For Inibehe Effiong, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
“Democracy is a journey and the quality of the journey depends on what we collectively put into it. If we close our ears and eyes, the ship of state could be derailed…” – Denis Odif, Moneyless and Priceless: A Brief Autobiographyp.196 (2016)
In court on or about July 1, 2022, Chief Justice of Akwa Ibom State in South-South Nigeria, Ekaette Obot, repeatedly threatened imprison my good friend, Inibehe Effiong, for her diligence in representing an unknown client against two powerful men – the governor who appointed her and a senator without whose influence she probably would not have been in office.
Four weeks later, July 27she got her wish put him in jail for a month on a whim before going on vacation. The judge did this despite the fact that there was waiting in front of her “a motion…to disqualify and recuse himself from the case on grounds of bias or likelihood of bias.” At no time did the judge tell Inibehe what his crime was or give him the opportunity to defend himself as he was entitled to.
The President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has checked in saying that the course chosen by the judge against Inibehe “not only goes against known practice and procedure in such cases, but is also unconstitutional”. Other lawyers described his conduct as judicial malpractice.
Madam Chief Justice can take advantage of her momentary schadenfreude, but Africa’s history suggests that those who abuse the rule of law – whether executive, parliamentary or judicial – as she has chosen to do almost invariably live to reap the storm of more than one year. way. A few illustrations can make the point clear.
As French West Africa prepared for De Gaulle’s 1957 autonomy referendum, Ernest Boka was one of the region’s most promising stars in politics. In his native Ivory Coast, Boka was eclipsed in popularity only by Félix Hophouët-Boigny, the wealthy Baoulé chief who was the first black to be appointed minister in France. Born in 1928, 23 years younger than Hophouët, Boka was a brilliant lawyer who seemed destined for greatness. At just 28 years old in 1957, he became Chief of Staff to the Governor General, before accessing ministerial portfolios from 1958 to 1959, first in education and then in the civil service. At the approach of Independence in 1960, Boka is one of the leaders of Houphouët-Boigny Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI), which armed other contest platforms, allowing Houphouët to emerge unopposed for the presidency of Côte d’Ivoire.
As a reward for Boka, Houphouët named him First President of the Supreme Court of Côte d’Ivoire in 1960, where he first proved to be a trusted believer. But Boka has always been a man of the people with socialist sympathies. At the age of 35, in March 1963, Ernest Boka resigned from the presidency of the Supreme Court. Soon after, in August 1963, he was among hundreds arrested at the direction of Houphouët-Boigny for allegedly plotting to kill the president with Juju. A special security court sentenced 19 people to life imprisonment and six others to death.
But Ernest Boka did not live long enough to stand trial. His lifeless body was found hanging from the ceiling of his cell in Abidjan, bearing signs of torture. In response to strong rumors that Boka’s death was not a suicide, Houphouët-Boigny himself summoned foreign diplomats and correspondents to a briefing in April 1964 at his presidential palace for what turned out to be the trial. of a dead man. During the briefing, Houphouët announced that Ernest Boka had confessed to trying to use Juju to assassinate the president. As proof, Houphouët-Boigny, a practicing Catholic, produced two suitcases containing an assortment of magic potions, dried remains of dead animals and a collection of puny coffins that were allegedly seized from Ernest Boka’s family home.
Around the time Ernest Boka was being liquidated in the Ivory Coast, a humble clerk and interpreter was making his way into Spain’s African plantation in Equatorial Guinea. Francisco Macias Nguema was famous for letting financial incentives dictate the content of his translations. As one of the few locals with a command of Spanish, the colonialists came to latch on to his every word, mistaking him for a man of influence. In one year, between 1966 and 1967, Macias went from assistant interpreter to mayor, then Minister of Public Works before becoming Vice-President of the Government Council. When the bell rang for independence in 1968, he was well placed to be installed as Equatorial Guinea’s first president on October 12, 1968.
But Macias was sick and plagued by bouts of paranoia and violence fueled by addiction to tropical hallucinogens. Six months after being installed as president, in March 1969 he personally bludgeoned his foreign minister to death before having opposition leader Bonifacio Ondo Edu kidnapped and executed in neighboring Gabon. A reign of terror ensued in which Equatorial Guinea’s small population of professionals, including lawyers and judges, were either killed or exiled. The rules have been dismantled. Without judges, enemies of the regime were tried and executed by youth militias organized and administered by Macias’ nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema M’ba N’Zogo, an army lieutenant colonel.
On August 3, 1979, Teodoro Obiang overthrew his uncle and brought him to justice for mass atrocities, including genocide and embezzlement. Since there were no more judges in the country or lawyers to defend the defendants, the trial was carried out in a movie theater by militias of the exact same kind that Macias used as president to liquidate his enemies, real ones and imaginary. Macias’ fate was predictable. On September 29, 1979, the militia found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Hours after his scheduled sentencing, an elite military unit brought specially from Morocco executed him by firing squad at Black Beach prison in Malabo.
Two years after Macias’ death, the Christmas Eve in 1981, the government of Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda abducted Malawi’s first attorney general and justice minister in exile, Orton Chirwa, and his wife, Vera, from Zambia and returned them to Lilongwe. Orton Chirwa was the founding chairman of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which led Malawi to independence in 1964. He was also Malawi’s first lawyer.
As a minister in the transitional government in 1962, Orton challenged the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof in criminal trials, arguing for their replacement with traditional African norms and institutions. As attorney general, he pushed for these reforms, but was forced out of the Cabinet in September 1964 in a power struggle with Banda, his successor as MCP president, before they were enacted. Following the collapse of the Chilobwe murder trial in 1969 Banda abolished criminal trials in ordinary courts, transferring jurisdiction over crimes to so-called traditional courts, comprising a traditional chief as president, with three citizen assessors and a lawyer. The traditional court system was appointed by Banda, who was both president and minister of justice. They also reported to him.
In an ironic twist of fate, Orton would be arraigned for treason in 1983 before the kind of traditional courts he had advocated as attorney general. His trial was a charade. The court denied him and his wife – herself also Malawi’s first female lawyer – a legal defense or the right to call witnesses. Originally sentenced to death on conviction, Banda commuted this sentence to life imprisonment. Orton spent the rest of his life in solitary confinement at Zomba Prison in Malawi, where in December 1992, he died at the age of 73.
As Nigeria’s military ruler from 1985 to 1993, Ibrahim Babangida gutted the courts, mostly excluding them by military decree from jurisdiction over anything his regime did. In 1991, he issued a special decree making legal action against his regime a crime punishable by up to two years in prison. Removed from power in 2001, a successor regime asked him to appear before a commission of inquiry to defend his record.
Rather than do this, the man who made going to court a crime has hired a coterie of highly-prized lawyers to go to court and challenge the powers of an elected civil administration to hold him to account. The the case ended up before a Supreme Court presided over by judges, some of whom had advanced in Babangida’s judicial career. The result was case law that rolled back the powers of the federal government and the safety and security of Nigeria.
Africa’s history has solid lessons for powerful men and women who want to get ahead by delaying the judicial process by abusing the sacred mission to uphold the rule of law. The main argument for defending and preserving the rule of law is self-interest – those who degrade it often end up needing it, usually to protect them from their own temporary collaborators.
Karma has a brutal sense of humor.
One thing is certain: Inibehe Effiong is a brave, vigorous and brilliant lawyer who is destined to become a phenomenon in the legal profession in Nigeria. Ekaette Obot will live long enough to see this destiny fully realized. It’s the least we can pray.
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