Most people have a hard time explaining what it means to be a good leader. However, not everyone can recognise leadership qualities even if they are face to face with such qualities. Eyitayo Jegede, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Ondo State, is a leader who has a clear vision for not only the administration of justice in Ondo State but also Nigeria as a nation.
Born in Akure South Local Government area of Ondo State in 1961, Jegede has used the instrument of the law to make positive impact in the lives of the ordinary man on the street, knowing fully that the quest for justice is not limited to the elite, but also shared by the downtrodden, the average market man, the cobbler, the attendants, the motorcycle riders, among others.
“Law must be used as an instrument to bring orderliness and joy to the majority of the people; that is primary purpose of any legislation. What we have been doing is to ensure that the operators of government do not act arbitrarily or oppress the people in the society, and that they do not abuse the privileged position which it had pleased God to place them in.
We want to ensure that there is due regard and respect for the law, not only in terms of saying it by word of mouth but also in practice. My belief is that where there are orders and judgment that are not in any way impaired by any appellate process, such judgment must be obeyed,” he said.
Citing cases that were lost by the government since 2007 which the judgment sums were not paid, Jegede intervened and ensured that government duly complied with such judgments and the judgment creditors were paid.
“I do believe that for such beneficiaries, what government did was actual demonstration of the sanctity of the rule of law. That to me as a chief law officer of Ondo State is a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. After all, the government in which I am serving was brought in through the instrumentality of the same process of law.
“On this interesting journey of total and absolute obedience to our legal system I enjoy the absolute support and understanding of the Governor of Ondo State. We really do not have much choice; it is also a safe way to tread. The only way government can be relevant and not oppressive is when we are able to ensure that artisans and operators in one remote corner of the state who took the trouble to protect their legal interest by going to court and who had judgment in their favour, should not reap empty victory, where there are no appellate hindrances.
These judgment creditors had been confronted with the problem for so many years and they could not believe it when I insist that they should be paid. I don’t have to know them, all I need to know is that they have a judgement in their favour and they are citizens of this state or country.
“In terms of legislation, we have come up with lots of bills to ensure orderliness and take care of the less privileged. This government is a caring one and our success will not only be judged by what we are able to do for those who are strong and capable; our success will also be measured by what we are able to do for those who are less privileged and the orderliness that we are able to entrench in the system using law as an instrument,” Jegede argued.
However, he does not mind rolling up his sleeve and getting dirty to achieve success in the government. On a monthly basis, he oversees activities of the Office of Public Defender in Ondo State which is involved in lots of mediation and court cases concerning the indigent. Of recent, six additional lawyers were posted to the department to beef up the activities of that agency. This, according to Jegede, is to ensure prompt and good service delivery.
“We have decided to relocate the office and to restructure because the present office has become too small for that agency. Unless you see what is happening there and the stream of our people that daily storm the office, only then will you be able to measure the level of our impact,” he said.
But how does Jegede see Nigeria’s democracy since 1999?
“I think learning for us has been very slow. We have not been able to entrench credible and perfect democracy; what we have established is a fairly stable civil rule. This is because our electoral process is still faulty and not credible. Not because there are no laws or regulations, but for political exigencies civilian governments have not insisted on absolute compliance and have made no efforts to apply sanctions.
For me, electoral offences are like any penal laws. Attorneys-General of all states should be able to prosecute such offences. The present practice of vesting the Attorney-General and INEC alone with power to prosecute is suspect and politically motivated. Having said that, I know that democracy itself is not a destination, it is a journey, a continuous process and we must learn quickly as we move on.
We have not been able to have a credible democratic rule, one that would speak for itself; a democracy where you would have no doubt that the will of the people as represented in the ballot and votes is reflected in the elective offices.
“Again, that part of our constitution that prescribed age limit or age restriction for those who are contesting for elective positions in the State Houses of Assembly, House of Representatives, the Senate, the Governorship seat and the Presidency should be looked into. There is a need to allow our youths to participate not only in terms of voting but also in terms of seeking elective offices.
The vibrancy of ideas and patriotic tendencies manifest in those years of 20 -35 years. The average life expectancy of an African is still about 55 years; the average life expectancy of an American is about 80 years. I believe we must give early right of entry to power base for our younger ones for we do not have the same length of life expectancy available to the developed world in our own African region. It is wrong to import age restriction in operation overseas into Nigeria legal documents.
“Presently unless you are 30 years, or 35 years or 40 years, you cannot seek some elective positions. Why do you think that persons who are 30, or 35 years who have ideas and cannot seek for the office of Presidency?” he asked.
He said that former rulers, especially the military men who served at younger ages, contributed meaningfully to the development of the country. People like General Yakubu Gowon, Mobolaji Johnson, Alfred Diette-Spiff did a good job keeping this country together, and if you look at the contributions of those who served under them, they were also very young. If you look at the successes they recorded and compare them with the achievement of those in the present democratic dispensation, you will realise that it is not about age. Therefore, the principle of exclusion of those who are below a particular age and from seeking particular offices for reason of their age is not appropriate.
“I think there is need to develop this democracy. Why can’t we give opportunity to the vibrant young who have bright and beautiful ideas, and are ready to demonstrate these ideas, to have a shot at elective offices on the basis of merit? I think we should expand the horizon of our Electoral College to give opportunity to those who are also in their 20’s, 30’s to seek high elective offices in the land. In any case, democracy is about ideas and numbers.
“We need to broaden the base and the structure of democracy,” Jegede observed. He argued that late Chief Obafemi Awolowo notwithstanding his age was able to effect laudable positive changes and growths in the then Western Region.
“Remember that those who fought for independence at that time were young elements, and the passion, the vision and the drive was there. They had the ideas and the energy to pull it through. So people like Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikwe, Fani-Kayode, were relatively at younger ages when they commenced their aspirations and sought for political offices.
“Now that we have achieved civil rule, there is tendency of older elements to want to continue in the position they find themselves by excluding those who can give them a challenge by using provisions of the law to scuttle contest and perpetrate themselves in office. That is why I was not surprised when in the National Assembly the idea to further increase the age of those who are eligible to contest unfortunately keeps coming up. If you look at it critically, part of our problem in Nigeria is greed and the urge to get to a particular office at all cost, then that is why elections were rigged,” he said.
Asked whether Nigerian lawyers have used the wig as a tool of social engineering, he said: “I believe so. Lawyers are the best of all the professionals. Pardon my immodesty. And I think Nigerian lawyers in the context of our limitation in this country, given the fact that our democracy is just in its roots and the fact that the lawyers especially people like late Chief Gani Fawehinmi of blessed memory have done so much to fight on the side of the majority of the people to the point of standing against the establishment, I think there is still hope. Nigerian lawyers as a body have demonstrated commitment and added value to our democratic experience. I think the lawyers have made a difference.
“I think time will come when a Fidel Castro, a Mahatma Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela (all trained lawyers who have shaped the destiny of their countries) will emerge in this country. I believe the way we are going, a time will come when we will have trusted Nigerian legal practitioners who are leaders and who will make a difference that will bring to bear on governance their knowledge of their profession, the integrity of the Bar, the honesty of purpose and dedication of a patriot, along with a creative engagement of the legal craftsman in our search for growth.”
Culled from the book, “For the love of their nation: Lawyers as agents of change in Nigeria” by Mustapha Ogunsakin