Harassment of a Lawyer by Officers of the Nigeria Customs Service: The Need for Greater Synergy between Security Agencies in Nigeria and the Nigerian Bar Association

By Associate Professor Ibrahim Abdullahi, SAN

The Nigeria Customs Service through the Public Relation Officer (PRO), DC Timi Bomodi was reported to have responded to a viral video depicting the harassment of a lawyer for an alleged ‘unruly behaviour’ and which unfortunate incident occurred at Customs Headquarters Abuja on the 9th of September 2021. Different commentators have referred to the acts of the officers of the Nigeria Customs Service variedly. Some call it ‘manhandling’, assault, shoving, harassment, etc. Without any voyage of discovery, the viral video speaks for itself in terms of the conduct of the participants. 

The legal profession to which the advocate belongs occupies an enviable position of pre-eminence. Undoubtedly, the fact is that legal practitioners pride themselves as members of the learned and most honourable profession on this planet Earth. This notwithstanding, the truth is that not a few see themselves in that light. The prejudice against the legal profession is undoubtedly age-long. Recall, the words of Jonathan Swift, in his GULLIVER’S TRAVEL where he described lawyers thus; 

“A society of men bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose that white is black and that black is white according as they are paid.”

These prejudices are what lawyers battle with in the course of the discharge of their responsibilities on daily basis. The legal profession nonetheless demands that an advocate should be a man of learning not only in his field but in other disciplines too. As much as is humanely possible, he must try to know very well his immediate environment and beyond and show great understanding of human nature (dealings with all kinds of personalities including security agencies), their strength, weaknesses and foibles.

The legal profession is an honourable and noble one. As officers in the hallowed temple of justice, it is the duty of counsel to conduct their affairs with integrity and in the best traditions of the Bar. The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and indeed the Courts have a duty to see that officers of the Court are men of integrity who should be trusted not only by the Court but also by the public for whom they act. By enrolling us (lawyers), we are presented to the public as men the public can with confidence employ to carry out the duties and responsibilities appertaining to our all important office. We are entrusted with the grave responsibilities which are demanded of a member of the profession.

A fair characterization of a legal practitioner’s responsibilities in this country is that he stands as a “shield” in defence of right and to ward off wrong. In a profession charged with such responsibilities, there must be exacted those qualities of truth speaking, of a high sense of honour, of the strictest observance of fiduciary responsibility. See In Re Edewor (1968) 1 All NLR 226.

However, I would be doing a disservice to the legal profession if I do not comment on the intemperate language used by both parties in the viral video and insistence by the lawyer of proving a point in the face of provocation by officers of the Nigeria Customs Service. Lawyers are engaged to espouse the case of their clients. It is a monopoly but they should bear in mind that like all monopolies, their conduct are subject to strict rules of accountability for adherence to set ethical standards. To drive home this point, NWALI SYLVESTER NGWUTA, JSC in the case of DARIYE v. FRN (2015) LPELR-24398(SC) at Pp 37 – 37 Paras B – D posited thus;

Lawyers are engaged to espouse the case of their clients. It is a monopoly and they should bear in mind that like all monopolies, their conduct are subject to strict rules of accountability for adherence to set ethical standards. They can fight the cause of their clients but as lawyers they must act within the rules regarding ethical conduct. They owe a duty to their client but they owe a higher duty to a higher cause-the cause of justice.

The actions of the Custom officers were unnecessary and an uncharitable attack on the legal profession as a whole especially in the face of trying to justify the imperfection of their actions. It has an antithetical effect on the rule of law and tenets of democracy in a country that prides itself as the giant of Africa and the citadel of the largest Bar in the whole of Africa. 

To pontificate further, it is trite that discourteous, insolent, or disrespectful disposition towards lawyers by security agencies in Nigeria on the one hand and security agencies by lawyers on the other hand, is like an ill-wind. It blows nobody any good, at all. The viral video depicting harassment of a lawyer and many more before it depicts this ill wind that blows nobody any good.  

If I may quote in extensor, the dicta of that learned jurist in person of HABEEB ADEWALE OLUMUYIWA ABIRU, JCA who in the case MBAS MOTEL LTD v. WEMA BANK PLC (2013) LPELR-20736(CA) at Pp 26 – 27 Paras E – F admonished thus;

We must never lose sight of the fact that justice is rooted in public confidence and it is essential to social order and security. It is the bond of society and the cornerstone of human togetherness. Justice is the condition in which the individual is able to identify with society, feel at one with it and accept its rulings. The moment members of the society lose confidence in the system of administration of justice, a descent to anarchy begins. Lawyers as operators of the administration of justice system owe a duty, to the society that nurtured them and made them what they are, to ensure that they conduct their activities in a manner that edifies and brings honor, respect and belief to the justice system. They should not allow themselves to be used by litigants to bring the justice system into disrepute. It is pertinent that this Court reminds Counsel of the eternal words of a great jurist J Wesley McWilliams who writing in an American Bar Association Journal in January 1955 (41 ABA 18) wrote in an article he titled “The Law as a Dynamic Profession” thus: “We belong to an ancient, to a great, to an honored profession. The practice of Law is a worthy calling. It has rewarded us with financial success and with prestige and leadership in our communities. It has given us much happiness and the good life. From it we have received the gratitude and respect of our friends and neighbors whom we have served. Our word affords intellectual pleasure with dignity and independence, in competition with our fellow Lawyers with whom we have cemented warm friendships and enjoyed happy companionships. For these blessings, we cannot but have a sense of gratitude and of obligation. The most productive, unselfish and wholly satisfying repayment of the obligation is constructive work to increase the effectiveness of our judicial system and the welfare of the profession.

A greater synergy should be exhibited by members of the Legal Profession and security agencies by exhibiting mutual respect for one another. Issues that would go against the grain of our hallowed as well as those of the procedure of security agencies should be avoided instead of endeavouring to shore up supremacy of each other in a form of unsavoury competition. They ought to necessarily avoid a situation where both parties expose themselves to ridicule and the ethics expected in both professions are either compromised or treated with ignominy and subject to disdain by lay citizens. In his paper, “The Place of the Bar in the Third Republic” delivered by Nnaemeka-Agu, J.S.C. (as he then was) at the Awka Bar Association Annual Dinner in December, 1988, the learned Justice of the Supreme Court, observed that “lawyers should pass as social engineers and not as legal technicians”.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Securities Agencies Relations Committee (NBA – SARC) was up on the 7th of January 2022 to work in liason with all security agencies across the country to forestall such ugly trend. Though the NBA – SARC was set up after the unfortunate incidence under consideration, the 7 (seven) points terms of reference for the NBA – SARC are robust enough to enable it swing into action earnestly (if they have done so) with a view towards ensuring that the replication of such incidence is avoided and greater synergy and understanding is fostered in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect. We should allow reason to prevail as learned men.

Associate Professor Ibrahim Abdullahi SAN, is of the Department of Private and Business Law, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. He can be reached at extrapage2014@gmail.com


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