Mr Hannibal Uwaifo is the President of African Bar Association (AFBA). He speaks in this interview on the ongoing strike by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), the challenges of the rule of law in Africa, among others. WALE ELEGBEDE reports
AfBA has positioned itself as a body that defends rule of law on the continent. What informed this?
Any organization that is not able to stand up for the human rights of the people or defend the rule of law, is not worth its onion.
That is why the Africa Bar Association which prides itself as the fearless voice of the legal profession is standing firmly for anybody whose rights are abused or where there are infractions over rule of law. Essentially, the theme of our conference in the Niger Republic later in the year is going to harp on accountability in government.
If African governments especially our leaders, practice what they preach, this continent will be better than this. If our governments don’t do media trials, instead follow the processes, then most of the conflict we have in Africa will not be there.
There are constitutional and term limits for leaders. But why is it that a few months to the end of your tenure you decided to instigate the parliament and you start changing your constitution to run for another term? So, littered around the continent are Methuselah leaders who have not contributed anything to their countries apart from destroying them.
The premise that was ascribed to former President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire, is exactly the same route the current president had taken. The current president in that country is doing a third term.
The AfBA has a duty to pursue peace anywhere in the continent, no matter whose ox is gored. We are having a problem in our hands now.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has fully discharged and acquitted Laurent Gbagbo, why is the government preventing him from entering Cote d Voire? You cannot have selective justice. So, if you see another crisis in that country, you begin to wonder what is going on.
Do you agree that Africa needs foreign assistance and support to learn adherence to the rule of law?
I don’t believe we need to get foreign aids or assistance to fight for the rule of law. No, it is a provision that is enshrined in our constitutions across the continent. Anywhere the rule of law is abused in the continent; it is our responsibility to take it up.
That is the main focus of our 2021 annual conference. The legal profession must wake up and use our position or status to defend the constitution and not for making business. Politicians always have a way of turning the heat and trying to bury the real story behind what is happening, we know all these things.
But we must remain focus and vigilant on what we are demanding. You cannot pick and choose a court order. If somebody murdered someone here and the matter is tried in court, and the court ruled that the accused is free to go, having been done according to law, that is the judgment.
If there are problems with corruption in our country, we must deal with it according to the law, not by media trial. In this country, judges have been tried and dismissed. We have also had governors and ministers sent to prison. If we can imbibe this habit of following the rule of law, our continent and country will be much better. We must not fold our arms, we must promote the rules of law.
Judiciary staff are currently on strike over judicial autonomy. What is your take on the industrial action?
The Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) issue is not within our purview, it is within the jurisdiction of the NBA. We deal with issues across the continent but we will assist if called upon. I think the JUSUN strike is unnecessary. It is happening because the government and those who run governance are not observing the rule of law.
The strike would have been unnecessary if the government and those who run governance are not observing the rule of law and not obeying the constitution The constitution has already provided autonomy for the judiciary but the governors don’t want to obey. Even the President, recently, signed an executive bill for judicial autonomy.
For me, I am a Nigerian lawyer and though I may be losing some activities due to the strike, the judicial staff, to my reckoning, unfortunately, are doing the right thing in the circumstance they found themselves. I think judicial autonomy is a necessity and should be greatly permitted. This is the position of the president of AfBA.
The AfBA as a body does not need to take a decision on symbol court. I think judicial autonomy should be implemented. What we need to have after the implementation in order for corruption not to set in is that those people who have been given the functions of executing contracts should be allowed to do so, because our judges cannot become contractors but can supervise those who are employed to carry out the job.
Judicial autonomy is the beginning, but we still need to put in a lot of things in place in order not to further deepen the corruption all over the judiciary.
What is the position of the AfBA on the case between Venezuelan Diplomat Alex Saab and the Government of Cape Verde?
The case between Venezuelan Diplomat Alex Saab and the Government of Cape Verde is a sour point in the history of judicial pronouncements in West Africa.
While the Association is unable to involve herself in the under currents and politics of the detention of Ambassador Saab, it is heartwarming to confirm that instead of resulting to jungle justice and other primitive ways of settling disputes, the parties on their own volition submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of the ECOWAS Community Court.
Having done so and presented their respective points, it becomes a disservice and outright tragedy for any of the parties to refuse to act on or obey the outcome. The African Bar Association is sad to learn that Cape Verde Islands as a responsible member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) had on at least two occasions refused and or neglected to obey the decision of the ECOWAS Court.
Can you shed light on the ECOWAS Court ruling?
From factual accounts given to us which our Human Rights Committee which investigated the matter upon a petition to the Association by the family of Ambassador Saab, Cape Verde refused to obey an earlier interim ruling.
In the said ruling which the Court gave before the final judgment, Cape Verde was ordered by the Court not to put Mr. Saab in prison but under house arrest with access to his personal physician, family members and legal counsels. We were reliably informed that this order of a legitimate Court of law was not obeyed.
This flagrant violation has now emboldened the Island of Cape Verde to disobey or out rightly refused to implement the final judgment wherein the Court ordered the release of the detained envoy and payment of some compensation. This is almost a month after the decision.
How do you assess the refusal and what does it portend for the jurisdiction of the regional Court?
Very respectfully, we find this distasteful and an affront on the authority of ECOWAS which must be decisively addressed in order not to bring the authority to disrepute. Africa is today the theatre of insecurity, banditry and all forms of Lawlessness never before witnessed in this scale.
We say that it is attitudes of this nature that has created this situation and the Cape Verde situation must be dealt with so as not to escalate the already precarious state.
It is the respectful view of the African Bar Association that willful and unlawful disobedience of the machinery of justice in the subregion back-tracts Africa to the dark ages and does not portray the Subregion in good light. It is also capable of destroying the Court and making it a laughing stock.
Once faith is lost in the Court, this old long-standing respectable organization may be brought to disrepute especially in the eyes of foreigners who may believe wrongly that our Justice System is unreliable.
The rule of law is the mechanism, process, institution, practice or norm that supports the equality of all citizens before the Law, secures a non-arbitrary form of government and more generally prevents the arbitrary use of power.
Disobedience of Court judgments with all due respect, is a call to anarchy and does not portray Cape Verde in good light. The rule of law is the bedrock of civilized nations and the legs on which any legitimate government stands.
Violation of a Court judgement is an anathema which should not be encouraged or tolerated by any responsible government or nation.
What advice is AfBA offering to resolve this issue?
It is our respectful view that unless Cape Verde immediately return to the path of legality by giving effect to the Court judgement, it will be setting a very dangerous precedent that will come back to hunt her in the near future.
Lawyers in the continent are worried that the path currently being towed by Cape Verde is not only retrogressive but will bring the country to dis-repute and make ECOWAS a toothless organization thus becoming a laughing stock, no thanks to this unfortunate conduct of Cape Verde.
This situation may lead to chaos, indiscriminate arrest of Citizens especially of Cape Verde without consequences. In fact, the situation will put African and West African Diplomats at risk. History may not be kind to your Cape Verde Islands.
We, therefore, appeal most profoundly and respectfully that Cape Verde take the interest of ECOWAS and Africa to heart in order to prize the Rule of Law above all primordial sentiments and obey the ECOWAS Court judgement of 15th March 2021 forthwith.