As Onnoghen Splits The Bar

As Onnoghen Splits The Bar

Directive by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) that its members should boycott court activities last week in protest of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, was selectively complied with, ADEBIYI ADEDAPO, writes.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) rising from its emergency National Executive Council (NEC) meeting on Monday January 28, resolved to embark on a two-day boycott of courts to protest the suspension of Nigeria’s Chief Justice (CJN), Walter Onnoghen.

“The Nigerian Bar Association rising from her NEC meeting has decided to embark on a two-day warning boycott of courts all over Nigeria over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Buhari,” the NBA said on Monday evening.
The two-day boycott was observed on Tuesday 29 and Wednesday 30.

Mr. Onnoghen is facing criminal allegation at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for not listing huge funds in foreign currency discovered in his bank accounts in his asset declaration form submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

Following a ruling by the chairman of CCT, Danladi Umar, which directed the CJN to step-aside pending determination of the charge against him, President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday, January 25 suspended Onnoghen from office and swore-in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.

The President’s action has however generated mixed reactions from legal minds. While some senior lawyers condemn Onnoghen’s suspension without recourse to the National Judicial Council (NJC), others are of the opinion that the President merely complied with a valid order of the Tribunal and as such did not violate any known law.

But the NBA refused to sit on the fence. After its National Executive Council meeting on Monday, the Bar took a position on the matter.
NBA President, Mr. Paul Usoro, after the meeting announced that lawyers reached the agreement to drive home their displeasure with the suspension of Onnoghen without due process.

“The decision of NEC is that, to show the displeasure of the body of lawyers with regards to what has happened so far, it has been decided by the NBA NEC that lawyers should go on a two-day boycott of courts nationwide,” he said.

The NBA president also said that the association had set up a committee made up of two past presidents and himself to dialogue with their colleagues in government and let them understand the association’s position.

He said it was basically to make them understand the necessity to properly guide government on the need to follow due process in whatever decisions it took.
“We also stressed the need to emphasise to our colleagues who are in government that they have a responsibility to promote and preserve the rule of law and make sure the principles that our legal profession is founded upon are respected by the government,” he said.

According to Usoro, the committee would be expected to report back to the general body within one week. However, despite the directive from the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) that its members should boycott court proceedings for two days, normal proceedings were observed in many courts across the nation.
Although, the boycott order was totally complied with in a few states of the federation, and partially complied with in some states, NBA branches dissociated themselves from the decision of the National Executive Council (NEC).

In Abuja, LEADERSHIP Sunday confirmed that the boycott order by the NBA has little or no impact on court activities at all. At the Supreme Court, normal court proceedings were observed before a five-man panel of justices led by Justice Mary Peter-Odili.

Lawyers announced appearances in almost all the cases listed for hearing, which suggests that the boycott order had no effect.
The boycott order was partially complied with at the Federal High Court in Abuja. Although, the court was filled with presence of lawyers, there were no legal representations when some cases were called and no reason given for absence of counsels.

A lawyer who spoke but does not want his name mentioned, noted that boycotting the courts would be unfair to his client who has been in detention and had the opportunity to have his bail application heard.

Another lawyer, Mr. F.A Aba, who was noticed in court and accosted by journalists, said he was in court only to take fresh dates for his cases and to tell his clients that the case had been adjourned.

Aba who said he was part of the lawyers who supported the boycott, noted that in every organisation, there were fifth columnist, who would want to oppose every decision.

“There are definitely some lawyers who will not want to comply with the NBA directive, but I know that the association will take the necessary action against the lawyers who did not comply,” he said.

According to Aba, the NBA should have constituted a taskforce to enforce and ensure compliance.
”I am really surprised to see that some courts are sitting and lawyers are in court. For those of us who have pledged our allegiance to NBA, even though we have matters, we have decided to take fresh dates.”

The same situation was observed in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) high courts, courts headed by Justice Mairo Nasir, Justice Danlami Senchi, Justice Adebukola Banjoko and Justice Hassan Babangida entertained normal court proceedings.

At the Industrial Court Complex in Abuja, two out of the four courts had their usual court proceedings, while one delivered a ruling. One of the two judges who did not sit was on vacation while the second had no case before him.

However, lawyers were seen within the premises filing matters at registry.
Mr. Steve Imokhe who spoke to journalists said he was in court as a defence counsel for a matter slated for today. He said NBA should have gone round the courts to ensure compliance rather than giving a directive without monitoring it.

The situation was similar in Lagos State, as courts across the state observed proceedings without hitches. The boycott directive did not have effect on different courts in Lagos many lawyers who were fully robed lawyers, turned up, ready to conduct usual court proceedings.

At the State High Court in Ikeja, Ikorodu and Igbosere many courtrooms were busy as usual, even Magistrate Courts in these jurisdictions were also busy with lawyers.

Some courts at the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal in Lagos, however could not sit as they were said to be observing their conference week.
Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN) while explaining his defiance to the boycott order on Tuesday accused the NBA of playing double standard by taking a position to support the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen.

He said it was wrong for the association that called for the suspension of judges who were arrested by security agents in 2016 to now turn around to fault the suspension of a CJN.

Falana who was at the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to attend to a case, in defiance of the NBA’s directive that lawyers boycott court, said the directive was ignored by many lawyers who turned up in court today.

Meanwhile, while some lawyers disobeyed the NBA on the boycott directive, some NBA branches blatantly distanced themselves from the directive.
Kano branch of the NBA, in a statement signed by its Secretary, Mujtaba Adamu Ameen, directed the lawyers to go about their legal activities.
The statement further advised members to “be responsible enough to do the best for the country, families, clients and the system as a whole”.

We should please endeavour to preserve the nobleness of our highly respected profession by being fair to the society and fair to our children yet unborn,” the statement reads.

Checks in Kano on Tuesday and Wednesday revealed that Sharia courts, magistrate courts, state and federal high courts opened for normal business, with lawyers in attendance.

In the same vein Damaturu and Dutse chapters of NBA advised their members not to embark on court boycott over the suspension of the CJN as instructed by the NEC.

Chairman of the Dutse chapter, Bashir Usman, in a statement said although the chapter looked at the ugly development as a trial period for the legal profession in the country, he urged the warring factions to find middle ground to settle the crisis.

“The warring factions should find a way of sorting out their differences through legal means. The Nigerian Bar Association, Dutse branch, will not embark on any strike or boycott of court proceedings.

“The branch expresses its deep concern over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.

Noting that it was a trying time for the legal profession in Nigeria. The statement therefore called on the warring parties to seek redress through legal means by appealing against the order of the tribunal for the suspension of the CJN, instead of embarking on court-boycott that would be detrimental to the parties.
Chairman of the Damaturu Branch, Dr. Abubakar Bukar Kagu in a statement noted that as ministers In the temple of justice, the branch insists that since the matter is already before the courts, it should be left for the courts to decide.

“The Damaturu Branch regrets the situation that led to the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. As ministers in the temple of justice, we insist that this is a matter that is already before the courts and should be left for the courts to decide,” he stated.

According to Kagu, one of the cardinal roles of the bar is to protect the character and essence of courts and their processes.
“Therefore, boycotts or resorting to street actions on a matter that is before the courts is, by far, a deviation from the fundamental principles that define the tenets of the legal profession and of democracy. To advance the cause of justice for everyone, courts must be allowed to operate and make decisions on this and all other matters before them.

The Branch thereby directed its members to shun the boycott order and conduct normal court activities.

“Hence, this branch of the NBA calls on all its members to shun any boycott of the courts and continue with their role as prosecutors, Judges and attorneys. We respectfully give allegiance to the authority of the courts to deal with the matter in line With the rule of law and constitutionalism,” Kagu stated.

However, contrary to the non-compliance by some branches and the low level of compliance recorded in FCT and Lagos, the branches in Kaduna, Ebonyi and Enugu states fully complied with the boycott order, while branches in Cross-River and Rivers states complemented their compliance with protests.

Kaduna lawyers complied with the directive. State chairman of the NBA, Suleiman Shuaibu, said the branch went round the courts to ensure compliance.
“We went to the premises of the State High Court to ensure that no lawyer disregards the directive. We proceeded to the Federal High Court premises, and no lawyer disobeyed the directive,” Shuaibu stated.

Chairman of the NBA, Abakaliki Branch, Festus Nweke, declared that the boycott was total; “The situation is that lawyers have boycotted court sitting in the state for two days as a way of registering our reservations for the action taken against the CJN. None of the courts is opened. The action of the Federal Government is an aberration of the law. The Federal Government is not the appropriate body to punish a judicial officer.

“It is an invitation to full blown anarchy if we allow it to stand. There are established rules. Let the Federal Government follow the established due process. NBA Abakaliki is in support of its NEC’s resolution. A lawless society is not what we want. We sent our members to monitor Afikpo and other places and I can tell you that in Ebonyi, it’s total shut down. Not even customary court sat today.”

In Enugu State, the High Court in Independence Layout, a few judicial staff and some litigant were seen discussing in clusters. At the Federal High Court in the state, there was no court session as judges and lawyers were not available. Only few staff and security personnel were seen in the court premises.

In Cross River State, protest rocked the streets of Calabar, the state capital as over 300 members of the NBA took to the streets to register their grievances. Members from Calabar, Ikom and Ogoja, branches, who converged at state judiciary headquarters, Calabar, defied the rain and marched to the Governor’s Office to present a six-point demand to the governor for onward transmission to the president.

Some of the placards carried inscriptions such as “No to Tyranny;” “Probe CCT Chairman,” “Probe Tanko” and “We are not in a military era.”
Others read: ‘let rule of law prevail;’ ‘NBA Calabar says no to Executive Rascality;’ ‘Nigeria not a Banana Republic;’ Justice Onnoghen we know,’ and ‘who is Tanko?’

Deputy Governor, Prof. Ivara Esu, said: “We condemn in the strongest terms, and wholly reject the unconstitutional suspension of Justice Onnoghen by President Buhari.

“Unless this abuse of the constitution is redressed immediately, the rule of law will be in jeopardy and this will drive the country towards anarchy. The Constitution of Nigeria must remain supreme and sacrosanct.”

Compliance to the boycott took a dramatic turn in Rivers State as some lawyers were engaged in fist cuffs with NBA officials at the Court of Appeal complex in Port Harcourt, over the former’s refusal to comply with nationwide boycott of the courts ordered by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NBA.
Trouble started when officials of the NBA, Port Harcourt branch, led by its chairman, Sylvester Adaka, came into the Court of Appeal, which was in session, with placards to enforce the association’s order.

The appellate court, presided over by Justice Abubakar Gumel, had listed five appeals against the judgements of Justice Kolawole Omotosho of the Federal High Court, against the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its candidates, for hearing when the NBA officials storm the courtroom.

Adaka had appealed to Gumel to adjourn the proceedings for the day in line with the NBA’s order, but the presiding justice decried the approach of the protesters, stating that ministers of the court, the temple of justice should not be turned into a public square, where lawyers carry placards to disrupt court proceedings.

Apparently, the NBA-NEC is not in full control. This may not be unconnected to the corruption allegation levied against the Bar President, Usoro, which leaders in some branches expected that he (Usoro) ought to have stepped-aside and faced his trial to protect integrity of the NBA.

Meanwhile, the National Executive Council of the Bar has expressed gratitude to lawyers who complied with the boycott order.
The NBA in a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Kunle Edun conveyed gratitude of the NBA President and other NEC members to Lawyer who complied with the boycott directive.

“The NBA President, Paul Usoro (SAN) and the National officers gladly convey their gratitude to members for the huge support and solidarity in observing the two day boycott of courts. The boycott recorded a huge success. The NBA shall continue to ensure that the tenets of the rule of law and due process are upheld by the Federal Government of Nigeria. The NBA shall also continue to stand firm in Promoting the Rule of Law. Further information shall be communicated to members in the coming days,” Edun stated.