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Monday, August 10, 2009

HOW THE ETERNAL TRIAL OF SQUIB EDITOR FAILED TO START AGAIN


Honourable Justice Augustine Adetula Alabi, the out-going Chief Judge of Lagos State is not a happy man. The scalp of Adesina Ogunlana, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the Squib a law magazine infamously described by Alabi’s predecessor in office Ibitola Sotuminu C.J as an “obnoxious intrusive publication” is yet as it were, to fall into the basket.
Justice Alabi, whose tenure in office cannot go beyond August 8 2009, come what may, has a lot of unmasked bitterness for Ogunlana, an unrepentant practitioner of the no-holds-barred, fire brand activist journalism in his weekly magazine with special and disquietingly penetrative focus on the Lagos State Judiciary and the legal practice in Lagos State.
In private discussions with many lawyers, Alabi C.J has expressed his personal desire for the disbarment of Ogunlana from the legal profession; a situation he considered is taking too long a time to happen, in the light of the six year old petition of Honourable Justice Ibitola Sotuminu against Ogunlana to the Nigerian Bar Association (See Cover Story Exhibit)
At one of the programmes of the recent NBA Lagos branch Law Week, the Chief Judge lamented that “despite the fact that former Chief Judge Sotuminu wrote a petition against some people who have been writing all sorts of things against the judiciary, nothing has happened”
Even though the aggrieved Chief Judge did not mention names but his reference was not oblique – no other person or lawyer other than Ogunlana had the distinction of being petitioned against by the former Chief Judge of Lagos State, Sotuminu J. to the Nigerian Bar Association
However in truth, the Chief Judge lacks the locus to complain –neither he nor his affected predecessor, Sotuminu C.J who authored the petition against Ogunlana has shown any diligence in the prosecution of the matter.
None of the two has ever shown up at the sittings of the Disciplinary Committee of the Body of Benchers where the Nigerian Bar Association has since July 2003 referred the matter to for trial, whereas the alleged “defamer of some Lagos State judges” Adesina Ogunlana has always attended trial.
Sources close to the Lagos State Judiciary indicate that a combination of pride and fear factors have kept the two Chief Judges away from the “theatre of engagement”. Pride, for the duo considered it below their dignity to personally join issues with Ogunlana before the Disciplinary Committee (D.C) and fear, because of a well grounded anxiety not to face the fire of cross-examination of Ogunlana’s doughty and legendary principal Counsel – Chief G.O.K Ajayi S.A.N a veteran of uncountable classic legal battles including Shugaba V Minister of Internal Affairs, the General Zamani Lekwot case, Omoboriowo Vs Ajasin, Awolowo Vs Shagari, Abiola V FGN etc.
The latest hearing in the matter took place on the Tuesday 26th May 2009. As usual, Chief Judges Sotuminu and Alabi were conspicuously absent, but a proxy, Chief Magistrate E.O Ogundare, a Deputy Chief Registrar of the Lagos State High Court was around.
The time was about 11:10a.m to commence sitting when the D.C came out of their chambers at the Court of Appeal Headquarters, Abuja to commence sitting.
The presiding chairman was Mr. Justice Umaru Eri, the incumbent chairman of the National Judicial institute. Other D.C members were Hon. Justice Aishat Dahiru Chief Judge of Sokoto State, Hon. Justice Kulu Aliyu Chief Judge of Zamfara State, Chief Nwanodi SAN, Chief O.O Nwamu, Professor S.A Adesanya SAN, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo SAN, and Chief Rafiu Lawal-Rabana SAN.
After the Committee members took their seats, the chairman opened the session by apologizing to Chief G.O.K Ajayi SAN and all other lawyers present for the failure of the D.C to sit at 10.00a.m as scheduled. Thereafter His Lordship expressed displeasure at the growing number of petitions against legal practitioners. Rounding up his “shape-up or-ship-out” speech Justice Eri warned and advised legal practitioners from desisting from unethical and unprofessional conduct and firmly expressed the readiness of the Body of Benchers to deal with the complaints and rid the legal profession of bad eggs.
Many lawyers in the audience, listening to the chairman, especially those with cases before the DC felt a chill run down their spines. One of such lawyers later confessed to the Squib that “while the chairman was talking, I thought I was facing a court-martial.”
The chill any frightened lawyer might have felt however lifted immediately when the commanding figure of Chief G.O.K Ajayi SAN the oldest and most senior practitioner stood up to give a reaction to the speech of the D.C chairman.
The Chief firmly expressed strong reservation about the chairman and implication the entire committee getting so affected about the increasing number of complainants against lawyers. In his words “it does not matter even if there are 10,000 petitions against legal practitioners, the fact remains that the Respondents are presumed innocent until allegations are proved. Your committee should therefore not give an impression that you are being influenced by the increasing numbers of petitions. It is not your business to be bothered about the number, you are to do justice”
In reaction to Chief Ajayi S.A.N, Justice Eri stated that the D.C agree with the Chief that lawyers are presumed innocent until their guilt is proved but the committee was only out to ensure that the type of good name the likes of Chief Ajayi had brought into the legal profession in Nigeria is not rubbished. The chairman assured all and sundry that the panel would be fair to lawyers brought before it.
The first matter treated pertained to the reading of a direction (equivalent of a court’s judgement) which went in favour of the respondent legal practitioner as he was absolved of all allegations brought against him which the D.C held not proved against him.
The next case was C.J Lagos Vs Adesina Ogunlana. Just then, a staff of the D.C brought the complaint to the Respondent, who was quick to note that it differed from the one, the prosecution in the matter, Mr. Dele Oye had served on him, through his counsel, Chief G.O.K Ajayi SAN in November 2008. (See Cover Story Exhibits’)
Chief G.O.K Ajayi SAN expectedly announced his appearance for the Respondent, Adesina Ogunlana Esq. With the silk were Adekunle Ojo Esq, Taiwo Adedeji Esq, and Tokunbo Phillips.
Mr. Dele Oye appeared for the Complainant (NBA) and with him were Linda Bala, the Legal Adviser of the NBA.
The first salvo was fired by Chief G.O.K Ajayi SAN who raised objection to Chief Lawal-Rabana S.A.N participation in the matter as an adjudicator on the ground that Lawal-Rabana has before the Nigerian Bar Association presently, a petition against the Respondent.
At this, Justice Eri, asked Chief Ajayi whether he was saying that Lawal-Rabana was the petitioner in the instant case.
Chief Ajayi replied in the negative but stressed that Lawal-Rabana (whom the respondent and his counsel were for the first time ever knowing to be a D.C member in Ogunlana’s matter) has a petition against Ogunlana.
At this point, one of the D.C members, the Honourable Chief Judge Sokoto State observed “He is raising the issue of bias”. The presiding chairman now asked the NBA prosecutor for his reaction. Oye said that Lawal-Rabana was not the secretary of the NBA when the petition against Ogunlana was written and that he had no hand at all in the treatment of the petition at the NBA.
After this, Oye raised objection to the presence of Adekunle Ojo Esq in the legal team of Adesina Ogunlana.
According to the learned prosecutor since the official complainant against Ogunlana was the Nigerian Bar Association and which association had briefed him to prosecute the matter and to whom he reports to, Ojo as the 2nd Vice-President of NBA cannot therefore represent Ogunlana.
In his reaction to Oye’s objection, Chief Ajayi SAN said that what the Committee should consider was whether Ojo’s appearance was likely to prejudice the committee, where the answer was ‘no’, then there should be nothing wrong with Ojo’s appearance.
But the prosecution continued to insist against Ojo’s appearance saying “the NBA must no be seen to be divided against itself” prompting Ojo, after consulting with Ajayi to withdraw his appearance for Ogunlana.
The D.C then rose to consider Chief Ajayi’s objection against Chief Lawal-Rabana, in chambers. About fifteen minutes later, the D.C reconvened but without Prof. S.A. Adesanya who was heard while leaving the premises of the Court of Appeal Abuja that “I can not be part of illegality”. In a terse ruling, Justice Eric over-ruled the objection of Chief Ajayi, stating that same lacked merit because there was no evidence before the D.C that Lawal-Rabana has any petition or complaint against the respondent before the NBA. Of course there is evidence that indeed Lawal-Rabana has a petition against the Squib editor but the evidence was not brought to Abuja before the panel on May 26th 2009 and could not have been brought since the respondent and his lawyer did not know that Lawal-Rabana was now a member of the D.C. In fact the incumbent General Secretary of the NBA Ibrahim Eddy Mark has issued a query to Ogunlana in respect of Lawal-Rabana complaints letter and has also a received a reply from Ogunlana. See cover Story exhibit.
The amended charge of 3 counts was now read to the respondent, who on that day looked more like bride-groom than a man facing the trial of his professional life Ogunlana pleaded thus “I am not liable, Sir”.
Chief Ajayi applied for adjournment in view of the amended charge which had just been served on the Respondent and the ruling of the D.C on Lawal-Rabana’s participation. Mr. Dele Oye having no objection to the request, the Committee adjourned to reconvene the next session. The date of the next hearing would be communicated later to the parties so ruled the presiding chairman.

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