally, the MoJ lawyer is often not a subject matter expert and, therefore, not fully conversant with all the factual elements required to succeed. It is important that in complex financial transactions, they enlist the help of subject matter experts before hand. You can be assured that the defence, usually much better funded, will have subject matter experts working with the lawyers as consultants and providing expert opinion where necessary. Funding is key to success. The EFCC has to be better funded to enable the agency pay counsel.
You recently promoted a mega law firm, Primera Africa Legal (PAL) . Can you give us insight into what informed the formation of the mega law firm?.
I would not describe us as a mega law firm when our global competitors have lawyers and partners in their thousands. There are law firms with income in the billions of dollars, and we are tiny compared to them and yet, we have to compete with them. The formation of PAL is driven by the need to serve our clients better on a truly national scale from the North to the South and everywhere in between.
What do you consider to be the greatest challenges facing commercial law practitioners in the country?
The greatest challenge is the economy. We are not insulated from the effects of the recession as commercial lawyers. When business slows down due to the various factors that we know led to this recession, it impacts on the number of transactions and, therefore, on the transaction advisers too.
What is the global perspectives in the current operations of the law firm?
We are part of an ever smaller and interconnected world. Our competitors, law firms from other jurisdictions, who are already playing in our space whether we like to accept it or not, are generally far better resourced than we are. This is because they have modernised their rules to allow none lawyers invest in law firms and some law firms are even quoted on the stock exchange.
In Mexico for instance, they allow none Mexican law firms to invest in their local law firms although these investors are not permitted to practice in their jurisdiction. It is something we have to consider in this jurisdiction if we want to hold our ground against the foreign law firms.
How do we strengthen the whistle blowing policy to make it more efficient and effective?
A robust whistle blower protection scheme in addition to the cash incentive will increase confidence in the system. And that’s what we need! The British police get some of the best results in the world and that is due to the confidence the citizens have in their local Bobby. They know that he will not reveal his sources and if need be, will go to any length to protect the whistle blower. That confidence means that people are eager to assist the police if they are aware of any criminal activity. This is where we need to be, where Nigerians feel confident enough to approach the police to report any criminal activity around them, not just corruption in high places.
What is your view about agitations?
Indeed, it is most worrisome. Words can be extremely hurtful and we need to be mindful of what we say about each other if we truly want to continue to live together as one nation. The politicians have led the country in this direction with their incendiary remarks every time we have an incident of inter tribal violence. Sadly, it has become so ingrained that it is now almost our default mode to make derogatory statements about our fellow Nigerians because of their tribe, religion or gender.
We have to start reversing this trend and in this case, I would urge us to actually believe that; “Change begins with me”. Think about the words we use and the origin before we use them. For instance, why are we still referring to grown up men and women as ‘house boys’ and ‘house girls’? Domestic workers are productive members of our society as deserving of our respect as lawyers or any other profession. There is dignity in labour and we must bear this in mind always. Ask yourself, honestly, do I judge competence and even character by this primitive yardstick called tribe? How do we employ in our businesses? At PAL, we employ on merit and every tribe is represented in our offices in Abuja and Lagos. This shows that there are capable Nigerians in every part of the country and from every tribe of the nation.
How do you think we can restructure Nigeria within the ambit of the law?
Well, what is it that we wish to restructure in the first place and what do we mean by restructuring? This is a new buzz word for politicians and I really think we should examine this very critically before jumping on the band wagon. The three tiers of government have a lot of independence from each other, it is up to each tier to protect its constitutional powers from encroachment by another, and we will find if this is done, that what we actually have in place at the moment, is more than sufficient. If we restructure, whatever this means, and do not implement, there still would not be much progress.
The Judiciary has been generally referred to as the last hope of the common man. Can you honestly say that about Nigerian judiciary?
The judiciary is still the last hope of the common man, no question about that. I am very encouraged by the changes the current CJN has instituted. We are already seeing the results of these specialised courts. The corruption trials are moving along much faster, as criminal matters. I am an active practitioner in the courts across the country on a very regular basis and I have to say that the judiciary has been much maligned. Our Judges work tirelessly to dispense justice at the expense of their health and well being in a lot of cases. The working conditions are abysmal.
How do we correct this?
We need to invest more in this very important arm of government and the Bar should advocate better funding for the courts. We are there every day, we see the decaying infrastructure, we see the overworked registry staff and we say nothing. Rather, we prefer to stand outside the court rooms in our wigs and gowns advocating our cases before the media. It’s atrocious and sadly seems to have become the norm in this jurisdiction. In England, you would never hear a Barrister who is directly involved, comment on a case to the media whilst it is sub-judice. And even after that matter is concluded, the only comment would be to read a statement on behalf of the client.