Photo credit: Daily Trust

By Edo Ukpong

Nowadays the battle to control the messaging space has produced a subconscious antenna in most readers to look at the by-line first to foretell the message or the motivation. Therefore, since the by-line to this piece will most likely not offer many clues or at best, be misleading, let me be helpful upfront. I am a commercial law practitioner who has been exclusively engaged in legal practice since my admission to the Nigerian Bar in 1985. My agenda is the survival of the relevance of the legal profession in Nigeria. Admittedly, the ‘CJN Saga’ has prompted this intervention. The attendant divisive reactions and commentary on the saga has seriously polarised the country.

Lawyers have joined the fray on the different divides but I do not get a sense that there is the awareness, that it is our profession and its relevance in our society that is on trial. Every collection of human beings, who by the exigencies of geography find themselves interacting with one another, will need structures to superintend their relationships inter se. These will involve duties and responsibilities to themselves and to the society as a collective.

This arrangement, which is necessary for harmonious and orderly coexistence in any society, is what is termed as governance. Over time, principles and policies have developed to guide governance and whilst no uniformity exists, some of these principles and policies have gained universal recognition as forming the bedrock of meaningful governance. Lawyers play a key role in formulating and applying these principles and are accorded due recognition as being indispensable to the governance process.

A fundamental principle of meaningful governance is the broad concept of justice. In order for democratic governance to thrive in Nigeria, there must exist an atmosphere where the citizenry collectively subscribe to rules, universal obedience to those rules and uniform and fair enforcement mechanisms. Whereas lawyers are critical to the maintenance of this atmosphere, more critical, however, will be the perception of the citizenry in general terms as to the fairness and efficacy of the state of justice administration. As Hubert Humphrey, former American Vice-President opined, “we cannot expect to breed respect for law and order amongst people who do not share the fruits of our freedom.”

The society has developed by design that entrusts to the body of lawyers a pivotal role in maintaining a justice system that functions fairly and for the common good. My fear, borne out of years of experience and keen observation, is that the body of lawyers in Nigeria has not developed the group consciousness to appreciate the enormity of this role, let alone the uniform gravitas to work to justify the expectations of society.

Let me digress to the situation in Pakistan some years ago when then President Pervez Musharraf suspended the Pakistani Constitution. Pakistani lawyers stood up as a body to defy the suspension. Images of lawyers in huge numbers on the streets locking arms and being forcibly carried away by police officers must surely remain ingrained in the memories of a grateful and appreciative Pakistani populace. The action of the Pakistani lawyers is representative of my views and assuredly, that of a vast majority of lawyers worldwide on what lawyers can and must do to earn the respect of society and hence, maintain group relevance.

The body of lawyers in Nigeria does not have many secrets. As a member of that body, I find the general perception of the body as being generally composed of selfish, myopic, unscrupulous and greedy fellows as largely representative of the reality. I use the term ‘largely’, very advisedly in the sense that I am of the conviction that a vast majority of lawyers in whatever station, are honourable and professional in the discharge of their calling and duty to society as guardians of civilisation. The problem is with the leadership of the body of lawyers. The leadership in the sense of this piece will include both the formal and informal leaders or if I may borrow the much used and abused but nebulous term – senior lawyers.

The soul of the body of lawyers has been hijacked by a group of senior lawyers who are exploiting the uncharacteristic resigned posture of the majority to form a loose but enriching circle of corrupt influence and control. The obvious corruption in the judiciary is symptomatic of the corruption in the society as a whole but the complicity of the judiciary lays bare an existential dilemma for our country. In the event that the democratic governance we seek to entrench, provides for a justice administration system that should protect our commonwealth, what happens when the judiciary is seen as complicit in the plunder of our commonwealth?

Nigerians have generally witnessed corruption cases being conducted unendingly, trivialised by absurd theatrics and usually ending in suspicious and unconvincing acquittals or at worst, apologetically lenient sentences. With the mounting evidence of different standards of justice, might it not get to the point soon, where the suffering masses identify corruption as the cause of their suffering, feel helpless and resort to mob justice? It is time for us lawyers to come to terms with our broken justice administration system and take the bull by the horn. If we do not act fast, courageously and selflessly to insist on remedial action, the matter may be taken out of our hands by tendencies without our level of appreciation for the niceties of technicalities and due process and it will not be pleasant.

Lawyers as guardians of civilisation must first build uniform opinion on the essence and nature of the civilisation we must project and protect. We must also ensure our compliance with the spirit and intendment of the civilised conduct we seek to entrench in our body polity. We must hearken to the immortal words of Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the USA – “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.” Corruption is undoubtedly an existential threat to the fabric of our society and if our primary responsibility is to create a civilised atmosphere, it means that lawyers must be at the forefront of the fight against corruption. In this light, therefore, the civilisation we ought to promote in our society cannot in any form or shape support the reaction of our group of senior lawyers to the CJN saga.

Upon the public revelation of the contents of the charges against the CJN, the body of lawyers ought to have taken an immediate public stance different from that which we witnessed. For the sake of good order, the CJN should have been advised to step aside pending the outcome of the matter at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. There can be no justice without orderliness and the jumping of the correct order to focus on politics and the technicalities of due process when we have ourselves not advised the CJN to follow due process, is a grave error. The error was bound to result in more shambolic actions and reactions.

There is no interpretation of the concept of justice in a civilised society, which will allow the CJN to maintain the authority of his office under the weight of such damaging accusations, to preside, even if remotely, over a process in which he is the accused. Moreover, as unpopular as it may seem now, there is no responsible government as the custodian of the people’s mandate to govern, that will helplessly allow that anomalous situation to prevail.

The optics of over 50 senior lawyers, literally elbowing their way to gain visibility as defenders of the embattled CJN, unfortunately paints the picture of a group protecting ‘one of its own.’ The duty of the body of lawyers should rather be to protect the society from the consequent damage to its judiciary. Unfortunately, the optics of the CJN saga has solidified the impression of lawyers as promoters of corruption in the consciousness of Nigerians.

The intervention by another faction of 20 senior lawyers, who appear to be focused more on the rot in the justice administration system, rather than the defence of an individual, is welcome but will not provide the needed solution. The CJN saga provides a great opportunity and can be the defining moment, where the body of lawyers embarks on self-cleansing and rebrands itself. It is time for younger progressive elements in the profession to organise themselves, articulate and define values for the body that will align with the needs and expectations of our society. Senior lawyers are too shackled by stakes, suspicious of each other and constrained by unhelpful inherited traditions to lead the charge to save the profession.

Let me close by suggesting that we bring back Rule 14 of the Rules of Professional Conduct in the Legal Profession 1979. “Nothing operates more certainly to create or foster popular prejudice against lawyers as a class, and to deprive the profession of that full measure of public esteem and confidence which belongs to the proper discharge of its duties than the false claim, often set up by the unscrupulous in defence of questionable transactions, that it is the duty of the lawyer to do whatever may enable him to succeed in winning his client’s cause. …. The office of a lawyer does not permit much less does it demand of him for any client, violation of law or any manner of fraud or chicanery. He must obey his own conscience and not that of his client.”

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