Legal Profession in Danger In Northern Nigeria, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Chidi Odinkalu, Chair, National Human Rights Commission

Boobis (not real name), a lawyer in his late 40s, has practiced for over 15 years as a lawyer in one of the cities now under emergency rule in north-east Nigeria. Over this period, he has built up a reputation as a hard working and honest professional, well regarded within and outside the courtroom. In the past 18 months his life has been turned upside down: He has been physically rough handled by uniformed military personnel for seeking access to a detained client; his car has been attacked and riddled with bullets by unknown persons; and uniformed soldiers have reportedly invaded his house on a six-hour long search during which his wife and four children were not allowed to leave the premises.

At the end of the “search”, which took place without a warrant, nothing was incriminating was found or removed. As a result, he has re-located his family from the city and will, before the end of 2013, re-locate his practice to another city outside north-eastern Nigeria.

Dogo, a younger lawyer, has worked in the same city for the past decade also as a lawyer. His brief sometimes involves representing poor or un-defended people. In the course of the past six months, uniformed military officers have twice threatened to shoot him for trying to do his work and he has been swiped with a horse-whip at a check-point. He now seeks a transfer to a less unpredictable location and may quit his job if he can’t.

These two examples illustrate the life-and-death challenges currently faced by members of the legal profession in northern-eastern Nigeria. Over the period since 2009, as this crisis has deepened, our profession has somehow managed to avert its gaze. Now, our colleagues in these parts are besieged and the Bar must find a clear voice at this time to defend the law, its institutions and its relevance in a time of national emergency.

Four of the one hundred branches of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), are located in the three States now covered by emergency rule. In Borno State, there are two branches in Biu and Maiduguri; and one each in Yola, Adamawa State; and Damaturu, Yobe State. The lawyers who practiced in these locations came from all parts of Nigeria. To cite just one example, Ondo State Attorney-General, Eyitayo Jegede, took Silk from the Yola Bar before being appointed to the Attorney-General’s chambers.  Maiduguri was a very well loved location for the legal profession in Nigeria. As a transnational commercial and cultural centre, it attracted professionals from within and outside Nigeria. The Bar in Damaturu has grown exponentially since, in the nearly two decades, it became a State capital.

Today, as the political economy of this region has tanked together with its safety and security indices, the wellbeing of its legal professionals and the institutions they serve deserve urgent attention. The deepening siege on the profession has been bad for the region and the rights of its people. The livelihoods of lawyers in the region have suffered, and so have their physical wellbeing and professional freedoms.

To begin with, most lawyers who did not trace their ethnic origins to the north-east or these states have re-located their families and practice to other places. Even many from within the region have similarly re-located outside the region, especially to Kano, Kaduna or Abuja. Clients, especially families of detainees, suspected insurgents or allegedly disappeared persons, are compelled to look for or find legal representation from outside these locations. The costs involved are considerably increased without any commensurate increase in the quality of legal service. Most lawyers from outside the affected locations are too afraid or not sufficiently informed to offer effective representation. The Bar Association at the Branch levels has been reduced to irrelevance, indifference or merely surviving.  At the national level, the Bar has kept silent through it all.

Some specific developments have led to this decimation of the organised legal profession in the north-east. Detention or internment practice has been developed without clear parameters or safeguards.  Few, if any, know where all detainees are or how many they are. The detaining authorities, especially, the military, appear to too willing to identify lawyers with the cause – without any need for proof – of their clients. As a result, many lawyers are branded as insurgents and threatened with persecution or even worse, merely for being good at their jobs. Additionally, most judges have been reluctant in these places to adjudicate on these kinds of cases in the absence of effective guarantees for the wellbeing of themselves and their families.

Yet, the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers whose adoption Nigeria voted for in 1990 provides that “Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions”, and requires governments to ensure that when “the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions, they shall be adequately safeguarded by the authorities.” The same United Nations Basic Principles equally makes clear that professional associations of lawyers, such as the NBA, “have a vital role to play in” among other things “protecting their members from persecution and improper restrictions and infringements, providing legal services to all in need of them, and cooperating with governmental and other institutions in furthering the ends of justice and public interest.”

In north-east Nigeria, the NBA has manifestly failed to demand government to fulfill this obligation. Now it must stand up to do so or struggle to justify its existence. The menu of what we can do is brief. Three immediately come to mind. First, the NBA at the national level must work with the affected branches to document clearly the allegations and pattern of violations emerging. Second, working with this, the NBA can establish liaison with the Defence Headquarters and the security agencies as well as protocols for reforming detention practice and affording detainees and their families access to effective representation. Third, the leadership of the national NBA must find a way to publicly show solidarity with lawyers in northern Nigeria at this difficult time.

The affected lawyers are our members;  the affected branches are in our country and the continuing silence of our Bar cannot be excused. The search for durable solutions to the problems in north-eastern Nigeria requires lawyers and cannot be found without the law. When the National Executive Committee (NEC) of our Bar meets in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, on 6 June, the well being of the rule of law and the legal profession in the north-east must be on the agenda. We must make our voice heard, loud, clear, and articulate. Silence could be construed as indifference and that is not an option that the NBA can afford to be associated with.

Professor Odinkalu who is a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NBA, writes from Abuja.

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