Lawyers, anti-graft war and the blame game

The Chairman, Ecponomic and Financial Crime Commission, Ibrahim Magu

The Chairman, Ecponomic and Financial Crime Commission, Ibrahim Magu

The role of lawyers in the fight against corruption has always been the subject of controversy, given the manner and the extent the social ill have impacted on every stratum of the economy. This must have informed why President Muhammadu Buhari lamented that lawyers might constitute some measure of contraints in the fight against corruption if unchecked. Unfortunately for the presidency, lawyers cannot be done away with, not even during military dictatorship, let alone in a representative democracy as ours. For the war to be successful, the judiciary as an important arm of the government must consistently complement the effort of the executive in the fight against corruption.

It is against this backdrop that a recent symposium held in Lagos by some lawyers under the aegis of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADL) tried to know if lawyers are now coming to terms with their role in the anti-graft war.

Most of the participants at the event include lawyers, right activists, the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Mustafa Magu, Executive Secretary, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, guest lecturer; Justice A. O. Ajakaiye (rtd) and Mr Femi Falana (SAN), and others.

In his speech titled, ‘This is our chance’, the EFCC chairman paid glowing tributes to the leadership and members of the NADL for the patriotic zeal they often deployed in tackling developmental problems in Nigeria, one which is corruption.

Magu said: “In fact, if you are searching for the dictionary definition of patriotic Nigerians, you have no need to look further than the leadership and brains behind the NADL. The patriotic fervor with which you have attacked the myriads of developmental problems that have beset Nigeria right from independence, is especially commendable. One of the problems, in fact the progenitor of all problems in Nigeria, to which resolution you have lent your vast skills and other resources, is corruption.

“Your direct confrontation of the corruption monster through the instrumentality of the law, is an inspiration to those of us on the enforcement side of the law”

Magu also reiterated the good relationship that is existing between the commission and a number of legal practitioners, whom he said are ‘upright and their professionalism can be vouched for at any time’. He however, added that the commission had also faced challenges in the course of the anti-graft war, saying, the EFCC had consistently run up against a gang of rouge elements, who not only frustrate the work that we are doing but also give a terrible name to the bar and bench and hapless Nigerians have been the worse for it.

On the criticism of the operations of the EFCC and if they are in consonance with the rule of law he said: “It is common to hear people agitate over what they term the ‘immense’ powers of the EFCC. Let it be made clear that at the commission, we endeavour to make our actions fall strictly within the bounds of the rule of law.”

Magu concluded by calling on judicial officers to be fully aware of their role and intensify effort to ensure the success of the war on corruption. “I am here to ask you to do more, because what we have only been winning are small battles; the big war against corruption is very much on and you, along with other critical stakeholders will determine whether we win or lose.”

Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, speaking on the topic: ‘Role of lawyers in fight Against Corruption’, emphasized the immeasurable role of lawyers and judges in the anti-graft war and the emergence of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act as a result of societal concern at the delay in the administration of criminal justice.

He said: “The role of lawyers in the fight against corruption is far greater than the role of other professionals. The passage of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 reflects society’s concern at the delay in the administration of criminal justice and as a result, a number of provisions in the statute are designed to eliminate delay.”

Owasanoye noted that the singular biggest threat to the success of the legislation is the unchanging attitude of lawyers to the letter and spirit of the law. “lawyers appear oblivious of the intent of the law. Unfortunately, some judges continue to tolerate the dilatory tactics of lawyers rather than enforce the spirit of the lawfully.

“Refusal to recognized the import and impact of the legislation and continued attempt to delay progress of criminal cases especially corruption cases is a gross violation of Rule 30 of Professional conduct and ought to be severely sanctioned without equivocation,” he declared.

Owasanoye also identified lack of integrity, professionalism and the inability of the legal profession to purge its ranks as one of the reasons corruption has become prevalent, which also has a multiplier effect on the justice system.

In his contribution, Femi Falana (SAN), also reiterated the essentiality of judicial officers in the fight against corruption. He said: “No country can fight corruption competently without involving lawyers.” He also used the opportunity to call on lawyers of conscience to distance themselves from any form of corruption.

However, reacting to issues raised at the symposium, Lagos-based lawyer and right activist, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, said a lawyer by profession and calling, is an advocate, who represents the interests of his client. “When a person is accused of corrupt practices, the lawyer representing such a person bears an onerous duty indeed,” he noted.

He observed that the EFCC was set up as an agency to fight economic and financial crimes, in such a way as to engender economic development, but regrettably, this has not been the case.

“The agency seemed to have been taken over by political interests, as it best suits the appointers of leaders of the agency, to the detriment of Nigerians. The EFCC Act focuses more on investigation and intelligence gathering, rather than prosecution. The powers of prosecution belong to the Attorney General of the Federation or of the States, as the case may be, under the constitution,” he stated.

His words: “In most cases, the power of prosecution runs in conflict with that of investigation. After investigation, there should be another independent body to x-ray the case file and determine whether there is a prima facie case worthy of prosecution or not. This is how it is done in most criminal cases all over. The faulty combination of these powers in the EFCC has resulted into abuse in many cases.”

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr. Paul Ananaba, said the fight against corruption is a fight that every well meaning Nigerian and indeed lawyers should support.

“Lawyers occupy an important position and role to ensure the success of the fight against corruption. The lawyer today is the justice tomorrow, therefore, the duty of lawyers should be of integrity. They must also have the knowledge of the law.

“Lawyers should ensure due process is followed in the prosecution of corruption cases. Also, they must prove cases beyond reasonable doubt. They must do their job thoroughly without allowing unnecessary delays trials, while prosecutors must respect the right of the accused persons,” he said. In all, Ananaba called on all stakeholders in the fight against corruption to follow standard and uphold the law without playing to the gallery. “lawyers handling corruption cases must be time bound and conviction must not be politically influenced,”he advised.

Also, another Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Emmanuel Etiuzalle, said by training, lawyers are to fight against any form of vice including corruption. “The legal training of a lawyer in itself programmed him to fight any form of corruption, not only within the precincts of a courtroom but also anywhere.

“You see, it is quite unfortunate that today, a few names have been mentioned as being involved in some form of corruption or the other; my opinion is that it is only a lawyer who does not know the law that would allow a client to push him into breaking the law or engaging in any practice that is contrary to the ethics of the bar or good conscience,” he declared.

Etiuzalle said no meaningful progress in the fight against corruption without the involvement of the bar and the bench. “What can a lawyer do when a powerful and influential client has access to the judge in a matter he is been briefed on? While a lawyer is trained to do his best to get justice for his client, a judge adjudicates over disputes to ensure justice for both parties to the suit and the society and this is the essence of litigation.

“People sometimes deliberately mis-state facts to blacklist lawyers who are discharging their obligations in the ordinary course of their legal practice. There are numerous loopholes in most laws that work in favour of the accused person. The ordinary man on the street does not know the law to this extent and when a smart lawyer takes advantage of such legal loophole to his client’s advantage, then you hear some discordant tunes from the uninformed members of the public” he stressed.

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