On June 24, 2022, Senator Ike Ekweremadu and wife, Beatrice, were arrested by the UK Metropolitan Police on charges of conspiracy to harvest the organs of a minor. The Nigerian government is alleged to be providing some assistance to the couple, particularly the engagement of lawyers to defend them.
This piece does not seek to analyse the guilt or innocence of all the parties in the case; that I leave to the courts. However, some issues call for attention as having implications on government’s actions, now and setting precedents for the future. One of these is the extent to which the Nigerian government can offer legal aid to the defendants using public funds.
A respected Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Femi Falana, had during a television interview stated that the government should be ready to accord similar courtesies to all Nigerians charged with offences in any part of the world. This issue will probably keep generating controversies even after the lifespan of this case.
It could be cleared right off that the federal government, through its organs or agencies, is within its rights to assist anyone, regardless of status, in similar circumstances in any part of the world. This could be classified under its consular intervention responsibilities which is recognised in international relations. The Vienna Conventions of 1961 and 1963 on diplomatic protection and consular assistance, respectively, provide some guidance on this.
Although, generally, international law distinguishes between diplomatic protection and consular assistance, the lines between these are sometimes blurry and not easily distinguishable. F.S. Dunn, “The Protection of Nationals,” sees diplomatic protection as embracing all cases of official representation by one government on behalf of its citizens or their property interests within the jurisdiction of another. A simple test is whether the assistance or protection is for the representation of state interests (diplomatic intervention) and not merely the interests of the national (consular assistance).
Specifically, Article 5 (i) of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations recognises provision of legal assistance as part of the consular assistance activities of a government but to be provided where “because of absence or any other reason, such nationals are unable at the proper time to assume the defence of their rights or interests.”
It is not in doubt that the federal government is providing some assistance to the Ekweremadus in a matter of personal interests, regardless of status as a senator, as opposed to the protection of Nigeria’s interests. This places it in the realm of consular assistance.
However, the question is – does such consular assistance extend to using public fund for the defense of a private matter? To put this in perspective, it was reported that the Senate President Ahmed Lawal had sometime in June said that the government had employed a team of seasoned legal practitioners on the matter.
Flowing from the foregoing, are the Ekweremadus unable (at the proper time) to assume the defence of their rights or interests? It does not seem this would apply in this case. One, of course, may not begrudge the government its discretion if, despite this qualification, it resolves to offer consular assistance. This, however, is expected to be within the ambit of some law or policies guiding such discretion. I doubt if such policies exist. It therefore behoves on the government to provide one specifying the circumstances (conditions and exceptions) of consular assistance. This would avoid controversies and concerns of Nigerians that such issues would not be given whimsical treatment that segregate those with government influence from ordinary Nigerians.
Government’s policies and actions should be taken with a consideration of all reasonable variables and never in isolation, otherwise it may attract unintended consequences that create more problems than they seek to solve.
Odunayo Bamodu, mni