Boma Alabi, a lawyer, and a Nigerian national merit award winner (Officer of the Order of Niger, OON) recently added another feather to her cap when she was elevated to the position of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). A professional to the core, she was the first female President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association in Hyderabad, India, a feat that had never before achieved in the history of the association. Having practised in the United Kingdom for several years, she returned to contribute her quota in the development of law practice in Nigeria. The woman who is also the Founder of Primera Africa Legal, in this interview with EFFECT, spoke on the need for more access to justice for Nigerian citizens, irrespective of social status, religion, ethnic group, and political leaning, among other issues
How do you feel about being a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN)?
I do know that it’s a position of leadership; it’s a privilege and, therefore, to whom more is given more is expected. I actually feel more of a burden to do more for the profession than I have been doing in the past because my profession has recognized me as a leader and given me the privilege of being called to the Inner Bar. That requires me to give in more services to the profession. We have done so much work in criminal defense for many of the awaiting trial inmates because you can’t call them convicts. They are inmates until when they get justice done. If they are guilty, let them know they are guilty. If they are not, let them go. But awaiting trial is injustice itself. We will do more there. We are looking also at making the criminal justice system more accessible for the average Nigerian. So, the #EndSARS protests told you what the average Nigerian youths go through. They are victimized by the police in a lot of cases, purely because those who are victimizing them know that they don’t have easy access to justice. They don’t know where to find lawyers. There are no duty solicitors in the police stations which you find in other jurisdictions. In England where I was practiced before coming back home when you are arrested, you are taken to a police station. There is a lawyer in that police station who is part of the process. There’s no police brutality, certainly not at the level at which our young people complain about here in Nigeria. You can’t hear of a death in a police station without investigation. And, certainly not at the level at which we are getting complaints here. We hear of people appearing after being arrested by the police. These are very worrisome. It may look exaggerated but there’s no smoke without fire. I personally know some young people who have been through these experiences.
The #ENDSARS protesters were also protesting for the Nigerian Police, that they were not well paid and well-trained; it’s all about a better Nigeria. From my own professional perspective, we need to find a way to ensure that people who are brought into that criminal justice system for one minor infringement or the other get treated fairly, that they enjoy early representation and that’s the project I am asking colleagues for us to work together along with the Nigerian Bar Association. The Nigerian Bar Association is already doing a lot, free representation in our branches, that’s the way to go. All of us have to be part of that; if we are unable to let our citizens get justice\, then what is the point of us being lawyers? For me, the elevation of a senior advocate has simply given me a bigger voice to advocate for justice for those who have no access. To that extent, I am grateful to God, not just for the elevation but for the bigger voice to do more for the less privileged who have no access to justice.
How did the lockdown over COVID-19 affect your sector?
COVID-19 the pandemic has had a huge impact on every sector, negative impact because effectively it just shut down the economy for a number of months. The legal profession was no different. Courts were shut down, and we have young lawyers who rely on going to court every day to earn a living because they are not on a salary. Many of those young lawyers we have to gather palliatives for them. NBA Lagos branch had a structure where they actually put the packages together for lawyers. Those litigators had no transitions because the courts had been shut down. Generally, it affected the profession negatively. It affected the litigant negatively because it slowed down their cases. Imagine a landlord who is trying to get back his house from a recalcitrant tenant. They have not held a hearing in the court since the lockdown. The tenant is living there free-of-charge; the landlord has no income. That is his only income; he is a pensioner who had built that house as his retirement plan. Most people when they think about landlords they thought of those landlords who have plenty of properties. But most times, it is about one individual who has suffered, saved here and there from his retirement benefits to build a house. So, if the tenants are not paying, he himself cannot make ends meet. And that person sits there the whole of this year and things have been delayed. I had a situation where, I did a pro bono; the lady is a retired nurse, pensioner. That house was her pension and the gentleman sat there comfortably for over five years before we took it up. Even then the processes were slow. The woman died before we could evict that tenant. So, she did not reap the benefit of her labour. So, these are some of the delays we need to look at. Justice delayed is justice denied.
But there is a good side to the lockdown. There is a silver lining to every cloud and the good side is our courts and judiciary as an arm of the government is being alive to its responsibility to its citizens. The judiciary began to look at the condition to deliver justice even during the pandemic while still keeping the entire COVID protocol. We are going digital, we are going online and it’s only going to make it better and easier for everybody in the long run. That is the positivity the profession has come out with. Another thing that has come up is that we are not traveling as much. We suddenly discovered we can do meetings virtually, and the meetings are just as being impactful as when done face-to-face. Why put yourself in danger every day on the road, traveling to Abuja, Kafachan, when you can sit in the comfort of your living room, the other person is sitting in the comfort of her living room and you people can see each other, have your meetings? We were doing that before COVID but right now it has become more common. And, it’s just like life is much easier and this new normal is going to remain normal.
What les sons have life taught you?
I say this to young lawyers all the time: if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. That sounds contradictory, but it is true. You are just called to the Bar. You have your hood and gown, you yet you don’t have a direction. You have to have a plan; there are different pathways within the profession. I’m a lawyer; this can lead me to the bench. Do I want to be a judge, and do I have the disposition for it? What does it take to attain that position or to be elevated to the bench? Then you begin to plan and work towards it. I’m a lawyer, I want to be a professor of law one day. What does it take? Do I have the disposition? You work towards it. Life has taught me that you must plan if you want to succeed. When you have a plan, for sure, help will come along the way and God will send helpers.
Secondly, do the right thing: follow your conscience. Don’t do things to please people. Try and do the right thing all the time; you don’t know who is watching. So many people are watching. They may not say anything but when the time comes, they will attest to your upright character: ‘this one you can’t trust him or her.’
Mostly, not for people who are watching: do it for yourself so that at the end of the day when you go home you have done your best as to what is compatible with legal practice. If you want to be a doctor just to make money you are in the wrong place. You should want to be a doctor to save lives. You should earn a living around it because that’s your work, just as a farmer would get proceeds from his farm. But, if money is your key motivation, please don’t come into the legal profession because you will end up doing the wrong things in order to make that money quick. The profession is progressive. You grow in progression.
In England, you charge less because your reputation is not known; your ability to deliver is not known. As you build that reputation, it takes time, people entrust you with more important work and then you will be able to charge them.
If you don’t have the patience to take those steps then you will start doing unethical things to make money. It is better for you that you save the money your parents or yourself could have spent to send you to law school, put it together to set up an enterprise either in manufacturing or other businesses in which you can make money faster. If you trade in 10 years with that capital, you make money faster than going to law school, There’s nothing that says that when you have become a lawyer and you find out that this profession is not for you, that you are not free to do something else. Our profession has its restriction as to what is practicable in legal practice.
Is there any missing link in our governance here compared to other climes?
The citizens in the United Kingdom hold their government accountable. That is the missing link. That is why they cannot behave like monarchs and feudal lords in that country. Nigerian citizens do not hold their elected citizens accountable and until we do they will not be accountable to us. Every four years they come to us for election after that you don’t hear from them again until another four years because we don’t hold them accountable to tell them the kind of governance we want; to ensure they spend our monies the way we want them to on our priorities which are: schools, good roads, clean water, light, and all the basic amenities.