By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
On the night of 17 September 2012, insurgents assassinated Zanna Mallam Gana, Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice of Borno State. Mallam Gana was killed in his home in Bama where he had gone to spend the week-end. In response to his killing, the institutions for the defence of the rule of law in Nigeria, including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), said nothing.
For most people beyond Borno State, Mallam Gana was just another morbid statistic in the insurgency in Borno. For the legal profession in the State, however, it was the beginning of a sustained assault that has deepened. In the eighteen months since his killing, the insurgents have killed many other lawyers in Borno state. Abubakar Sadiq, another lawyer, was also shot and killed in Bama while he was enlisting help to escape from insurgent who had forcibly seized his car. Insurgents also attacked and killed Babagana Alkali, Modu Denjami, and Ahmed Wali, all members of the Maiduguri Bar. Last year, insurgents similarly killed Jibrin Mohammed in his home in Maiduguri. He was also a member of the Maiduguri Bar. Also killed was Mohammed’s two year old daughter who died in his arms.
To the south of Maiduguri in Gwoza, Adamu Dugje, another lawyer was also assassinated by the insurgents. All these were real person, real lawyers. As their examples show, in addition to educational institutions, lawyers and institutions of the rule of law have been a specific focus of attacks as the insurgency in north-east Nigeria has deepened. The number of lawyers killed does not fully account for the brutality of the assault on the law and its institutions. Besides the dead, many lawyers have also been injured, terrorized or forced to flee the insurgency. Peter Adebayo Bello, a lawyer in Maiduguri, was attacked in his house, shot in the head and left to die. He survived but has evacuated from Maiduguri.
Also in Maiduguri, the insurgents attacked Musa Mohammed, another lawyer, in his house. Mohammed survived merely because he was quick witted enough to deny that he was a lawyer. But his assailants beat him to pulp and warned him that they would be return if they found out that he had lied to them. Unwilling to test fate, Mohammed fled Maiduguri and is now struggling to re-build his life and practice elsewhere.
In Borno, for instance, lawyers and courts have been wiped out from all but the State capital, Maiduguri. With security assets stretched, judicial officers have all re-located to Maiduguri. At the Bar, entire branches have been displaced. The Biu Branch of the NBA, for instance, no longer maintains any member in Biu. In many locations outside the capital, the insurgents maintain road blocks where clean shaven men are particularly targeted for execution because they are assumed to be lawyers, police or other security personnel.
In the face of this brutal and escalating attack on the legal profession in North-east Nigeria, the leadership of the NBA has offered little ideas, support or reinforcement to the affected institutions, leading many to question whether it cares or knows how to. On 13 February 2014, the NBA organised an event to provide “relief” to lawyers affected by the insurgency in north-east Nigeria. Speaking at the event, the NBA President, OkeyWali, a Senior Advocate, acknowledged that “Legal practice in North Eastern Nigeria has been largely disrupted as a result of the insurgency in that region. In fact, it is non-existent”, and lamented: “as I speak most of our members have not only lost their practice as professionals, but have also lost their livelihood and physical wellbeing. Even some of our members are regarded as insurgents and threatened with prosecution.”
So what did the NBA do to address this situation? It has spent 1.52 Million Naira on cheques of 100,000 Naira each to the survivors of four lawyers killed and another 70,000 each to 16 lawyers displaced by the insurgency. This is both miserable and pathetic.
At the conclusion of the meeting of its National Executive Committee (NEC) in Abuja, in May 2014, the NBA requested that “our branches in the North-eastern part of Nigeria, namely, Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, should document clearly the allegations and patterns of violation of human rights by security agents in the North-East and that such reports should be sent to the NBA National Secretariat so that we can take them up with the relevant security and government agencies and also the Defence Headquarters.”
The most charitable that can be said about this is that it is mis-guided, mis-informed and lacking in imagination. The Bar in the north-east has unquestionably encountered difficulties with the security agencies in the region. But the most serious attacks on the Bar and the rule of law have come from the insurgency. It has killed many lawyers, run many more out of town and is an assault on the rule of law.
Rather than document the persecution of its own members, the leadership of the NBA prefers to pass the buck to branches in parts where it has acknowledged that the Bar is “non-existent”. To compound matters, when the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) earlier this year offered to enlist the skills of lawyers in Borno in prosecuting detainees under the Terrorism Prevention Act, the leadership of the NBA quickly stepped in to divert the briefs to themselves, asking the DHQ to exclusively discuss such matters with the NBA at the national level.
The mission of the NBA is “Promoting the Rule of Law”. It does injustice to this mission when all it seeks is to secure briefs for NBA’s plutocrats off the back of a profession under brutal assault from the insurgency.
On the insurgency, the leadership of the NBA has been wantonly missing in action. It is little wonder that many lawyers living with the insurgency believe the NBA has failed them. If it cannot come up with a sensible programme of assistance and support, the NBA should at least show thoughtful solidarity. And if it cannot do either of these, the NBA leadership should confess that it lacks the imagination for these times and frankly abdicate.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, a member of the National Executive Committee of the NBA, wrote thisnin his personal capacity