Top human rights activists and senior lawyers have called on the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to renew its interest in taking up cases that deepen people’s access to justice and protection of their socioeconomic economic rights as spelt out in the Nigerian constitution and other statutes.
The lawyers spoke at a webinar conference organised by the Lagos State Chapter of the NBA with the theme “COVID-19, Access to Justice and Human Rights Violations.”
Speaking on the topic, leading human rights activist Femi Falana (SAN) urged the NBA to return to its old tradition of taking up litigation on matters of public interest, recalling how he and others had used the Freedom of Information Act, among other states, to challenge governments’ positions on issues of public interest.
Falana lamented that the NBA was gradually losing its role as the frontline defender of the legal rights of the masses, urging the body to urgently restore the optimism with which it fought against social injustice in the past.
Muhammad Dele Belgore (SAN), another panellist at the webinar, urged the NBA to place much premium on protecting and enforcing “economic and social rights of the people as that is a way of bringing about societal change.”
He urged the lawyers’ umbrella body to do more to give voices to the voiceless in the society, especially in the area of socio-economic rights.
“Such economic and social rights include the rights of women, right to earn a living wage, freedom against job discrimination, pay equity, housing and security rights,” he added.
Speaking on the COVID-19 pandemic, Belgore added: “Whilst governments are struggling to strike a balance between protecting health, respecting human rights and minimising economic and social disruption, that balance must not be against the citizen’s economic and social rights.”
He said while litigation in defence of civil and political rights are fairly commonplace, those of economic and social rights are not and “these rights are arguably more consequential to the ordinary citizen than those classes of rights.”
Prof Chidi Okinalu, a leading human rights activist, said he had long lost faith in the NBA as a defender of human rights, adding that he no longer regards himself as a Nigerian lawyer.
Odinkalu, a professor of law, stated that the NBA is not even advocating for the cause of lawyers who have been arbitrarily detained let alone be a champion of rights for the general public.
He argued that defending the rights of the citizens is the role of the lawyer in society, contending that there was so much for the NBA to do in helping to give people access to justice and protecting their human rights.
The Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba, who was also in attendance, spoke of the accelerated process by courts in Lagos in hearing applications for bail without delay.
Other panellists at the webinar included Mr Tony Ojukwu, Chairman, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC); Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa SAN; Dr Uju Agomoh, Executive Director, PRAWA; and Mr Chino Obiagwu SAN.