If there is anything that will give joy to the heart of Chief Christopher Adebayo Ojo SAN, it is to see total reform in the administration of the criminal justice system in the country. Ojo is so concerned about the state of the criminal justice system, especially the state of the prisons, and he believes only a total overhaul of the system can bring succour and sanity to both the prisoners and all stakeholders.
As the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the Federation between 2005 and 2007, he presented a memo to the Federal Executive Council under then President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, recommending the freeing of prisoners above 70 years of age, and those above 60 on death row. Accepting the recommendation, the President granted amnesty to all the prisoners in these categories. That was on May 16, 2007. “This is one of the events that has given me so much joy in my life,” the lawyer enthused.
Ojo is not actually on a new road in this regard. Between 1999 and 2004, he was the Chairman of the Legal Aid Council, a federal government organ assisting the indigent in the society who cannot afford the fees of lawyers. LAC provided lawyers for this category of people to defend them in court, especially in criminal proceedings.
So when he became the Minister of Justice, Ojo used the opportunity to serve three purposes: First was to fight the cases of so many poor people in court and see them released from prisons. The second was to empower lawyers, especially the junior ones trying to find their feet in the profession. Across the country, Ojo engaged lawyers and gave them briefs to fight the cases of the poor who were in prisons but could not afford to engage lawyers. At the same time, this led to decongestion of prisons all over the country.
Asked why he has such passion for the oppressed, he said: “Whatever is your calling in life, your only claim to real success is how you use your profession to impact positively on your environment, community and the lives of ordinary people of the society. The need to do this is the motivating factor to use the law as a tool for social engineering.”
Immediately after he left office, he was appointed member, United Nations International Law Commission based in Geneva, Switzerland, where he joined other eggheads from across the world to contribute to the development of the world in the area of the law.
Whatever contribution he may have made to the society, Ojo believes he is only following the footsteps of great Nigerian legal minds that have used the law for the benefit of their people. “We’ve had in this nation eminent lawyers like the late Chief Gani Fewehinmi, SAN, Alao Aka-Bashorun and Kanmi Ishola-Osobu who all through their lives, stood for what was right and what was just. Above all, they stood on the side of the people. They fought oppression whereever it reared its ugly head. I salute their courage. They should be immortalised. May their soils continue to rest in peace.”
For him however, whatever he may have achieved is comparable to the challenges that lie ahead before the nation, which is why reform in the justice sector is key.
He said: “In terms of justice sector reform, I envisage we should have a completely new system of administration of criminal justice. This will positively impact on the decongestion of prisons, which has been a recurring decimal on our criminal justice agenda. We should be able to have plea bargain, suspended sentence and parole etc fully entrenched. The prisons need to be rebuilt, with better infrastructure and the welfare of prisoners improved.
“We should also make progress in terms of improvement in procedure in civil cases and better case management. Above all, we must embrace IT in all ramifications including fast-track courts, electronic filing of cases, taking evidence electronically instead of in long hand, and training of judges, lawyers and other support staff of the courts.”
On the larger society he said: “On the socio-economic emancipation of the country, we need to build focused and purposeful leadership at all levels. Right from the ward, local government, state and federal levels, we need to elect the right and competent people into governance based on their antecedent and competence and not where they come from or whether they are Christian or Muslim or pagan.
“Yes, there will still be the need to balance and have a sense of belonging for every part of the country, but this has to be done within the context of picking only the very best in such circumstances. We need to be in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the world by the year 2020. We no longer have any excuse not to.”
Ojo has had a superb professional career. He has spent 32 years in active practice, which has seen his involvement in several areas of his profession. He was appointed to the post of Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice.
Apart from the decongestion of prisons he initiated, he also advised the Federal Government on the exit of Nigeria from the Paris and London Clubs. The indebtedness of the country to the two clubs became an albatross that prevented the country from moving forward.
He was involved in the negotiation of a $2.5 billion facility from the Chinese government for the Mambilla Hydro project, railways rehabilitation, and rural telephony. He also was the chairman of the panel that reviewed the licensing of oil blocks issued in 2005.
Ojo hails from Ife-Ijumu in Kogi State of Nigeria. He was born and had his primary education in Maiduguri and Kaduna, and his post-primary education in Zaria, Kaduna State. He worked briefly as a civil servant in Ilorin, Kwara State, before he proceeded to the University of Lagos.
He graduated from the University of Lagos in 1977 and was called to the Nigerian Bar and admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1978. In 1981, he obtained a certificate in legal drafting form the Royal Institute of Public Administration, London. The following year, he bagged his Master of Law (LL.M) from the London School of Economics and Political Science, London. In 1998, he further obtained a diploma in International Commercial Arbitration in London.
He had his first solo court appearance as a defence counsel in a rape case before Hon. Justice Anthony Iguh of the High Court of Enugu, in 1978. The case was a Legal Aid Council brief. He lost the case because of the overwhelming evidence against his client. He was then a youth corps member.
Ojo worked at the Ministry of Justice, Kwara State as a state counsel for four years. In March 1983, he opted out of government service to join the firm of Oniyangi & Co as head of chambers. In 1986, he founded the law firm of Bayo Ojo & Co.
He was elected President of the Nigerian Bar Association in 2004. Subsequently, he was appointed Attorney-General and Minister of Justice by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo. The appointment was considered controversial at the time because there was a clause in the constitution of the NBA forbidding incumbent presidents from taking political appointments. Ojo was absolved of any wrongdoing because he resigned from the NBA presidency a day before taking the ministerial appointment.
He is married to Hon. Justice Folashade Ojo, and they are blessed with children.