The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA and its members have been challenged to go beyond representing disputing parties in court for electoral matters to make money but “rise up to be the true protectors of Nigeria’s democracy.”
This was the advice by former Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, Mrs. Charlotte Kesson-Smith Osei, while delivering this year’s edition of the annual Gani Fawehinmi Lecture in Lagos on Sunday, January 15, 2023.
Kesson-Smith Osei, who also was a United Nations International Electoral Commissioner said though the NBA needed to be commended for its efforts in ensuring free and fair election in Nigeria, the guest speaker however said it is now time for the body to take the bull by the horns to ensure free, fair and equitable electioneering process in the country.
This is as the President of the NBA, Mr. Yakubu Maikyau (SAN), called on the National Assembly to consider amending the 1999 constitution to pave the way for independent candidacy in the Nigeria electoral process.
While speaking at the 19th Annual Gani Fawehinmi lecture put together by the Ikeja branch of the NBA, the NBA President charged lawyers across the country to ensure that the forthcoming 2023 general elections, slated to hold in February, are free, fair, and credible.
The lecture theme of the 19th edition of the Fawehinmi Lecture, was “A Free, Fair, and Credible Election: An Indispensable Tool for National Development.”
Kesson-Smith Osei said that free, fair and credible election, remains an indispensable tool for national development.
Challenging the Bar, Kesson-Smith Osei said: “The NBA must be commended for its interest in ensuring that Nigeria’s elections are free, fair and credible and the nexus to national development. However, the NBA and its members must go beyond representing disputing parties in court in electoral matters, and rise up to be the true protectors of Nigeria’s democracy.”
Osei also said that Nigeria has got some success in conducting elections, but berated a situation of apathy towards election and where Nigerians are daily being confronted with cases of abduction, which she said, could hamper a smooth electoral process.
“The high level of apathy in Nigerian elections must be of concern to the NBA. One cannot be interested in development and yet disinterested in who leads the development and the capacity and character of such leaders. The question is: what would Gani have done? Would he have taken an interest in the level of apathy towards a matter as important as elections? If we are apathetic toward elections, can we then be seriously interested in national development and the quality of governance?
“The Bar and its members must endeavour to hold all actors INEC, the judiciary, security agencies, candidates, political parties and the media to the standards required by the law. And do so without fear or favour. That is when we can truly have free, fair and credible elections.
“How can we hold duty bearers to account and ensure that the letter and spirit of the Nigerian Constitution are upheld? That is the first step towards ensuring that credible elections which birth national development. A democracy that is left in the hands of CSOs and foreign donor agencies does not thrive and does not survive. That is one of my key takeaways from my time in Afghanistan. Nigerians, led by the NBA, must begin to stand up for Nigeria’s democracy.”
Urging the lawyers not to feel unconcerned, she said: “The Nigeria Bar Association cannot be a disinterested party. The Bar must stand up and speak loudly when the letter and even the spirit of the law are being abused, whether by governments or by political parties. It is said that “democracy dies in darkness”. The Bar must be the light. The Bar must be at the forefront of engaging the judiciary on electoral justice and protecting judicial and electoral officers from executive overreach.
“Not too long ago in Malawi, a lawyer set an inspiring example by heading to court to challenge the results of an election that had been declared free and fair by election observers. His petition sought to overturn the results of a presidential election and for an order for the rerun of the election. His petition was successful. He declined an appointment from the candidate who was later declared as winner of the new elections demonstrating that his petition was for God and country, not self.
“Is it possible for the NBA to consider setting up a team of lawyer dedicated to electoral integrity through the entire electoral process? Such a team would be non-partisan, educated in the principles of electoral law, and guide the nation and raise critical questions that would contribute to entrenching democracy and improving the quality of Nigeria’s elections.
“That is what Gani would have done. That is what Gani would have expected of all. Gani was the light fighting the darkness of oppression and injustice.
“I wish this country well in the upcoming elections. It is my hope that Nigeria will pass this test of democracy for the 7th time, and pass well. And it is my prayer that these elections will usher in true development and prosperity for the people of this most beautiful and blessed country. May the labours of our heroes past, exemplified by Chief Gani Fawehinmi. never be in vain.”
“Lawyers should endeavour to make the sacrifices Gani Fawehinmi made to make Nigeria and its electoral process better.”
She advised the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government of Nigeria, FGN, to tackle the issue of insecurity to foster confidence in the citizenry.
Osei said: “When elections are not free, it can result in the stagnation of the development of the country. Every Nigerian wants access to shelter, good roads, health care system, electricity, and other social amenities.
“The citizens should demand accountability from their leaders. Democracy dies both in darkness and silence.”
In his speech, the NBA President, Mr. Maikyau, SAN, charged lawyers across the country to ensure that the forthcoming 2023 general elections, slated to hold in February, are free, fair, and credible, Mikyau urged them to work towards improving Nigeria’s democratic process.
He expressed worries that a candidate cannot contest an election without being a member of a political party.
The NBA President equally knocked the fraud being carried out against the Nigerian masses, just as he made known the determination of the NBA to give what he termed a national colouration to the Annual Gani Fawehinmi Lecture.
According to him, “We are taking over the event by fully bearing the cost of putting the same together. Gani Fawehinmi was a fearless advocate and stood as the conscience of the masses.
“Freedom is one of Fawehinmi’s legacies that he left behind. He lived and worked for democracy, and we should ensure that his legacies are not pushed aside.”
While welcoming all to the event, Oluwaseyi Olawunmi, the Ikeja branch chairman of the NBA, said the branch conceived the annual lecture to celebrate the ideals of the late Fawehinmi.
“Fawehinmi spoke truth to power, he championed the course of the masses, stood for beggers and the less privileged members of the society,” he said.
The former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ado-Ekiti, and chairman of the occasion, Professor Akin Oyebode, described the late Fawehinmi as a unique individual, who fought against bad governance.
The Professor of law posited: “Gani had an indomitable spirit that you cannot overrun. Gani succeeded in democratising the legal profession. He made indelible marks in the practice of the legal profession in Nigeria.”
He described, as wicked and oppressive, the incivility of the Nigerian security operatives against the late Fawehinmi.
The Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who was represented by the state’s Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN), declared that Fawehinmi stood for democracy and led the battle against military rule in Nigeria.
Onigbanjo said, “He fought against bad governance and never compromised his stand. He fought for freedom until he died.”
The Chief Judge of Lagos State, CJ, Justice Kazeem Alogba, who was represented by the Chief Registrar of the High Court of Lagos State, Tajudeen Elias, argued that Fawehinmi was a dogged fighter for human rights with a further position that the late legal icon was committed to the development of law in the country.
The CJ said that legal practitioners should emulate the legacies of the late Fawehinmi, stating that as elections draw closer, the judiciary will remain committed to the conduct of a free, fair, and credible election in the country.