The Bar should lead charge for protection of citizens’ rights – Kayode Sofola


Kayode Sofola, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) was born in Ogun State, Nigeria. He graduated from the University of Birmingham, with an LLB in 1974 and Masters of Law from the University of London in 1976. He became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 2004 and subsequently the Chairman, United Bank of Africa, a position he held until 2007.He is a renowned commercial litigator and a tax specialist. He was the first chairman, Lagos Zone of Tax Appeal Tribunal between 2009 and 2016. He sat as a panel member of the defunct VAT Tribunal (Western Zone) from 2000 to 2007. His main practice areas include dispute resolution, tax and real estate.

There is no doubt about the existence of professional misconduct in the legal profession, just like every other vocation. But the recent disclosure by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, that senior lawyers are now debasing the profession further by forging court judgments in desperation to get the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria jolted ‘elders’ of the profession and the public at large. In this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, former legal adviser to the Vision 20:2020 National Technical Working Group on the Judiciary and Rule of Law, Kayode Sofola (SAN) decries the development. He also spoke on falling standard of legal education among other issues.

Some lawyers in their desperation to get the silk, are forging judgment of courts because it is a prerequisite for the award of SAN, what do you think about such desperation?
There are two things; when you are to become a lawyer, it is not just your knowledge of the law but your character before the courts. You have to be a fit and proper person to be called to the bar. If you are a person who can forge a judgment, then, you are not fit and proper person to be called to the bar let alone being a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). A senior advocate is supposed to be the example that junior lawyers aspire to be, and who they will try to mirror in their excellence in the profession. So anybody who is anywhere near that behaviour has already disqualified himself from the contest in my view.

So how does that kind of conduct relate to legal education and professional ethics?
I am saying that he is not even qualified to be a lawyer. He is so bad that he should not be a lawyer because the legal profession is one of those professions where it is not just your knowledge that matters. The role you play requires you to be of impeccable character. People who prepare to come inside are important. Take for instance, wills are read after a person is dead. So, trust and character are significant qualities, which a lawyer must have, and when you are a shining example, it is just too bad that I think you should never be in contention for rank of senior advocate.

But instructively, such fellows are already lawyers. They are only asking for the privilege of being SAN. So what does that tell about the kind of people that we have in the bar these days?
No doubt, the standards have fallen as everything else in the country. And we have to start building up our country from the point of wealth and culture.

You said standards have fallen?
Yes, generally!

What accounts for that?
Right from the elementary level to higher education, we have gotten it wrong. Education standards have fallen. Whereas in those days, a Nigerian student who transferred straight to the UK was ahead of his peers both in content and moral standards, the reverse is the case in the recent past. The standards have fallen both in technical education and character of the students. We have to take it right from the home through the educational institutions.

There is this argument that ethics is not in the curriculum for law education and that such should have been
It was in my time, and it was taken by the Director General, Mr. Ibironke at that point in time. It was a subject. It was even taken in my secondary school let alone law school. We had civics as a subject in the secondary school and at the law school, we had that topic being taught personally by the director general when I was in law school.

So are you surprised it is no longer in law school?
I am so surprised.

Do you think removing such important subject from the curriculum is part of the problems that we have today?
It has to be because as I said, this is one profession where your qualification is not just your learning the technical part of the subject but also, the quality of your character. So attention has to be paid to the two elements that qualify you to be a lawyer. It will be a great omission if it was let off from the syllabus.

The bar itself in the recent past used to be the mouthpiece of the people. Are you worried that it appears that the bar has actually been docile or seems to be?
Well, we have had activists, presidents of the bar. I remember people like Aka Bashorun and even our Rotimi Akeredolu were quite active in their times. I think again, the recent heads of the bar are beginning to try to live up to the expectation. Maybe because we are no longer in the military, the dramatic confrontation of the establishments has lessened but that should not be the case. Whether you are military or civilian, when you step on the right of citizens, the bar should be at the forefront of that challenge.

So in your opinion, how do you place the rule of law and national security? To what extent can these two words inter-relate?
In anywhere in the world, it is a question of balance because the rights you enjoy are derived from the mother of all rights, which is the right to life. If a person is alive, he will enjoy right of association, free speech and movement. Therefore security is a present consideration in any society. However bad the security situation in the world, it is not a time for people to abandon consciousness for ensuring that the quality of living is intertwined with the rights of the citizens and suppression of those rights by those in power. We have to check the people in power no matter the time even during the wartime. We have to keep them in check.

Who will do the job of checking them?
A variety of sectors! The press has a role to play in this, the students’ union association in those days but most importantly, the legal profession because it is that profession that our constitution places in position to be a check in the excesses of the executive.

But the institutions that you have just mentioned do not have the instrument of coercion like the state. So, how will they successfully check the man that has all the powers?
Anywhere in the world, those who check the excesses of the executive are necessarily the people who are not in possession of the coercive powers, and the effectiveness of the legal profession in checking executive power is demonstrated by the fact that even during the military, the soldiers are so amazed at the audacity of lawyers that most of them when they retire, the first thing they do is to go and study law to know what gives the body the audacity to confront them without guns. So you don’t need guns to confront power. You need courage!

Where the courage seems to be absent possibly because a government is intolerant of dissent, what options are available?
We test it at every point. The legal profession comprises the lawyers and the judiciary. And even in the days of Lakanmi versus Attorney General of Western States, the judiciary was able to state the law as they saw it in interpreting the constitution even in the military period. So, if they can confront the military with law during a military era, I don’t see why they should have difficulty in confronting civilian excesses.

You know that the military at that time was apprehensive knowing full well that it did not really enjoy universal acceptability. It would have to be cautious unlike those practising democracy as we have today
I think the people who are practising democracy are more sensitive to public opinion and intentional reaction than the military.

So what is your assessment of our present democracy? We are over 18 years in it
Well, although people say Nigerians are too tolerant, some may even say they are docile. I take a different view. The Nigerian character that I know is resilient and if you push him too far, you have yourself to blame because his reaction will not be predictable. And all over Nigeria, different parts have shown that they can put authority to task. I remember during the war, the Agbekoya’s in the West took on the military and that has been demonstrating in all parts of Nigeria. I believe that Nigerians are capable of confronting oppressors.

So are you of the view that Nigerians have not been pushed enough?
I think they are being pushed too far. I pray they don’t push them to where the reaction becomes mindless because at that time, reasoning will have no part to play in it. We have to make sure we don’t take people for granted. I think they keep on piling load upon load on them and with impunity. I don’t believe in a country where that breaking point is reached.

The petroleum industry bill is one of the bills before the National Assembly that is perhaps the longest. And it is still not passed and there was a modification and all these have still not turned to law. What do you think is the reason for all these?
Well, the reason is far-fetched as far as I am concerned. There are vested interests. People who arrogate to themselves greater significance than they have and I think this is where collective efforts should be galvanized to overrun things in the state interest.

Can you be more explicit when you say vested interest? Who are you actually referring to?
I am referring to people who stand to gain with their collaborators in office.
How can we dislodge this group of people who for vested interest refuse to work for the general good of the people?

I mean, what should be done to dislodge this group of people? Do we need to restructure or go back to parliamentary system of government?
You have combined so many issues in the question and there are different responses. The word ‘restructuring’ means different things to different people. But all of us appear to agree that we cannot proceed as we are proceeding and get any joy out of it. We have to reconfigure the basis of the relationship such that power is devolved more to the states and less to the centre. And that more is left in the hands of the private sector than the government because the large bureaucracy we have is consuming all the resources and neglecting the greater majority of Nigerians. I think the way forward is to pay attention and proper advocacy to ensure that people we send to the assembly are the fit and proper persons to represent the interest of the public. I don’t think that all of those members can be said to fit the description of proper representatives of the people.

Why do you think so?
The conduct at times, in the hallow chambers leaves much to be desired for people who are really serious about tackling the various issues that have befallen the nation. The quality of representatives needs to be improved upon. Increasingly, that has been the case; we have been having better representatives evolved over time. More accomplished persons are offering themselves for service in political office. That is good compared to what the trends were. We cannot be sending our worst eleven to do this job. We want our best eleven to be there, our brightest to represent us.

As an eminent Nigerian and a senior lawyer for that matter, do you feel concerned or worried that the 2018 electoral act is still like a ding-dong affair between the National Assembly and the president? It is not yet a law and the election is months away

There are certain things that transcend politics. Economic and political stability transcends politics. Whichever side of the divide we are; our economy must run to grow to provide employment and we can have a stable and safe environment. So it is beyond, ahead and pre-eminent. It is the same thing. Democracy is hinged on the process and the electoral act is the document that spells out that process. It is not responsible enough, and it is unduly partisan to still be playing this kind of game of chance at this eleventh hour. I believe that our representatives and the executive should realize this. The stability of our country is more important than our partisan political interest. Whether it is Labour or Conservative in the UK, Republican or Democrat in U.S, where their national interests are important, you cannot distinguish them. The kernel of what is important to them and to their country overrides their political differences. You can see them! It is so they can progress. They have areas of lesser importance where they can show their political differences but matters of the security of their country, survival of their democracy and the growth of their economy are not matters that are susceptible to undue partisanship.

So if this persists, what are the likely consequences?
Look, we are growing a timid population of young people where there is no plan to accommodate their hopes and aspirations in terms of education, employment, housing and health. This is a formula for implosion. Nigeria is too large a country to have that kind of crisis. As you drive past the bus station, I see people waiting for hours for transportation. Even you yourself should feel insecure and we want to have a secure environment. We have to make sure that the people who are at the receiving end have a decent life. If not, those of you who are lucky and privileged are at risk.

If parties involved continue to play politics with this democracy, what are the likely consequences in terms of smooth transition?
The only relief we have is because of the processes of electioneering with card readers and PVCs now. The frustration of the electorate is decreasing. The outcome is more reflective of the wishes of the people. We have to concentrate on those so that politicians will know that they are answerable to their constituency and that they cannot strike success when their people are not in their favour. So, there should be a connection between the rulership and followership.

But the use of card readers is not captured in the electoral act. The amendment to the electoral act is the one that has it and it is not yet a law.
Well, that is the case. As you have just said, that is already a bill and the purpose of that bill is to stop these desperate acts of mischief; robbing the electorate of the power they have to change incompetent representatives. We have to arrive at that point. It is too late to be a game of chance in that regard. Once we are there, you will begin to see that you weed off people who have no business representing Nigerians.

What is your assessment of the APC government at the federal level?
My problem is that I see pockets of seriousness but I see a lot of negative qualities in some areas. My real problem is that there is nothing to choose between APC and PDP. That is my real problem! The parties are not sufficiently vocal about what ideologies they represent. We have strange bed-fellows in the two parties, which is why it is not surprising that they crisscross at will because there is no identical content to their membership. If you are a person, who believes in capital that should make a business grow to employ more people and so forth, how do you the next day become a Marxist? Then, there is no identical differentiation. That is the first basic problem! As I stand now, I can’t tell you which party is better. I can tell you individuals that are competent. So, it looks as if we shall keep on voting for individuals until we have parties that can tell us what they really stand for and membership of those parties that are reflective of the ethos that the parties put out in their manifestos.

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