By Onikepo Braithwaite
Lawyers: Getting it Wrong!
The theme of the 2023 Nigerian Bar Association’s Annual General Conference (NBA AGC), ‘Getting it Right, Charting the Course for Nigeria’s Nation Building’, was appropriate and extremely relevant to the phase in life which Nigeria currently finds herself in, with the precarious state of the nation and the advent of a new Government. Unfortunately, though we Lawyers are meant to be the moral compass of society, a few of us got it wrong yet again this year.
Last year, it was banditry and the looting of Conference materials; this year, it was ‘two fighting or a free-for-all fight’, as the Abuja and Onitsha football players shamelessly engaged in fisticuffs because of a football game. Naturally, since the ‘Learned Bandits’ seemed to have got away with their crime last year because they couldn’t be identified, this group of ‘Learned Fighters’ felt free to throw all caution to the wind, and exchange blows. This time around, I hope the NBA’s Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) will do the needful, and ensure that the ‘Learned Fighters’ who have not only brought the profession into disrepute, but also committed some offences by fighting are punished, to serve as a deterrent to other lawless Lawyers; if not, some worse despicable acts may be perpetrated at the 2024 AGC.
The choice of the Musician invited to perform at the Lawyers’ Concert was also a source of contention, as it didn’t go down well in the quarters that considered him to be unsuitable. While at the end of the day 100% of the people cannot be 100% satisfied, it is advisable to avoid things that will attract negative publicity, and divert attention from the positive and more important aspects of the Conference like its content.
Tony Elumelu’s Keynote Address
That said, the Keynote Speaker, Tony Elumelu, delivered a thought provoking Address, which pointed to the fact that in terms of achieving the Economic Objectives set out in Section 16 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended in 2023)(the Constitution), the State still has a lot to do. In “Getting it Right”, Tony said: “We have already seen that tough, long-avoided economic decisions have been taken….Nation building is not a quick fix, it entails sacrifices. We cannot keep doing the same things, and expect different outcomes. Let us lead our nation building, by laying those important foundations for our nation – let us renew our infrastructure….I do not mean just roads or rail bridges, or ports, I mean the following: Investment in our youth…..Let us invest in our women…..Let us invest in our power sector…Is it not ironic that a country with abundant gas resources, cannot optimally operate its power plants due to lack of gas!…Let us invest… in our courts of law and administrators of justice….security…Let us invest in Nigeria….”. I concur. Tony gave a brief overview, on what to do, to achieve these goals.
President Tinubu’s Address
President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, GCFR, surprised Lawyers by doing away with his written address, and speaking mostly extempore instead, responding to what he referred to as Tony’s critical path analysis of Nigeria’s economic recovery. Agreeing that we have to get it right, Mr President stated that unless we have a change of mindset, we cannot achieve the desired progress. He stated that in order to achieve greatness, bold decisions must be taken which could be painful at the beginning, in the medium and long term, but would be beneficial to our generations yet unborn. He talked about a change of attitude to governance, and requested for the cooperation of Lawyers (along with the great minds which he claimed to be surrounded by, in form of his cabinet), to charting the right course to building a great nation.
Getting it Right! For the Attention of the Minister of Aviation: The Murtala Muhammad Airport Example
This example is a low hanging fruit because (i) the Minister of Aviation is a Lawyer, and one of the cabinet members who President Tinubu referred to as a great mind; (ii) the Minister recently announced some measures that will be taken at Lagos Airport. He must get it right! However, some decisions have nothing to do with boldness – they are simply common sense. But, then again, I have seen many Government decisions in the past, that have caused me to question whether indeed, common sense is really common, as the decisions have been senseless!
Recently, I travelled through the original terminal of the Murtala Muhammad International Airport, Lagos (Terminal I), several times in quick succession. Though Terminal I which was built in the 1970s is still solid, it requires some overhauling and deep cleaning. The travelator leading to the gates has never really been functional, while the escalator going down to immigration from the arrival gates works occasionally – such a disgrace, especially as the first impression of a country is formed from the point of entry, in this case, the airport. One time, some of the roof of Terminal I was leaking, and the plastic bowls used to ferry laptops etc through the X-ray machines, were turned into receptacles for water from leakage in the rainy season!
Meanwhile, the new Lagos Airport terminal built by the Chinese (Terminal II), for which Nigeria incurred a debt of about $200 million or so, is under-utilised. President Tinubu mentioned in his address, that a situation where Nigeria uses 90% of her revenue to repay debts, is unacceptable. I concur. It therefore, behooves Government to try to earn as much revenue as possible from that Terminal II, to assist in the repayment of the debt incured to construct it. The Minister of Aviation, Festus Keyamo, SAN, in a recent visit to the Lagos Airport stated that 60% of FAAN’s revenue comes from there, and therefore, Terminal II must be used optimally in order to maximise profits.
However, we understand that only a very limited number large aircrafts are able to use the Terminal II, because of two private hangars which are located on the safety envelope of the taxi way to the apron of Terminal II, thereby preventing access of large aircrafts to the four rear avio bridges, that is, only the four avio bridges in front are utilised, as there is no space for large aircrafts to manoeuvre to the four at the back. What a waste! The irony of it is that, Government probably doesn’t receive more than N20 million in total per annum in rent from the two private hangars!
But, if the hangars are relocated (as Government can acquire the hangars in the interest of the country for a public purpose), much more revenue would come in from the full use of Terminal II, as it would be able to accommodate more aircrafts. Apparently, the mistake in situating Terminal II where it is, was made during the Jonathan Administration. Going forward, this mistake could easily have been corrected immediately, by relocating the two obstructing private hangars to another part of the airport – the Operators of the hangars would simply be compensated for their relocation expenses, inconvenience and loss of use during the time the relocation process is taking place, which would not take more than a few months. To date, this hasn’t been done! And, until it is done, there cannot be maximum use of Terminal II.
Again, instead of shutting down Terminal I completely, it’s renovation can be undertaken in stages, Finger by Finger, seeing as Terminal II isn’t even in full use. This is a prime example of thinking through our decisions properly, in order to get it right.
Plenary and Breakout Sessions
There were several plenary and breakout sessions, during the AGC. Two sessions that interested me the most, were the one on Access to Justice in which Bryan Stevenson, was the lead Speaker, and obviously, the one I moderated concerning Judicial Remuneration and Conditions of Service.
Breakout Session on Judicial Remuneration and Allowances: Onikepo Braithwaite Moderating!
Wale Fapohunda, SAN was the lead Speaker of my session, and he gave us an overview of the Report of the NBA Committee on Judicial Remuneration which he is the Alternate Chairman, in which they called for a 200% increase in Judges’ basic salary across board, and a number of allowances.
The Attorney-General of Rivers State, Professor Adangor, SAN, shared some of the initiatives which his State Government has taken to improve the lot of judicial officers in his State, including the Housing Scheme which has been enacted into law. How Judges are provided with accommodation for life, and others, including Judges of Rivers State origin who are not serving in the State, have the option of monetisation in the sum of N150 million for their accommodation. He talked about Magistrates in Rivers State, concluding that they were probably better off than High Court Judges in some other States.
The CJ of Borno State, Hon. Justice Kashim Zannah, pointed out that in 2008, the last time the salaries of Judges were increased, what they earned was the equivalent of about $4,200 monthly. If we were to convert $4,200 to Naira today, it would be in the region of N4 million; in other words, the NBA Committee’s proposal of a 200% increase in the basic salary of Judges amounted to a decrease in their salary, since it didn’t meet the $4,200 mark of 2008. In short, at N4 million which looks like a 600% or so increase, Judges would still be earning the same as they did in 2008!
Anthony Ojukwu, SAN, the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, another member of the Panel, talked about the remuneration of judicial officers from a human rights perspective, citing the Constitution and UN Charter, as his basis for demanding decent salaries for Judicial Officers. The Kano State RMAFC Commissioner, Hon. Umaru Faruk Abdullahi represented their Chairman, Dr Shehu, was also a Panelist. We urged them to do something fast about Judges salaries and allowances, while asking the Governors do an urgent upward review of the salaries and allowances of Magistrates.
I observed the FCT Minister, Nyesom Wike’s efforts, in improving the lot of judicial officers in Rivers State while he was Governor, and hoped that such initiatives would not only be replicated, but institutionalised, instead of being dependent on the mindset of whoever is in office. In short, in ‘getting it right’, it is imperative that this administration starts to build strong institutions, as opposed to strong individuals. Certainly, getting it right entails correcting the issue of the poor salaries and conditions of service of all judicial officers in Nigeria, including Magistrates, and doing the needful immediately, while addressing their somewhat weak recruitment process..
My One-on-One with the ICPC Chairman
I also had the opportunity of having a brief one-on-one with Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, SAN, the Chairman of ICPC, and I dare say that the other agencies like the EFCC and SSS may want to take a leaf out of ICPC’s book, in terms of mapping out proper processes to ensure that they only take on cases which fall within the purview of their establishment statutes, and they follow due process – a laid down procedure where petitions go into a central pool and are given a digital number for ease of tracking and follow up; assessed for compliance, before any action is taken. Tony Elumelu referred to investing in administrators of justice, as part of getting it right. This is so true. In order to attract the FDI he mentioned, foreign investors need to know that our courts of law work, and that we uphold the rule of law. The way ICPC is trying to get it right, by strengthening itself as an institution, is what we want to see more of, across all our institutions.
Like most things, the 2023 AGC came with its fair share of criticism, and some rancour amongst some of the Executive it seems. We Lawyers, nevertheless have a critical role to play in nation building; therefore, we must also look inwards and aspire to build a better profession, in order to be an effective part of getting our country on the right track. Tony Elumelu identified various issues that this new administration has to address, in order to chart the course for nation building and get it right. The wave of coup d’états sweeping Africa, evinces the fact that African Governments cannot afford not to get it right, as Africans are becoming tired of corruption, bad governance and the hardship that accompanies them.