There was a mild drama at the 14th Annual Chief Gani Fawehinmi Lecture in Ikeja, Lagos last Monday as some youths booed Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), who was one of the discussants.
Ozekhome’s arrival was greeted with a loud chant of disapproval by the youths who felt the learned silk has been “shielding looters from justice.”
The youths called him many unprintable names as they alleged that the SAN was defending corrupt individuals in court.
It was the intervention of the Ikeja Branch of the NBA Chairman, Mr Adesina Ogunlana and our very own, Mr. Richard Akinnola that shielded Ozekhome from the angry youths.
First, it needs be noted from onset that the attack on the learned silk is misguided and condemnable.
For the sake of clarity, however, let me say that this piece is not an attempt to reverse my stand on corruption – or promoting it – in Nigeria and a way to present Ozekhome sanctimonious but a deliberate move to save the ethics of the noblest profession from needless ridicule.
With the little law I know, I have come to discover that Presumption of Innocence is the hallmark of criminal litigation in our legal system.
As provided under Section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution, a person accused of a crime is still very INNOCENT until proven otherwise in a competent law court.
“To buttress this point, you discover that even when an accused person admits or confesses his guilt to court, the burden of proof still rests solely on the prosecutor to prove the guilt of the accused persons lest he (the accused) remains innocent and criminally immaculate.
Again, it is our law that any person accused of a crime is entitled to be represented by a legal practitioner of his choice. Last year, while taking Criminal Law, I wrote a paper on the constitutional rights of an accused person. One of such rights highlighted therein was the right of an accused person to legal representation.
In NIGERIA CUSTOM SERVICE v. ADEKEYE, it was observed by the honorable court that it is a fundamental principle of law that an accused person standing trial upon a criminal allegation be afforded the opportunity to defend himself by legal practitioners of his choice.
Even in situations where the accused cannot afford a legal practitioner, one is provided for him by the state through the Legal Aid Council. That is to show how the place of legal representation is treasured in our legal system.
On the part of the legal practitioner, it is his exclusive professional duty to take (or reject) brief from any client of his choice – whether civil or criminal.
Since a person charged with a criminal offence, as established above, is innocent, it will be safe to assert that any legal practitioner that takes brief from a person alleged of a crime – including corruption and mismanagement cases – has taken brief from an innocent person.
That is the position of law. And as creations of law and a people guided by law, we are obliged to live by the spirit of law. Any attempt to deviate from the law will amount to nothing other than disorderliness and if care is not taken, it might reverse us back to the Hobbesian State of Nature.
If not for the fact that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, I would have said that the attacking youths are ignorant of our law. For if they were aware of the fact that taking cases from allegedly corrupt people – that are still presumed innocent in law – does not amount to being yourself corrupt, they would not have embarked on such protest of futility.
What many are not taking cognizance of is that the Ikeja Branch NBA was not so dull to call on the learned silk to be a contributor. They know the scope of our jurisprudence – that Ozekhome has only been carrying out his professional duty. Why then should we term him “ole”? So, we expect a situation where anyone accused of corruption be jailed immediately, even without fair hearing and legal representation? Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
The protesting youths goofed, big time with their unknowledgeable display.
Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the role model of many of the youths, was said to have defended former NYSC DG, Col. Obasa, accused of corruption. Should we then generalize hastily that Chief Gani was corrupt too?
Mr. Femi Falana, a foremost human rights activist, is the lawyer of the detained Shiite Movement leader. Should we also term him an enemy of Nigeria – as the Federal Government sees the Shiite Movement?
The Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), our acclaimed man of honour and transparent honesty defended Tinubu when accused of certificate forgery. Have we ever labeled him (Osinbajo) corrupt? Please, remind me the name of the human rights lawyer who defended Tinubu during his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Should we name that lawyer “ole” too for carrying out his professional duty?
Look, the protest is another point to prove the hypocritical nature of Nigerians. This is another attempt of criminalizing professional duty. For a lawyer to be embarrassed, insulted and booed just because he defends “corrupt people” is unacceptable and very unfortunate.
The move against the learned silk is anarchical activism – for as educated and civilized people, what the youths ought to have done is to challenge him appropriately after delivering his paper or some other non-anarchical way of engagement.
In the final analysis, the attempt to criminalize the right of a legal practitioner to his professional duty through unguided booing should be disregarded as mere petulance and should be treated with ignominy.
Ogun, a law undergraduate of Olabisi Onabanjo University, is the convener of Legal Minds for Good Governance Initiative (LMGGi)