By Vincent Kalu
The President of the African Bar Association (AfBA), Hannibal Uwaifo has said that Nigeria is turning into a jungle because of the lack of respect for the rule of law by authorities.
In an interview with Daily Sun, the AfBA president stressed that the African Free Trade Agreement (AFCTA), which is to be a catalyst for economic development of the continent won’t work because of the absence of the rule of law, citing the case of Cape Verde that refused to obey the judgment of Ecowas Court to free a Venezuelan diplomat being detained in that country.
What steps will African Bar Association (AfBA) take to enforce compliance of the ECOWAS Court in its judgment over the detention of the Venezuela diplomat in Cape Verde?
It is going to be very difficult doing anything beyond promoting the rule of law. We are not his lawyers; I don’t know him and we don’t have anything to do with him. The only encounter which has made us close to him is the petition, written to the African Bar by his wife. I’m sure somebody must have suggested it to them. She wrote a petition to us, and that was what even made us to pay more attention to what is happening. The lawyer is Femi Falana, and I think it is his responsibility for him to take action; our own is to advise the parties concerned and the institutions concerned that it is dangerous because once we start this kind of thing in Africa, it will even encourage disobedience of national court order. I’m sure African Bar will be remembered for this campaign. I wish we had the resources to do the campaign across the continent; we would have done so much. We are here in Nigeria and the African Bar headquarters is also here. We have done the best we could do.
Can’t African Bar complain to the African Union formally because that diplomat substantively should be a serving diplomat in Africa since he is serving Venezuela and he was held within the jurisdiction of his diplomatic service; it seems that whoever that has instigated his arrest wants to ridicule Africa and of course, the AU?
The African Bar has its own limitations. If his lawyers contact us to join him to fight for the right of the citizen, we will do so, but within our own context we have done what we needed to do. We have even written to the ECOWAS to warn them of trying to destroy the organisation with this type of behavior, which is just a recipe for chaos.
Where does the jurisdiction of Ecowas Court begin and end because there was a time somebody was declared not to have won election by the various election tribunals, but he approached ECOWAS court?
Ecowas court doesn’t have jurisdiction over elections. ECOWAS Court deals in human rights. Taking election maters to it, is outside its jurisdiction.
Talking about human rights, whatever judgment that ECOWAS Court delivers, is Nigeria or any West African country bound to obey it?
That is the ECOWAS protocol; once you are a member of ECOWAS, the protocols that established the courts, just like the AU protocol that established the African courts; just like the UN protocol that established the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the World Court. It has to be obeyed by the parties that signed to the treaty, to enforce the judgment in their jurisdiction. It is as if it is the judgment of the Nigerian court. It is like the ICC, once it gives judgment, it is enforced as if it is a judgment given by the Supreme Court of Nigeria that is the treaty. So, once the judgment is given, it must be obeyed in all the territories by all the parties or member states that signed the treaty.
If you are a practicing lawyer in Nigeria, you must belong to the Nigerian Bar Association, what qualifies a lawyer to be a member of the African Bar?
It is like a loose organisation; it is not compulsory for anybody. It was not established by status, it a charter established in 1971. It was formally registered in the Gambia. It is for lawyers in Africa who can pay the dues and Bar associations. The Nigerian Bar Association is a member, the Sierra Leone Bar is a member, and Egypt is a member. Some Bars are not members; if you don’t pay your dues for two years, you cease to be a member. It an established organisation; the members have voting rights just like the National Bar Associations. It doesn’t have national legislations; national legislations are for national bars. That is the reason the African bar charter forbids any person who is a president or vice president of any national bar from becoming president or senior vice president of African Bar.
African Bar is a pressure group, wouldn’t you think it is appropriate to address the AU in its next meeting on this important issue of flouting the rule of law all, as well as entrenching and deepening the rule of law all over Africa?
African Union has a commissioner, which is the secretariat and it is the secretariat that prepares the agenda and it has to be in the agenda for you to speak at the meeting. When you write to an organisation and it doesn’t respond, do you run to the meeting. The African Bar Association has been invited by the AU to so many events; we are representing lawyers in the continents in the Trade and Services Committee. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa and I was invited, but I sent the chairman of Botswana of AfBA to go there because I was in Nairobi for another one. We have been advising.
You know the African leaders, none of them wants to be criticised; they hate criticism. Will they want a lawyer to come and talk, which may spell trouble for them? They know African Bar is fearless and that is why the government of Egypt played a very big political game when we were to hold a conference there. They gave me visa, gave some executive council members visa and started denying more presidents visas to discourage them and they started denying female lawyers. The thing became an embarrassment; out of over 4,000 applications for visa, we expected at least 2, 500. Eventually, the UN pulled out and other human rights organisations started asking us what we were you doing? People called us including the then newly elected president of ICC. We pulled out and eventually went to Monrovia. The AU is a complex place; we keep doing our best by writing letters like this issue of arrest of Venezuela diplomat in Cape Verde, we have written to the AU. If they are doing a programme and they are serious, they should include our organisation so that we can talk and make suggestions, but they won’t do that. What they do is a talk shop.
The totality of any progress we make is how we respect the rule of law. You are aware of the Africa Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). How can the applications of the rule of law assist or derail the agreement?
It could derail it. Most of the aspects of the AfCFTA will not work because of the absence of the practices of the rule of law. Take for instance, this Cape Verde issue which we are discussing, they have violated Ecowas court judgment, what makes you think that they will respect a court judgment in respect of a Nigeria lawyer who has done arbitration in that country, and is being owed and ECOWAS said you must pay him. It is just a child’s play. In 50 years, we are not going to get to where we planned to be. The AFBA has a committee which provides a lot of opportunities, it opens the space. We have been on border closure and I made some statements few weeks back. If you get a US visa, you can travel from United States to all over Europe. Here, you cannot even travel to Cameroun, Uganda. We have too many roadblocks, which are parts and parcels of the problems we are facing as an economic entity and as West Africans. Roadblocks do not allow for free trade of goods and services. If I’m a potential inventor, and I have an invention that will revolutionize agriculture in the whole of Algeria, and my lawyer is the president of AFBA, and he has spoken against suppression and totalitarism in Algeria; now the inventor may not be allowed to enter the country with his lawyer to sign the contract because the lawyer has criticised the government. So, this very good invention is bogged down by this kind of things in Africa. Look at what Innoson is doing, but will he be allowed to cross border. While it is good for us to continue to have all these lofty plans, but look at Rwanda, which is a dictatorship and problem waiting to happen. Its constitution is just made to keep Kagame in power. People get killed every day and there is no opposition. You can’t sustain that in that country forever, it will explode. We saw it in DCR. After Mobutu Sese soku, you can see what DCR is like; we saw it in Togo, Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroun, and Gabon.
Anywhere there is absence of the rule of law, trouble is waiting just like Nigeria; trouble is beckoning, Nigeria is now a jungle place because of no respect for the rule of law. How can a legislator take a bill to the National Assembly to promote the use of Hijab in the military? What has Hijab got to do with the military? They are killing themselves in Kwara over Hijab, which was not happening before. Is it going to take you to heaven, does it give you food, does it solve the security problem of the country. If Boko Haram could see Hijab and run away, we would have promoted it. Look at the way the government is practicing ethnicism; everything they do has ethnic colouration, but the people in power don’t care that this thing may cause implosion in the country. The way they are running government is what is fueling this fire of religion, agitations and added to the corruption you see everywhere. People are getting poorer, while few are getting richer.
Going back to AfCFTA, the road is too far for us, we are just telling lies. You control AfCFTA without proper relaxation of the borders. How do I cross border; the AFBA has a Cross Border Practice Committee. Can I practice in Ghana, whereas, when the Catania problem was happening, the AFBA was invited to Spain, Madrid? I was there and I addressed the Spanish Supreme Court? I don’t know what the media is doing, but I believe that the media is part of the failure of our country; there is a deliberate attempt to undermine the media because the most potent arm of any society is the media. What people know and hear is their power. There is no television, newspaper that is promoting the rights of the people in the constitution. We dream too much in this continent.
What are the expectations of the Niger Conference?
It is our annual conference. The last time a francophone country hosted it was in 1997 in Cote D’Ivoire, and I was the coordinator of West Africa, and was seven years old in the Bar. We are going to discuss some of the issues I have highlighted in this interview. If you come to the African Bar Conference, you will really see it as a venue for narrowing down the differences that exist across borders because of the conviviality, the way and manners people interact. You cannot host an African Bar without the involvement of government because of security, visas. We are happy to partner with government across the continent. The conference brings everybody together and we keep advising and whatever role the government can play, they are free because hosting a conference of that nature requires huge resources. The strength of the African Bar is building network of friendship that unites Africa, rather than the National Bars that are only limited within their countries. Any lawyer is free to join; it is not by force.