PAUL USORO, SAN: THE PUBLIC INTEREST LAWYER – By Peter Akinnusi

It is often said that all it takes for evil to prevail is to have good men look on without doing anything. The sentiment of that thought pattern is that being good is fundamentally not enough. The idea that the presence of a person or group of individuals, considered to be good, is merely enough to keep evil at bay is infantile, horribly naïve and damning.

 

The action of the one that is good is what debilitates the effects and the influence of evil in society. Thus, the pushback against malevolence in society requires the hard work and investment of the few that are considered good in a social group. In Nigeria, it is even more pertinent for more actions from good men to occur if the wave of evil that abounds in society is to be stemmed.

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This is a good time then, to reference Paul Usoro, SAN, celebrated luminary, a legend of the legal profession. For all his achievements, he is in possession of perhaps the most impressive track record of protecting the public’s interest. Even at the risk of being on the wrong end of the wrath of several kingmakers and power wielders, his actions have shown a man fixated on ensuring nothing but the public good.

So, we turn our attention to the massively controversial Bank Verification Number, BVN, case in which the Federal Government has sought to seize the accounts of Nigerians who have not linked them to their BVNs. The Federal High Court sitting in Abuja deemed it fit to order a forfeiture of funds held within such accounts. The idea was simple, for failing to link these accounts to a valid BVN; the accounts had to be given up as a punitive measure.

Mr. Usoro was then moved to ensure this did not happen. Representing at least 18 banks involved in the matter along with the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, he questioned the jurisdiction of the court to hear the matter while vehemently arguing that demanding such a forfeiture was a harmful move to the public. He furthermore drew attention to the damage it would do to the Nigerian financial subsector and insisted upon a well-known tenet of the law that saw a person as innocent until proven guilty.

The Federal Government as a plaintiff in the case had claimed the BVN issue could facilitate the occurrence of illegal activities but Mr. Usoro’s position has remained that the Nigerian Constitution has a duty to protect the citizen first, kicking against such an unfair presumption of guilt of the account holders without any tangible proof of their wrongdoing. He went further to question why account holders were being pressed to prove their innocence or forfeit said accounts when there was no mention of any such directive in the original CBN circulars on the BVN policy.

The original CBN circular recognizes the rights of the account holder to regularise accounts at any date even after the cut-off date, a fact Mr. Usoro argued as he stood to ensure that the rights of the general public were kept intact. As a matter of fact, most of the millions of people who own the accounts under imminent threat are unlikely to be capable of footing the legal fees required to mount a decent defense in the matter. The Honourable Silk’s compassion for the public has shone through in this regard.

Furthermore, Mr. Usoro’s recognition of how unfriendly the landscape of the legal profession can be for a nascent lawyer, especially one interested in taking on advocacy cases, ensured that he instituted the much-celebrated “Paul Usoro Pro-Bono Challenge” that was won by Messrs Ini-Obong Udoh and Abasiodiong Ekpenyong respectively. This programme was designed to ensure that young lawyers garnered tangible experience from pro-bono work, advocacy, and much more ethical case-handling. It eventually rewarded lawyers who had consistently taken on cases of clients at no cost with financial prizes that were meant to spur them on, encouraging them to take on more of such cases with compassion.

Again, this shows how much Mr. Usoro is welded to the culture of preserving the interests of the general public. For him, based on his background, the actions of the lawyer must serve the society positively.

Clearly, the incentives attached to aligning oneself to the position held by the government are endless. However, Paul Usoro’s proven track record of ensuring that the public interest comes first came to the fore in this matter. Again, the people, ever in need of a guardian have found a worthy one in this seasoned lawyer and Senior Advocate.

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