Unlike his stormy petrel “twin” Chief Niyi Akintola SAN, Nigeria’s new Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Prince Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, rarely exhibits compelling oratory in public speaking.
Many, in legal and political circles, who know the buddies, see one as the exact opposite of the other, despite being of same build. The very inquisitive, have wondered aloud, and not unbeknown to the seeming “conjoined” twins, how the calm one has been able to closely befriend, for decades, the one nicknamed Niyi Ijogbon (Niyi, the Trouble himself), by a section of Yoruba leaders who couldn’t keep up with his Yoruba nationalism.
Physics however claims the combo is perfect, as positive should attract negative for results, without suggesting that the hurricane nature of Chief Akintola connotes negativity. With his Aluta style, he got results for his Oyo State, during the Jonathan confab.
Henry Adams, American iconic historian who descended from two US Presidents opined that “a friend in power is a friend lost”. Only time will tell if this saying would come true for the senior lawyers but most of those who know them together, since their days under Bola Ige’s tutoring, would wager it would take a miracle for the most consequential office in the land, after the President’s, to put asunder. That is like Nigeria, getting two, for the price of one.
Not being a fire-eating brand, doesn’t diminish the new AG. Infact, his subdued nature, should be an advantage in returning the heavily-politicized office to the path of its original constitutional conception. In the life of this Republic, Fagbemi is another graduate of Aare Afe Babalola’s jurisprudential tutelage, to lead the Ministry. Before him, was Chief Akinlolu Olujinmi, SAN, (2003-2005) who opened Obasanjo’s second term, before Chief Bayo Ojo, SAN, came in, to round it off.
Like Fagbemi, Olujinmi is another soft-talking, don’t-offend-the-devil personality. The same applies to the long-running head of Afe Babalola’s chambers, Mr. Ade Adenipekun, SAN, who many believed, climbed on Aare’s back, to his international appointment at The Hague. Is Baba being deliberate in looking out for well-mannered, suitably-tempered lawyers to groom into stardom or is there a Kool-Aid they drink over there before branching out to stand on their own? Maybe someday, I will have the opportunity of interviewing Baba again and pose the question.
I’m not suggesting Aare facilitated Fagbemi’s ascension to the hot seat, but nothing would be wrong in consulting your mentor and Maker in taking a decision as major as taking over a job that has ruined the reputation of several past holders, tainted their legal records and crumbled their wig and gown.
Long before the return of democracy/civil rule, the office of AGF has become a step on a live coal. Remember Sir Clement Akpamgbo, the charismatic Igbo lawyer and SAN, who was Ibrahim Babangida’s AG. Serving in that government practically ruined the brand he built for decades as a leading light of NBA.
But at least, he left office with his life intact, even if ingloriously. Late Bola Ige, lifelong mentor to the current AG and his friend, Akintola, was snuffed out as an incumbent. While it would be convenient to link his murder to politics of now-defunct Alliance for Democracy in the South West and the tussling in Osun State then, the fact that he was occupying the most sensitive office in the land, opposing Sharia implementation, when killed, can’t be wished away.
I have been privileged to sit around at least, three occupants of the office of AG and I can tell that the authority and influence around that office and the constitutional/statutory powers vested in it, are humongous. Erroneously, many believe that an average AG can only get crooked overseeing anti-corruption agencies, especially the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which, in the course of time, with abundant evidence in public domain, has become a full-blown criminal enterprise, for insiders, outsiders and the supervisor. Beyond anti-corruption, the office of AGF plays significant national security roles and a major factor in the economic wellness of the country. We all, saw this firsthand, in the Naira redesign fiasco of the Buhari era. To say the office, is the heartbeat of governance, including in US, where it has evidently become a major tool of political persecution, as obtainable in banana republics, is still simplifying its significance.
Arguably, the last occupant to confer respect on the office, was the debonair Ojo, even in the face of an unprecedented blockbuster political battle between then President and his vice, Atiku Abubakar which led to many never-heard-before fallout. The quartet that came after him, (including the brief stay of Adetokunbo Kayode SAN) especially the trio of Michael Aondoakaa, Mohammed Adoke and Abubakar Malami, all SAN, gave the country xerostomia.
Sadly too, each succeeding occupant has come off worse, in comportment, competence, professionalism, self-respect/restraint, partisanship, alleged corrupt handling of the trust of office and abuse of grace. By the time Jonathan pushed out Aondoakaa on February 10, 2010, Nigerians thought they had heard the last of sordid stories from the office. Then Adoke came along and stories that broke the heart started flying around, culminating in his probe and prosecution, both at home and abroad. Then Malami came and the combination of Aondoakaa and Adoke’s alleged malfeasances and malpractices, began to look like saintly errors.
Since inauguration, Tinubu’s administration and Malami have been playing some Tom and Jerry game. Evidently, Malami was at the heart of ex-President Buhari’s administration and dear to the ex-leader’s heart. You don’t just settle for anyone as a son in-law when you are the President, because suitors would naturally flow for your daughters, whether divorced or single, since most men, love where the grass is green. Nabbing Malami for expected multiple probes and possible prosecution, would mean Tinubu going for his predecessor’s family, just like Buhari also went for Jonathan’s family. But Buhari is still a popular figure in the North, though he couldn’t save the incumbent from defeat even in Katsina in the presidential election.
What if Supreme Court eventually orders a rerun? If Malami is walking a free man today, it isn’t because his cup of alleged iniquity hadn’t been full long ago, but political calculi do not favour the arrest of a son in-law to a still-venerated-in-the-North ex-President. At least, Malami’s alleged nephew, EFCC’s Abdulrasheed Bawa, is in custody. Yoruba will say, “ta o bari adan, a o fi odide sebo” (if BAT isn’t available, parrot can be used for the sacrifice).
Practically, every lawyer, both of Inner and Outer Bar that I have come across since Fagbemi’s ministerial nomination and the assumption he was going where he is now, had hailed him as a thoroughbred Bar man and a very decent human being, who won’t further heap ashes on what should be a prestigious office. I know him from a distance too as a judicial reporter for many years, in Abuja. While I can’t predict his integrity pedigree, I know he is a Silk who wants his job done in court and quickly disappear from public eye. Now, he is in pubic eye. He has also been deep in election petition trials and their dramas, starring in a couple of controversial cases, including plotting Rotimi Amaechi’s legal route to Rivers’ governorship without being on the ballot. Most of his known clients are politicians.
Fagbemi’s face may not register easily until now, but it would be dangerous to underrate him or assume he would be better than his ignoble predecessors when the push of political interests, comes to shove. As the Prosecutor of alleged crimes against the Nigerian State, for which many in his ruling party and former clients, are being probed and standing trial, including the man at whose pleasure he is holding his current job; he would be delivering on his paraded solid character, by doing the job as Unto God, and not unto man, at all times. From outset, stakeholders in the justice sector should engage with him and hold his feet to the fire when necessary.
I believe Prince understands the heat around the new job he just took. Yoruba will warn a motherless child off trouble with “Omo ti ko niya ki ngbegbo eyin.”
Fagbemi’s case is more complicated. He has neither father nor mother.