NBA PRESIDENCY: Dele Adesina Has Integrity to Lead The Nigerian Bar – Femi Falana, SAN
A leading Nigerian human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, has identified Mr. Dele Adesina, SAN, as the best person to lead the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to the next stage of its evolution, and to reenact its lost years at the vanguard of the Nigerian people’s collective quest for a society anchored on the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights, the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press.
In the run up to the 2020 NBA General Elections, Falana says Adesina possesses the requisite combination of qualities the Nigerian Bar needs at this point in its chequered history. “Whenever the country faces a crisis in the political arena, a judicial crisis of confidence, widespread disrespect for the rule of law and massive violations of human rights, the Bar has always taken the lead, acting as a vanguard, mobilizing lawyers and the civil society. In order to defend democratic rights,” Falana said, adding, however, that over the years, the NBA has all but abandoned this traditional role. It would take a dedicated and quintessential Bar man like Adesina, he said, to restore the body to the ramparts it once occupied in the not so distant past.
Though not a ‘radical’ in the pure sense of the word, Falana said, Adesina was a ‘solid liberal’, a man of character, undoubted pedigree and experience, whose doggedness and assiduousness in the pursuit of the NBA’s core objectives make him a natural choice for the association’s leadership at a time like this.
Falana, who was speaking with law correspondents at the Ikeja offices of his law firm, went down memory lane to reenact the glory days of the NBA and its succession of transformative leaders in the fight for justice and the good ordering of society. He recounted, in particular, the battle to protect judicial (financial) autonomy and the rights of judges. He also stressed the need for a more robust advocacy on the part of lawyers appearing before the Supreme Court; the need for greater exposure for Nigerian lawyers, especially on the international stage; the need to create more opportunities for junior lawyers; and the need for a Bar that leads the national debate on the rule of law, human rights and the democratic process, among others.
The following are some of the issues Falana raised during the interview:
ON THE NEED FOR A BAR THAT DEFENDS THE JUDICIARY: “Judges have no association. Therefore, it’s the Bar that has always defended upright judges, judges who are dedicated to their duties. But to do that effectively, we also need leaders of the Bar with integrity! Right now, that is missing. The greatest number of lawyers that breach rules of professional ethics are senior lawyers. So, leadership is missing there! So you need a Bar leader.”
ON THE NEED TO RETURN THE NBA TO ITS HEYDAY: “We need to go back to where we are coming from. There is no senior lawyer who can tell you today that this was the practice he met 30 or 40 years ago. Take the Supreme Court for example. Why we are in this mess?
ON THE CRITICAL NEXUS BETWEEN A ROBUST BAR AND A REFORMED BENCH: ” … Many of our colleagues were talking about the Supreme Court of Justices Eso and Oputa. Yes, but you can’t have the Supreme Court of old like this now. In those days, if you appear at the Supreme Court, whoever you are, you were likely to burn the midnight oil. Particularly if you were going to face a constitutional panel. 7 of them, Oputa, Eso and the rest. They would have read the briefs and the records. They can’t just ask you ‘Look at your brief Mr. Falana, can you reconcile the second paragraph with so and so case? So you needed to be familiar with those cases. But today, in fairness to our judges, because of the enormous work and the volume of cases before them, they say ‘Adopt your brief and sit down.’ There is no advocacy. So you are bound to have the kind of judgments oozing out of our courts these days. Again, you need the Bar to lead a campaign for the reform of the Supreme Court.
ON THE NBA’S ROLE IN REFORMING THE BENCH: “The Supreme Court of old was made up of people from the academia, from practice and from the Bench. So, once you have such a plurality of backgrounds and views, you are likely to have a solid court. We had people like Niki Tobi from the University of Maiduguri; T.O. Elias from the Faculty of Law University of Lagos, who went on to become the CJN, and from there to the International Court of Justice. In those days, our judges were respected in the … entire world. We need to rebuild the court system. Anywhere in the world, the Supreme Court is the last stage of justice. You need a strong Bar to achieve that.
ON THE PRESENT STATE OF THE BAR: “We have strangers in the Bar. People who have never held any position just come from nowhere and want to be President of the Bar. It doesn’t happen in any professional organization. These days, once you have the money, you can be on the NEC for two years and next you want to be NBA President. So, you have Presidents of the Bar who have no idea about the traditions of the Bar. The NBA is the largest and strongest professional body on the continent. It was on the leadership of civil society, not just in Nigeria, but on the continent! … When Aka Bashorun was NBA President, lawyers were detained in Ghana, Togo and other countries, and Aka-Bashorun would go there and see the Presidents of those countries! And they released them! That was the respect the NBA and the judiciary of Nigeria enjoyed. Hon. Justice Akinola Aguda was the foundation Chief Justice of Botswana. Justice Udo Udoma was the Chief Justice of Uganda. Justice Onyeama was in the World Court, and Justice Elias became the President of that Court. Right now we have a Nigerian on the leadership of the International Criminal Court. I can tell you this, the African Court of Human and peoples Rights was established in Tanzania in 2006. … There was a Nigerian on the Bench there, a lady Justice from Rivers State’ … That is the kind of expectation from Nigeria.”
ON THE NEED FOR AN NBA THAT HELPS FURTHER THE CAREERS OF LAWYERS: “We have many lawyers who are not exposed. We need to have lawyers who can go to the ICC and other courts to do cases. How many Nigerian lawyers go there? We must have an NBA President who will ensure that Nigerian lawyers go to the ECOWAS Court, African Court, where we are expected to show leadership. Then we must look at our rules and find a way to create jobs for junior lawyers … Also, there are new areas of law which have not been opened up -Sports Law, Entertainment Law and many others. We must have lawyers in those areas. We should have a new leadership of the Bar which will organize seminars to open up those areas for young lawyers to make good money.
ON THE NEED FOR AN NBA THAT TRANSCENDS THE BORDERS OF NIGERIA: “We must have our colleagues spread their tentacles. Today, we have over 150,000 lawyers and there is no West African country has up to 5,000 lawyers in practice. Not even Ghana. In places like Liberia or Gambia, you are talking of about 150 or 200 lawyers. So, you can imagine the impact our 150,000 lawyers can make in the sun-region or in the continent. Right now, we have the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA. That sub-structure requires lawyers of knowledge who are exposed to international law and trade. I discussed with the President of the African Development Bank, Dr. Femi Adesina and I asked him ‘What can your Bank do for African lawyers to key into its programmes?’ He said, ‘We are available!’
So, we need a Bar leadership that can make that contact and I believe Dele Adesina has the capacity to provide that leadership. We must elect people who understand what the NBA is all about. We must have somebody who can say ‘In so and so year, this was what we did in Ghana, this was what we did in Gambia, etc.’”
ON THE NEED FOR A BAR THAT STANDS AGAINST RIGHTS VIOLATIONS: “The last time we had this kind of challenge was during Akeredolu’s tenure. The Bar had to file various suits. Not individual lawyers; the NBA as a body filed public interest litigation. Look at what happened in Calabar (on the recent controversy over the appointment of the Chief Judge of Cross River State). It’s not just enough to issue a statement. This is a woman who was born in Cross River State, grew up in Cross River, had her education there and even married in Cross River State before the creation of Akwa Ibom State. You now say she belongs to Akwa Ibom! The leadership of the Bar must be able to meet with the Governor and state its stand on this matter.”
ON WHY DELE ADESINA, SAN SHOULD BE THE NEXT NBA PRESIDENT: We must ask ourselves: ‘What has this guy done in moments of challenge and crisis?’Adesina was the chairman of the Ikeja branch of the NBA in 1992 when we had the greatest challenge to the rule of law and democracy in our country. I remember the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Omojola and myself were arrested. Dele Adesina linked up with Mrs. Kuye who was then the Acting President of the NBA to give us a solid defence. … That is Dele Adesina for you, always rising up in the defence of the rights of our colleagues who were struggling towards the restoration of democracy in Nigeria. The same happened in the case of (former Kaduna State Governor) Balarabe Musa who was standing trial and they were trying to jail him at all cost. Aka- Bashorun was NBA President. He callled Dele Adesina, who was Ikeja branch chairman then. He asked him and others to go with him to the tribunal to defend Balarabe Musa…The tribunal chairman said ‘Mr. President of the Bar, what can we do for you?’ Aka Bashorun replied, ‘My Lord, we are here to see how the rule of law operates.’ That was what saved Balarabe Musa. When the NBA was taken over in 1992, they brought out Decree No. 21 of 1994 to the effect that anybody who challenges anything done or purported to be done under this Decree would be deemed to have committed an offence and sentenced to one year imprisonment and payment of N10,000 fine. I told my colleagues at a meeting of the Ikeja Branch, ‘I am going to court.’ At that meeting Dele Adesina said ‘No, you won’t go to court alone. All of us here must resolve to go to court together. So if they want to jail us, let them jail all of us.’ Of course we went to court and we won the case up to the Court of Appeal.
I can vouch for Dele Adesina, SAN, his consistency, his commitment to the defence of the rule of law … I have no problems with the other candidates, but the question remains: What have you done for the Bar?’What you call the modern way of organizing our conferences started under the Olanipekun-Adesina tenure. They created the sections you have today in the NBA, and also introduced the Stamp & Seal. We want to go back and realize our shattered dreams. For me, it’s not just about the person of Adesina. He is an encyclopedia of the Bar! He has the history of the Association at his fingertips and can reconnect with the past, and I mean the past of relevance, the past that defended the rule of law and democracy in our country. He will serve as a link between the old and the new Bar…
Today we have 125 branches. Each branch has a Human Rights Committee headed by the Vice Chairman. We have fought to ensure that the Chief Judge of every state designates magistrates to visit police stations at least once a month. If you get the125 branches, following that development, to follow the magistrates to visit police stations at least once a month, the days of illegal detention will be over in Nigeria….
The Emir of Kano has just been deposed. You need a Bar that can tell the people the rights that have been violated. You can’t just gather at a meeting and say you are deposing somebody without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. It’s just like impeaching a governor. You cannot impeach a governor and then banish him somewhere outside his state. They took him to a village in the night. So, apart from violating his right to fair hearing, you have also violated his right to freedom of movement. We must have a Bar that can tell the Governor of Kano State that he can’t just remove someone from office and then banish him to Nasarawa State, far from his place of birth … We must have a Bar that can lead a public debate on such issues…
I believe we can reenact a Bar like the one we had under Also Aka-Bashorun (under a military dictatorship at that!)…
This is why some of us are backing Dele Adesina, SAN”.
Femi Falana, SAN