The Nigerian Army and Nigerian lawyers are set on a path of war over an order by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, compelling all civil lawyers appearing before a military court to be robed.
Mr. Buratai, a Lt. General, gave the order on July 4 in a convening order for a special Court-martial to try two military officers – Major General P. A. Falola and Major General I. Sani.
The army chief said he derived powers for the dress code order from section 131 (2) (d) of the Armed Forces Act, which deals with convening special court-martial to try offending officers of the Nigerian Army.
While military lawyers will continue to dress in army uniforms to appear before military tribunals, the army chief insisted that civil lawyers appearing before the tribunal must be fully robed in wig and gown, an order that have angered the legal community.
No robed judge, no robed lawyers
Conventionally, Nigerian lawyers appearing before judges that are themselves not robed are not required to dress in wigs and gowns. Usually, only judges from High Court and above are robed. As such, lawyers appearing before them are required to be robed.
The Legal Practitioners Act currently specifies how and when lawyers are to dress in wigs and gowns. The military court-martial, which is the equivalent of a tribunal, falls below the category that requires full regalia for lawyers.
“If the special court-martial is presided by an equally robed military lawyer- officer presiding, then it is all well and proper, for lawyers to be robed in appearing before him,” Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria said. “If, however, he wears his usual professional military uniform, then it becomes infra dig and abominable for a fully robed professional lawyer to appear and take a bow before a khaki-wearing military officer.”
The latter scenario is what the army has ordered and Mr. Ozekhome says it will be demeaning, “and a great insult to the revered legal profession”.
“It’s Akin to requiring a reverend father wearing his priestly cassock to take a bow before a Chief Priest who wears no such cassock, but his “Dibia” regalia, in his shrine. That is absolutely not acceptable.” he added.
Jibrin Okutepa, another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, called for a total boycott of the order.
“Such directive is to say the least, unconstitutional, illegal and should be ignored,” he said.
He argued that the Army Chief’s order is inconsistent with the Legal Practitioners Act.
“The LPA allows lawyers to dress in robes in High Courts, Courts of Appeal and Customary Courts of Appeal, where the presiding officers are robed. If they are not robed, you cannot be robed for a person who is not robed.”
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Godwin Obla, told PREMIUM TIMES the directive is “unwarranted” and “unconstitutional”.
“First and foremost, the right of counsel is a constitutional right. And it is not the Chief of Army Staff that regulates that right. He has no business regulating it,” Mr. Obla said.
“The military court-martial does not involve only the army, it involves the three arms: Army, Air Force and the Navy. And he is not in the position to even speak for the two other arms. He should have limited himself to how military lawyers representing the army appear.
“Secondly, a court-martial is actually a tribunal. When lawyers appear before tribunals; be it election tribunal or commission of inquiry tribunal, nobody expects them to wear the robes that we wear in conventional High Courts or Courts of Appeal, so why does he now want us to begin to wear robes?”
Mr. Obla added that the army chief’s directive is “an expression of his opinion because he has no right to make such an order”.
The Nigerian Bar Association is yet to take an official stand on the matter. But many young lawyers who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES also agreed with the senior colleagues. Many argued the army chief’s order was invalid.
The validity of the army chief order will be tested in the coming weeks when the army tribunal resumes.