In this interview with GBENRO ADEOYE, the former President of the Nigerian Bar Association and former Pro-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), speaks about Nigeria, the economy, the law profession and other issues
You were at one time the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, looking back now, how well do you think the law profession has done since that time?
Before I became the NBA president, I was Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Ondo State, but I thank God for the NBA. But to me, the NBA should illuminate the darkness of Nigerians. It must act as the voice for the voiceless and the oppressed. To be the NBA leader is not a tea party; it is not like going for a picnic. I cannot see any NBA leader as good if he does not want to step on toes. When I was NBA president, it was under a democratic regime, which was supposed to be rooted in the constitution and constitutionalism. But before then, I belonged to the Alao Aka Bashorun (also a former President of the NBA) dynasty within the NBA. I was one of his boys and I stood by him and with him for the two years that he was president. And I liked his courage and appreciated his carriage. One day, while Femi Falana and I were at his office in Ebute-Meta, the telephone rang. There was no GSM at the time. He pressed the speaker button and from the other end, the person said ‘President’. Then Bashorun asked, ‘who is that?’ The person said ‘my name is Ibrahim’. Femi and I had known by that time that it was General Ibrahim Babangida’s voice. The person then said he was Ibrahim Babangida. Unconsciously, Bashorun stood up. That was reflex action. He said you are the President, sir. But IBB said the President of the NBA is the President of Nigeria. He said the fear of Alao Aka Bashorun was the beginning of wisdom. I’m telling you this so that you understand what the NBA presidency meant to a military dictator, for him to have said that. Babangida then said you are doing well for the NBA but we want you to come and serve. But Bashorun said, Mr. President, forget about that, I’m satisfied being the President of the NBA. He said, but one thing I will request of you. All the decrees that you churn out every day, please can you allow the NBA to have inputs? Can you send us the drafts of the decrees before you sign them? Babangida said Alao, take it as done. And from then on, every decree that Babangida wanted to pass, he would send to the NBA and we would debate it. So I became the NBA president, I knew the background I was coming from. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was the President but I knew he was a military dictator. He had and still has military traits and tendencies- the military’s ‘know it all’ attitude. So I knew what I was prepared for. Some people thought that because he was a Yoruba President and I was Yoruba NBA President, I would be treating him with kid gloves, no. When we needed to respect him, we respected him and when we needed to criticise him, we criticised him. There was a time we visited him in his office in Aso Villa and he was harassing me while I was reading my speech, he did it three or four times, interjecting me and banging his fist on the table. But I didn’t want to be rude to him. Gen. Abdulsalami Abukakar and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Kanu Agabi (SAN) were there. Obasanjo didn’t allow the press to come in. He was banging the table, saying No! No! No!
What did you say that made him do that?
We suggested to him to spend a term in office; to see how we would nurture our democracy. We pleaded with him. We said, for our democracy to have a smooth take-off, spend one term of four or five years in office and that the NBA was ready to assist him to see how we could amend the constitution. We made a lot of suggestions but he could not tolerate me any longer, he banged his fist on the table; it was bad. He said what kind of law are you talking about? Then it got to a stage, I said Mr. President Sir, I have a speech which I want to read, if you don’t want us, can we take our leave? At that time, I was packing all my files. Members of my executive were there. You could have heard a pin drop. Then Agabi and Abdulsalami had to come in and said the President would no longer interject you. After we left, I understand Obasanjo asked them who made that rascal the President of the NBA and that Agabi said he is not a radical, he is one of the best we have in the profession. That is why till tomorrow, I will always respect Agabi. I learnt that he defended us, the NBA. When a lawyer was being arrested, I gave Obasanjo 24 hours to release him, he released him. While I will commend NBA presidents that have come after me, I want to say that the NBA should not and never be for ‘bread and butter’ or ‘Yes people’. Although, we should not be rude to the government, the NBA president must be able to pick up courage because he has lawyers behind him. When an NBA president speaks, he speaks for all the lawyers in Nigeria, whether we like it or not. So I see no reason why NBA presidents will not be able to talk on issues relating to fundamental human rights, criminal prosecution, justice sector, economy, and so on. The NBA must always take a position; always. We are too big to hibernate. When Obasanjo increased the price of petrol, Adams Oshiomhole (former President, Nigeria Labour Congress) approached the NBA to defend him. Obasanjo took them to court; I went as NBA president, leading Falana and others to stand in for the NLC. Everybody has his own style; that was my own style. Today if an NBA president goes to defend the labour union, people may start lambasting him but the NBA president must first of all do it. You must be on the side of the masses. Ghali Na’Abba (former Speaker of the House of Representatives) could not believe what we did when the House of Representatives wanted to impeach Obasanjo. I left Lagos and sought audience with him. He said but this man (Obasanjo) does not like the NBA, I said NBA is above pettiness. It is a question of Nigeria and the stability of our democracy. He showed me all the allegations and in fairness, they were not just out to embarrass Obasanjo; they were not frivolous allegations. Some of them were provable but the NBA said no, don’t do it because of our young democracy that needed nurturing. So comparing then and now, I will say the NBA has been on the quiet side, even on matters that concern lawyers.
Recently, the Federal Government and some members of the public have accused the NBA and the judiciary of aiding corruption with delay tactics to frustrate the anti-graft law. Do you agree with that?
Nowadays, you see people talking about lawyers defending some people. A lawyer is at liberty to defend any person that briefs him. So you should not condemn the lawyers because it is Mr. A, it might be you tomorrow. Frankly speaking, the government and those condemning lawyers are very unfair to lawyers. Have they cast some people aside as lepers that are untouchable? A lawyer must muster sufficient courage whether in criminal or civil actions, to take up the defence or the case of his client without compromising it and without minding whose ox is gored, but it must be done within the ambit of law. He must not go outside that to do what is criminal simply because he wants to save his client or win a case for him. But within the ambit of the law, a lawyer has sufficient room to meander. And a lawyer must be fearless and resolute but he must not be rude. Otherwise, don’t come to the profession. Some people don’t know and some pretend not to know that law has its technicalities-both civil and criminal proceedings. They talk of technicalities and say that lawyers delay cases, look, without being immodest; I have been involved in a lot of cases in this country. I have defended a lot of people. During the run-up to the 2015 elections, I was one of the lawyers hired on pro bono basis to defend the All Progressives Congress and its candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. We employed all the tactics available, employable and allowable in the legal profession; why didn’t they blame us then? If we didn’t, the election would not have held. If you do that today, some people, even within the profession, will blame you. I know what I’m talking about. The election was to hold on a Saturday and Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court, Abuja, said he was going to deliver his judgement on whether or not card readers should be used by the Independent National Electoral Commission on Thursday, two days to the election. We filed preliminary objection, he overruled it. I was in court with Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), Akin Olujinmi (SAN), and Kola Awodein, (when) Asiwaju Bola Tinubu sent an aircraft to pick me in Akure, saying that if we were not in court, the election would not hold. There are things that need to be unveiled in this country. Tinubu, Babatunde Fashola (former Lagos State Governor), the Vice President (Prof. Yemi Osinbajo), Lai Mohammed, the AGF (Abubakar Malami) were in the know. And Kolawole overruled us. Then he called the plaintiff and said, can you go ahead with originating summons? I will deliver my judgement tomorrow. Like someone who was possessed, I rose up and said I was applying for stay of proceedings. Then the other lawyer interjected and asked for my formal application. I gave him two authorities offhand that I could apply orally. That was two days to the election. Kolawole said well, whatever it is; I would want to listen to you. He listened to me. We did it pro bono in the sense that the APC hasn’t paid us. Nobody even wrote a letter to say thank you. Then thereafter, he wrote a ruling and granted stay of proceedings 48 hours to the election. The Supreme Court later held that, though the card reader was a good innovation, it was not yet in the law. Would Buhari have been President if we had not done that? What could be more technical than that? They filed action against Buhari, we looked at it; we raised objections and we were dragging that. Is that not technicality? And some people will now accuse me when I do it for other people that I’m defending looters. But when you do it for them, it is right; that is double standard. And what baffles me is that some high lawyers, who should know better, also accuse some lawyers of defending looters?
To hell with anybody who has looted the treasury. I believe in my profession and I thank God for what I am. I am a fulfilled person and don’t want any position from any government, but then government should allow those of us who are privately engaged to do our work. In our offices in Lagos and Abuja, we have over 75 members of staff- professionals and supporting staff. We pay more than what the government pays and don’t owe workers. A cleaner in my office earns far more than what government calls minimum wage. And when you say someone is a looter, who is a looter? Anybody who loots will have his day in court and God will punish looters, but at the same time, judge not, so that you are not judged. And let the accused person defend himself. All religions give room for fair hearing. I grew up to know that when people came to my father to settle disputes, he would say ‘e je ko so tie, agba ti o gbo ejo enikan dajo, agba osika ni’ (let him say his side of the story; an elder who bases his judgement on only one side of the story is wicked). I grew up to know that. So you don’t want people to be heard? If that is the case, change the constitution. So once someone is accused, he is arrested and taken to prison. Then, abolish the courts. That is my position. And what goes around comes around. You may be the accuser today, tomorrow; it may be your turn to face accusations. Let the law take its course. It is tyrannical, dictatorial and smacks of militarism when you start accusing lawyers who defend people. You cannot have democracy without free speech and people having access to courts. You cannot be the accuser, the lawyer and the judge. They say lawyers and judges delay the prosecution of looters, then if they have already been adjudged looters, don’t prosecute them. It is only a court of law that can come to the conclusion that someone has looted the treasury after evidence has been produced.
So where does a lawyer find balance? How do you decide who to defend or who not to defend?
A lawyer is at liberty to defend any case and once he takes up the case, he must do it uncompromisingly to the best of his ability. No lawyer can be condemned for defending any person. But as for me, at times, I might decide not to take some cases because of the extenuating circumstances. Today, I have rejected a particular brief, but I won’t mention names because of the parties concerned. I cherish my independence. A lawyer must not be under the control of any person. My clientele cuts across tribal, ethnical, religious boundaries. Once I take up a case, I take it that there is an unwritten covenant between that person and myself supervised by God and I must not compromise his interest. That is at the bottom line for me. I don’t care what anybody says, I owe a duty to that client just as I did to Gen. Buhari as a candidate without seeing him. Some people briefed me on his behalf and I loyally served him.
Some people will wonder how you are able to handle briefs from people from opposing sides like when you defended Tinubu at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and by 2.30pm on the same day, you were defending former President Goodluck Jonathan in another court. How do you quickly shift allegiances?
What I give my clients is my knowledge, I don’t sell my conscience. I retain my conscience and independence. I cherish my liberty. I keep it. No client will tell me not to represent others, I will tell that client to go. Let me give you an example. Tinubu is not just my client, he is also my friend. I respect him and he respects me but he cannot say he wants to control me. He does not even discuss my professional jobs with me. The day you just referred to, I was at the CCT in the morning in a suit. Jonathan’s election petition was stood down till about 2 pm and immediately I finished addressing the CCT on Tinubu’s matter, I had to go and change for Jonathan’s matter. Jonathan would dare not ask me why I was defending his foe. But one thing I knew then was that there was no Nigerian that Jonathan’s government feared more than Tinubu.
Why do you think so?
I know. In fact, his camp believed they were contesting election against him, that he was the arrowhead of the opposition but they dared not ask me anything about his case. One thing I also noticed was that Jonathan’s team started withdrawing from me gradually because of the Tinubu factor. And I won’t go to anybody to beg for briefs. A lady, whose name I don’t want to mention, called me one day and said these people are in trouble, why are they running away from you? Who cares? I can be very committed to my clients. Former President Umaru Yar’Adua is dead; I was his lawyer since his days as Governor of Katsina State. He was a gentleman per excellence; he would have been the best president Nigeria ever had but he was overwhelmed by his illness. He was so humble, intelligent, honest and frugal. He was the one who appointed me as Pro Chancellor of the University of Ibadan and he told me, Wole, I know you are going to help me revive and revamp that place. Thank God we did that eventually. We changed the entire face of the university. Anytime Tinubu wants to make jest of me, he will say when it comes to law, nobody talks to you, I will say thank God you know that. He knows that when it comes to his case, I will not compromise his interest. Also, I defended Tinubu when the late Funsho Williams took him to the tribunal. He has been my client over the years. And if you are talking of technicality, we had a plan when we handled his CCT case. We had even planned against the ruling and ahead of the ruling. I had already prepared notice of appeal. I had prepared a notice of appeal, a motion for stay of proceedings, and that if the ruling went against us, we would say okay, let’s take a short adjournment, argue that motion for stay of proceedings. Would you say that is technicality? Is that not allowed in law? Today, if I do it for somebody else, would you now want to shoot me down? When people are in government, they appropriate all knowledge to themselves. And it is only they that are patriotic; that can’t be right. It is only God that is always right. I see a lot of us now, who believe that government is always right, that can’t be right. We must objectively critique the government, not to bring it down but to make it perform. Nobody has the divine right to govern over me, you do so through democratic means, therefore, you owe me a duty to do well and listen to me and my complaints. When government says 2 plus 2 equals 10, we clap. We don’t take the government up any longer; we must not be like robots. It is not in the interest of the government, it is not in our own interest and it is not in the interest of our children.