Boma Alabi is the first black woman to become the president of Common Wealth Lawyers (CWLA). Alabi has indeed demonstrated high level of professionalism in her law career. She was recently appointed as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). In this interview with Ngozi Okpalakunne, the legal luminary, who also is the founder of Primera Africa Legal, spoke on the need for more access to justice in the country. She also spoke on the issues affecting the judiciary arm of the government and other matters of national interest. Excerpts:
How do you feel being a Senior Advocate of Nigeria?
There is no difference, I know that a position of leadership is a privilege and therefore, to whom much is given, much is expected. So, I actually feel more of a burden to do more for the profession than l have been doing in the past, because my profession has recognised me as a leader and given me the privilege of being called to the inner bar; that requires me to give more service to the profession. You know how robust our pro bono work is, we do so many work in criminal defense so many of these awaiting trails, inmates, we call them inmates because you do not have to call them convicts; inmates until one way or the other they get justice done, if you are guilty, let us know; if you are not guilty let them go because awaiting trail is injustice itself, so we will do more there. We are looking at also how to make the criminal justice system more accessible for the average Nigerian.
So, #EndSARS, the protest, will tell you what an average Nigeria youth go through being victimised by the police in a lot of cases purely those that are victimising them know that they will not have easy access to justice, they cannot afford lawyers, they do not know where to get them, they do not know where to get lawyers, they know that solicitors in the police stations which you find in, even where l was practising before coming back home, when you are arrested, you are taken down to a police station; there is a lawyer who is part of the process and there is no police brutality, at the level most of our young people complain here in Nigeria.
You do not hear of a death in the police station without investigation; certainly not at the level we have here in the country; you hear about people disappearing after being arrested by the police, these are very worrisome and yes it may be exaggerated, there is no smoke without fire, l know some people with these experiences personally; and yes, they were also protesting for the Nigerian police that they are not well paid, they are not well trained, it is all about better Nigeria. From my own professional perspective, we need to find a way to ensure that those who are brought in to the criminal justice system get treated fairly and early representation and that is a project l am hoping to pursue; advocating to colleagues to work together along with my members.
The Nigeria Bar Association is already doing enough, free representation in our branches that is the way to go. All of us have to be part of that because if we are unable to ensure that our citizens get justice, what is the point of us being lawyers? So, for me the elevation to the Senior Advocate of Nigeria is simply giving me a bigger voice to advocate for justice for those who have no access and to that extent, l am ready to, not just for the elevation or bigger voice, but for the less-privileged and those who do not have access to justice.
What are some of the challenges facing the judiciary arm of the government?
The government is funding the judiciary system, but we know the situation with the government. They have to prioritise which one should come first. Is it to give vaccine to children, provide water and paying for lawyers to go and defend someone the society believes is guilty; you can see that the government will prioritise before they start talking about funding access to justice and as a result, you can see that a very little fund allocation is given to judiciary and that simply means that those who are in the criminal justice system cannot get help except lawyers like us go there to help. There are also cultural factors. That is a culture where the victim is being shamed instead of the perpetrators of the crime. Take for instance, a little girl is being sexually molested, instead of holding the adult male who committed the crime accountable for his action; they will hold the victim which is usually the woman or wife accountable in a violent situation for his action.
The community in most cases blames the parents of the girl for being negligent. The victim is shamed rather than the perpetrator. The family has to go through the whole justice system in order to hold the perpetrator accountable, they rather get it cooked, and that encourages the perpetrators to continue in their behaviour in molesting and defiling little children because there is no consequence and when there is no consequence, it gets out of hand. In domestic violent situation, the culture is to shame the woman. Most times, women in domestic violence were being warned to keep their mouth shut. Most times, they will ask the woman to go and pray for the man to change and that is the reason l said that there is a cultural issue.
The above mentioned perception and pressure make the victims unwilling to come out to seek access to justice. There are lots of cases where lives are threatened and by the time you know it, the woman in question died and is buried. We have the statistics; we know the number of women who have lost their lives to domestic violence.
How has the lockdown due to Covid-19 impacted your profession?
The Covid-19 pandemic impacted on every sector of the economy in a negative way. This is because it shut down the economy for a number of months. The legal profession was not left out; courts were shut down, a lot of lawyers who rely on going to court every day to earn daily living did not find it easy. So many of these young lawyers we gave them palliatives during the lockdown because no palliative came from the government, forgetting that they get their daily living from going to court. Generally, it affected the profession in a negative way. It slowed down litigation.
I had a situation where l did a pro bono for the lady who was a pensioner. The house was built with her pension money. The tenant who was a gentle man occupied the house for five years without paying any money. Unfortunately, the woman died before we could eject the man out of the house because courts were shut down and that is to say that justice delayed is justice denied. On the other hand, there is a silver lining to every cloud. There is the good aspect of the lockdown; we discovered that we can now hold our meetings virtually and the meeting will be impactful and productive as well.
Many people do not travel any more, they can now stay in the comfort of their rooms and hold meetings; we have been doing that before but the pandemic has made it more common and the platforms have improved; it made life easy and this new normal is going to remain with us for longer period. It is all about funding, all these work, we are doing, we are funding it ourselves because these are people who cannot afford to pay lawyers, cannot even afford to pay transport to go to the court.