Forgive me if I am wrong but I have always imagined the Senior Advocate of Nigeria title to be a tag worn by members of an elite club within the legal profession to signify their distinction from the rest of their tribe. However, two disenchanting incidents made me question what I thought SAN stands for. First was in February when the media reported that at the arraignment of Rickey Tarfa (SAN) over alleged corrupt practices, another SAN, Adeniyi Akintola, led a team of “over 90 Senior Advocates and other lawyers” to represent him. Second was when 13 SANs and 10 other (lesser) counsel were hired to prevent President Muhammadu Buhari from presenting the certificate they said he once earned. If the SAN-ship is about honourable distinction, then, why do these SANs seem so cheap that one can hire that many at once and shepherd them to court? Senate President Bukola Saraki also went to court with 66 lawyers (and at the same time, 30 senators).
For Tarfa, the presiding judge said she found the many lawyers intimidating. I agree, but also think that this emerging trend of over-lawyerisation is a pitiable reflection of the superfluity endemic in our national culture. We are not typically a people who observe processes with the solemnity they deserve and that is why hiring lawyers becomes a supernumerary affair. That manner of spectacularisation reduces the judicial process into a melodrama.
The accused, most often a corrupt or lying politician, thinks himself the protagonist, a hero, a leading man in his own wrought drama and hires many lawyers to legitimise this dubious position. Then, justice itself – and its human agents – are construed as the antagonists who must be destroyed for the sake of the protagonist. When the society is invited to witness these perverse proceedings, we risk getting carried away and blissfully missing the point: that the subliminal victim in the whole display is the law. Because, when Lady Justice is stripped naked, it is the last hope of the common folks that is assaulted. That is one danger of over-dramatisation of judicial processes.
Usually elided in Nigerian corruption trials is empathy for the human victims. What is emphasised is the drama and which is used to keep the public entertained (and distracted). From the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission that places bravado and braggadocio over sensible, sober, and strategic processes, to lawyers who overlay themselves like folds of “agbada” to defend the accused, corruption trials in Nigeria are more of a show of power between the politician who raped his society and the accuser whose motive in pursuing him is not even that the rape happened. Instead, he wants to make the rapist a scapegoat and the public trial, a mode of cementing in the minds of the public, that he – the accuser – is the one who regulates the incidence of rapes. By the time the show runs its course and there is no more degenerate entertainment to be milked out of it, the charade peters out. When its episodes finally recede on the pages of the newspaper, the public finds other idleness. That is why Nigeria has many trials but seldom justice.
What I also see is an attempt by the accused to deflect the shaming legal rituals produced through members of the society and which supposedly deters wrongdoing. Growing up, our parents told us that to be merely accused of theft is shameful and could lead to ostracism. Today, we live in a society where such moral instructions seem antiquated. When people are accused now, they go to court aesthesised in human vestments to repel the shame of their crimes. With the lawyer extravaganza, politicians turn the shame the public issues against them back on the public. When an accused thief is able to gather a crowd, it is you the model citizen who questions if you are still on the right side.
This collation of travesties also erodes whatever nobility the legal profession professes. If one needs 13 or 90 SANs to prosecute a single case, that is a huge commentary on the effectiveness and quality of the SANs themselves. How many lawyers did OJ Simpson need to win his celebrated case, “the trial of the century”? If he were a Nigerian being tried in Nigeria, he would probably have used up all the SANs and they would still not be enough! I am even more curious what that number of SANs do when they go to court for a single trial. Do they loiter around the court premises, costumed in dress and wig, waiting in the wings for the person that hired them to give them a speaking role?
In the case of Buhari, it is astounding nobody is asking how a man who supposedly embraced a “talakawa” ideology can suddenly afford 13 SANs. A year ago, the man was too poor to buy his own presidential nomination form and had to take a bank loan, so he told us. When then he became President, he and his deputy, Pastor-Professor Yemi Osinbajo, said in view of the state of the nation’s finances, they would be on half-salaries. The same Buhari, we were told, sold his house to sustain his daughter’s elite education in an expensive school in England (and that was amidst forex crisis that has affected the education of scores of other children schooling abroad). This same Buhari, oblivious to the irony of his own farce, goes ahead to hire 13 SANs! Does he pay them with recharge cards, or jollof rice and Coca Cola (like the case of Bode George and his Aso Ebi crowd) or do they work pro bono? Or, there are other shady benefits they derive from defending the President? What exactly is the currency of exchange?
While I submit that lawyers retain their right to defend whom they please, and it remains their prerogative to select their clients, I also aver that there is a lot wrong with a system where one has to hire many lawyers to get justice. The accused individuals are innocent until proved guilty (even if the public thinks otherwise) and I understand that lawyers should at least be able to defend them on that score. Yet, how many SANs are needed, really? If any SAN is in need of a social cause to test his mettle, it should be to kick against a system where so many of them have to congregate around a single brief like a pack of vultures that stumbled on a rotten carcass.
Perhaps, one place to begin to unpack the lavish feast of lawyers on a single case is to ask why they all seem to flock around politicians. Where are 90 SANs to assemble at the court to challenge the Federal Government on the death of the Shiites at the hands of murderous soldiers whose ego was bruised in an unfortunate encounter and were subsequently mass-buried in a grave like formalin-soaked chicken smuggled through Cotonou borders?
Where are 13 SANs to demand that the Federal Government explain the deaths of the pro-Biafran protesters? How many times have we not seen protesters abroad test the will of law enforcement agencies yet not a single one of them is killed? Why does it happen otherwise and frequently too in Nigeria? We have seen the video of law enforcement agents (sic) directly shooting at these unarmed protesters. Where is the cry for justice and where are the multiple SANs to pursue it? The same Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, who oversees the soldiers accused of such mass murders, still sashays all over Nigeria’s public space and nothing, not even Buhari’s much vaunted integrity, incommodes him. So, why are the SANs quick to rush to politicians’ side while ignoring the blood of the weak, poor, and the helpless crying out from their hastily dug graves?
The above article first appeared on The Punch Newspaper