Trangressions Of A Noble Body: Bar-ring The Rule Of Law? By Umar Yakubu
The dominant narration, among several feeble excuses, is why should a serving judge's house be searched.
Justice. If only we knew what it was. – Socrates
There is no doubt that the legal profession is a noble one. Starting in England, and now in just about every part of the world, for over 200 years, the profession has produced the best of minds. In various ways and in different degrees, many of them have promoted the advancement of humanity in all spheres. Back here in Nigeria, deep-thinking legal luminaries have contributed to nation-building, deepened democracy and promoted Socratic virtues.
However, some of the Nigerian Bar Association’s actions regarding critical anti-corruption matters send disturbing and alarming signals, which unfortunately leave a stain and cast a pall over the profession. The bad precedence the Association is setting in this regard should worry every sane Nigerian, as such must not be the legacy the NBA would desire to bequeath to future generations. Never. The NBA should be part of the solution – promoting the rule of law and not an on-today, off-tomorrow defender of immorality.
The news is that some men went to the private residence of a serving judge to execute a valid search warrant. Being a senior member of the bar and a senior judge of the Supreme Court, the NBA president mobilised his colleagues and took on the battle to fight for one of their own. The dominant narrative, among several feeble excuses, is that: Why should a serving judge’s house be searched? They came out howling, with guns blazing. NBA representatives were all over on the TV shows, demanding, one after the other, that an independent panel would be established to investigate that act of “intimidation”.
Many members of the bar took on the role of playing the victim, while all manners of threats were bandied all over the place. A serving governor, a lawyer too, made daily statements about the matter. He went all the way to visit the Inspector General of Police to demand that ‘justice’ be served to the ‘intimidated’ judge. Newspapers and a great activist section of social media were mobilised and deployed to combat the ’embarrassment’ caused the legal profession. Predictably, the main opposition political party in the country and other emergency foot soldiers were recruited and they each joined the fray, turning it into a partisan political fight, down to the gutter.
Before one knew it, government agencies, tail between their legs, were rushing to deny involvement. They took turns to issue statements about not knowing anything about the ‘attack’. Within a week, suspects were paraded, and the tragic comedy is even still going on. The Inspector-General of Police and the Office of the Attorney-General have made statements about preliminary investigations into the matter, stating that the perpetrators were fraudsters. The NBA was having none of this: How dare anyone think of searching the house of a particular judge.
But let us pose some salient questions about this matter: Is there any law in Nigeria that bars the search of the premises of a residence, even when spaces as sacrosanct as court premises can actually be searched? Is it the law in Nigeria that certain persons and/or locations are excluded from being investigated and/or searched, when criminal conduct is alleged or suspected? From the Constitution down to subsidiary laws and regulations, nothing stops law enforcement agencies or institutions empowered to investigate misconduct from doing so. No member of the NBA can point out such legislation. OK, there is a process that entails obtaining a valid court order or a warrant to conduct a search. Now, was the warrant obtained legally or was there forgery involved? From information gathered so far, a court of competent jurisdiction issued the warrant for the search. As such, the legal and administrative processes were duly followed.
Now, the new narrative is that the persons that obtained the warrant acted illegally – so it is either they faked all their credentials to confuse the magistrate or the magistrate was complicit in the act. If the first is true, then it means the system is so weak that such can occur. That is more damaging. If the second is true, imagine the number of ordinary citizens who don’t have access to media fire-power, who go through searches every other day. If either is true, then it beggars more questions about the integrity, safety and overall dependability of the criminal justice system.
Anyway, whatever the story is, no one has denied that the warrant was valid and that the administrative process was duly followed. Therefore, there is no gap in the legal and administrative spheres. Then, what is the issue? The location they chose to execute the warrant.
The NBA’s motto is “promoting the rule of law”. So, what does it infer, in a democracy, when the NBA, as a body supported and egged on by major private TV houses, is bullying the government to shield a matter in which no single law was broken nor administrative process breached? The media is supposed to be the Fourth Estate of the Realm. They failed on this matter. Or are we implying that courts or residence of judges are restricted/no-go areas? An argument can be made for more civility and respect due to the calibre of the person involved, but then, what does ‘the rule of law’ actually mean?
So, what would have been the action to take if, for example, a designated terrorist, based on credible intelligence, is within a court premises? What happens when a judge houses a person of interest? Should we then all fold our hands and wait for the NBA to petition the National Judicial Council? Is it the case that some exclusive places (on account of the stature of the occupants) cannot be described as crime scenes, even when and where there is reasonable ground for criminal investigation to be launched therein?
The rule of law should be supreme, and no one ought to ensure that it is applied to the maximum other than the NBA. One cannot help but notice the seemingly helpless silence of major media houses by their refusal to side with the rule of law in this matter. The NBA has bullied everyone in this do-or-die project to protect one of their own – over a search on the premises of a public official. They argue that some judges have been embarrassed before with no tangible outcome. So, what do we do? Amend our anti-corruption laws to exclude judicial officers?
The NBA should note that it is the only bar association in the world that sued the government and won, arguing that it would not comply with anti-money laundering and terrorist financing regulations. Other countries that opposed the same, however, have effective mechanisms to ensure that their members are not engaged in corruption, money laundering, or seeking and obtaining problematic and dubious perpetual injections. And when they err, they are punished. The NBA has not demonstrated enough political will to fight corruption in the country. It is not just about setting up an anti-corruption committee within its structure. It goes beyond this. The NBA and its members ought to be serious and sincere partners in combating corruption.
No public sector corruption, grand corruption, political corruption, money laundering or illicit financial flows can occur without the involvement, in the majority of instances, of a legal practitioner. Thus, the NBA is the most formidable association that can lead the charge to drastically reduce corruption to its barest minimum. There are no two ways about this: It is time for house cleaning in the NBA household, as many look up to it as the moral compass of society.
As a final word: There is a news report that quoted the NBA president verbatim and copiously on the tantrums he wildly threw against the Attorney General of the Federation on this matter. Why was he then trying to distance himself from his own assertions in the statement circulated by the NBA publicity secretary in the last 24 hours? Or would the reputable Premium Times fabricate a story – or act as a “fifth columnist” – against the NBA president? This is exhausting. And unlawyerly.
Umar Yakubu is with the Centre for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch.