Barrister Monday Onyekachi Ubani’s name definitely rings bell not only in Nigeria but in the international communities. He is a renowned lawyer, a public defendant of note and a human rights activist. Barrister Ubani was at the Nigeria Law School till 1990 and was an alumnus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he had his first degree before proceeding to the University of Lagos to bag his Master’s Degree in 1993. He is the founder of Ubani & Co, a sprawling and successful law firm which he established in 1992. He was the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Lagos State Chapter from 2012 to 2014 before emerging as Vice President of the NBA in 2016 to 2018. In this exclusive interview with ISAAC IFEANYI AGWAZIM, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of TOP SOCIETY MAGAZINE, Barrister Ubani spoke on the legal system in Nigeria, the good, bad and ugly of the Nigerian judiciary while beaming his light on the anomalies perpetuated by the country’s security agencies. Excerpts:
Out of all the many professions we have, why did you choose law?
Well, I saw what lawyers who were already in the profession were doing with regards to the defense of the oppressed in the society, and it’s a profession that you will add value to the lives of the people. You know when people have issues at the courts and somebody handled that case successfully. You can see the kind of excitement; the kind of joy you give to people after you have defended them. For example, this man has been in detention for more than seven years. They charged him for armed robbery and after charging him at the magistrate court, they dumped him inside the prison for seven years but by the time I brought an application for the fundamental of his human rights, come and see blames, the police were saying that they’ve sent the case file to DPP for advice, the DPP now said they never saw the file and so, if not that I took this matter to court, the guy will stay there and maybe die there simple because his file was nowhere to be seen, we need to see the charge sheet with the magistrate court which was impossible because they said the magistrate court itself is no longer in the system and that was somewhere along Oshodi Road. We had issues and we thank God for the judge. So when all these blames and counter blames were coming from these two institutions, the judge had no other choice than to order the young man to be released and he was released on Thursday last week. Seven solid years of his life has been wasted without any reason so am sure his family will be excited because if not for the intervention of a legal practitioner, he would have been wasted. So, it is a profession that gives value to people and something you see is verifiable and that is the reason why I came from Political Science because I was admitted to study Political Science, but I used two years before the third year, I crossed over to Law. I started year one again because I want to contribute to the lives of the people. I want to be a voice of the voiceless, I want to be a voice for the oppressed, I want to render help for somebody who would value the help I rendered for him. So, that is why I had to lose two solid years to study law.
If you have not gone for law as at then, what else would you have been found doing?
Another profession that I would have loved is as an Accountant. I would have loved to be an accountant but they are very stingy, I don’t know whether I would have still survived in the profession but I love accountancy, I did accountancy while in secondary school and I was very good in book keeping even in my GCE I had A3 in it. You know that is another profession I love but I know that law will offer me more visibility and more value to be added to the lives of the people, so that is why I have to change to law. So mind you that I was admitted to study political science, so I love politics, I love the flamboyance of the Awolowos, the Ziks, I like addressing the public. I love speaking and making promises. I love the styles of the politicians of the 60s then and the way they went about living their lives. So if I didn’t study accountancy, I would have also been a politician who will want to affect the lives of the people positively. But choosing law, I know I can also become a politician.
As a seasoned lawyer, because I follow up a lot of cases, we found out that most times in Nigeria, police will just get a remand order from the court to remand a suspect, normally it is supposed to be for fourteen days, they are supposed to go for renewal, the police don’t even go for renewal, if the suspect has spent 28 days, according to the law, they are supposed to collect the court order and after two weeks prepare the file to the Attorney General of the State, don’t you think they are abusing that right?
Yes, it is even wrong for you to detain somebody for 24 hours because the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria says if you are charged for any crime by any security outfit they have 24 hours to bring you before a court of competent jurisdiction. That is what obtains in the 1999 constitution of the country. Now, the AGS you talked about now comes in now to say if they have not finished your litigation within the time allowed, they can apply to court in order to get an order to detain you beyond that time allowed by the constitution. But now, there is clear violation of people’s rights. There are many instances where the police, EFCC and DSS will detain a suspect even beyond 48 hours without any court order. We should take that one separate. There are instances where people are detained beyond 48 hours without any court order extending the time. I told you that the maximum the court can allow is 48 hours. Even in my own case, I was detained for 23 days, there was no order of court that I should be detained beyond 48 hours and up till date they have not been able to provide it because I sued the EFCC. Another instance where we would have been clamoring for reform is the detention for 14 days with court order, my take on that with exparte is that it is actually wrong. It is a one sided story. You go and tell the judge or the magistrate that this person is a criminal, that this person is an armed robber, that this person is a kidnapper, that he is a cyber-stocker, that the court should allow you investigate him more and put him in detention.
Ordinarily, that person is supposed to be heard by the same magistrate you are asking for him to be detained beyond the time allowed by law to know whether what you are telling the court is right because it would be a one sided story for you to say he is an armed robber, he is this without him there and the court is now basing its order of extension on your own story because at the end of the day, it may be not true that that person is what you have labelled him to be. Remember that the court asked for 90 days, the DSS asked for 90 days but Justice Taiwo Taiwo gave them only 45 and that is absolutely wrong. What are you investigating, we see what other nations do with the administration of criminal justice. What they do is that before they arrest you, they would have concluded investigation before detention. They would have gotten all the verifiable facts against you. They would have known that with this evidence, they can convict you and that is when they now come for arrest. They don’t arrest you and begin to look for evidence.
Here in Nigeria, security agents will arrest you and then begin to source for evidence and that is why they take this unorthodox method of extraction of confessional statement. They would carry pin put into your penis or into your nose, do all manner of things or even use fire to give you wound in order to extract confessional statement because they don’t have the fact to begin to prosecute you. They have already concluded that you are a criminal. But that is wrong, it is again wrong for the court to hear only the side of the story of the security agents without hearing the side of the accused person. And based upon that they extend, they renew and sometimes they don’t even renew. So we must really tinker with our administration of criminal justice, processes and procedures in order to ensure that people’s rights are protected. An accused person at any point in time no matter how heinous a crime, no matter how they do what they call public trial which is actually going on in this country, they come up with figures, oh this man has stolen and of course Nigerians would get agitated and angry because we know what corruption has done. So when they come with that figure, N50 billion, N80 billion, Nigerians get angry. But when you get to the fact of the case, there is no evidence it is just because they know how to play up with our sentiments and I don’t blame people and so when you come out as a lawyer, you begin to argue that the person is presume innocent of the case, they get angry.
I am very sure that this issue of presumption, you can be a victim tomorrow, I am very happy with what is happening to Magu, he is saying ohh he has not been given fair hearing. So Magu is now believing in fair hearing, court and lawyers. This is a Magu that usually arraign every person before the public and say you be thief, you are an armed robber, you have stolen this. He has no fair hearing, he brings the story and judges you, he is now crying that he has not received fair hearing. So whatever we sow, we reap. So we should put people in mind because you can leave power and become a victim that is why we insist the right thing is done. Anyone that is accuse of crime, no matter how heinous, let there be fair hearing.
Most police officers take the case they know they cannot handle and take it to the magistrate court whereas the case is a federal case?
Well, that is another issue, the court has applauded the issue of holding charge. When you know that the court you are taking an accused person to, does not have the jurisdiction and you still went ahead to take him there. And I also have to blame the magistrate, because if somebody over whom you have no jurisdiction on, you say no, you won’t even hear it. What they would do is they say they don’t have the jurisdiction but they would order the person to be detained and the moment you ordered the person to be detained, you have exercised the jurisdiction. The court has stopped holding charge, you either take the person to the court or you grant bail to that person so that whichever day you are ready for arraignment you now ask the person to come to the court for arraignment. It is wrong for you to take somebody who has allegedly committed a crime before a court that has no jurisdiction over that case and the magistrate is wrong to order that person to be detained in the prison whereas you have no jurisdiction because when you do that, you are exercising jurisdiction over that person. I think these are parts of the reform processes that we clamour for that should be done in our stance for human rights, there are a lot of people languishing in jail, in prisons who are not supposed to be there and it is because of these anomalies in the system that we are highlighting. So it is important we get it right.
At times, the judges give some very stringent bail conditions that to me, it is better the judge to say I am not going to give you bail one of which is asking for the person to provide a level 17 official. Do you think this is right?
I think you sound very much in tune about some of the things that happen in our administration of justice, you know about the courts. Actually, it is wrong for judges to impose stringent conditions on an accused person who the law says is presumed to be innocent. The law says he is innocent until the contrary is proven. We have a case that is ongoing. There is one Ogbonna Emperor, a lawyer that is based in Aba that was alleged to have said certain things that the governor of Abia State found very uncomfortable. They charged him to court, after charging him to court, the court granted him bail based on the charge that the Abia State government laid and they gave him a bail. He had perfected his bail and was coming out of the court, DSS now came and arrested him and took him to their detention centre where he stayed for one month and people now brought an application to enforce his fundamental human rights.
The court granted him bail and ordered that the DSS should pay N1.5 million. Before that time, they have already taken him to Abuja and kept him there and say they would not obey any court order from Abia State. So what I did was to initiate a new enforcement of fundamental human rights in Abuja Federal High Court and the matter was assigned to a judge, do you know what, the judge gave very onerous condition that we should produce two sureties who have properties in choiced areas in Abuja for N20 million each. Where will the accused person get such people, so if the person does not have relations that is level 17 which means they have to go and pay for it and most of these people of level 17 is a big market in Abuja for EFCC, DSS and I don’t know whether those guys go to bribe them like N300,000, N400,000 because that is the condition in Abuja. So if he doesn’t have a relation that is level 17, so that means he has to die in jail whereas the law says he is innocent.
So, we must find a way to end that aspect of anomaly because it is wrong for somebody who is presumed innocent to be given such an onerous bail condition. Even though he can bring out an application for variation, but sometimes it could be hard and difficult because the law allows you, when you are imposed with onerous conditions. So am saying, we must fight it, the law is very specific as per the presumption of the innocence of an accused person, if a person has not been convicted it is wrong for you to impose a condition that he might not able to come out from. One day, I was in Federal High Court and I was very happy that the judge listened to me. I made an application for Bello Falaki and I told him that it is better that this accused person comes for trial. It is not good for us to make conditions that are very onerous making it practically impossible for the person who has been accused and presumed to be innocent to fail a bail condition. Its better to say let his relations stand surety for him so that the man can come for his trial and the court immediately approved this and allowed the relations stand as his surety and I was aghast that some judges also understand, but some judges don’t understand. It is only when that person goes to prison when he had not been convicted. Sometimes complainants pay magistrates saying that I want this man to sleep in cell at least up to 10 days or 20 days and all that. So those judges or lawyers or magistrates would impose onerous conditions making it impossible for the bail to perfect and when you cannot perfect your bail condition, you will be remanded. Even some of the complainants don’t come back having get satisfied that they have dealt with the person.
Having been the Vice President of NBA and judging by the way politicians are hijacking the judicial system, what are those areas you think need reforms to make the judiciary independent?
The independence of the judiciary is key and that is why some of us are clamouring also financial autonomy of the judiciary because who pays the piper dictates the tune. If you allow the judiciary to be funded by the executive, they will take on the advantage of that. We must have a judiciary that is independent, that is very courageous, that is very upright, that follows due process and enthrone justice and equity irrespective of status or pockets. That’s the kind of judiciary and that also affects the recruitment process. You must know who you are bringing into the judicial system, it’s not people who are not cut out to be judges, you make them judges and they have criminal records, they have criminal tendencies and you make them judges.
There are a lot of lawyers who have disposition toward crimes and you make them lawyers and you appointed them into the judiciary, they would continue to display the stealing instincts in them. So you must know who you are bringing in as a judge. Judges must be very courageous and upright and these we can get through financial autonomy. There is the need for the provision of basic infrastructures for judges to be able to function well. Let us take good care of them. If all these are done, I see no reason why somebody will come and hijack the judiciary no matter how moneybag you are. Let’s get the fundamentals right then we can now be talking of a strong institution and the moment we have a strong judiciary, most of the things going wrong in the country will all be corrected knowing full well that if you do it wrong and somebody takes you to the judiciary, you will be punished and within a short time, we have the cases disposed of because most times these cases take long because of some of these things that have to do with corruption.
What does it take to be a successful lawyer?
Can I give one off answer what it takes to be a successful lawyer, first of all, God and person. The God factor is you can never be anything in life unless God blesses you. The grace of God, the mercies of God is upon those who fear Him and there is no way you call Him that He will not bless you. Then there are individual traits you have to possess that will help you to succeed one of which is hard work and integrity. People will begin to recommend you to others when they see that you have integrity. They have dealt with you, they know you are very honest, very hardworking, you did not take their jobs anyhow, you did it with all diligence, they will want to come back now. Not been sounding boastful, there is a Chinese man I got recently as a client and I did one or two things, he called his other directors and told them let engage this man as our solicitor. If you don’t have personal traits to succeed, they give you job you eat the money, you first enjoyed the money you did not do the job. You think that person will give you another job next time or even recommend you. So your personal trait now comes in. education will help you but your character, your show of diligence, your show of honesty and fearing God will take you higher.
What are some of the mistakes that lawyers make?
One of the greatest mistakes a lawyer can make is to squander client’s money or not to do the work a client gave to you. It’s not right or a client pays you money and you squander it without doing the job. One of the things I learnt is that I will first of all finish the job before I enjoy the money. I just came back from Abuja and a client took me there, paid for the trip but it was when I succeeded in doing what they asked me to do.
In the history of your job, what is that particular job that gave you breakthrough?
I can’t particularly picture any but I remember there was one client, a bank that I worked for. I sold the property and they paid me heavy. But I have done several other jobs and you know am a human rights lawyer, I have helped many people. But I don’t charge much in human rights cases but it gives comfort. One of the good things about a lawyer that is good is that there is no week somebody will not call you for one thing or the other. You can’t stay in a month without a brief. If you are good and with God’s grace upon you, you cannot stay two weeks without a client. It’s not necessary that they pay you millions or billions, but you must be paid.
Some people attain success but they could not sustain it, what do you think is the way out?
It takes wisdom. The Bible says wisdom is the principal thing. All you are getting is through wisdom. There are people who had made so much money, but they don’t know how to utilize it. There are people who were very successful but all of a sudden they could not manage it. One thing is to attain success, another thing is to retain it and one of the ways to retain it is to have wisdom. There are some people that have not seen one million, when they see it, they go gaga and start misbehaving and start drinking and going after women, they cannot control themselves and God may have just used that one million to test you because He has something higher for you maybe He wants to give you a billion. He just used one million and you mis-used it. You just have to apply wisdom and be on top of your game. Don’t think it is by your power or might. You just have to make use of your wisdom.
Sometimes, lawyers win cases against police and DSS and yet the payments will be difficult to get?
Its enforcement, they are the ones that enforce. I have two judgements against the Nigerian police and for almost three years now I have not been able to enforce them, I don’t even know which of the banks they are using. Police are the authority that enforce. Most times, it is difficult for you to get such payment even from government officials. It is horrible and it is mostly in this part of the world. It doesn’t happen in other parts of the world. In Britain, you get judgement against government, its enforced because they have gotten to the level where the rule of law prevails but here it is the rule of the individuals that prevail. They are the ones that determine the ones to pay and the one not to pay. The basic thing is that every judgement of the law must be enforced irrespective of who is involved. Everyone must respect the law even the president but when the president is the greatest breaker rule of law, he doesn’t believe in it, the other people that are below take cue. That is exactly what we are talking about.
Who is your role model in this legal profession?
The late Gani Fawehinmi
Gani Fawehinmi has always been a stubborn lawyer everyone knows, being your role model, what are the qualities of him you emulate?
Whatever he will pursue he will pursue it even if the people on the other side are against him and he believed in using law. He doesn’t use force. He pursues his goals to the end at his own expense. He is a strong believer in the rule of law and he is a man that respect justice. He doesn’t care whether you are a Yoruba or any other tribe. If a Yoruba man does anything wrong to an Igbo man, Gani would confront the Yoruba man and scold him, so also the same to an Igbo man who does something wrong to a Hausa man. So he is a man that everybody should emulate.