NBA must stop acting like labour unions – Sofola, SAN

By Onozure Dania

Mr. Olusina Abdulrafiu Sofola, SAN, is the first son of the late renowned legal luminary, Chief Idowu Shotayo Sofola, SAN. In this interview, he shares his view on what the APC government should focus on in the next four years. He also spoke on law reforms, remedy for election violence victims, independence of the judiciary amongst other issues. Excerpt:

How would you assess the performance of INEC in the last election?

The truth of the matter is that they did reasonably well but I was expecting more. Having practised democracy for quite a while now, there should be an improvement and we should practise things the way it should be done in the 21st Century. There are a lot of instances that are quite unpalatable and should not be happening. I will give you  an example. On the day of the Presidential and National Assembly elections, I left my house with my wife and children and we were just going for a leisure walk around the neighbourhood to see how everything is going on. This was about 8:45am and we saw a bus with some occupants. They introduced themselves as the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC staff and said they were looking for where the polling station should be, where they were meant to erect their polling booth. I think that was not good enough, especially with the postponement of the elections. I expected more from them in terms of logistics and preparations for the elections. There were a few things I asked myself like when shall we get there, considering this permanent voter’s card and everything that goes with it, like the biometrics. Why must you only be able to vote in the place where you registered? I think the truth of the matter is that INEC would have done a bit better.

There has been a lot of disagreements among lawyers over the use of the Military during the general elections. What is your reaction?

We all know what the job of the Military is. They are meant to protect the country from external forces. That is their primary duty. In certain cases, they can also get themselves involved in protecting the citizens against themselves, within the country but in such cases there has to be a clear need for that. The truth of the matter is that I am not sure (as far as the election was concerned), there was need for the Military to be actively involved with the elections. It does seem sometimes that they could appear to be exacting force, or to be putting people under pressure, or to be making people uncomfortable. Honestly, I’m not sure that it was necessary to have the Military out the way we did.  I would have preferred a situation where the police are allowed to do their job while the Military is kept on standby so that if the need arises, they would be able to approach them within a short notice. But to have them going around even before any obvious trouble, is wrong in my view.

There were cases of violence in some parts of the country during the last election.  What are the provisions for victims of election violence?

The law makes provisions for how to treat election violence, vis-à-vis the persons involved in such violence and prescribes custodian sentences if they are actually found guilty of such violence. If I understand your question properly, to the best of my knowledge, the Electoral Act does not make specific provisions for victims of election violence. Obviously, the law generally tries to protect the victims and also, the Government has the duty and responsibility to take care of the victims of such violence.  The truth of the matter is that if we had a good system and if we were in a country where the hospital is working properly, anyone that is a victim of election violence should be able to get treatment from state hospitals. I do not know of any particular law that makes any specific provisions as to how to treat victims of election violence.

Do you believe that the NBA is playing its role effectively on the issues of governance?

I believe that they are moving in the right direction. We have not gotten to where we want to be, but I believe that we are moving in the right direction. I noticed that from the time of Austin Aleghe, SAN, when any major matter arises, the president of the NBA will meet with his executives and they will state their positions on such issues. That has continued up till now. When issues arise that the general community of people are not comfortable with, you see the NBA coming up with their own communiqué on such issues. I believe that is certainly a step in the right direction. The NBA is beginning to realise that it should not be looked at as a labour union of some sort. The NBA is meant to be interested in trying to protect the Judiciary and ensuring that the rule of law is maintained and that the warfare of their members is also taken care of.

I am not one of those who believe that the NBA should be radical, and should be going on strikes. I believe that they should make positive comments and take positive actions in relation to events as they arise. I believe that the present president, Mr Paul Usoro, SAN is working in the right direction. I will like to believe that as time goes on,  he will be able to perfect it and give us the NBA that we would all be proud of.

Some months ago when the former CJN, Onnoghen was accused of not declaring all his assets, the NBA asked lawyers to boycott the courts. Do you think that was necessary?

Whether it was necessary or not, I will not want to go into that right now because there are obviously divergent views on it.  But as a lawyer and a member of the NBA, I believe that whatever decisions the NBA, as a body reaches, should be complied with by members of the association because if it is not, then the association would be rendered ineffective. Once the body makes a decision, as a member of that association, I believe that it is our duty to comply with whatever directions that our parent body has given except of course, if it is something that is illegal. Provided that it is not illegal, I think that we should support our association to the best of our ability. If I remember clearly, it wasn’t just the meeting of the executives, the ex- officials of NBA was called and it was the decision of that enlarged body that lawyers should not attend court. I am of the opinion that every lawyer should set aside their personal beliefs and comply with the decisions of the NBA.

From the look of things, the judiciary appears to have been muzzled by other arms of government. Do you believe the judiciary can ever be truly independent?

I think it is very important that there should be independence of the Judiciary and I cannot overstress this. The Judiciary is the last hope of the common man and they should be allowed to do their job. The executive should restrict themselves to their own job.  Legislators should make the laws, the executive should give the policies and the judiciary should be allowed to adjudicate because there is the need for separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary cannot be overemphasised.  I think that the onus is on the executive not to be overbearing. The executive may not necessarily be happy with the way things are going in the judiciary sometimes, but the truth of the matter is that the Constitution that we subscribe to must be followed to the letter. I believe that the executive should respect the Constitution.  They should respect the judiciary and give it that which has been so stated in the Constitution.

As the 9th Assembly prepares to take over legislative sessions, what aspects of the law do you think they should consider reviewing?

One thing that continues to bother me every year is our budget. For one reason or the other, our budget is never passed on time. We are now in the month of March and the budget has not been passed and this is for a country that the economy to a large extent, depends on the Government. It’s dominated by the public sector, so it obviously leaves a lot to be desired that as of March, which will end next week, the budget has not been passed. This is something that is of immense importance for everybody. Let us put this budget in place so that the economy can move forward because there is a lot of uncertainty all over the place.  Once it is passed, everybody will know where they are going and then we would be able to move forward. It also be nice if the issue of the minimum wage for the workers is resolved so that we don’t have cases of strikes every now and then. If these two things are resolved, then we are on to a good start.

What are your expectations in the second coming of Buhari’s administration?

Honestly, I pray that the APC government would move Nigeria to a higher level. I know their campaign slogan was next level, but I actually preferred Better level. I hope and I pray that they move us to the next level. As far as I am concerned, it is very important that the economy is fixed.

I understand that election petitions have been filed, and we do not know the conclusion yet. But whoever is there, I believe that it is only God that can make you a leader. I pray that whoever God has put in that position will be somebody that will have the interest of the people at heart and be able to move us all together to a higher level.

The economy needs to  be improved; you can see improvement in the energy sector in certain areas.

I can speak for myself, the place where I live, electricity supply has improved substantially but not so much  in my office. But that is one area that would be good if we can improve on.

The other area that gladdens my heart is the issue of the rail.  Part of the problem in Nigeria is that after we started  road transportation, we more or less skipped rail travel, and we went to air, without perfecting rail travel. All over the world, in the developed countries, there are those options of the rail, the road, the sea and the air.

One area that I think Nigeria certainly needs to improve on is the rail. I ask myself everyday and I do not understand why there is no fast train that goes from Lagos to Abuja. That is from the commercial centre of the country, to the capital. I would have thought that by now, we would have had fast trains that will just take you straight to Abuja non-stop. I hope and pray that whoever God says will be there, would be able to make such improvements in the country generally.

  1. Culled from Vanguard