LEGAL AID COUNCIL GETS NEW DIRECTOR-GENERAL.
President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday, 21st January, 2019, approved the appointment of a new Director-General for the Legal Aid Council in the person of Mr. Aliyu Bagudu Abubakar. Mr Abubakar took over the mantle of leadership of the Council from the Acting Director-General, Mr. Tunde Ikusagba, who is also the Council’s Director, Criminal Justice as well as the most senior Director. Mr. Tunde Ikusagba, was appointed Ag Director-General on 24th December 1918 after the end of the tenure of the previous Director-General, Mrs Joy Bob-Manuel who bowed out after an eight-year meritorious tenure.
Mr. Aliyu Abubakar is an indigene of Kebbi State and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto in 1987. He was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1988 after attending the Nigerian Law School in Lagos from 1987 to 1988. Mr. Aliyu Abubakar who before now, had been into private legal practice as the founder and Principal Partner, Falalah Law Chambers, is also a member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as well as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Loan and Risk Management of Nigeria (FCILRM). He did his National Youth Service with the defunct Companies Registry, Federal Ministry of Trade and Industry and was subsequently employed by the Federal Civil Service Commission as an Assistant Registrar of Companies in 1989. Mr. Abubakar transferred his services to the National Insurance Corporation (NICON) – in Lagos where he rose to become a Senior Management staff before the privatization of the agency in 2005.
I WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN LEGAL AID COUNCIL
Barrister Aliyu Bagudu Abubakar after his appointment as the Director-General Legal Aid Council by President Mohammed Buhari spoke to some journalists and LACON News over his mission and vision for the Council.
Question: Congratulations on your appointment sir. May we know the state of affairs in the Council when you took over?
Answer: Thank you very much. As you are aware I was recently appointed and I took over from Barr. Tunde Ikusagba who was at the helm of affairs in the Council in acting capacity having taken over from my immediate predecessor Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel. I have met with the Management staff as well as all the others down the line and I must say so far so good. I have been going through files, receiving briefings from the Departmental and Units heads and it has not been difficult to understand the challenges as it is familiar territory. So in answer to your question, I will say based on what is on ground, we have competent staff in place in terms of staffing that are able to achieve the objectives for which the Council was established in the first place regardless of the existing challenges.
Question: You have mentioned challenges and the objectives of the Council can you give us a picture of the challenges and the objectives?
Answer: The Council has been in existence for a long period of time as it was established as far back as 1976 by the then Military Government through the Legal Aid Decree No. 56 of the same year and the objectives for which it was established were mainly for it to provide legal aid, assistance and generally free access to justice to the poor and indigent within the society. With these laudable objectives and despite its long history to date unfortunately not many Nigerians are aware of the Council’s existence talk less of its capacity to assist the ordinary Nigerian who cannot for any reason whatsoever afford the services of legal practitioners.
The challenges facing the Council can be categorized into two. The first and most important of all is funding which is a general problem for all Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies. Our budgetary provision over the years for both capital and recurrent expenditure is low, extremely low and even at that the releases are not as at when due, but like I said it is a general problem. This matter has been brought to the attention of Honourable Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice as well as the Solicitor – General of the Federation and they have assured us of their readiness to assist us in the process of budgetary defence for 2019 which is before the National Assembly. With improved funding, most of the human resource challenges which is the 2nd category we are experiencing can be checked and minimized.
Question: What is the capacity of the Council vis-a-vis its ability to offer Nigerians free legal services.
Answer: No! No! The Council does not exist to offer every Nigerian free legal services. The Council exists to offer the poor and the indigent Nigerians the legal representation which is guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution which they could have otherwise enjoyed if they were in the position to engage the services of Private Legal Practitioners. This is to say that the Council is targeted at a particular category of Nigerians in its activities and rightly so far if you care to visit our Prisons and Police Detentions Centres nationwide, almost 90 percent of the inmates either as convicts or awaiting trial persons belong to this category of Nigerians. Now the Council has over 300 qualified legal practitioners on its payroll with offices in all the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory. We also have about 15 Legal Community Centres spread across the states in addition to the partnership with the NYSC Lawyers who we engage on yearly basis. The Council also collaborates with Private Legal Practitioners and NGOs rendering Pro Bono services. With this capacity, our presence is felt all over the federation but what is lacking is the necessary sensitization and public awareness of our existence and our ability to assist the ordinary Nigerian to get justice. We have identified this and very soon we intend to start regular publicity on Television, Radio and other social media platforms so as to bring to the attention of all Nigerians the need to engage our organization whenever they are in need of legal advice or assistance at no cost to them. This is the intention of government in setting up the Council in the first place.
Question: Sir, our Prisons are said to be congested and a lot of people who are in prison are denied justice for one reason or the other. What steps is the Council taking to reduce the overcrowding in prisons?
Answer: Let me clearly state that more than 50% of inmates in our Prisons across the country are not supposed to be in prisons. It is one problem that the prisons are congested and they are congested because of the aforementioned reason. Just last week I visited the Controller-General of Prisons and he mentioned a particular prison that has a capacity for 800 inmates but is housing almost 6000 inmates. The calamity occasioned by this abnormality can only be imagined and the situation is the same in almost every prison as well as other detention centres. There are several factors responsible for this abnormality and some are institutional, however ignorance is the chief factor responsible. Ignorance on the part of the ordinary Nigerian either as an inmate awaiting trial, or a convict and even the relations of the inmates.
Nigerians should understand that as citizens they cannot be held by the police or other holding authorities beyond a certain period of time and that such authorities must bring them before the Court of Law for adjudication regardless of the offences alleged to have been committed. The Prison Decongestion Programme which started during the tenure of Bayo Ojo (SAN) as Attorney General of Federation is a noble idea which has played a significant role in reducing the number of people in the prisons and by extension decongesting our prisons. The current Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) in his wisdom initiated the transfer of the Prison Decongest programme to the Legal Aid Council sometime last year or the year before and a full-fledged Department is now handling the programme on a permanent basis. It is also important to mention that as an institutional measure the current government through the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation has set up a Ministerial Committee on Prison Decongestion headed by the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Ishaq Bello that has been going round the Country’s prisons. The Ad-hoc Committee has achieved a lot in the area of decongesting the prisons in Nigeria.
The Council on its part has done a lot and will continue to do more especially with the additional mandate of the Prison Decongestion Programme coupled with our extended mandate as provided under the revised Legal Aid Act, 2011. The revised Act has actually extended our mandate to provide legal aid, advice and access to justice in 3 broad areas, namely Criminal Defence Service, Advice and Assistance in Civil Matters including Legal Representation in Court and Community Legal Services subject of course to the merits and indigence (means) tests for the parties. Another laudable innovation in the new Act is the provision for the establishment of a Legal Aid and Access to Justice Fund in to which financial assistance would be made available to the Council on behalf of the indigent citizens to prosecute their claims in accordance with the Constitution. So you can see the mandate is there, we have the requisite staff that are capable and willing, what is lacking is the necessary tools and this we have started to address.
It is important to mention the excellent support and cooperation we have been receiving from major stakeholders in the discharge of our responsibilities such as the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), the Nigerian Police Force (NPF), the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Nigerian Customs Service and the various Judicial Heads across the states of the Federation. The Council has similarly enjoyed a robust and sound partnership and technical assistance from our foreign and local development partners such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the European Union (EU), Department for International Development (DFID), British Council, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank (WB) as well as Justice for All (J4A) now Rule Of Law and Anti-corruption (ROLAC), Open Society for Justice Initiative (OSJI), Open Society Initiative West Africa (OSIWA), Nigerian Universities Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI), Prisons Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) and the rest which has greatly assisted it to deliver on its mandate.
Question: Director-General sir, staff are important to every organization and their welfare is also important. What was the level of their professionalism and dedication upon your resumption and how do you intend to improve on what is on the ground?
Answer: The staff are the most important component of every organization and the success or otherwise of the organization is dependent upon them. The Council has over 600 staff nationwide and half of this number are lawyers while the rest are support staff without which the Council cannot operate. I have mentioned earlier the role being played by our development partners both foreign and local. Additionally these partners have assisted and they continue to play a pivotal role in the area of training and retraining of our staff both legal and para-legal. Since my resumption, I have visited most of them and they have assured us of their preparedness to continue to assist the Council. The Trainings over the years have greatly impacted positively on the staff in their capacity to meet up with the challenges of running the Council’s activities. We remain grateful and we continue to urge them to do more in the spirit of our partnership. Similarly Management has put in a mechanism to address backlog of promotion arrears in the Council so that the staff could enjoy their promotion as at when due.
We have also assured them of our openness and transparency in running the affairs of the Council so we are confident that the right attitude to their responsibilities is paramount in their minds so that the Council shall move to the next level.
Question: Finally sir, what are the marks you would like to leave behind? What do you envisage for the Council in the next few years?
Answer: Thank you for this question. If you study the reason for which the Council was set up by Government, there cannot be any other better avenue for assisting the poor and indigent Nigerian with his/her legal needs than the Legal Aid Council. Freedom as guaranteed under the Nigerian Constitution is the most important human asset apart from health, and remember health or lack of it is beyond human control. Losing their freedom is the worst thing that can happen to any human being while access to justice is the highest form of liberation a human can attain especially when you are tried and discharged for an offence and many at times even being convicted is a greater justice for individuals than languishing in prison without trial for offences not committed. It is therefore only natural that government in its wisdom created the Council and mandated it to render the legal service that is mandatory especially for certain category of offences to the indigent and others who cannot afford such service. It is my desire to make a mark along these laudable objectives by the Government in the Council for the period I preside over the affairs of the Council. I intend to make a difference on the job. Additionally, there exists a 5-year development plan known as the National Legal Aid Strategy, which was started in 2017 and developed with the support of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The Legal Aid Strategy is aimed at improving, amongst others, the Rule of Law, Transparency and General Cooperation in the Justice Sector Agencies. We shall religiously implement the plan so as to achieve the desired goals by the year 2022.