It is not the mandate of NBA to continue to pamper high-handedness from any quarter. Condoning what you should condemn and challenge is not good leadership.
Gone are the days! Down the memory lane, the Nigerian Bar Association used to be a wave force with a very high frequency in the political history of this country. Under Alao Aka-Bashorun presidency of the Nigerian Bar Association between 1987 and 1989, over the disobedience of a single court order, the NBA went into a boycott of the courts until that order was complied with. As history made us know, in 1987, the military government of old Gongola State disobeyed a court order. The Aka-Bashorun leadership of NBA mobilized lawyers to boycott the courts till the order was complied with. Babangida regime was astounded that the lawyers’ boycott should have been limited to the affected state and not nationwide. But for the disobedience of one single court order, in those glorious days, the NBA took the regime by surprise with a nationwide boycott of courts.
In 2021, the NBA Benin branch ordered a boycott of High Court 6, Benin, over alleged harassment and intimidation of lawyers by the presiding judge. It did not just boycott the court but it threatened to blacklist any member who flouted the directive under any guise.
The protection NBA had offered in history was not for lawyers alone, but for judges too. Earlier in 2019, NBA Benin branch declared a three-day boycott of courts to draw the world’s attention to the security situation in Edo state which they alleged led to the kidnap of Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme of the Court of Appeal, Benin Division. In the same vein, in 2019, the Nigerian Bar Association rising from her NEC meeting declared a two-day warning boycott of courts all over Nigeria over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen JSc as he then was, by President Buhari.
Now coming to Inibehe’s case, the NBA did not pretend about this and was courageous enough to say it, that the Chief Judge did not observe the judicious due process of law in sending Inibehe to prison as there was no hearing. This alone renders the verdict not only questionable but voidable on the ground of a breach of the Inibehe's right to a fair hearing. I had expected the judge would be pressured to resit to review his verdict, but sadly the NBA resigned to a state of helplessness. There is a genuine fear that if NBA continues in this unsound sleep for the longest one month of imprisonment to travel smoothly and slowly to a peaceful end, it may be the end of NBA as a voice in the protection of rule of law in the country.
At a time like this in our history when everything good seems to be falling into a split, the minimum lawyers engaging in courageous advocacy expect from the NBA in the course of speaking truth to powers is support, not to sacrifice him. It is not the mandate of NBA to continue to pamper high-handedness from any quarter. Condoning what you should condemn and challenge is not good leadership. The NBA must go for the political option of mass action and declare a nationwide action to protest against victimization and harassment of lawyers by the police, the soldiers and other security personnel and law enforcement agents in the country and the courts, calling more resolutely for the review of judge’s verdict on Inibehe Effiong and for an end to other forms of intimidation and harassment of lawyers in the course of carrying out their duties in this country.
People have said much on this matter but not all those who say much have much to say. Some of our colleagues have borrowed the bad time to betray their envy and resentment of their colleagues who risk the sacrifice of personal comfort and convenience for which a good law practice is known for a plunge into the endangered waters of public interest advocacy. In this ongoing trial by ordeal, lawyers remain the greatest enemies of lawyers. I have heard the most abominable things like “some of our colleagues play to the gallery, they court publicity”, “they want to be in the news”, “they love the screen” and other ignorant stuff like “they practice their law on the pages of newspapers and in the social media”. No thought or evil wishes could be more satanic from foes called learned friends. For those who sincerely do not know, to be a public interest lawyer or even an activist generally, he must try to remain under the public watch. In the world of activism that is full of risks and sometimes deaths, the public remains his only guard and safeguard, his only security, his only saving friend when haters come knocking and veering off the public eye is too safe a path to his perdition. For an activist, there is always danger and death in the dark paths. He must remain in the lit path, with the public, report to the public and be accountable to the public in his thankless stewardship. Media remains the most potent means of communication with the public, his primary constituency, for every activist or a public interest lawyer. Little wonder therefore that he can hardly fight for the public without partnering with the most visible agent of the public which is the media and this includes now the social media. What then is the crime in publicity that lawyers condemn lawyers for?
In times of trials, it is not strange that men deliberately distort facts and sequence, to give the dog a bad name in order to hang it. Fellow lawyers, our friends, some are foes in disguise, have done more of this since Inibehe was sent to prison in that treatment that when the grounds level, the social commentators would certainly describe as most unfair and most horrendous, while legal writers would beautifully coin it how best not to exercise judicial powers.
The option of waiting of the NBA by the door of the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom like a barren native woman waiting to offer sacrifice to her goddess is not leadership. It is not at all. Supplication of the body is not an adequate reaction to the harsh action of the judge on Inibehe. The option of apology for Inibehe to regain his freedom as played with is a ploy to spiritually destroy a prophet before his call blossoms and push him off the stairs to the dead-end corner of history where he would be pitied as an inconsequential man who destroyed himself before his start.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, others have consoled. Yes, there is. But we need to be sure and be assured, that the light is not the light of an on-coming trailer. It is a test time for the rounding-off regime of a well-starting Olumide Akpata-led leadership of NBA. Akpata could still end strong if he wished. But the choice is his to make.
Tope Temokun is a lawyer and human rights activist.
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