•Says IBB showed great interest in case
By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin-City
Chief Osaheni Uzamere is a lawyer of 37 years standing. Uzamere was defence counsel in the trial of Nigeria’s armed robber Lawrence Anini and other members of his gang as well as George Iyamu, the police officer convicted for supplying guns to the gang that terrorised the nation in the early 80s.
In this interview, 74-year-old Uzamere, a journalist – turned lawyer and also the elder brother of Senator Ehigie Uzamere, gives an insight into the gang and why he took the case in 1987. He also commends President Muhammadu Buhari on the war against corrupt judges and lawyers.
From journalism to law
I never read journalism, but I had this flair for writing right from school. In ICC, I was for so many years the editor of a magazine called the Moat. Then when I went to Government College, Ibadan, I was also the editor of the school magazine called the Rock. While at University of Ibadan, I was in-charge of several publications because I was the Public Relations Officer of the students union government. I left ICC in 1962 and entered Government College, Ibadan in 1963. I left Government College, Ibadan in December 1964 and in September 1965 I entered University of Ibadan. Governor Ogbemudia was just starting the Observer Newspaper when I left university.
•Chief Osaheni Uzamere
He was then a colonel in the Army, he invited me one day in 1969 after I had left UI with a degree in history and asked me to go to the Observer to be the Features Editor. I went there but all I wanted to do in life was to study law like my hero, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. I was in Observer and Ogbemudia was paying me good money. But when University of Benin was two years old, I wrote an article titled, “Two years of UNIBEN: problems and prospects”. And as a follow up, I went to interview the first Vice Chancellor of the UNIBEN, Prof Hill. Half way through the interview, the Scot man asked about my qualification and whether I could become his Personal Assistant. He gave me an offer which doubled what I was receiving in Observer. My first first job in UNIBEN was PA to the Vice Chancellor, from there I became Establishment Officer and then Admission Officer. There was no JAMB then. So, I was practically the UNIBEN JAMB and I profited a lot from it. Infact I knew my present wife 42 years ago when she came for admission into UNIBEN. When I saw her, I told myself I must admit this beautiful, brilliant girl which I did. After that I was made the Student Affairs Officer, what you now call Dean of Students. In this odyssey, they taught me university administration. Then in 1975 Murtala Muhammed and Obasanjo came and sacked civil servants. I was among those sacked on the 14th of November 1975, and by the 28th of November 1975, I was in London reading law. That was in University of London. Five years later, I stormed Benin City as a lawyer. Since then I have not looked back. I am 74 yers ld, this month (February).
So why did you take up the job to defend late Anini, an armed robber who terrorised the country?
I took up that case when I was seven years at the bar in 1987. Before the world got to know Anini, I had been his lawyer for four years. He and his gang were my clients. My view of my profession is simple: if a thief comes to you, the money in his hand is bad because he stole it, but when you are collecting your legal fees, the money he gives to you is not bad. So, from 1984-87, I was Anini’s lawyer and I used to give the police in Benin a run for their money by representing all those armed robbers and freeing them. So the police themselves were after me because these suspected armed robbers will tell their colleagues there was no need to give bribe to the police, ‘when they arrest you, just go to Uzamere at Mission Road and he will get bail for you’. So the police were after my life but I was not deterred. So when the Anini saga was nearing the end, Anini and his gang did not have money again because they were being pursued, and once they were arrested, they confessed to a lot of things. Meanwhile, George Iyamu’s people came to brief me to be the police officer’s lawyer. Iyamu had been accused of conspiring with Anini and others. Iyamu was the king pin, but Anini was notorious. So I became the lawyer to Iyamu and I defended him with all my heart. The more experienced lawyers then declined to take up the Iyamu case because they were afraid. It was said then President Babangida was involved, he wanted Anini to pay for his robberies by all means. But for me it was my opportunity to be famous and I grabbed it. Omo Agege was the judge who sat over that case, he just died. He called me minutes before he read the judgment and said, “Young man even though you won this case, I will not release Iyamu to you this afternoon because Benin people will lynch us”. I told him I already had my fame while Iyamu could go to his grave. And that is exactly what happened. I am now 37 years as a lawyer but I was just seven years then.
How did you feel then that they were bringing blood money to you and were you ever tempted to betray them by handing them over to the police?
First of all, like I told you earlier, the moment that money got to me as my legal fees, it was no longer blood money, it was my money. And let me also tell you, I started my profession on one philosophy, that if my mother came to brief me to sue my father and she pays my fees, I will sue my father because these two people met themselves ever before I was born, let them sort themselves out. More brazenly, I used to say if God came to my chambers and asked me to sue the devil, I will sue Satan because God and Satan were there before you and I. So, once you pay my fees, I will not double cross you. Therefore, if somebody comes in and says he wants to brief me and he is accused of stealing, it is not my business to say whether he was right, or wrong; he has come to brief me to use my legal skill to get him out. And having acquired that skill I am bound to use it. The question of whether my conscience was pricking me or not never arose because this is my means of livelihood. I am a lawyer and representing criminals is allowed by my profession. The constitution says that if somebody is accused of murder and he cannot afford a lawyer, the judge sitting there should give him a lawyer. I will do my job but, on personal level, I am not a thief. I am even more honest than most Nigerians. I don’t belong to any political party, I don’t belong to any cult or union, so my conscience is very clear and God gave me the brains to be a lawyer and part of my job is to defend criminals.
‘My mother fought me for defending armed robbers’
In fact, on a more personal note, because my mother was trying to dissuade me from taking up cases like the Anini’s case, she used to refer to the fact that ‘we all now know that those who defend armed robbers are robbers themselves’. But I will tell her that the greatest murder cases in Nigeria were at that time handled by Rotimi Williams. And I would ask her whether Rotimi was a murderer? I told her I am not a reverend father or a bishop or an iman; this is the Ministry God has given to me and there are many of suspected criminals and the law says I should defend them, should I abandon them? No. There was a day Anini was in my office and the police were looking for him because they hardly knew his face. I decided not to hand over Anini to anybody particularly when the police had not approached me to do so. I knew that if I did that, I may lose my life. There were some people who did that, like doctors, who tried to betray them, the boys killed them. If as I was defending them and they found out I was reporting to the police, they would have killed me too. Their confidence in me was that ‘this man is our lawyer and we trust him’. When Anini and others were being tried, immediately I entered the court, they will be hailing me. I remember one day when Osunbor (a member of Anini’s gang) told me in court, ‘Oga Uzamere, I know you are a very brilliant person but your mouth will not cover this because we are going to lie against Iyamu’, which they proceeded to do. Even though I got Iyamu to get out of that because the charge was complicity, and the law does not allow the evidence of those who are complicit, it was a political case in which Babangida said there should be no appeal. If there was an appeal, I would have won.
How did you feel when Anini and members of his gang were executed?
I decided to be a lawyer. They decided to be criminals. So if they decided that quick money was what they wanted, they should bear the consequences. For instance, we have colleagues who are having deals with politicians; so if they enter into trouble like some have done now, you expect me to sympathise with them? They went into those deals just because they wanted to be rich, so they got what they wanted. You don’t see me around politicians. There are two centers of power in Benin-City, the palace and Government House. I don’t go to anyone of them. I am happy with my condition. I am not a criminal but I can defend criminals because it is allowed by law and criminality is their choice. In fact, just last week, I got a new case, the man is still in Kirikiri, he was charged with murder. I will defend him.