Nigerian lawyer vying to lead Bar admits paying judge, but denies it was ‘bribe’

Nigerian Judges
Nigerian Judges used to illustrate the story

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Paul Usoro, vying for the post of president of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, has explained his side of the story in allegations of fraud levelled against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.

In a list of documents provided to PREMIUM TIMES on Sunday, Mr. Usoro confirmed transferring sums of money in three instalments to a judge of the National Industrial Court, Lagos Division, James Agbadu-Fashim.

Mr. Agbadu-Fishim is currently facing a 19-count charge of fraud for the alleged offence.

Mr. Usoro, however added that the transfers, totalling N550, 000 paid between August 2014 and March 2015 were “personal donations” which fell within ‘acceptable conducts of judicial officers’, as contained in rule 3, paragraph (F) of the code of conduct for judicial officers.

According to one of the documents, Mr. Usoro’s involvement in Mr. Agbadu-Fishim’s charge began in October 2016, after he was called to explain transfers made to the judge through an account domiciled with the Access Bank Nigeria PLC.

The documents also indicate various payments made to the NIC judge following what Mr. Usoro described as ‘a friendly request’ from a judge he had known for “quite some time.”

According to the document, Mr. Usoro made the first payment of N250, 000 on August 5, 2016 and followed with the second payment of N100, 000 on December, 22 2014 while a third transfer of N200, 000 was made on March, 24, 2015 .

Mr. Usoro gave further details through the documents, of payments made to his chambers by Access Bank Nigeria PLC, describing the said payments as professional fees for a case handled on behalf of the bank by his (Usoro’s) chambers.

“My initial gift of N250, 000 to Agbadu Fishim J was in any case made in August 2014, about four months before PH/150 was assigned to ‘PUC’ by Access Bank in December, 2014. Clearly those gifts which I must continue to emphasise were personal in nature had absolutely nothing to do with PH/150.

“Access Bank made 50 per cent professional fees payment almost two months after I had made my second donation of N200, 000 to Agbadu Fishim James in March, 2015, clearly showing that Access Bank 50 per cent professional fees payment to PUC for PH/150 had absolutely no correlation with my personal gifts to Agbadu-Fishim, J.”

The documents indicate that although there are 32 cases from the Paul Usoro Chambers pending before the NIC, he (Usoro) never appeared as a lawyer before the judge.

Although, Mr. Usoro was mentioned in the charge alongside several other lawyers, the lawyer has joined others in the race for the position of NBA president, a move that has been criticised by prominent lawyers, including a former Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu.

In a statement on the matter, Mr. Odinkalu, a professor of law, described Mr. Usoro’s aspiration to become the NBA president as the height of impunity.

“The levels of impunity in Nigeria are staggering. The motto of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, commits it to promoting the rule of law. We cannot do that without integrity. Whoever dreamt up this Paul Usoro project to lead the Bar is terribly misguided. The person wishes perdition on the Bar. It is worse than a bad dream and it has to be stopped.

“Paul Usoro is charged with having bribed James Agbadu-Fishim, a judge of the National Industrial Court, with N800,000 paid in 3 instalments of N300K; N400k, & N100k. Paul Usoro  himself admits to having given the judge at least N450k, claiming it was contribution towards his vacation. The judge is presently on trial for these acts. The payments he received from Paul Usoro are in evidence in the trial.

“In a sane country, Paul Usoro should be facing disciplinary proceedings at best & should have been disbarred. In Nigeria.
Someone is parading him to lead our Bar. That Bar belongs to us all. No one has a right to even think about this. This Paul Usoro project for Presidency of the Bar has to end, forthwith,” said Mr. Odinkalu who also described Mr. Usoro’s move to head the bar as ‘a terrible joke’.

“By all means let all lawyers of decent standing aspire for the Bar Presidency. He should bury his head in ignominy. The only right he has is to go before the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee to clear his name or be disbarred,” he added.

Mr. Odinkalu described the likely effects of Mr. Usoro’s aspirations.

“There are ethical and institutional issues; if the world hears that the President of your bar is going around bribing judges, what will that do to the integrity of your country. There are countries that export significant legal services. This kind of thing can diminish the collective reputational value of your legal profession.

“This is why when countries want to deal with a case in Nigeria, they bring their own lawyers not Nigerian lawyers. So this is a massive reputational theft, if you ask me. If he is going to run, then there is a possibility he will win. And if he wins, that reality will confront us, so it is existential,” Mr. Odinkalu said, in telephone conversation with PREMIUM TIMES.

Speaking also on the matter, another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Simon Ameh, said although the law presumes a person innocent, moral obligation should compel a certain degree of respect for the Bar by its members.

“Well, there is the presumption of innocence; therefore even when a person is accused and is on trial, there is nothing wrong with him, vying for a position.

There is nothing legally wrong with that.

But morally such a person would say no; let me stay aside until such a case is completed. In other climes some people don’t even want to be seen to be near anything wrong when there is an election, so morally he should have stepped aside to wait for the investigation take its course,” Mr. Ameh said.

Another lawyer, Maimuna Shiru, said the question of aspiring for judicial appointments, while facing investigations depends on the calibre of positions been sought for.

“It depends on the position been sought for. When you are indicted, it’s like a bar against vying for certain positions. I think that applies to a number of judicial appointments too,” she said.

The other candidates vying for the position of NBA President are Ernest Ojukwu, a former deputy Director General of the Nigerian Law School; Obi Akafor, a SAN based in Onitsha, Afam Osigwe, the immediate past General Secretary of the NBA, and  Ikeazor Akaraiwe, a pioneer vice president of the bar.

Mr. Usoro also denied being charged with Mr. Agadu-Fishim and described Mr. Odinkalu’s reaction to his campaign, as “hate speech”.

“The contents of Mr. Usoro’s speech to the EFCC have not been factually disputed by any one. Mr. Usoro has not been charged to court for any infractions whatsoever,” he said in a statement. “And yet Chidi Odinkalu claims in his recent hate publication that Paul Usoro is charged with having bribed James Agadu-Fishim. And that Mr. Usoro admitted to having bribed a judge. This are whole untrue statements.”

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