12 December 2018

Nigeria: Lawyers and Religious Leaders - a Note of Caution

IN Nigeria logic is constantly turned on its head, all to defend or excuse illegality. From the media to religious leaders, to judges and lawyers, virtually every sector which ought to fight for the common man's rights, or to defend our democracy finds itself shielding those accused of corruption from investigation and prosecution, or representing their interests by aggressively upholding the status quo.

Sheikh Gumi, an influential Northern cleric, was quoted as saying "it is a crime to be rich under Buhari", meaning, according to him, every "rich" man or woman has something to fear under Buhari's government. The short answer is that it depends on how their money was made.

The long answer, which Gumi inadvertently acknowledges, is that a striking number of wealthy people in Nigeria don't owe their money to any real talent, product invention or brilliance, but simply to their proximity to government: crony capitalism, granting tax waivers to friends; monopolistic market structures have made many billionaires. Our unwillingness to reason without sentiment encourages us to deny these facts and to ascribe genius and other virtues to a host of individuals who at best are scamming the system.

Backbone of religious institutions

Professor Abba Hakadu, Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education, NMEC, said 70 million Nigerians can neither read nor write. Most of these individuals also happen to be the backbone of religious institutions in the country; these are the people one finds in mosques and churches across Nigeria, who see religion as a coping mechanism in a country where every institution that should keep them comfortable and sane, has either collapsed or become inaccessible due to its expense.

In a country where basic amenities are for the rich, Nigerians pray fervently for divine intervention while the religious leaders they look up to partner with one government after another to frustrate change and to keep Nigerians chained to ignorance and blind acceptance of their lot in life. Religion in Nigeria isn't the liberating experience it is supposed to be: it is merely a way to keep the masses subservient and uncritical of the forces responsible for their oppression.

Churches and mosques claim to sponsor charities but if we allow ourselves to see these initiatives as a drop in the ocean compared to the resources available in this country and to the resources at the disposal of religious leaders and the politicians they support (many who stand accused of diverting huge chunks of said resources), we'll come to find that many leaders are not what they seem, to put it mildly.

The political class, with the media's connivance, has done its best over the years to portray President Buhari as an Islamist. It's one thing for fringe commentators to repeat such ideas, it's another for the religious establishment to buy into "fake news" controversies simply to promote their own agenda.

Bishop Oyedepo, in a now viral video, allegedly read a newspaper article describing President Buhari as "Jibril from Sudan". While his congregation applauded, he enthusiastically dissected the controversy started by Nnamdi Kanu who was reportedly the first to publish a video of the "real" Buhari vs. the "clone" from Sudan. Oyedepo didn't realise the article he was reading was satire. It wasn't factual, it was a journalist's satirical take on Nigerians' gullibility which the bishop and his congregation ironically exemplified.

Is it possible that Oyedepo, a university chancellor, didn't recognise a satirical piece? Or was his desire to score political points for his preferred candidates stronger than the ethics and morals churches preach?

According to Festus Keyamo, N780 billion has been abandoned in different bank accounts opened without bank verification numbers, BVN, or using the identities and passport photographs of dead persons. The banking system is complicit in money laundering; it's an open secret, yet no one is brought to book.

For the first time in decades, an attempt to beam a search light on the institutions which make corruption possible, is being made. Bankers, judges and lawyers help steal elections, hide the proceeds of corruption or house the funds meant to bribe electoral petitions, etc.

Many lawyers have made a name for themselves by defending those accused of corruption. In fact, it's interesting that some SANs even specialise in this trade: looking at any high-profile corruption case, one is sure to find the same 20 or so SANs accompanying the accused to court.

Yes, every accused individual is entitled to his or her defence, but some have taken the "innocent until proven guilty" mantra to mean: "I will proclaim my client (or myself) innocent because I can enlist enough lawyers whose specialty it is to frustrate corruption trials".

"Innocence" in Nigeria often means one categorically refuses investigation, much less of prosecution, no matter the evidence at hand and lawyers are all too willing to side with allegedly corrupt individuals against the general public whose interest the rule of law is supposed to defend.

Unfortunately, in Nigeria, the law belongs to oligarchs, so lawyers are often said to subvert due process, and intervene in ways they wouldn't dream of if the accused were "merely" an armed robber or an "average" person devoid of title, status or position.

The EFCC has accused Paul Usoro, the Nigeria Bar Association president of laundering N1.4 billion belonging to the Akwa Ibom State government. Mr. Usoro responded, saying the money was payment of "legal fees" due to him and others following their work on the election petition involving the governor.

In Nigeria we have done things a certain way for so long, we are no longer surprised by them. Although the election petition concerns the state, it is on behalf of an individual. So the question really is, should the state's money be used to pay an individual's legal fees, even if he is the governor?

Client-lawyer privilege

The NBA framed their response in terms of "client-lawyer privilege" but that isn't the point. An individual's electoral petition is not government business. This should remind us of the common practice whereby governors "donate" public funds to charities, etc., as if it was their personal money and are hailed for doing so, forgetting, yet again, that if governance functioned properly, public officials wouldn't need to "donate" to widows, indigent students, etc.

Has anyone ever seen a picture of Obama or Theresa May commissioning a hostel they "donated" to a university? Where would they get the money from first of all? Anyway, the only people in Nigeria who have immunity from prosecution are serving presidents, vice-presidents, governors and their deputies. So Nigerians must stop allowing themselves to be used as tools to discourage prosecution - it's not in this country's interest.

EFCC

FOLLOWING reports claiming two of PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar's sons were arrested, or that their flats were searched by the EFCC, the agency released a statement saying it never "went after" them.

Rather, the commission stated the raid targeted someone else entirely: "Ogbonna Orji, son of Senator Theodore Orji, over money laundering, which has absolutely nothing to do with son of the ex-VP.

The former Abia governor has been under investigations by the EFCC for alleged money laundering activities which was said to have been carried out through his sons".

Fake news is becoming the backbone of electioneering and many Nigerians are fooled into blind support on an ethno-religious basis. Why don't we want cases to go to trial? Why is our first instinct always to ask: "why him/her?" As opposed to "can they prove he/she committed a crime?"

NASS

WORKERS at the National Assembly wrote a petition to the EFCC accusing the leadership of allegedly diverting the funds meant to pay their allowances.

This is yet another typical example of class warfare in Nigeria: there's always enough money to allocate for wardrobe allowances, cars, etc., for senators and members of the House but never enough to increase the minimum wage or to pay salaries.

Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.

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