Lawyers should be the backbone of activism in any democracy

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The beginning of October 2020 saw a peaceful protest that was the culmination of pent-up national frustration. Its aim? To seek the dissolution and reform of the much-admonished Special Anti-Robbery Unit (SARS) and its personnel, respectively. This protest was lauded as one of the most organised in our history. Protesters gathered at specific venues across the country particularly Lagos; funds were being raised locally and internationally, food was distributed to the protesters and the needy, even the saboteurs were taken care of after being subdued.  It resembled a self-healing organism constantly repairing and adapting to whatever obstacle “unknown forces” seem to throw at it. Interestingly lawyers played a significant role in this movement. There were several key legal players, namely the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), famous musical artiste and Lawyer, Folarin Falana Falz the Bahd Guy and a handful of other young courageous lawyers.

As the protest began to gain traction, it became clear that more streamlined direction was required to make sure the endeavour bore fruits; this refers to the more technical bureaucratic elements needed for effective communication between the people and the state. Summarily put, positive change requires a bit more complexity than an ENDSARS hashtag and lawyers have tremendous power to change people’s lives through systemic advocacy and legal representation. Well thought-out policy mandates need to be put forth, the intricacies of reforms and judicial panels need to be contemplated and proposed. The NBA has been much derided in recent years for its lack of involvement in social issues and with the new elections recently concluded this was a chance for the executive committee to show that the campaign rhetoric was not just all political posturing.

On the 13th of October 2020, the NBA released a statement in response to the end wars protests mapping out an immediate, medium, and long-term plans; this was a more fleshed version of the initial viral response to the FG’s uninspired 5-point plan regarding the dissolution of SARS. This statement by an apex judicial body, effectively warded off any “opposing impudent entities “from brazenly & publicly interfering with the protest. Furthermore, it empowered the peaceful protesters who were made fully aware of their rights and saw a legitimate lifeline in case things went awry. The NBA has since then closely monitored the protest and actively denounced the insidious elements e.g. the looting and vandalism by paid disruptors and criminal opportunists. Conversely, it championed the constitutionally legitimate aspects and most importantly used its voice to reecho the sentiments of the people, which in many ways it is reminiscent of the days when the late great Alao Aka-Basharun was at the helm. The NBA is not alone in this fight, and inspired individuals have also aided using the law as a tool.

Falz is unique as not only is he an individual with bonafide celebrity status he also has legal qualification and pedigree from several years of legal practice. Often time the excuse from the higher-ups in government is to dismiss celebrity clamouring as misguided, misinformed and generally of no concern but with this charismatic enigma, it appears they have found their quagmire. In the timeline of events, many will point to Falz as the one who started the protest, but what followed highlights his unique position. He used his platform to make poignant observations and proffer practical legal solutions like the structural deficiencies in the human rights commission or the lack of funds in the police trust fund.

In the same vein, several young lawyers also stepped into the foray and through social media were able to galvanise a large chunk of youths by offering legal advice and condemning unlawful methods of suppression.

Modupe Odele used her expertise to organise a platform to source legal representation for arrested peaceful protesters. A group of 400 lawyers came together to provide free legal services for those protesting against brutality and extra-judicial killings. At every turn, lawyers were probing, checking and condemning the government over its constitutionality questionable actions, for instance, when it decided to freeze the accounts of individuals funding the protests. They were playing chess.

The constitutional independence of the legal profession means that it should assist society in its efforts to protect and enforce its citizens’ fundamental human rights against political institutions. The responsibility of lawyers and the bar as a whole is to serve the rule of law and the broader public interest. This independence of the legal profession is what enables lawyers to act for the benefit and legitimate interest of society without fear of abusive prosecution and influence of any kind. With this being said, the legal profession should serve as a tool for political accountability, but a history of oppression and subjugation in Nigeria has, to a great extent, put a muzzle on lawyers.

Activism in any society is a necessity. It operates like the body’s immune system; it identifies a disease or problem and the agents of change, set upon that problem to fix it. However, what has become clear to all, given Nigeria’s climate is that activism cannot function normally here in a country which, historically, has impudently abused the rights of its people. There is no doubt that the support of the legal profession alleviates this fear, and it is this support that can lay the foundation for real change to occur. Some may be demoralised by the outcome of the protests and the violence and chaos that ensued, but those who can envision the big picture will take an immeasurable amount of encouragement from this and moving forward, lawyers should expect to be at the centre of this long-term strategy.

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