EZUGWU OBINNA

Some legal practitioners have faulted the recent appeal by President Muhammadu Buhari to Nigerian lawyers not to hamper the course of Justice while defending corrupt public officials in the country, pointing out that it was tantamount to asking them not to do their job.

Some lawyers who barred their minds in a chat with Hallmark explained that it was unconstitutional to assume that accused person is guilty prior to trial in a court of law and thus dismissed the President’s call as unacceptable.

In his remarks, Lagos based lawyer and one time governorship aspirant in the state Barr Robert Okechukwu Okoroji described the appeal as unreasonable, insisting that the President’s call negates the principle of rule of law which according to him stipulates that an accused is presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law. He explained that Buhari’s appeal showed that he does not yet understand the tenets of democracy.

“It shows that a leopard cannot change his skin; it shows that he is still a dictator. Buhari does not yet understand democracy and rule of law. He fails to understand that he derives his powers derives from the law and according to the law, an accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

He added that, “The appeal does not paint him in good light; it shows he has not changed. He should have consulted with his legal team before making that call, he stressed.

Continuing he said “It is unreasonable and it means that one is now presumed guilty before his guilt is established. It is not done; we live in a society where there is a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven.”

The legal practitioner went on to suggest that Buhari’s call would not be obeyed as lawyers have to do their job.

“As a member of this respected profession, I don’t think it’s reasonable to heed that call; we are not going to pay heed to that call because it would mean drawing our democracy backwards. Goodluck Jonathan set a standard for our democracy, and that standard has to be maintained,” he concluded.

In a similar vein, another legal practitioner, Barr Anthony Chidi Ezugwu described it as baseless and unconstitutional. “Buhari’s statement is purely a baseless call because he did not align his thoughts to the principles of fair hearing as enshrined in the constitution,” Ezugwu said.

He added “You know Buhari is not in tune with modern governance. He fails to realise the constitutional provision to the effect that an accused person is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven.”

Also commenting, Barr Wale Ogunade pointed out that since lawyers were empowered by the law to defend their clients, it would not be practicable to ask them not to do so as some.

“Unfortunately, it is not just something you talk about; it is the law. There is nothing one can do about it. The lawyers would always want to take advantage of the law,” he said.

“With the current situation, definitely, lawyers will take advantage. If there is room for people to take advantage of the law to protect the interest of their clients, they will do so because that’s how lawyers eat. I mean, there are people who are criminally minded; people who take advantage of the system to get what they want.”

It would be recalled that President Buhari had in his address during 55th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in Abuja on Sunday called on lawyers not to frustrate his anti-graft war by shielding corrupt individuals.

The President had argued that exposing various misdeeds of the corrupt officials was the only way to end corruption and restore sanity in the polity.

“First, we need to make our courts functional and effective again. This means that we must have lawyers who take the ethics of the profession very seriously; lawyers who will not frustrate the course of justice, even though they defend their clients with all legitimate means and resources.

“Nigeria needs ethical lawyers who always keep the end of justice in mind and will never sacrifice the integrity of the legal system to cover the misdeeds of their clients, no matter how lucrative the brief may be. I am convinced that law, lawmakers, lawyers, law courts and the law enforcement agencies all have pivotal responsibilities to discharge, if the change we seek is ever to materialise.

“This administration has taken on the challenge of improving security, fighting corruption and revamping the economy, among many others. The fight against corruption is a struggle for the restoration of law and order. Corruption and impunity become widespread when disrespect for law is allowed to thrive in society.

“Disrespect for law thrives when people get away with all sorts of shady deals and the court is unable to check them. Ability to manipulate and frustrate the legal system is the crowning glory of the corrupt and, as may be expected, this has left many legal practitioners and law courts tainted in an ugly way.

“In a gathering such as this, I do not need to elaborate on the way that corruption and impunity have damaged our economy. But I would like to say more on what, I believe, should be your role as legal practitioners, in helping us back to the path of rectitude.

The President went on to list the effects of corruption on the country, noting that it was responsible for the menace of unemployment as well as other issues such as diseases and mass illiteracy in the country.

“For the millions still wallowing in want and diseases, corruption is a major reason why they cannot go to school; why they cannot be gainfully employed; and why there are few doctors, nurses and drugs in their hospitals and health centres.

“It is the reason why pensioners are not paid and potable water is scarce. In effect, corruption diverts public resources meant for millions of people into the private pockets of a greedy few, thereby causing a lot of suffering, deprivation and death.

“In my view, there can be no greater violation of human rights. Viewed in this way, I think we can all fully appreciate the gravity of this oppressive and destructive evil,” he said.

Equally responding to the President’s appeal, Barr Ikechukwu Ikeji pointed out that no matter how good an idea may seem it would be arbitrary if it goes contrary to the provisions of the law.

“No matter how good an intention is, if any action following thereto from runs contrary to the rule of law, it can only be arbitrary and oppressive,” he said.

“As lawyers, we are ministers in the temple of Justice and one of the most important rules of professional conduct is for you to defend a client no matter how guilty you think he or she is. So Buhari’s call is clearly wrong and emotive.”