By Christy Anyanwu
Professor Ibrahim Salami is the counsel of Sunday Igboho, who is presently in Cotonuo prison.
Speaking with Sunday Sun, the lawyer opened up on why he decided to defend Igboho.
He also talked about his ordeals living in a French-speaking country to fend for himself as a teenager and lots more. Excerpts:
Did you grow up in Cotonou?
No. I did not. I was born in Port Novo and that is where I grew up. I left Port Novo for France when I was 15 years old, for my university education where I studied law. I came back to Cotonuo about 15 years ago.
Tell us about your family/parents?
My family name is Fagbohun and my parents came from Nigeria to live in Cotonuo. We speak Yoruba as a family. Also, we speak French. Yoruba is an international language, in Brazil, America, Côte D’Ivoir, Ghana and Benin, there are Yoruba descendants. My father was one of those that arranged passengers (conductors) from Benin to Nigeria in those days. He is a modest person, he is not rich. But I have the ambition, as a child, to study and the government of Benin did not assist me. I found my way to France; I did all manner of menial jobs to enable me study, no government, and no family assistance. During this period, I was also sending money to my mother from my menial jobs as a student.
Life as a lawyer in a French country?
I don’t know what it takes to practice law in Nigeria, but here in Benin, before you can become a lawyer, you must have university education of four and five years. And for three years, you will be under the tutelage of an established lawyer, after which, you have the right to establish one yourself. In Benin, lawyers are into general practise, it is not like USA or London where you specialise in a particular area of law. Lawyers in Benin are not up to 300. Republic of Benin is about 12 million in population. We’re not many. We know ourselves.
How is prison life in Benin because there was an allegation that the prisoners, especially Nigerian Igbo traders are having untold hardship in the prison? How true is this?
I don’t know about that because when they are in prison, there are many eyes watching them. They cannot place Igbo or Yoruba separately. But what I know is that once they are picked up and landed in prison, there’s no more hardship. In fact, they are better taken care of in the prison than when they are in police station. In prison, they are not handcuffed or ‘leg cuffed’ and their food is quite different.
How did you get to know your client, Sunday Igboho?
I don’t know him personally before his arrest. But I have been hearing about him from the Yoruba community around this axis that he likes fighting for the Yoruba cause. I have never met him. But when he was arrested, the Diaspora in France, Ireland and USA, all the Yoruba in these countries are aware that I am a Yoruba lawyer. They are the ones that said I should handle his case. These are the people that contacted me. I never knew him before. When he was handcuffed in the police station, I got to the station, I called the police boss and prosecutor that I have a case with them and they should not put my client in chains. That was when they removed the handcuff. I never knew him from anywhere.
Where is Sunday Igboho presently?
He is in the prison in Cotonuo.
How is he faring?
He is presently in jail in Cotonuo, we took clothes and food to him, we told him there’s adequate security where he is because there are things we want to achieve and there are things we don’t want in this case. We don’t want him to return to Nigeria for security purpose, what Sunday Igboho really wants is to get freedom to enable him travel to GGermany to see his wife and his children. Right now, he cannot leave Benin to Nigeria or to Germany. He is in the custody of the government of Benin. His wife also is in Benin.
So, his wife is no longer in prison?
She has never been in prison. Both of them were detained at the police station, but the first day we went to court on the matter, we pleaded for the release of his wife. It was honoured and they gave her passport back to her. Only the husband is in prison.
When is he likely to be released?
We cannot say when. When you look at the case, it is not a case that can be judged at once. Judges that investigate cases are handling his case. Investigation takes time and we cannot give a specific date to when he would be released, we cannot say we are going to court on a particular day because it is the judge that would call us to come. He is the master of the agenda of the case. Ours is just to plead with him to assist in hurrying up the case.
Hope he is not suffering in jail?
Where he is presently, is far better than when he was in the police station. He was handcuffed in the police station, and eating was a problem, someone has to assist him to do whatever he wants to do, whereas now, he is free, no handcuff again and his doctor has visited to give him medication. He injured his hands while he was trying to jump his house perimeter fence, but he has been treated.
Was he trying to run away to Germany while he was caught or just going on a visit?
When you have a big problem in your country and wants to flee that country, you have not done no wrong. If you are seeing death starring you in the face in your home country and you decided to flee, you are not wrong. Our prophet, Mohammed, when he was being molested in Mecca, he ran to Medina. His fleeing Nigeria is not something that has not been done before. He left Nigeria on a Sunday and got to Benin on Monday, they saw him at the airport with a ticket to travel to Germany, himself and his wife. Though his wife is based in Germany and two of his children also are in Germany. He has cogent reasons to travel to Germany, but he has no desire to live there permanently because he doesn’t have any business to fall back on in Germany. I have a distinction in activist’s secessionist. I know a bit about the history of Nigeria from the time of its liberation. People that wanted secession are there from the beginning. So, the talk about secession in Nigeria is not new. In Igboho case, I see him as an activist, you see him on Facebook, U-Tube and Instagram. those are his weapons of war, and he doesn’t use gun or other weapons. He is a Yoruba activist fighting for the cause of Yoruba. I, myself, I’m a Yoruba person. Aside the financial aspect, this Sunday Igboho cause is something worth to defend and assist him.
Any hope for his release soon?
The only hope is that they don’t have case with him in Benin for what he did in Nigeria. I know that there’s no problem. In extradition, there’s no need to question him for what he did in Nigeria. So, there’s hope he would be released very soon.
Do you also experience Fulani herdsmen in Benin Republic?
Yes, Fulani herdsmen are also in Benin behaving like bandits, spoiling people’s farms, stealing, killing and raping the women. But the government of Benin took a bold step to tackle them with police and army so that the Fulani herdsmen would not cross the border to enter Benin. That was why they were reduced drastically in Benin. It was really bad before the government swung into action in Benin. They were repelled when they tried to enter Benin through Nigeria. That was how the problem was resolved. Nigerian traders on that route, living in Benin, pray for Sunday because they are suffering, If you have someone fighting for the community, it is good to assist him.
What else do you do in Benin?
I’m a lecturer, I’m also a lawyer. I am a full professor, there’s no other examination, and I have reached the peak in my career. I’m a full graduate in law in this country, the top among the lawyers in the country right now. So, I teach constitution and administrative law at the university. These are my specialties in the university. I have two jobs in Benin.
Do you still visit France?
I have dual nationalities, Benin and France. My first son is in the university in France. He’s reading law. His mother is a white French woman. I handle cases in France too.
Are you conversant with Nigeria routes?
No. but I do come to Lagos occasionally and it’s been a long time I visited last. I often come to Lagos, whenever I’m going to Hajj, I pass through Lagos, but the traffic is hectic.
What kind of menial jobs did you do as a student?
In France, we worked in the farm, plucking apple, fruits for winery, I worked as a security and I worked in toll gates. When I got to my fifth year as a law student, I was among the three that did excellently well in school. I was then admitted to the university to start lecturing. I lectured in the university till I got my doctorate; I finished and went to school of lawyers (Law School). After graduating from school of lawyers, I came back to Benin to start working. Nigerians were mostly in the UK, USA; they are not many in the university. The few Nigerians around, were in France to trade and not to school.
Will you want to be in government in Benin?
Everything is in God’s hands. May God lead us right to what will be of benefit to us? Anything that is not orchestrated by God is not worth it. There are journey or steps you take in life that might lead you to prison or destroy your reputation. May God guide us. We have no senator or House of Representatives member in Benin. We call them deputy. They are the ones who enact the law.