Rails against Fellow Lawyers, Accuses them of being Comfortable with Impunity.
Radical Lagos lawyer and dogged human rights activist, Femi Falana, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, has written off the human rights record of the Muhammadu Buhari-led All Progressives Congress, APC administration in Nigeria as abysmally low. Falana, in a no-holds-barred conversation Wednesday morning on sundry issues touching on the rule of law and violation of fundamental human rights of the citizens on Sunrise Daily, a current affairs programme on Channels Television, also literally took his fellow lawyers to the cleaners, accusing many of them of being “very comfortable with impunity, abuse of the rule of law, and violations of human rights”. Further taking a swipe at his professional colleagues, the renowned lawyer said: “majority of them are just very comfortable with making their money” rather than hold the government accountable for human rights abuses. While noting that “our human rights regime is one of the best in the world in terms of the formal entrenchment of human rights in the Constitution, in the African Charter and Human and People’s Rights Act, in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, anti-torture Act, and the rest of them” Falana gave a damning verdict that “in practice, we are doing very, very badly”.
He listed illegal arrests and detentions, subjecting people to torture, illegal parade of criminal suspects, media trial of those who are presumed innocent until proven guilty by the state, and extra-judicial killings as some of the human rights violations by the government. According to him, “the situation is so bad now that some of those who are in charge of protecting our rights do not even understand what these rights are all about. Hence, you are sometimes told that in complying with a court order to release somebody who had been detained for four years or for four months, oh, we are doing it out of generosity; we are doing it out of compassion, or mercy. So, there is a problem here”. Noting that even under successive military junta in the country, “we even ensured that court orders for the release of political detainees or criminal suspects were complied with”, Falana recalled how he was compelled recently to reveal that “even when President Buhari was the military dictator between 1984 January and August 1985, there were 13 instances where the courts ordered the release of political detainees and criminal suspects. I gave the names of the judges who made the orders. Those who were affected, they were all released on the advice of the attorney-general then, Mr. Chike Ofodile, SAN, of blessed memory”.
Expressing disappointment at the seeming lame duck posturing of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Falana, who is on record to have handled many of cases of human rights abuses, said the NBA had a history of struggles in this country. He went down memory lane to recall how under previous military regimes in Nigeria, “the NBA stood its ground; our judiciary stood its ground in protecting and defending human rights” adding that “I am talking of when human rights were put in abeyance by military dictators. Our judges insisted that the rule of law thus permitted to exist will have to be fully complied with. So, no regime was allowed to treat court orders with contempt or disdain; the Bar rose up. I do recall in 1987 when the late Alao Aka Bashorun was the NBA president, how dare you?”
Further underscoring how vibrant the NBA was at the time, Falana noted that “by coincidence the current secretary to the Federal Government, Mr. Boss Mustapha was the chairman of the NBA in Yola, the old Gongola State. The Babangida junta disobeyed a court order; the late Alao Aka Bashorun as NBA president summoned the NEC of the NBA and we went on boycott of courts. Of course, the regime also rushed to court to get an order against us, and Aka Bashorun called all the lawyers and said since we are fighting for compliance with court order, we must also obey this order. And that was the Nigerian Bar”. The human rights activist regretted that “today, we are only interested in organizing annual seminars, dinners. At the end of the day, the Bar is not doing much”. Explaining how the NBA came to this pretty pass, Falana said “I think lawyers, majority of them, are just very comfortable with making their money. You know, since we are now used to oppression of the people, we move on. It’s only when the rich are arrested where we can make money that we shout from the rooftop”. He said even the media was complicit, stating that “you only talk of people like Omoyele Sowore, Dasuki, El Zak-Zaky whereas a majority of our people are languishing in custody today on a daily basis, even for a law that was abolished in 1989 – law against wandering – people are still being arrested for it”.
Falana said illegal detentions and police brutality had persisted because “one, there is no sanction for this level of impunity with respect to the violation of the rights of our people. Sometimes, the policeman you have dragged to court may have been promoted before the case is decided. So, nobody has learnt a lesson. Secondly, even when you go to court and damages are awarded, the money is never paid by the police or any of the agencies. One of your colleagues, Jones Abiri was detained for two years by the former Director-General of the State Security Service, one Mr. Musa Daura; no charge, nothing. His family thought he had been kidnapped and killed; we went to court, the court ordered that he be released and that he be paid N10 million damages. Not only did the state security service not pay, they now turned round to charge him with terrorism. The government has lost the case. Damages have been awarded; you are now asked us as the judgment creditor, to get the permission of attorney general before you can garnishee the account of the government”.
Speaking on the controversy that trailed the medical trip to India of one of his clients, Ibrahim Yaqoub El-Zakzaky, leader of the Shiites Islamic Movement in Nigeria, (IMN), whom he said had lost one eye and had developed glaucoma on the other, Falana accused the government of frustrating his overseas medical treatment. According to him, “we approached the court to allow this man to travel, just like you allow rich people to travel all over the place who have stolen billions. The court said it would allow him to travel, go for treatment to be supervised by the respondent, the Kaduna State government. As soon as he left the country, the government took over; they imposed doctors on him, not his own doctors. He said he was getting better treatment in Nigeria because he was being treated by his own doctors. The doctors followed him at the instance of the government. On getting there, the government imposed doctors he never knew on him and he said no, I have my own doctors and you are denying them access to me; let them discuss with your own doctors and the government made that impossible. That was what happened”.
On how Nigerians could protect and defend their fundamental human rights, Falana said a lot of enlightenment and education was needed. He said the law had imposed this duty on the government and not lawyers via the National Human Rights Commission. He, however, regretted that the National Human Rights Commission is the only body whose council was dissolved in 2015 and had not been reconstituted. In his words, “it’s not funded well by the government. So, it does not have the ability to go out there and carry out its statutory duty of enlightening the people. Again, each of the state governments has a duty to educate their people about their rights. We have pleaded with each of the state governments”. While pointing out that the Human Rights Commission is currently managed by the executive secretary, Falana opined that there is a limit to which he can go because there are some actions that he would have to get the fiat of the council of that body before he could take. “Again, I think this is where the attorney-general has to come in because the members of the council are to be appointed by the president on the recommendation of the attorney-general of the Federation. I think this is where you may help us find out what is going on” Falana stated.