Some Nigerian lawyers on Tuesday explained why they refused to comply with a directive of their association to stay away from courts on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) on Monday called a boycott of courts to protest against the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday.
The suspension is deemed by many as extra-constitutional and has drawn strong condemnations.
The NBA called the boycott at the end of an emergency National Executive Council meeting called to discuss the development.
However, it drew different reactions as many lawyers ignored the boycott directive and reported at the courts.
A PREMIUM TIMES reporter who visited the headquarters of the Court of Appeal, Federal High Court and FCT High Court in Maitama reported that normal businesses went on there.
Many courts at the federal high court were filled with lawyers waiting for sessions to begin.
The Appeal Court justices sat and Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court also sat over cases.
In interviews with PREMIUM TIMES, some lawyers gave their reasons why they did not obey the NBA orders to boycott the court.
Gerald Egunife said the NBA could not issue orders to lawyers.
“We are an association, we voluntarily formed the NBA as an association and the constitution guarantees a right to freedom of association,” Mr Egunife said.
“Nigerian judiciary is sitting today. You are here, you can see them, they are sitting and they are here to hammer on issues relating to Nigerians and we lawyers have duties to our clients. My client has a matter today and I have to be here.”
He said as an association, the NBA can give a directive to its members who are “at liberty to comply or not.”
“The Nigerian judiciary is not on suspension, it is sitting. So if a section of the bar has issues as there would always be issues in an association, they should not impose it on everyone. We live in a free society. If people choose to boycott, which simply means they want to suspend their clients’ rights, its okay.”
Another lawyer, Oscar Obi, spoke in the same vein as he faulted the procedure NBA adopted in calling the boycott.
“If you go through the media houses, when they said boycott was announced, many NBA branches declined to be part of that. Many lawyers also made statements that that is not the best option or position NBA should adopt because it is more an act that preempts the court.
“Many of them are of the view that the matter that led to the boycott, which we all know is the suspension of the CJN, is a matter before the court. So NBA assuming the responsibility of an appellate court to adjudicate on that is preempting the court.
“So on this basis, lawyers feel they should go ahead and do their normal business. We are all ministers in the temple of justice and the cardinal responsibility of a lawyer is to uphold the rule of law. The rule of law is supreme and it is in that sense that if you are aggrieved with whatever circumstances, you should not take laws into your hands. You approach the court for justice. If I am sacked or suspended wherever I work, I approach the court for redress.
“The NBA is a recognised body in Nigeria. But we are lawyers, there are certain steps we take that would mean we are preempting the court. It is not everything that is being said or said to be done that you would find best in the interest of justice or interest of the people. So we as lawyers are saying we should uphold the principles of fair hearing and justice.”
Another lawyer who pleaded not to be named said the order of the NBA was contrary to the legal practitioners’ ethics.
“It requires that we should have two obligations. One, respect to the court. So when court calls, we must come. And second, we have a duty to our clients to dispose of their cases diligently. There is no way you could tell the court that we refuse to come to court in disobedience to court owing to the obedience to our organisation.
“And again, the NBA knows the law than any other entity that whenever they are querying an order of a court, the action to take is, either at that same court or a superior court get that order set aside.
“The principle of the law is that an order of court is valid until it is set aside. As lawyers, if we are not happy with the orders, we could not say disobey, not even that court but all other courts, to spite a particular court. That does not make sense.”
He said the boycott was not a joint decision of the entire body and so it was not binding on all lawyers.
“If you want to take this kind of a decision, you go to the NEC, after you have deliberated, you come back to your respective unions and seek the opinions of the union. That is what ASUU does. ASUU does not just go and have a NEC meeting and call a strike or call it off. They go the meeting, the national decides and say the best shot should be a strike, then they go back to their union and tell the various units that this is what it wants to do, and they would go on strike. The decision of the NBA is impromptu and in fact, they were just putting the cart before the horse. NBA had already released a position.”
In a similar reaction, the Damaturu branch of the NBA in Yobe State said while it regrets the situation that led to the suspension of the CJN, “as ministers in the temple of justice, we insist that this is a matter before the court and should be left for the courts to decide.”
This position was expressed in a statement by the chairman of the branch.
“One of the cardinal roles of the bar is to protect the character and essence of courts and their processes. Therefore, boycott or resorting to street actions on a matter that is before the court is by far, a deviation from the fundamental principles that define the tenets of the legal profession and democracy.
“To advance the cause of justice for everyone, court must be allowed to operate and make decision on this and all other matters before them.
“Hence the members of the NBA branch, call on 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.”
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