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Africa’s spite for rule of law will defeat gains of AfCFTA, says Uwaifo, ABA president

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By IKENNA EMEWU

The African Bar Association (ABA) has serious concern about political leadership in the continent .

The concern is mainly because of a negative culture of spiting the rule of law in all countries of the continent.

Mr. Hannibal Uwaifo, the president of the ABA expressed this disgust in an interview with ACE in Lagos.

This issue arose from an ongoing diplomatic and judicial breach involving a Venezuelan diplomat who serves as permanent representative of his country to the African Union, Alex Saab who has been in detention in Cape Verde in defiance of his diplomatic immunity and also a court judgment by the ECOWAS Court that has ordered his release since March 15.

Cape Verde flouted this order of a court it submitted to its jurisdiction as a state party of the ECOWAS Court.

While speaking on this deplorable development in an age when countries should not be coerced to obey laws, he observed that beyond Cape Verde and the Saab case, such impunity against the law is already a culture that manifests in all countries of Africa and capable of eroding and choking life off the laudable Africa Continen

tal Free Trade Agreement that came into force January 2021, as an instrument to help grow the economy of the continent.

The Saab case

It is going to be difficult for us to do much for Ambassador Saab beyond promoting the awareness for the obedience to the rule of law and raising more consciousness about his illegal continued detention. We are not directly involved in the Saab matter. He has his lawyers and we are not that. We got involved in it because his wife petitioned the ABA about the continued detention in Cape Verde. I don’t know him or ever met him. The person that could do  more of that is Femi Falana who is his counsel, and I am sure he won’t keep quiet.

We wish we had the resources to take our campaign for him for the enforcement of the rule of law to all African countries, but we don’t. We have done the best we could do from here in Nigeria and wish the judgment would be obeyed soon.

Hannibal Uwaifo, ABA President

For me, the African Bar has its limitations in the sense that it is the duty of the lawyers he hired to handle that, but if the legal team contacts us, we will press further for his rights. For now, we have done what we ought to, even to the extent of writing the ECOWAS to explain to them the implications.

No doubt, we are sure that Cape Verde is in total breach of her obligations to the ECOWAS Protocols that established the court.

ABA and structure

Uwaifo did much to enlighten the masses on the structure of the ABA he leads, and he says: “Membership of the ABA is not like the Nigerian or any municipal Bar. It is limited by guarantee and registered in The Gambia. Country Bar Associations are members like the Nigerian Bar, the Egypt Bar, Sierra Leone etc. It is open to any individual that has the resources to belong there and when dues are not paid for two years, the membership expires. That implies it is for individual lawyers that can pay the dues. The members have voting rights just like the International Bar Association (IBA)

Civil society 

He expressed the limitations of taking Saab’s matter to the African Union, and stated that: “The African Union has a procedure in its entertainment of issues and processes. Before anything is bought up for discussion there, it must have been listed by the secretariat, otherwise, it won’t make any headway. So in a situation you wrote the secretariat and it doesn’t see it fit to list your complaint, there is no way you can address the AU.

We have in the past written the AU on other matters and nothing was heard from the body. At some other time, the ABA has been invited by the AU on a number of issues on their own volition. In fact, as the body representing lawyers in the continent, we have been invited to the the Trade and Services Committee for an input a little before the COVID-19 lockdown. They invited us to their summit at Cape Town South Africa. I could not attend, but I sent our chairman in Botswana to represent me. We have been advising and had been with them for sometime. Through the little interaction, we found that African leaders don’t want to be criticised. Most of them have this dictatorship inclination and immediately you criticize them you become their enemy. They are afraid that if a lawyer from our association talks or addresses them there would be problem for them. That was the reason our planned conference in Egypt was truncated in 2019 because the government didn’t want anything that would give anybody the advantage of coming to fault their system. Before the event they had agreed to host, they applied very serious visa restrictions to control the number of people attending.

They played a crass political game. After issuing many of the ABA executives visas, they slammed the national Bar presidents and denied them entry visa to discourage many people attending. Out of over 4,000 applications and we expected to have 2,500 people granted visa, but they refused. At last the UN observer had to pull out and international human rights groups started questioning why we were still there. Even the newly elected president pulled out and we argued that being there was like legitimizing the government’s lawlessness. So we eventually took the conference to Monrovia in 2019.

Africa, AU and impunity

I can tell you that the AU is a very complex group. It is just a talk shop that at last doesn’t produce any results that is why they just sit and talk without inviting African bodies of different professional leanings to interact with them and know what is the issue with the continent and how to make things better.

AfCFTA is defeated

From the word go, the body or agreement is not wired to work. The reason for its non-workability is simple, the governments of Africa don’t obey rules or court orders and don’t respect the rule of law. No society makes progress when snubbing the rule of law as Africa does. Take as an instance a situation you did professional consulting for Cape Verde and an arbitration says you should be paid for the service, do you see the country complying with such order looking at the case at hand. I can assure that the AfCFTA is child’s play and even in the next 50 years, nothing would have been achieved until we change the process.

For instance, with a Dutch visa, you can travel to all EU countries, but till date, that does not apply in Africa and among African countries. We have plenty roadblocks that don’t allow for free trade in goods and services. It is just ok to discuss the agreement but forget the implementation. If as an example someone in Nigeria invents a technology that will revolutionize agriculture in Algeria and the country wants the services, but eventually, the lawyer to the inventor is the head of the Algeria Bar that criticizes the government, do you think they would allow the foreigner get the service paid for? Actually, the foreign inventor can come but never the lawyer they see as an enemy. That is already a huge drawback to development. When such case arises, the inventor may take it elsewhere. When situations get that bad, what follows is collapse. That means the starting point for the workability of any union in Africa is removing the barriers that exist.

Furthermore, where there is abuse of the rule of law, check out the details that where the rule of law is flouted and disregarded, what takes over is anarchy. That applies also in Nigeria where the law doesn’t seem to mean anything. That is why even lawmakers mess up the law and make laws that have no meaning to the society.

The latest instance is a lawmaker taking a bill to the National Assembly asking for a law that female soldiers should wear hijab. How does the wearing of hijab add to the efficiency of the military or help solve the insecurity in the country? It is a waste of time and sign of anarchy, the reason we sink deeper in security crises all over the country. If anyone talks, they will label him or her as against someone’s faith. They enthrone ethnicity instead of  adherence to the law to make the society better and peaceful. Such is common in all African countries.

Therefore, on AfCFTA, the road is long ahead and doesn’t look tenable with all the obstacles, and the leaders don’t want anyone to talk. On its own, it is a great idea, but the reality makes it a distant dream and I don’t know when we will wake up to face the facts on ground that will make the agreement work and take us out of the low side of life Africa occupies.

This is a continent where people’s rights are violated and nothing happens, and that should not be so because only adherence to the rule of law would change all these.

There are also the reasons investors from outside world don’t like coming here because they are not sure their investment would be protected under the law or they would get justice in case a breach arises.

Regarding AfCFTA, the promoters have very bad records of leadership and their antecedents can’t convince anybody that they can do anything right or lead the continent out of its present quagmire.

2021 ABA Conference

Uwaifo explains apoint

Our coming conference in Chad is just part of our annual meeting. This year, we take it to a French speaking country and we are a continental Bar that targets and focuses on issues that would make Africa better. That means we will also discuss the AfCFTA because we know if it works, the continent would be better and our practice would also benefit. We will do the best we can to add our voice to it for progress. In 1997, it held in Cote De Ivoire and I was just coordinator for the West Africa region, so it has been many years before this return to a francophone country. I was just seven years at the Bar then, and now about 32 years, so it has been a long time.

The ABA has remained a platform for conviviality where all parts of Africa interact freely and share our common continent’s challenges. We expect this coming conference would be the same. Niger indicated interest to host in 2019 when they said they wanted to study the requirements. But we told them it would not work because Egypt was already booked for it. At last Egypt disappointed and we took it to Monrovia. The hosting must involve the government for visas and security, so when Egypt didn’t show good faith, we had to move it.

I recall that when Nigeria hosted it in 2017 at Port Harcourt, all participants, even non-Africans got free visas. In 2018 in Kenya, it was the same that Kenya prepared special visa for the participants. In 2016 in Zimbabwe, it was the same special support that made it happen. But in 2020, it was a virtual conference due to the COVID-19 pressure and restrictions. The attendance was still much, by over 5000 people which was declared open by the Nigerien president and Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State gave the keynote address. He is a life member of the governing council.

The ABA has exposed me to a chain of friendships in many African countries because it is a great platform, he said.

Uwaifo is exceptional in his decision to take only a single tenure of five years and step down, even though the law permits him running for a second tenure.

And this year in Niamey Chad, he looks forward to an election that will usher in another president who would assume office next year as required by the rules.

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