There is no getting away from Layi Babatunde, SAN. Aside from being a respected senior lawyer who has practised law for more than 35 years, his interventions in the Nigerian political, media and legal landscapes are legendary. The recipient of several legal honours, he is the Chairman of Lawbreed Foundation, an organization established to promote legal education in Nigeria and award scholarship to deserving students. He is the Editor in Chief of the Judgments of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (the official law reports of the Supreme Court of Nigeria), a series of books he has been editing for the past 21 years. He is also the author of several books, which include The Lawyer’s Companion (now in its 3rd Edition); Hints on Land Documentation and Litigation in Nigeria; Handbook of Criminal Law and Procedure through Cases (now in its 2nd Edition).
Recently Babatunde published Dark Hearts, a collection of 12 intriguing stories that depict not just the universality of evil but also the depth of human nature. In Dark Hearts, in which he fictionalized some popular Supreme Court judgements, the highly respected legal luminary is positing just like what Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist, says in his popular essay, The Universality of Evil, that people perpetuate evil not because of their religion or ethnic origin but because that is the way they are. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH (the shots were taken by AYO EFUNLA), Babatunde speaks about the book, why people perpetuate evil, the reason it pervades in Nigeria and the way out of what seems like a cul-de-sac. He made this revelations against the backdrop of criminality and insecurity in form of banditry, herdsmen attack, kidnapping and spiraling violence in several parts of the country.
What is the idea behind the book, Dark Hearts?
The idea behind the book is that it occurred to me that, at the end of the day, the end-products of works that the courts are engaged in and in which lawyers and litigants are active participants, appears to be consumed mainly between us lawyers and the court in the sense that they end up in law reports. And we continue to use them, familiarize ourselves with them and use them in subsequent proceedings. Interestingly, even people who are standing trial, criminal trial, what they are interested in, all said and done, they would ask you what did the court say. Are they guilty or are not guilty. Essentially, what they want to know is whether they are guilty or not guilty. For those that are involved in civil case, did they win or did they lose. That’s the bottom line for them. So all the other issues and pronouncements that are buried in between – very useful pronouncements – from which people can learn a lot of lessons. Except maybe sometimes if the case is “sensational” and you journalists decide to publicize it. In a lot of cases the lessons that are embedded in the judgements, in the reasoning of the court, is lost. So I felt that, look, for non-lawyers they are not going to start buying law reports to be reading as if they are doing research for whatever purpose. So why don’t I devise a way whereby some of these judgements from which people can learn and probably use in their daily lives and understand the way the judicial process works. Why don’t I find a way to put them in a simpler language, make it in a story form that doesn’t depart too much from the reality of the case and it will be easier for people to read and understand? So that’s the idea behind the book
So I selected some judgements that relate basically with our daily living, the kind of experiences that people go through, which ordinarily if you were to read them somewhere else like a story told sort of, they probably would think it is fiction because of the depth of human nature that is exposed in such cases. So I felt that, look, people need to know that these things are real and they need to see the works that the courts are doing and what the lawyers are engaged in beyond the robe and the wig that we wear. So in a nutshell, that’s the idea behind the book.
You’ve been practising law for 37 years now. From what you wrote in the book you must have experienced or seen evil, so to speak …
God delivers us from evil (laughs)
And how did you cope?
But you see, talking seriously, apart from the cases that we do you must also remember that I edit the Supreme Court judgements- The Law Reports of the Supreme Court and that gives me the opportunity to see all the cases that are decided by the court. So I don’t even have to be personally involved in doing those cases. But I can read from the judgements all the cases all through the years. And to be honest, sometimes I shudder how the judges cope going through such sordid evidence. Of course, you may say “Okay it is in the records of the court.” But when you read something that is in print it comes alive. If it is in print it is buried, alright. But the moment you open a book, a judgement, or record of proceedings in the appellate court, those proceedings come alive. Because I had to stop a few times while going through some of the cases that these stories were made from. In fact there is a particular story that actually brought tears in my eyes. The young boy, about 10 years old, who went to school and an ex driver, because he is very familiar with the school system and has become very friendly with everybody. He was very familiar with the teachers, the security guards but he was no more in employment. And he could go into the classroom and take this boy out of the school. And you know the end of the story is very sad. To be honest, the courts are doing a lot of difficult jobs that the ordinary people don’t get to know. Because all they are concerned about is: Did I win or did I lose; Am I guilty or am not guilty? But before you get to that point there is a lot. And don’t forget, judges are human beings like we are. And you can imagine several of such cases that they have to go through and then come to a decision. To be honest, some of them are very traumatic. And in a number of ways it shows us the way we are as human beings. For instance, take our attitude to religion. You see a particular story there. How people get so brainwashed in the guise of belonging to a church and following a particular leader. Even bearing his name. So you can imagine to what extent people can go. And then you realize that people have a tendency to behave in a particular way. They don’t seem to draw the line. We just talked about a ten year old in school. We saw the imam. A lady just left the mosque after the morning prayers and somebody trailed and robbed her. You see another church leader who is treating members as if they are slaves. Not even the president of Nigeria would have such audacity to behave in such a manner. I mean you just take people’s lives in your compound and you are lord unto them, human beings like yourself, created by God. But it shows the kind of society in which we live. Take the case of the nurses. It shows the kind of danger to which health workers are exposed to. They are working in an unsafe neighbourhood – that people could go to their facility, rob and rape them When I listen to medical doctors complain about the troubles they face in this covid-19 pandemic and how sometimes, they don’t seem to get even the basic protection that they need, they don’t get their allowances, I say to myself, look it’s being there. You know because we are reactive sometimes. It is when it confronts us in the face and is on a large volume, then everybody is talking about it, and all of that. But that particular story tells me the kind of danger health workers are exposed to. Even nurses who get dressed up, go to work in the morning, or on afternoon duty, and people have the audacity to go to the hospital, take them into the bush and have them raped. I mean it’s unbelievable. But it’s true. I’m just trying to let you see the reasons you have those kind of stories. It’s meant to draw our attention to certain things. Of course, individuals can learn and maybe try to order their lives and see what precautions they can take. God helping us. But it also shows some kind of fault-lines in our system, in places of worship, how we go about our religious activities. And even sometimes the way we are in the house. From the book you will see the case of the mother who went to pick her daughter from the park. And when they got back to the house, obviously people at home were busy with some other things, either watching television or just chatting and joking. And they were at the gate. Sometimes, you know these things happen. You get back to the house, people in the house are busy either watching television, or they are joking, laughing and enjoying themselves. Somebody is knocking at the gate, blaring the car horn, and they are not just conscious of it at all. And while they were waiting at the gate they were robbed. But you know we see these all the time. You remember in the book a judge was robbed, a magistrate was kidnapped (laughs). The idea is to expose our society.
Are you saying nobody is safe anywhere?
That’s it. They are robbed at home. They are robbed in the church. They are robbed when they go to the mosque for their early morning prayers. They go to the church somebody is waiting to abuse them and turn them into his slaves. Children go to school, they are not safe. It’s like you want to x-ray the society and say that look, wait a minute, is there so much danger, or if you like, so much bad guys around (laughs)? Although the good thing about it is that all the bad guys were convicted. That shows that in a way the law is working. It may be slow. But all the bad guys were convicted. And there is one interesting story there. It struck me because they went and took a new born baby, of course, for very dastardly purpose. But the native people used their native method to identify those who did that. And I found that interesting.
I never knew such traditional methods work.
I was surprised. They adopted their native methods to catch thieves, criminals (laughs). And I said to myself, wait a minute, Is there something to check? You know because the tendency is for us to say, look all these are backward things, these are village people, they don’t know anything, we are more educated and those things are not verifiable, they’ re not scientific. That may be true. But it is just enough to write off things. Because I was surprised. Initially when I was reading the judgement, I said to myself at the end of the day they would discover this is nonsense, they didn’t catch anybody. I was surprised that the police investigation confirmed that those guys were actually the people that did the dirty job. And that is something to take away. Because in judicial administration, maybe because of our background and the way that we have developed, your immediate reaction, you will say no, no, no. But the fact that our established modern structure can validate their findings, it was quite surprising to me.
When did you decide to put those things into a book and how long did it take?
It took a while. When I read the judgements- and you would noticed that they are of various years – I put a mark on a particular judgement of interest about society. So when I came to the point of doing a book that would expose some of these things, the way we are and what the courts are doing to put those people, the bad guys in check, it was not easy to select these ones because I had to go again through quite several judgements that are put aside and now say okay, look, for a start let me just take these few ones and leave the others. That took a while because the process of selecting, of putting those judgements aside took a number of years. Because I started doing that probably five, six years ago – to select those judgements and put them aside. And then I now have to filter them again. Although I must confess, if you take the story of the manager that killed his boss, there is a kind of sentimental attachment to the story in the sense that it is the story of the late Ayinla Omowura. Omowura had always fascinated me as a musician. There are people in his class. If you look at Omowura, Fela, Bob Marley, they are in a class of their own – their kind of music and in terms of the lyrics. You may not like their lifestyle, but that is a different matter entirely. But Ayinla appeared to me to be highly intelligent and was able to weave words together and give them even deeper meaning than ordinarily you would have thought. And I said to myself, “Why was he just wasted in a beer parlour? There is something one has to learn about curbing anger.” That story is about: look you have to learn to curb your anger. And there are things you need to let go. Such a person with such enormous talent. And then you just go because of an issue in a beer parlour, it turned into an argument and somebody, his ex-manager takes a beer glass cup and hit him on the head. And that is all about it. Somebody else might look at the story and say, oh well, how some staff can get even with their boss and do terrible things. That is one side to look at it. Somebody might say how people can get to be vengeful even to people who have assisted them. That is one way to look at it. But for me another way to look at it is: look, when you are angry, then you need to pull back. Because when I read the judgement I had to think of a lot of scenarios. I said supposing he had seen this guy and he just went back to call the police. Or go back and tell somebody to go and fetch him or call the police. I mean I just thought of a lot of things. And I said, well, I think one has to be very careful when one is angry. Because just in a moment of anger and argument, such a talent, just wasted. And you see the story of the hunchback man there. It tells me that when people are overtaken by greed and want to make money at all cost, blood relationship means nothing. In fact, they become like people possessed. They become like people that have lost their sense of reasoning. They may come back to themselves later on and ask why they got into that kind of mess. But at the moment that they are being pushed by that greed to grab and to have it, there is no boundary. And it even puzzles me about human nature. One would have thought that if you have a brother who had a hunchback, at least in our kind of environment where people with disabilities are crying every day for one form of assistance or the other, if you are not able to offer any assistance, if you are not able to offer support that is required, then you think that using him to make money is the best thing? And you join with outsiders from your family to execute that? That was very shocking to me. Again, it tells me the depth of the human heart. You know, there is a passage at the beginning of the book. “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is.” That is from Jeremiah 17. Who really knows how bad it is. And as I meditate on this, I said to myself, truly who really knows how bad it, the heart of man, is.
Is the kind of evil we are experiencing now any different from what our forefathers experienced?
If you look at the Biblical account, the story of Cain and Abel, the question is how much of being our brother’s keeper have we become since then till now? That’s the question. Since the Biblical times of the story of Cain and Abel and now, how much have we improved in being our brothers’ keeper? For me, if you check all the challenges we face now in our country and in the world together, it all boils down to that question. Let me ask you. If a criminal takes an AK-47and points at a Yoruba man to shoot, the AK-47 will not shoot because he is a Yoruba man? If he pulls the trigger, it would fire. If it turns the same AK-47 at an Hausa man, it would fire. It means the mind of that trigger is the mind of the person that has the gun. And that is what we need to work on. If you travel from Lagos to Ibadan on the expressway, and the traffic is bad, there are potholes, there are challenges, and you are held up there in the traffic for hours, the road will rise up and say if you are a Christian, raise up your hand let me make you pass? No. All of you will remain there, Christians, Muslims and those we call unbelievers. If the aviation industry is not properly monitored, not supervised, if people decide to be corrupt and look the other way and, God forbid, a plane crashes, nobody is going to ask how many people in that plane are Igbo.
Are you saying we have lost our sense of shared humanity?
I think that’s a major problem because our duty of care is to all those that we come across. It is not because of where they come from. It is a duty that is imposed on us. And when you are in a leadership position, it is even more. But because of the shortcomings of human nature, we say, look, if we leave it to you to do it according to the way you think, some other times you will not do it properly. So we put some things in the constitution to make sure that you do it in this particular way. Say, for instance, as the president, you take the oath of office and you say the security of lives and property of all Nigerians is your responsibility, it becomes a matter of law and that of your conscience. You cannot discriminate. But even those of us that the law does not impose that duty on we need to imbibe that idea. You know, I have written this before in an article. Sometime in 1983 or 84, I was travelling to Minna in Niger State for a case by rail. And we got to Mokwa. And I saw this young boys between the ages of probably six and 10, not properly kept. They had a bowl and were begging for alms. I had a chat with them. I say, look what are you doing here. This is morning. You are supposed to be in school. And they said yeah they are in school. I said how can you be in school at a railway station by this time? They said begging is part of their being in school. But you see, what shocked me was that. And quite honestly, when I got back to the train it troubled me a lot. And it still troubles me. Because sometimes I think that some of those boys that I saw are probably part of these people that have become problem for Nigeria today. Yeah, because I imagine those of them that were between six and 10 years in 1983, 84, you can imagine what their age will be now. And if we didn’t take any steps to improve their lives, only God knows if those guys are not part of those that are behind this now. And I said to them. Okay, now what kind of school is this that you are in? And they said, they were in school and that if they were given food, they could eat it. But if they were given money they had to take it back to their Islamic teacher. That was a problem for me. Then I said, that means if I give you money you will take it back to your teacher. If I give you food how much food will I give you in the morning that would sustain you till the next day? Should I now be thinking now because they are Hausa, because they are this, it should not concern me? That will be terrible. Because when we relate that way we endanger the society. We endanger the county. Of course, I had to give them food, which I believe they could take. But I knew that it didn’t solve the problem. Some people that are disabled, whether they are crippled or whatever. Look, if we don’t make way for them to move around freely, if they get to a difficult junction, if you announce to them, will that solve the problem?. Let’s say you get to a three-storey building and you announce to the building that you are Kanuri, there would be something that would come down that would take you to top floor? I mean, sometimes the way we reason baffles me. So if you get to a three-storey building, and you couldn’t move forward, and you have an appointment, if you announce that you are Ibibio, something would come from heaven and take you to the next floor and leave the Yoruba man to be waiting? It doesn’t work like that. But if you make the facilities for people that are disabled to move around, it won’t matter whether you are Kanuri, Ibo or Hausa. Everybody would be able to move around. I think this is where we lost it. And unfortunately, it is getting more complex by the day. And I believe those who have the power to stop it, those people are in government to live by example, should do so.
Do you think, from the way things are going, there is hope?
Of course. Look, for me, the moment we give up hope, we are dead. There is a late jurist I would take the privilege to call a senior friend. Whenever we discuss the country and we express a sense of frustration, he would look at me and say, “Layi, we can’t give up. It’s our country.” And that’s the truth. The moment we lose hope, and we get to that state of hopelessness, it would be dangerous for us. Because a hopeless person is a dangerous person. And the more the number of people that are hopeless that we breed, the society is on the way out, no matter how much we wish it away; the society is dying slowly. And there can always be a turnaround. Some countries have gone through worst situations than we have gone through. And it doesn’t take too much to begin a turnaround. It only takes, to start with, those people that God has given the privilege to hold high office in this country. They should begin to lead by example. They should give everybody a sense of belonging. And, honestly, Nigerians don’t ask too much of their leaders. Let us exhibit this sense of fairness and give people a sense of belonging. If somebody is offended, is oppressed, he seeks justice, the colour of justice that he gets should not be connected to the tribe to which he belongs, nor the religion he is associated with. No. And justice should not follow faces. It should not follow tribe. It should not follow religion. It should be attached to our common humanity. That’s it. And quite honestly, if you begin to see examples from the top, you will be surprised what would happen in a few months down the line. Because people are feeling agitated. They are getting close to a state of hopelessness. And we are unconsciously reinforcing that belief. Such that if you talk to a lot of people, they would say, Ah, Nigeria? Do you think there is any hope? You know, behind such a question is a very loaded one. God has been very kind to us as a people, let’s be honest. Because some other countries didn’t go through as much as Nigerians go through. But, you see, it doesn’t take anything away from us. For instance if you have a airport, it is properly maintained, it is properly regulated … even those who have the duty to do that, as leaders, they also work for themselves because they never know when their own will also fly. So if you don’t make the air space safe, it won’t matter whether you are Ibo or Yoruba. If the roads are unsafe, it won’t matter whether you are Kanuri or Ibibio. So I can’t understand why we just can’t sit down and understand this simple logic and this simple rule of nature. Sometimes, honestly, it just makes me shudder. Of course, it is not as if a society that is crime-free is hardly ever achieved and that is why the law is there to take care of such deviants. But it worries me that increasingly everything now is about tribe, religion, where you are from, which religion you practise. It’s very dangerous. And it’s creeping even into the private sector. Although in our organization it doesn’t bother me where you come from, if you are competent and you have the ability to do what you are supposed to do. But I hope the people that are in leadership would see it as a serious problem. It’s getting to a stage that even when our leaders talk Nigerians don’t believe. “Abeg. This is how they would just talk. They would go and do another thing.” If you say that there is an opportunity, go and apply. “Ah, you are just wasting your time.”
What is the way out?
The way out is that, apart from those people in leadership positions, I think we also need to realize that in a sense we also have our own duty to our country. Because, to be honest, the way we carry on as individuals also makes a lot of difference to the wellbeing and health of the country. If we as individuals decide that we are not going to judge people by their religion or tribe. You know because it is very prejudicial because before you even get to listen to the person they have already reached a conclusion. So if we as individuals will decide to say, Okay, look, let’s give this country a chance and let’s respect each other, let’s accommodate and be fair to each other in a genuine manner, I believe that in our own little way, in our different corners, we can begin to contribute to the wellbeing and the betterment of our society. It will take time, there’s no doubt.
We become lawless when we place our tribe above the law. For instance, Kidnapping as a crime, does not recognize the tribe of the offender nor victim. So how did we arrive at describing criminals by their tribe? Neither the tribe nor religion of the offender is an ingredient of the offence. Ordinarily therefore, the law should apply to all engaged in such nefarious acts, without regard to tribe or religion. However because there has not been even handed enforcement of the law, more Nigerians began to ascribe the reason for the failure of enforcement , to loyalty to tribe by security agencies , as opposed to fidelity to the law . So such a problem can partly be addressed from Rule of Law perspective , but will take leadership at the highest level to send the right signals .
Do you think that the crimes people commit is a function of the place they come from or the religion they practise? Do you believe certain people are programmed to behave in a certain manner because of their ethnic origin?
No. Look at the book (laughs). It cuts across every divide. You find a story from the church, you find a story from the mosque. You find a story from the school. You find a story from music. You find a story from ordinary family life. So it’s not about religion or tribe . Even talking about religion, the greatest rule you can find is your love for your fellow human being. So if we practise it as we ought to, the results will be different from what we are experiencing now. But the truth of it is that the people that did all these in the book it is not because they are Christians or Muslims. No. It is just because they are who they are. If anything, people use their opportunity in a system, in an organization, to behave in a particular way to seek to benefit themselves in a criminal way. And thank God, in all of these cases, the law caught up with them. Because to answer your question, it is not because they are Christians or Muslims. It is not. It’ just that the way they are.
How do you find time, in spite of your busy schedule, to write?
Actually, I registered a publishing company in 1995 and by 1999 I went into law publishing. And I became the Editor-in Chief of The Supreme Court Judgements. So for 21 years I have been editing judgements and combining that with my legal practice. So that gives me the opportunity to see the law at work. But what I realize is that if you enjoy what you are doing, you will find time for it. If you don’t see what you are doing as a burden, you will find time for it. You will make out time for it. But if it is a burden, it will be very difficult. So I think part of is that God has helped me in such a way that whether it is my litigation, advocacy or law publishing God has made it workable because I enjoy every bit of it.
Why did you entitle the book Dark Hearts?
(Laughs). You know I toyed with different titles. I didn’t start with Dark Hearts. It was when I finished the book that Dark Hearts came to me. But you know books are about ideas. They drop in your mind sometimes in unexpected places. So once I have an idea for a book, and it drops to my mind, I always find somewhere quickly to write it down. It may take me another two, three years to come back to give it expression. But once I opened the place where I had written it, the ideas come alive again. But you know writing a book is like building blocks In fact, sometimes you write something, you discard it and start all over again until you get what you want. But Dark Hearts came at the end of the book.
When you started your law practice, did it ever cross your mind you will write books?
This is an interesting question. First of all, my belief is that if you believe in God, and I have that very strong belief, somehow God has a way of ordering our steps. Some of you may not share the idea. But I believe it that God has a way of ordering our steps. Like I said, I registered a publishing company in 1995. I had not thought about the title of any book. And I kept it until years later. And that took about another four years. So now as at the initial period, when I started law practice, even I was making notes – I kept diaries- I didn’t think of producing books the way I am producing books now. But by 1995 when I thought of registering a publishing company and years later I started with an author, then the ideas began to flourish. But as you are aware, I have a few other books on law practice. I used to have a book on medical practice, which I published with a very experienced Professor that we served together on the Medical and Dental Tribunal. I served on the Medical and Dental Tribunal for about five years and we just came together to write the book. So writing books now comes to me naturally, and I hope and wish that Nigerians should take interest in reading and writing.
Look, I love reading. In fact, by the time I was doing my national service I spent a large chunk of my allowance on books and law reports, particularly Supreme Court reports, which I am publishing now. I had a library of my own books and sometimes, on my bed, I had two, three books because before I retire I had to go back to. Because, you see, reading has a way of nurturing your mind, of expanding your scope and of also making you to be able to learn from other people. And you see how ideas germinate, how they are nourished and all of that. So I have always had interest in reading. And thank God He has helped me to sustain it. Although, you know, the environment is a bit more challenging now. And then there were lots of bookshops, very good bookshops. I praise those who are running bookshops now. They must be putting a lot of efforts. But then there were lots of good bookshops that had books from everywhere. But majority of those bookshops just packed up; they left. But I had a lot of interest in reading. I love reading.