Barrister Suleiman Abaya is the former secretary of the Ilorin branch of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). In this interview with ACTING EDITOR, MUMINI ABDULKAREEM, he delves into the issue of constitutionality of the government lockdown resulting from the ravaging Covid-19, its effect on lawyers and judiciary among other issues of interest. Excerpts:
How would you describe the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the legal sector of Kwara State?
The pandemic has diametrically affected the life of the citizens one way or the other and the judiciary most unfortunately. We as lawyers are engaged by the people to approach the court to ventilate their constitutional right and claims but we have unfortunately been denied access to court for some months now. Citizens barely have less than three weeks of access to court for months now. The pandemic is a decree that has really ousted the constitutional provision and all the legal rights of the citizens. But in a bid to be alive to her duties and responsibilities to protect the people, the government has shot same people out in the name of social distancing. This has negatively affected the economic and legal fortunes of the expectation of the people including those in the prisons. According to statistics, over 80 percent of lawyers in private legal practice have close shops worldwide. The court is our place of business, we might practically have nothing to do again and the citizens may also have no assurance of the protection of their constitutional and God given right. The pandemic has really lowered the morale of the lawyers, the judiciary, judges and magistrates cannot function well. We are all involved in the negativity of this contagion including the citizens.
Has the government infringed on the right of citizens by locking down the state and country?
This question can be viewed both legally and morally. The jurisprudence of law entails that a law made must be followed and this may be viewed against the backdrop of the role of government which is that the welfare of the citizens must be paramount. In the circumstance of the suddenness of the pandemic, the constitution has made provision of what to do at any particular point in time. But now that the government has come with their order, the rights of the citizens as provided for in the constitution must not be infringed upon by anybody. The decision (of government) is not in tune with the provision and jurisprudence of law which must be followed to the latter. We also have to look at the natural school of law that law is made for man and not the other way round and whether the law that has been made will be beneficial or not. But government has to take certain steps to override or stampede the law which the federal government has particularly done now in declaring lockdown. What the constitution has only provided for is declaration of emergency and the national assembly intervention and amendment is usually sought on it. So when you consider the issue legally, the government has gravely erred and committed gravest infraction in the eyes of the law. But since the action is to protect the welfare of Nigerians in making such decision, the law must not be followed straight jacketed. The coronavirus would have won the game if continue to make contention that the law must be followed for how it is because there would not have been a prompt reaction to the menace. So on one side, the government has committed legal hara-kiri and the steps taken so far are substantially patently unconstitutional and illegal, null and void. But looking at it from a non legal, natural and conservative aspect to safe guide the security and health conditions of Nigerians, they have come to wittingly bring up some of what I will describe as these illegal measures. The end product of law is to make sure that the welfare and protection of people are paramount in the society.
Virtual sittings and proceedings appear to be the norm now but are we really ready for this?
Nigeria is a developing country and in all our courts, you hardly find those that are digitally complaint. Ours is a country where we have ceased to move headlong and were we have done that, we have done it wrongly. But for the purpose of the pandemic, resulting to virtual activity is the best in our interest and now that coronavirus is on, that is the alternative.
Do public or government have anything during the pandemic with regular salaries unlike their private counterparts?
For some of us that are coming and other young lawyers out there, it should ordinarily be a pleasant thing for government lawyers during this pandemic but if you look at the leaning of law itself that the first duty of lawyers is the promotion and advancement of law. Although collection of salary is guaranteed for government lawyers as against those of in the private who have really been hit because most of their clients who depend on the economy are facing serious challenges over the coronavirus issue. Concomitantly, the duty to develop law itself has also been whittled down. Lawyers in both public and private practice should conceptualise a lasting and enduring challenge for the profession and we should not let our heart be weakened by temporary Covid-19 pandemic. Those in government should not see it as an advantage over their private counterparts because the higher challenge the pandemic may pose is the inability to develop the law and it is only by doing that that rights of the citizens can be expanded.