Lawyer At 26, SAN at 37, Kwara Prince…— Meet Ibadan-based Fagbemi, Likely Nigeria’s 24th Attorney-General

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    By Premium Times

    From all indications, Lateef Olasunkanmi Fagbemi, an accomplished Nigerian lawyer who became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, at record time of 10 years at the Bar, will soon become Nigeria’s 24th Attorney-General of the Federation, AGF, and Minister of Justice.

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    The office, the only ministerial position directly created in the Nigerian constitution to perform some specialised duties, is reserved for lawyers; so it makes it easy to guess that the next AGF will come from among the lawyers on the ministerial nominees list just submitted to the Senate for screening.

    The first batch of President Bola Tinubu’s ministerial nominees sent to the Senate on Thursday has three lawyers, with Fagbemi the only senior advocate, SAN, among them. This contrasts remarkably with the SAN-studded cabinet of the immediate-past president, Muhammadu Buhari. That had made it hard to tell who the former president would deploy to the Ministry of Justice after he belatedly presented his first ministerial nominees list to the Senate in 2015.

    This time, even though the president is still expected to add at least 11 more nominees, the guess is much easier, apart from the fact that it is a settled matter based on the humming of those with knowledge of the considerations that brought each nominee to the ministerial nominees list.

    With a legal career that has flourished with professional achievements for close to four decades, Fagbemi, the longest-serving lawyer and the only SAN on the list of nominees, stands tall as not just one of the most distinguished professionals, but also as the most likely AGF candidate among the others.

    Born 16 July 1959, the 64-year-old, who hails from Ijagbo in Oyun Local Government Area of Kwara State, graduated from the University of Jos, Plateau State, with a Second Class Upper degree in Law in 1984. He bagged a master’s degree in Law (LLM) from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in 1987.

    A year after completing his law degree at the University of Jos, he was called to the Nigerian Bar in August 1985, marking the beginning of his 38 years of flourishing legal career. He became a SAN after just 10 years at the Bar, the minimum statutory period of active legal practice a lawyer must reach to qualify for the rank. By the time he was sworn in to the rank the following year, he was 37 and the youngest person, then, to ever hold the rank.

    Fagbemi cut his legal teeth and honed his skills under the tutelage of a renowned lawyer, Afe Babalola, for 11 years.

    His law firm, Lateef Fabgemi & Co, also known as Temitope Chambers, which he established later, is now 21 years into practice. The law firm handles cases for clients across the country from its offices in Ibadan in Oyo State, Lagos, and Abuja.

    With diverse areas of law practice in arbitration, alternative dispute resolution, commercial law, land and border disputes, the ministerial nominee has handled some high-profile political and corruption-related suits.

    The jurist has deployed his legal arsenal in defence of the All Progressives Congress, APC, both as the major opposition and the ruling party.

    Being a member of reputable local and international Bar associations, Fagbemi has contributed immensely to the development of Nigeria’s jurisprudence – teaching and delivering lectures across universities in the country.

    He deploys his mastery of the law in rendering consultancy services for key government institutions and state governments in Nigeria.

    In an interview in 2017, Fagbemi recalled the influence of his deceased parents, particularly his mother, on his life and the path he has chosen.

    He said he never wanted to be anything else than a lawyer.

    The jurist while reflecting on his career once said he was not rich but was satisfied with his job.

    “You must have a dream and pursue it with determination. You have to be very patient without being complacent. You just always ensure that you have mentors to learn from and share ideas with,” he advised.

    Trajectory with the APC

    Although not known publicly to be an APC member, he has been involved in the legal battles of the party before it came to power in 2015, barely two years after its formation. The party was officially formed in February 2013.

    Fagbemi, led by Wole Olanipekun and a dozen other senior lawyers, played frontline roles in the defence team of the APC and its then presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, when his academic qualification became a subject of a legal challenge aimed at knocking him out of the race against then incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014.

    Buhari, who would later defeat Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election, won a string of cases through his formidable legal team to escape disqualification from the keenly contested poll.

    In 2019, Fagbemi led APC’s legal team when the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Atiku Abubakar, challenged Buhari’s reelection at the Presidential Election Petition Court. Buhari emerged victorious with his reelection affirmed by both the presidential election court and the Supreme Court.

    In the build-up to the legal fireworks in 2019, Fagbemi gave a speech during a hearing that contributed to persuading then President of the Court of Appeal, Zainab Bulkachuwa, to step down as the presiding justice of the Presidential Election Court.

    The PDP had gone after Mrs Bulkachuwa, asking her to resign her membership of the panel on the grounds of her family tie to top members of the APC – her husband who later became an APC senator in 2019, and his son, a governorship aspirant on the platform of the party.

    The court asked the PDP to file a formal application that would be argued in open court. At the hearing of the application on 22 May 2019, the lawyers to the respondents – APC, Buhari, and INEC – opposed the application, urging Mrs Bukachuwa to stay on, and urging the five-member panel of the court to dismiss the PDP’s application calling for her resignation.

    Fagbemi, as APC’s lawyer, however introduced a poignant twist to his own opposition to the PDP’s application. After describing the application as unmeritorious, he went on to make a passionate appeal to Mrs Bulkachuwa to voluntarily withdraw from the panel, not in agreement with the allegation of bias the opposition party levelled against her, but based on the need for her to protect her name.

    He said: “Your name, either the one you acquired before you got married, or the one you acquired after you got married, none is for you alone. You hold them in trust and you have been blessed – being the first female President of the Court of Appeal in Nigeria.

    “My lord, your youthful look may confuse one. You are old enough to be my mother. My lord, you standing in as my parent, I will say, ‘Mum, leave the matter’.”

    After listening to the lawyers, the panel receded to chambers to put its ruling together. On returning to the courtroom that day, a member of the panel, Olabisi Ige (who recently retired as a Justice of the Court of Appeal), delivered the lead ruling dismissing the application, with the panel unanimously deciding that the PDP failed to establish its allegation of likelihood of bias against Mrs Buikachuwa.

    But after the ruling, Mrs Bulkachuwa voluntarily resigned from the panel, and weeks later, appointed Mohammed Garba, now a Justice of the Supreme Court, to replace her as the head of the presidential election court.

    Again in 2023, the APC beckoned on Fagbemi to lead its defence when the PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiiku, again decided to challenge the victory of President Tinubu in the 2023 polls.

    Fagbemi represents the APC in two other election petitions filed by the Labour Party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, and the All Progressives Movement, APM.

    At one of the hearings at the Presidential Election Petition Court in Abuja, this year, Fagbemi mocked Atiku’s case, saying, “there was no need flogging a dead horse,” apparently referring to alleged lack of substance in Atiku’s suit against Tinubu and the APC.

    In the aftermath of the governorship election in Osun State last year, Fagbemi provided his legal expertise in aid of former Governor Adegboyega Oyetola against the incumbent governor, Ademola Adeleke. Oyetola won at the tribunal, but lost the suit at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

    Fagbemi has equally successfully defended the elections of former governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State and the current governor of Jigawa State, Mohammed Namadi.

    Politically exposed

    Fagbemi crisscrosses courtrooms in Nigeria not just for civil and political cases. Many high-profile criminal cases involving top politicians charged with corruption also bear his legal imprints.

    One of such is the case of former Abia State governor, Orji Kalu.

    In December 2019, the Federal High Court in Lagos convicted and sentenced Mr Kalu, now a second term senator, to 12 years in prison for defrauding the state as governor.

    But on technical ground, the Supreme Court, in its judgement delivered on May 2020, nullified Kalu’s conviction and ordered a retrial. Fagbemi applauded the Supreme Court’s decision.

    Although he was not Kalu’s regular lawyer in the case, Fagbemi’s services would later be required when the former governor needed to file an application to enforce the Supreme Court judgement which was obtained by his co-defendant, and ensure his release from prison.

    After his release from prison, instead of submitting himself for the retrial ordered by the Supreme Court, Kalu lodged another suit before Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja to stop the retrial.

    Ekwo has since barred the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission from retrying Mr Kalu. The EFCC has gone on appeal to bring Mr Kalu back to trial.

    Fagbemi also successfully defended former Oyo State governor, the late Adebayo Alao-Akala, in his trial on N11.5 billion fraud charges.

    Similarly, Fagbemi frantically sought to stop the investigation of erstwhile governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, by his predecessor, Nyesom Wike.

    Wike, who is incidentally a lawyer and a co-ministerial nominee with Fagbemi, had set up a commission of inquiry to probe Amaechi over the latter’s tenure as governor between 2007 and 2015.

    The probe was for Amaechi to give an account of how N96 billion was allegedly withdrawn from the treasury of the state government and how it was spent during his tenure.

    However, Fagbemi contended that the probe was aimed at witch-hunting, embarrassing, humiliating and disgracing Amaechi in view of his political differences with his successor, Wike.

    In May 2022, the Supreme Court dismissed Fagbemi’s appeal. It ordered Amaechi to pay the respondents N1 million.

    The jurist equally defended a former governor of Sokoto State, Attahiru Bafarawa, who was involved in a N19.4 billion arms funds from the ex-National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki.

    In the suit, the EFCC charged Messrs Dasuki and Bafarawa alongside Bashir Yuguda as well as Bafarawa’s son, Sagir and his company, Dalhatu Investment Limited.

    The EFCC charged them with 25 counts of criminal breach of trust and misappropriation of public funds to the tune of N19.4 billion.

    The suit is before Hussein Baba-Yusuf, the current Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court.

    As senators continue the screening of the ministerial nominees Tuesday, Fagbemi’s nomination as possible justice minister and attorney-general would catch public attention owing to the enormous powers that the holder of the office wields across ministries, agencies and departments.

    If confirmed by the parliament and eventually deployed to the position, Fagbemi will inherit an inefficient justice system, in which he has operated in the last 38 years, and confused anti-corruption efforts severely undermined by the past administration of President Buhari through abuse of pardon granted to convicted politicians and a series of controversial withdrawal of corruption cases.

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