Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), associate of the late Attorney General
By YINKA OLUDAYISI FABOWALE
Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), was a close associate of the late Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige, having both been called to the Inner Bar in 1996. Ige was assassinated at his Ibadan, Oyo State home on December 23, 2001. Fagbemi who participated in the trial of the suspects of the murder, but later pulled out, due to disagreements on the procedure of prosecution spoke on the 15th anniversary of Ige’s death. Excerpts:
Would you say you are satisfied that Bola Ige’s killers have not been found and brought to book 15 years after his murder?
The starting point already is, no serious government, no responsible citizenry will take lightly the murder or the death of its attorney general who is also a sitting attorney general. What has happened with Chief Bola Ige’s case portends that nobody is safe. If a number one law officer of the state can be dealt with dastardly and without any apprehension of the culprits, bringing them to book, what it means, or the signal it sends to the international community is that we are not safe and that they are not either, if they choose to come here. They will not come here.
But, some suspects were tried but were freed by the same court, even after an implicating move and notorious statement by one of them to the effect that he, however, “did not pull the trigger,” which lent strong credence to their alleged culpability. So, isn’t the judiciary to blame for it?
Yes, what did you expect the judiciary to do? I think you should get the perspective right. When you talk of administration of criminal justice, there is this misconception by members of the public that all we are talking about is the judiciary. Far from it! When you talk of criminal justice system and prosecution of accused persons, it is like a relay race. The judiciary is at the last leg of that relay race. If the first two or three legs have spoilt the relay, there is very little that the fourth man can do. Before you go to court, you must have conducted investigation, do forensic analysis where necessary, marshal your witnesses, it is all these that you put before the court. If you do not have materials… In cases of murder and indeed criminal offences, standard criteria are spelt out. You must meet these criteria and a given judge cannot substitute his view or what he thought it ought to be in matters of adjudication. He is to base his judgment or decision on the facts placed before him. And that is why, you know the courts don’t ration justice, what they do is to dispense justice, because there is a difference between rationing and dispensation. When it comes to dispensation, it means you give judgment the way you think the preponderance of evidence goes. You do not ration it. There is no sentiment about it. If you approach the court to lose and you deserve to lose a hundred times, you have to lose a hundred times. It is unfortunate that those got set free, but rather than attack the judiciary or what I will say, weave the noose round the neck of the judiciary, it is the police that we should turn to, and ask “why haven’t you done 1,2,3, x,y, z.”
Recall that the court highlighted some of the pitfalls inherent in the case presented by the police. Nobody has been able to fault those pitfalls.
Like what would you have loved to see them do?
You know, you have to connect the people put in the dock to the offence committed. There must be a nexus and there are two involved. We call it ‘Hiatus reus’ i.e. the fact of the death of the man; then the manslayer, the intention. They did not even get to the point of getting the people who actually did it (killed Ige) or if they did, they never presented those facts and that is why it is unfortunate. There must have been some serious collaboration or what I would call connivance between the police and some other people.. And these are the same people who will say on any ugly occurrence or unfortunate incident, that they are on top of the situation. When I hear this I laugh, I shake my head. Instead of going to the top why don’t you go to the bottom? It is from the bottom that you can get the result. When you start from the top, you end up at the bottom. A serious investigation should start from the bottom.
And then, how well-equipped are the police? Look at the budget, every year to me it is security that should take the major chunk of the budget. Tell me, has the Nigerian Police got a laboratory where you can do forensic analysis? Lagos State has started off. Even the administration of Criminal Justice Law, it was Lagos State that first enacted the law. I won’t say that the Federal Government copied Lagos State. I understand that Israel offered to assist when this thing happened, but the Federal Government refused. I don’t know why the ego, vaunting ego I would say. You don’t have the capability and the capacity; you don’t have what it takes when you got offers on a platter of gold, you jettisoned it…that is where part of my suspicion comes in that there must be something to the whole issue.
You said there must be established a nexus between the people suspected to have committed the crime and the crime. In advanced countries, this is usually done through forensic evidence that may have been collected at the crime scene. But in the case of Bola Ige that did not happen. The prosecution was hinged on circumstantial evidence.
Yes, when you talk about circumstantial or forensic evidence, what you are saying is that there is no serious eyewitness account or evidence that can say, “Oh! I saw it when it happened”. You just put two and two together and say, well if these facts are right, then you can fix Mr. A with the commission of the offence. In Bola Ige’s case, like I said, it was like everything was just done to work to the answer. What were the facts?
First of all, look at the star witness; pity I cannot remember correctly what his name is now, Ofuwa or something. Here is a gentleman, who said he saw the thing happened. He knew those who did it, he could identify them, but what did the Federal Government do? They said they put this man in protective custody. A star witness of a case of that magnitude, one would have expected them to take very good care of him. You need to let people know that he is not the one on trial. You need to know that you have nothing against him. You need to let him know that his relations are in safe hands. But, what did they do? They left him, (I participated in that case until a while and we insisted that this should be done. It was not done. Not even the family of Ige was allowed to see the man involved. What happened much later is that we got to know that they put that man in the same cell with the accused person. If not in the same cell, close to each other. The accused were in one, he was in another, so it was very easy for them to network or get in contact with each other and we are all human beings, so you can guess what followed. So, when eventually the man was called, I remembered that morning he was to be put in the box. A few of us objected, myself, Niyi Akintola and the gentleman from Chief Bola Ige’s Chamber. They said no! When he got to the witness box, a gentleman who had made a very revealing statement to the police, confirming the persons involved, at least about two people have been identified. Suddenly, under cross examination when he got into the box, said he could not really identify the perpetrators of that nefarious activity. It doesn’t take any soothsayer to tell you that the game was up as far as prosecution was concerned. You know that was a prosecution witness and if I were a defence lawyer, I would leverage on it. And that was what the defence did.
The way you spoke tends to suggest you share in the view that there was perceived complicity at that time in the killing of Ige.
I believe with all respect that the government did very little. It is not just about making political statements without walking the talk. You know the police were even naïve, they didn’t even know how to handle the scene of a crime. In developed countries, they will first of all screen or cordon off that area. They made it a Mecca of a sort. They had unfettered access to the scene of the crime in the name of trying to show sympathy. It is not about sympathy, it is about making sure that evidence is not being tampered with. That is even if you want to venerate the police. The next question I ask is that even if you took forensic examinations of those concerned, what data do you have to match that with in Nigeria? It is already a shame! But at least, it would have assisted if they had taken forensic tests and matched it with names of some suspects. That would have taken us some miles. It would have advanced the cause/course of investigation. Deliberately, that was not done. What has government done afterwards? Don’t forget Mrs. Ojomo was former Assistant Inspector General (AIG). She was coasting to the shore of success in trying to investigate the case of Bola Ige. What happened to her? All of a sudden, just like what happened in Dele Giwa’s case. They collected the file from her and sent her elsewhere. And you know in civil service, you must obey your superiors. That was the order, that was the directive and it has remained so up till now just like what happened in the case of Dele Giwa in which that very strong and respected police officer, Abubakar Tsav, while trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the assassination had the file collected from him, and promoted. It is not too late for Dele Giwa and Bola Ige’s case to be dug up and revisited. But more particularly, that of Bola Ige, a serving officer, a minister of the Federal Republic and number one law officer for that matter.
You were close to Ige. What was your relationship like? What was your assessment or view of him?
From whichever perspective we look at Chief Bola Ige of blessed memory, he was a nationalist, he was …honestly, I’m short of words. But I know that he was a very sympathetic person. He was very loyal to the cause of the nation. And he loved and cherished the unity of Nigeria. The late Chief was a lover of youths and he was somebody, who could pluck his eyes in order to satisfy the aspiration of the younger ones. He gave scholarship to people. You saw what he did as the minister and then governor. Let’s not forget that by the time he was killed, his last son was already a qualified and practicing professional architect. There is no doubt that we have lost an icon, who was a source of inspiration to many. Many more people will come forward to serve in public office, if the nation can find and punish his killers, if only to assure that such crime cannot go unpunished and that the dead can always get justice.