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Home Events Femi Falana, SAN - A Dogged Fighter For Human Rights.

Femi Falana, SAN – A Dogged Fighter For Human Rights.

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A prominent Nigerian lawyer, human rights activist and left-wing politician, Femi Falana was a one-time president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers and chairman of the West African Bar Association, WABA. In this interview with Newswire Law and Events Magazine, Femi Falana gives expression to his life-long distaste for injustice and passion for human rights, a trait which he manifested as early as 1983, when he undertook bail for a number of university students who had been unlawfully remanded in prison custody. This incident later led to his not being issued a discharge certificate by the NYSC at the end of his one-year national service. Falana is renowned for providing free legal services to the poor and disadvantaged in the society. Though he has been detained numerous times by the security services on account for his activism, he has also won numerous awards locally and internationally for the same reason. Excerpts:

 

You are a successful legal activist. Can you remember one incident that inspired you and made you to study Law?

I entered the University of Ife in 1977 to study English with a view to becoming a journalist. But it was the “Ali Must Go” crisis of April 1978 that altered my plan. I was so impressed with the public spirited defence of the student leaders and the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) by the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi. That was what motivated me to switch to law.

After your Call to Bar in 1982, did you already program your mind to be an activist? Was that why you joined the Chambers of Alao Aka-Bashorun, a renowned legal activist?

Firstly, I was a student union leader in Ife. Secondly, I belonged to the Lagos group of the socialist movement which recommended that I should join the Alao-Bashorun’s Peoples’ Chambers.

Which human right case have you handled in the past, of which you were profoundly satisfied with the verdict?

When I was undergoing my Youth Service with the Oyo State Public Complaints Commission, I took up the case of seven students of the University of Ibadan who were charged with attempted murder of the Vice Chancellor. Since the Magistrate who remanded them in prison custody had no jurisdiction to try them, I successfully challenged their detention at the High Court in Ibadan. The trial judge ordered their release and awarded them compensation. It was in that case that holding charge by the Police was declared illegal and unconstitutional for the first time. The case was reported in two law reports. The Federal Government was not happy with me. So my discharge certificate was withheld by the NYSC for 18 years. It was only released to me in 2001 on the orders of the Oputa Panel on Human Rights Abuse.

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Why did you decide to marry a lawyer?

My wife wasn’t a lawyer when we got married. She was a physics graduate. It was after our marriage that she decided to read law.

As a legal couple, is any of your children studying law or practicing the profession with you?

Two of our children are lawyers. Neither of them is practicing with us.

With the insurgency and political instabilities all over the country, must the elections hold in February next year? Can’t the election be post­poned until peace and normality return to the country?

Elections have been held in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. If the Federal Government is determined to hold elections in the north-east region it will have to deploy adequate security for the purpose. On August 9, this year 73,000 military and paramilitary forces were deployed for the Osun State governorship election. There is no basis for postponing or cancelling the elections.

Looking ahead the 2015 elections. Do you see any change in government?

It is a possibility. But whether it is going to be a fundamental change is another matter entirety.

You said recently that the APC should not be considered a progressive party. Are they not progressive enough to govern the country?

I criticized the APC for parading itself as the other side of the political coin. In the context of Nigeria, a progressive party has to liberate the economy from imperialist control and manipulation. A progressive party has to commit itself to end the manipulation of the economy by market forces. A progressive party has to embrace popular democracy in place of liberal democracy. At the very least, a progressive party has to make the fundamental objectives in Chapter 2 of the Constitution justifiable and enforceable. Of course a progressive party has to show total and irrevocable commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights. Honestly speaking, I doubt if the APC fits into the definition of a progressive party. Of course, there are individuals within the party who are genuine liberal politicians. But there are very reactionary politicians there as well.

In your own view, sir, is there a difference between the APC and PDP?

To a large extent the APC is desirous to replace the PDP. In fairness to the APC some of its leaders and members are desirous to have genuine change. But I do not know the extent of their influence in the party. On its own part the PDP does not even pretend to be progressive in any shape or form. It is an umbrella for right wing elements.

Is Nigeria’s style of democracy a ‘civil rule,’ or a ‘democratic rule?

Nigeria operates a civilian rule moving inexorably towards fascism. But all the forces of democracy owe it a duty to stop the PDP from taking us back to the dark days of military dictatorship.

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What step should we take to build a virile democracy in Nigeria?

To build genuine democracy the legitimacy of the government has to be earned through credible elections. Institutions of democracy have to be strengthened. The enormous powers of the President and governors have to be curbed. The government has to be democratized in every material particular.

In your reaction to the outcome of the Ekiti state governorship election held on June 21, 2014, you expressed the view that the Ekiti people had gone back to Egypt; and that the people have fully returned to the wilderness. Why would you make such statement as an Ekiti elder stateman?

I am very familiar with the Ekiti political terrain. I also know the political actors. In the last couple of months the State has witnessed an unwarranted assault on the judiciary, in which a high court judge was physically attacked. Seven legislators removed the Speaker when he can only be constitutionally removed by at least two thirds of the 26 members (of the Ekiti State house of assembly). The State has recorded bank robberies, the brutal killing of five policemen and woman, four people have been kidnapped. There has been a jail break at the Ado Ekiti prison. The criminals appear to have found a congenial atmosphere to operate.

Has the rule of force replaced the rule of law in Ekiti State?

That is not in dispute. In other words, the rule of law has been replaced with the rule of brutal force. Hence criminals are having a field day.

Why did you call the governor (Ayo Fayose) the Idi Amin of Ekiti State?

I did not call Governor Ayo Fayose the Idi Amin of Ekiti State. However, I cautioned that Ekiti State should not be taken back to the dark days when judges were murdered in Uganda under Idi Amin and in Ghana under Jerry Rawlings.

What in your own view do you think the Nigerian Bar Association and the Bar in Ekiti must do to defend the rule of law and to protect judges and lawyers in the state and also guard against such appalling occurrence?

Apart from issuing press statements the NBA cannot defend its members, let alone judges. In the last three years, no less than 10 lawyers have been killed or kidnapped. The NBA is satisfied with issuing press statements. The body is too compromised to mobilize its members to defend the rule of law and human rights. To protect judges and lawyers the NBA has to be re-organized along democratic tenets.

Are you in agreement with the claim that Nigeria is neck deep in corruption?

It is common knowledge that Nigeria is in the miasma of corruption. As far as the managers of the neo-colonial state are concerned corruption in Nigeria is over exaggerated. We have also been told by President Jonathan that corruption is not stealing.

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How can we eradicate corruption at all level in this country?

We can eradicate corruption like other crimes by operating under the rule of law. There is no country where there is no corruption. But in settled democracies those who are caught are arrested and prosecuted. But in banana republics or failed states, corrupt people are celebrated and given national awards by the Government. They contest and win elections. They are political leaders.

Did you see any area where the Nigerian media are not doing their job conscientiously?

Before the establishment of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the media fought official corruption in Nigeria. But today, the media celebrate corruption and glorify impunity. This is not unexpected since publishing houses are largely owned by corrupt people.

What of Nigerian lawyers, are they satisfied with the democratic practices of our nation?

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is much worse than the media. A non state actor whose elections are bankrolled by the Government is doomed. The members of the bar have to demand the democratization of the NBA. A situation where a few delegates are bribed to vote for official candidates is a subversion of the democratic process. We should go back to universal suffrage. Every member of the bar should be involved in the process of electing leaders.

What can you say about the present leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association? And what would be your candid advice for it to move the Bar forward?

Unlike under the Okey Wali-led exco when the NBA lost its voice the new leadership has regularly commented on current national affairs. But it is yet to take up the task of mobilizing the generality of the members to defend the rule of law. It has to muster the courage to identify and expose corrupt lawyers and judges. It has to join issue with any government that disobeys a court order until the order is complied with. We did that even under military dictators. It has to synergize with the National Human Rights Commission to ensure that human rights are genuinely respected in Nigeria. With over 100 branches in the 36-states of the Federation the NBA should promote pro bono public services so that indigent people have their legal rights defended and protected. To achieve the objectives set out in its constitution, the NBA has to stop its over reliance on government to host its meetings and sponsor its activities.

Justice Aloma Mukhtar assumed office as the CJN on July 16, 2012 and retired on Nov. 20, 2014 after the mandatory retirement age of 70. How would you rate her tenure?

When Justice Aloma Muktar assumed office the image of the judiciary was at its lowest ebb. Impunity was the order of the day in the courts. She tried to restore the lost glory of the judiciary. Some corrupt judges were removed. But the Nigeria Judicial Council under her was unable to resolve the crisis in the Rivers State judiciary. It is embarrassing that the courts in Rivers State have not sat since March 2014. Imagine the implications of the crisis on criminal suspects who are languishing in custody because of an avoidable crisis.

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What do you know about Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who is the new Chief Judge of Nigeria?

Justice Mahmud Mohammed the new Chief Justice is a quiet but decent jurist. I am convinced that he is going to continue with the reforms of his predecessor. But his Lordship has to move speedily to address the over one hundred allegations of corruption against judges pending before the NJC. More importantly, the NJC has to stop the illegal insistence that the Chief Judge of Nigeria or the Chief Judge of a State cannot be appointed from the bar or from the Universities. That is the root cause of the crisis in Rivers State. In other words, the NJC has to appreciate that it is a recommending body which cannot insist that the President or a State governor must ratify or approve any recommendation made by it.

 What would you consider the greatest challenge facing young lawyers?

The rules of practice have to be amended to allow young lawyers to break new grounds. Instead of sitting down in offices, young lawyers must be allowed to go to scenes of road accidents, industrial accidents, oil pollution, et cetera, to educate people on their rights under the law. They must visit prisons and police detention facilities. Young lawyers should establish law firms in the rural areas where people have to travel to cities for legal service. The NBA has to monitor senior lawyers and ensure that they employ young lawyers and treat them well.

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Do you really have time to go on holiday? And where is your favorite holiday spot?

I try to go on holidays. No particular spot. Usually, the choice is my wife’s.

 Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?

The future is bright for lawyers in Nigeria. But the NBA has to lead lawyers to join in the campaign for a society that is built on the platform of the rule of law. We have a court judgment that has ordered the government to educate every child free of charge; we have another one that has ordered the government to establish an education bank to give loans to indigent undergraduates to take care of their education. The NBA must ensure that all court orders are obeyed. It is only when the youths are educated and gainfully employed that kidnapping and terrorism will not be attractive to them. If I am around in the next 10 years I would be leading a movement for the enforcement of socio-economic rights in Nigeria and other countries in Africa.

Thank you for creating time for Newswire Law and Events Magazine out of your very busy schedule.

Your are welcome.

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