ADDRESS DELIVERED BY PAUL USORO, SAN, PRESIDENT OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION AT THE 2019/2020 LEGAL YEAR OPENING CEREMONY OF THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT HELD IN ABUJA ON 16 SEPTEMBER 2019
1. On behalf of the Nigerian Bar Association, I felicitate with My Lords on this occasion of the 2019/2020 Federal High Court Legal Year Opening and also welcome Your Lordships from well-deserved long vacation and rest period. Knowing how full and busy Your Lordships’ dockets are all year round, My Lords deserved the rest and vacation in order to recharge and rejuvenate for what promises to be another packed Legal Year.
2. At the tail end of the last Legal Year, Honourable Justice Adamu Abdu-Kafarati bowed out as the Chief Judge of this Honourable Court upon attaining the mandatory retirement age. I congratulate His Lordship for meritorious services to our fatherland and more importantly, for surviving the externally-induced political intrigues and incursions that sadly now bedevil our hallowed judiciary institution. The Nigerian Bar Association wishes Honourable Justice Abdu-Kafarati well in His Lordship’s future endeavours. In the same vein, we congratulate and welcome Honourable Justice J T Tsoho who now presides over the affairs of this Honourable Court as the Acting Chief Judge. We wish His Lordship well and assure My Lord of the NBA’s willingness and availability to work with His Lordship in upholding the tenets of justice and the rule of law at all times.
3. It is not for nothing that the Federal High Court is described and looked upon in terms that suggests its ranking as primus inter pares in the hierarchy of High Courts in the Nigerian Federation. The gamut of its jurisdiction, both exclusive and concurrent, stands it out. But more than that, it is the primary High Court in the Federation that has jurisdiction over the entire Federation, with its Divisions dotted all over the country. Your Lordships therefore have the unique advantage of being periodically transferred from one Division of the Court to another and in that process, Your Lordships get to work in, know and understand all the different component units of the Nigerian Federation and also appreciate the different quirks and idiosyncrasies of the peoples that make up this great country.
4. Your Lordships are therefore in a prime position to pronounce, as Your Lordships always do, through this Honorable Court’s decisions, that, though tribes and tongues may differ, we remain one great country and are strong in spite of and indeed because of both our diversity and unity. It is in that context that I specially congratulate Your Lordships for stepping forward at critical moments to reaffirm and cement the bonds of our Nigerian unity through the various pronouncements and decisions of Your Lordships’ Courts.
5. The Opening of the Legal Year traditionally affords the Bar and the Bench the opportunity for introspection and to ruminate on national issues particularly those that affect the justice sector. Topping the list of such issues at all times is the need to promote and protect the rule of law in all its ramifications. That need is perhaps more pronounced today given the siege under which the justice sector is currently operating, evident in the open and sometimes veiled incursions by the executive arm and its agencies. In particular, the independence of the judiciary is under severe threat. To be exact, the independence of mind and thoughts by Your Lordships in the determination of matters before the Courts is under severe attack.
6. The Executive arm of Government and its agencies are increasingly and unceasingly critical of the judiciary and its decisions particularly in matters that the Government and its agencies may be interested in. It is not unusual these days to hear high officials of government talk down the judiciary and ridiculously and rather ill-advisedly dump all the ills of society on the judiciary. Decisions by Your Lordships are sometimes brazenly denigrated and attributed to ulterior and ill motives – and these on social and traditional media platforms. Veiled and sometimes open and, in all cases, audacious attempts are made to teleguide and program the decisions of Courts. These are very dangerous practices that destroy the independence of the judiciary and by extension the rule of law and indeed the fabric of our society.
7. The society needs and can only survive if we have independent-minded Judges who are empowered to dispense justice to all manner of men, including government departments, without fear or favor. We can only survive as a nation if the independence and vibrancy of the judiciary, particularly, the non-interference with the thoughts and decision-making processes of Your Lordships, are guaranteed and protected. Society is diminished when Judges are robbed of their independent minds and thought processes and the confidence of the ordinary person in the judiciary is thereby diminished, if not destroyed. Self-help and anarchy ultimately become the available remedy. Of course, our economy suffers in the process: the investing public, both local and international lose confidence in our justice system consequent upon these denigrations of our judiciary and there follows a consequential downturn in our economy with the attendant fallout on the socio-economic wellbeing of our people. In summary, the ultimate losers when Judges are robbed of their independence, in thoughts and discretions, is the society and all of us including our rulers of today.
8. However, we are not entirely without remedy. To paraphrase the poet, the man dies in him who fails or is not able to stand up and/or speak against tyranny.
The courage to stand up and speak out is what we all need, both the Bar and the Bench, in our present circumstances. My Lords have, at critical moments shown such outstanding courage even in the face of danger and our prayer is that such courage and grit should never depart from Our Lordships. These are indeed moments that require courageous Judges with the candour and fortitude to speak truth to power, to borrow the hackneyed phrase, and to dispense justices to all manner of men without fear or favour, as demanded by Your Lordships’ Oaths of Office. We have no doubt that Your Lordships will continue to live up to these dictates of Your Lordships’ Oaths and our prayers and thoughts will, as always, be with My Lords in that regard.
9. Turning to the Bar, the Nigerian Bar Association has been relentless in disavowing these executive intrusions. In releases after releases, the NBA has been consistent in deploring executive incursions into the judiciary and we will not stop harping on these issues for as long as these invasive and deleterious conducts persist. The Bench can and should always count on the Bar to defend and protect the rule of law, a component of which is the independence of the judiciary. It is, in any case, our sworn duty to so do and we will not relent.
10. On a very final note, My Lords, the Bar wishes Your Lordships a most fulfilling 2019/2020 Legal Year, in good health and good humor coupled with Divine Wisdom and guidance for the dispensation of justice by Your Lordships to all manner of men (and women, of course), without fear or favor. And we assure Your Lordships that we, the members of the Bar, will remain ever loyal and faithful officers at the temple of justice, always ready and available to aid and assist Your Lordships in the arduous task of meting out justice to all parties.
Paul Usoro, SANNBA President