Exclusive Interview with Prof Ernest Ojukwu SAN on His Presidential Ambition

Prof. Ernest Ojukwu SAN

To us in DNL Legal & Style, as a professional body, the NBA Election should be contested and won on the basis of the value proposition by the candidates. Manifestoes are important but sometimes cosmetics. We gave the candidates an opportunity to speak to Lawyers from their heart and we present to you in series the interviews conducted with the potential candidates for the office of the President of the NBA.

In this interview with Prof. Ernest Ojukwu SAN, he spoke extensively on his resolve to activate the 14 Objectives in the 2015 Constitution of the Nigerian Bar Association to ensure that NBA becomes a Professional Association that cares about the welfare of its members.

We present to you Prof. Ojukwu’s  value proposition to Nigerian Lawyers. 

DNL L&S: It’s now common knowledge that you are running for the office of the President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) in the coming election. What motivated you to throw in your hat for the race?

Ojukwu: Well, thank you. I have been involved in the development of the NBA since about 1985 as a young lawyer. I played lots of roles at my branch at Aba where I became secretary and then chairman at some point as a young lawyer too. From then, I became embedded at the national level, serving in many committees either as member or as chairman. Also, I have found that there are a lot of things that we ought to do to raise the standard of the profession, to raise the standard of governance and to make the bar relevant to the members. So, throughout those years I have made different kinds of contributions thinking that it would improve the system, but I have found as a fact that most of my contributions have not worked. Over the years I tried to identify why those things didn’t work and I found that almost in all cases, it has to do with leadership and that is why at this time, when this opportunity came, I said “maybe I should do one more thing for the bar.  You have done these work and the vision has not been translated into reality.”  So, that is why I am presenting myself to see how I can translate some of those visions into reality and create a relevant bar.

DNL L&S: How would you assess the reception of your candidacy by members of the Legal Profession?

Ojukwu: It’s been wonderful. Even from my enemies so to say. Very excitingly wonderful. The goodwill I have received from members have been tremendous. Actually I was expectant that I would have some good reception having been involved actively in the bar for a long time. Also, in the profession as a teacher and a practitioner, I have influenced thousands of students over the years and I didn’t know exactly how they will judge my influence whether positive or negative. So, this becomes the first time I am actually taking the assessment of the testimonies and I am excited to thank God for it.

DNL L&S: Speaking about practice, some of the people that are opposed to your candidacy have stated that Prof. Ojukwu is a classroom teacher rather than a core legal practitioner and doesn’t have any business leading the bar. How would you specifically respond to that concern?

Ojukwu: Well, first is to debunk being a core classroom teacher which is not a bad thing. I love the classroom and I am proud of being a classroom teacher but more importantly, I have also combined my academic life with real and practice life. I was in Aba for 15 years as a core practitioner in spite of the fact that I was teaching. That was when I became a secretary and chairman of my branch at some point. I had very exciting practice there, I had many bank retainership, I was lawyer to Elf Petroleum at that time, all the land cases in my village I handled them and they are all in law reports in Abia state.

I also excitingly made a lot of difference in the legal profession in Abia State. I single handedly produced 22 edicts to replace the Statute of General Application in 1999 which the Governor signed into law.  I was in the rules committee of the High Court Rules. I did the first Law Reform Conference in Abia state under the NBA Aba umbrella when I was Chairman. It was there that the Military Administrator agreed with us to re designate all lands in Abia State from rural to urban lands in other for us to escape the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Sadiku where the Supreme Court said all land litigations in rural area must be done in customary courts. It was that conference that I got the Governor to agree, because he sat down in the conference with us and I wrote the order under the land use act. So, from 1998 to date all lands in Abia are Urban. I did that then to save the lawyers’ job, so, I have played lots of practice roles and since I left the law school in 2014, I am fully back in practice again.

Now, going back to whether or not a classroom teacher can lead the bar, I would say a teacher is in a best position to lead the bar. Teaching itself is leadership. You have to lead showing your integrity, your honesty, and you have to have a balanced personality. You have to show example. You have to mentor people, you have to create opportunities for people. You have to be a good time keeper, you have to be a good organizer, if you don’t, you can’t be a good teacher because in the university things go in order. So, it is in the classroom that you train leaders and therefore I am bringing the wealth of experience as a teacher and also bringing the wealth of experience as an administrator. Remember, I was dean of law for 5 years and I was the head of a law school for 13 years.

In fact, one of the major problems we have had in leadership of the bar over many years have been the fact that some of our leaders were pure practitioners who had no experience in management and administration and leadership. No antecedents, no experience in managing people of diverse backgrounds and public funds, and that is why they have found it difficult to regenerate the bar and make it a relevant organization. In the Bar in addition to my branch leadership experience, I had served at the National in various committees such as Chairman NBA Law Reform, Chairman NBA Strategic Action Plan, Alternate Chairman NBA Conference Planning, Director NBA Institute of Continuing Legal Education, Chairman NBA Academic Forum, Action NBA Publication and Editorial Committee, Alternate Chairman NBA Summit on Legal Education, Chairman NBA Legal Education Committee, Chairman NBA Committee Y To Investigate Complaints Against Legal Practitioners, Member NBA Stamp and Seal, Member NBA Special National Committee on Abuse of Executive, Legislative and Judicial Powers, Chairman NBA Future State Sub-Committee of LPRRC and many others. I wrote the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 and I drafted all 5 legislation of the NBA pending in the National Assembly since 2004.

DNL L&S: Well, to majority of lawyers, NBA has become just one of those professional association that is only interested in annual dues without accountability to its members. There are so many things that have happened that even lawyers and indeed the public are expecting the NBA to react one way of the other. In short, people have lost interest in NBA. All we have now is crisis both at the center and in branches. What are those specific innovations you would be introducing into the affairs of the NBA to restore the lost interests?

Ojukwu: The reality is that the NBA we have now is an irrelevant body. It has been irrelevant for many years and you cannot blame our members for being disinterested. I found out for example that less than 20% of lawyers knew about the list of legible voters published even up to a day after the time for responses closed because they are disinterested. So, there are many things we ought to be doing.

When I am asked about innovation, I actually don’t call them innovations because there are 14 objectives in the constitution of the bar. If you just activate those 14 objectives, everybody would be interested in the bar. For example, objectives 12 and 13 out of the total of 14 are on welfare and services to members. Now, you can understand why we don’t have the welfare and services. Because the bar itself set its own number one objectives as 12 and 13. So, we have to make services and welfare to members as our number one goal. That is why associations are set up anywhere in the world. Services to their members, interest and welfare of members should be your number one goal. This is the first thing I would do when I assume office. Even though I will wait for the constitutional amendment, but I am going to move number 12 and 13 objectives on welfare of members in reality as my number one objective. Talk about young and upcoming lawyers, over 5000 to 7000 young lawyers graduate and are called to the bar every year. They get called to the bar, go to the Supreme Court and pay practicing fee and disappear into the crowd. The association does not relate to them. No single person has a data on them. They just move out and that’s the end. There is no transition program, there is no counselling program. Nothing is provided to support their transition from graduation into the professional life. So, I am going to activate those kinds of services. I will provide massive active counselling program for new intakes because not every person wants to be a lawyer and those who want to be lawyers need to be guided as to what they want in law.

I will also run programs I will describe as, transition programs. Things like incubator and immersion program where you create programs to give the young people an opportunity to test professional life in different fields of life guided by the association at short periods. From there, you create a data base of them and help them in job placements, in private law firms, institutions and organizations. Create a relationship with almost all the institutions in Nigeria so that you can have a placement office. Give them professional training during this period so that you can easily give a referral on their competency on specific areas. This way we would be able to keep a track on our unemployed and underemployed young lawyers. Because there is no data base. Nobody knows how many people are unemployed in the bar. Those are simple things to do as far as am concerned.

Then you move out specifically from those fields to the general membership. There is no insurance scheme. The life Assurance scheme has not worked for the past 2 years. I will reactivate it. And I will also reactivate a health insurance scheme. In fact that would be my major focus. We would also write a blue print on welfare of members. We have to agree on what are the rights and responsibilities of members in relation to things like death and so on. That is why we have an association. If the association relates with you on these areas you will always want to know what is happening there.

I will create massive opportunities for capacity building. This is tied to employment because it is capacity building that create opportunity for employment, open the horizon and avenues for the bar. I have done that before and this is one of the reasons I am running for the post. In 2007, I set up the Institute of Continuing Legal Education for the bar and I managed it as director for nearly three years. I wrote the rules and the guidelines and they were approved by the bar and those are the only rules till today. Unfortunately, follow up leadership, didn’t see the same vision we saw, so they killed the project. The institute is only surviving in name, the only staff in the Institute in NBA as at 2017 were the ones I employed in 2007.  So, I will reactivate the Institute of Continuing Legal Education and bring massive capacity building to all members of the bar. There is also the Nigerian Bar Journal. It was dead for 10 years, from 1992 to 2002 and President Wole Olanipekun asked me to reactivate it and I did. In his tenure, I published five editions. I ceased to be editor in 2004 and the journal went dead again, only to have one edition in two years. I became the editor again in 2006 to 2008 and I published another five editions. Since I ceased to be editor of that journal in 2008 the journal is dead again. You can only see it once in two years or thereabout if you ever see it. So, I will activate that because academic and professional journal is very important key to capacity building. It’s also key to influencing jurisprudence in the country. I remember many years back some of the articles in those journals influenced the Supreme Court to change their positions in some cases like Savannah Bank and Ajilo when Prof. Utuama wrote castigating them on the hardline position they took and telling the Supreme Court that they were shading crocodile tears. They used that article to alter their position in cases that followed. The same thing with Sadiku’s case.

So, I will activate the journal again and we are going to give them free. If you pay practice fee you get it. I know if you are a member of the IBA, their journal arrives your post once you pay your dues. and once you get it, even if you don’t get anything again you feel connected and when they send you a warning letter that you have not paid your dues you would pay because you don’t want to lose that journal . These are the kinds of things we are looking at.

There are many other things and activities we would create. The members with disabilities are not recognized at all. Nobody talks about lawyers with disabilities. Our law offices are not compliant for the accessibilities of our members with physical disabilities. Our courts are not built for our members with disabilities. Ministries of justice are not constructed with our members with disabilities at heart. Nobody deals with them in our programs including those with sight and hearing challenges. Nobody talks about them whether they are hearing or not hearing what you are presenting in a conference. So, I will create a special program for our members with disabilities. The same thing I will do with our women. I know that the profession has been “lucky” in getting our women into magistracy and judgeship but that has been an accident because at some point in history, it seemed that men were running away from the work. So, now that is why we have more women at the bench. But generally apart from that, our women are neglected at the bar. I go to programs and they call upto nine resource persons, no woman. And discourage women from contesting positions. They encourage women to be contesting vice or treasurer. Even from the university. I challenged them, why are you contesting vice why not chairman. I will focus on giving our women equal opportunities and integration.

Our colleagues in the ministries are treated like strangers in the bar. In fact in real practice and I have talked to most of them, I have been in cases where they are prosecuting against me. In real cases we treat them like enemies. Like they are not our members. We have discriminated against them for many years. I am going to change that history. If you go to professional associations like NMA they fight for their members who are in public service. They ground the country to fight for their members in public service. We are going to fight for our members in public service, police, and the military. We have to give every member equal opportunity in the bar. So those are the kinds of things I am looking at. There are many others, we can spend a whole day talking about them.

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DNL L&S: from some of these things you talked about, would it be right to say you are looking at a constitutional amendment?

Ojukwu: well, you know the Yusuf Ali Committee has submitted their report, though not yet made public. If I have an idea what that report is like, I will probably know whether we would be satisfied with the changes, otherwise constitutional amendment is always an ongoing thing. If the need arises and we need to do some more constitutional amendment, of course. But the area that I am worried about is having young lawyers in the governance. I actually sent a memorandum to the committee specifically showing them that in NEC of NBA, no single young lawyer under 7 is there. There are 4 position that are potential for them as an elective positions and that position, people of 12 and 15 years contest and win it. So, in this particular regime, not a single lawyer under 8 years won any of those post. And there is also a provision for 180 co-opted members. out of this number, 40 are reserved for SANs, 40 for benchers,  then 100 for lawyers from interest groups of not less than 10 years at the bar. And I know that in law in social sciences, in human relationship we say that we should give equity to those who are not that strong. But in our constitution, we have given equity to the strongest, so, you can imagine us giving exclusive positions for SANs and Benchers who also get the positions through other means. The strongest people. Then the weakest people are not giving any position. No position for the young, women and so on. I think I was the only person who sent a memo on that. So, I would like to see that kind of thing change. So, if the constitution doesn’t change it, we would tackle those kinds of areas.

There are things like stamp and seal which are not in the constitution because the bar ought not to put in the constitution because it didn’t make the rule on stamp and seal and I have also said that the bar doesn’t have a right to make it expireable and I have criticized that. Because stamp and seal was made by the bar council. So, when I become the President, I will change that principle. In fact I will make the stamp and seal free and I will make a digital stamp because the bar doesn’t make a gain from stamp and seal. 2016 to 2017 budget of the bar shows that the bar received as income from stamp N189m  and paid the printer N184m and in 2017 to 2018 budget, the bar budgeted as expected income from stamp and seal N191m and budgeted expected expenditure to printer N181m. So, I will move the stamp to a digital stamp and it would not be expireable. In fact, I wrote the rules on stamp and seal. I actually wrote the rules of professional conduct 2007, not a committee.  So, I know those developments and the spirit and intents of them. Those are the areas I will tackle when I come in as President.

DNL L&S: How would a digital stamp work on letters and court processes?

Ojukwu: How do you generate codes? That is why it is digital. If you go to CAC now, once you are given your number, your document is sealed with a digital stamp unique to you with your number. This is 2018, and we have to simplify the activities of the profession by joining the digital highway like others in many aspects of life.

DNL L&S: I am looking at court processes for instance. It means that you have to scan the stamp?

Ojukwu: There is no need to scan. We are in the 21st Century. Scanning machines are no more in the market. People don’t scan things anymore except for big documents. You do everything in your system. I still work into lawyers firms and I see them going to printer to print packs of letterheads. I always wonder, why they don’t have their letterhead on their system where you just type directly and print. I want to digitalize the bar and I will help members to move to a digital platforms. We can no more pay our practice fee by going to banks to take a teller and scan and send to somebody. We shouldn’t be going to line up at the Supreme Court to enroll and so on. So, I will fully digitalize the system including the stamp. It is very simple.

DNL L&S: Talking about stamp not expiring and nonpayment for stamp, many have argued that it is not practicable to say practice fee will cover payment for stamp and that you cannot have a profession that has a yearly payment that renew and reactivate your membership and have a stamp that doesn’t expire. How do you react to this?

Ojukwu: I have always known the answer to it and I always ask, why worry? Who should be worried about raising money for the bar? Is it you that is paying or me that is going to use it to add value to you? I already know what am doing, so I am not worried, your own job is to pay your dues, I am to administer the money. The teller for payment of practice fee is not the evidence of practice, but a renewal of professionalism, like a work permit and therefore the symbol is the stamp. You should get the stamp free because you have paid your practice fee. You cannot renew your life and then go and pay for it again. You renew your professionalism, not the symbol.

DNL L&S: What about the people that don’t pay practice fee for example, would they also have stamp that doesn’t expire?

Ojukwu: The thing is that if you do not pay practice fee, you don’t get stamp at all. How it would work is very clear in my head. It is simple, you can only get your stamp through your account and if your account is not active, you get nothing. Beyond this, there are many things we are going to give free upon payment of practice fee. Like the journal I mentioned earlier.

You get free and reduce rates for things. We would give codes to activate these benefits once you renew your professional life. I plan to create a sustainable digital national law library and the first set of things we are going to achieve with it is to have all the laws in Nigeria, all state rules, all state laws and all law reports from every high court on that platform and it is going to be free. It will be an open source just for members. In other not to stop our colleagues who are already in the business of law reporting from losing their business, the law report we are going to host will not be edited, so that if you want edited ones you can  buy from our colleagues.

Those are open source materials that you have fundamental right to as a citizen of the country and once as a lawyer, we don’t even know our rules. Sometimes you cannot even go and do a matter in another State for instance without first calling friends to send you the rules. And sometimes they send you the wrong ones inadvertently. Many do not even know the contents of their state laws. Even when you go to the Ministry of Justice, they can’t give you a complete list of their laws. These are kind of jobs the bar ought to lead. It is one of our objectives in the constitution and it has not been activated.

DNL L&S: And 2 years is enough to achieve all of this?

Ojukwu: That is why I always refer to our constitution. Most of our leaders have not read our constitution. They only read it when there is a problem. The focus of every project is the goal. Once you set a goal and work with it, you will achieve it. Our goals are written in our 14 objectives and those 14 objectives, none of them is involving the construction of a stadium or the hosting of a world cup or taking spacecraft to the moon. They are simple projects that are alive all the time. There is none you would do and say I have finished it. If you put up a digital library it cannot stop because you have to keep updating it, so it doesn’t stop.

Our conference will have to hold every year and my proposal for conference is that it should be at a very low cost but of international standard. And I have experience on that. I organized the first IBA standard conference in Nigeria.  The NBA 2003 Conference in Enugu. I designed the breakout sessions. The first time it was done for the bar and I was the alternate Chairman of the conference planning and we hosted that conference in Enugu and that is the first one and that is the only pattern our conference has run since then and 2003 conference was adjudged the best. There was no queue, people got their conference materials and I accounted for the money collected on spot by the Thursday of the week of the conference. So, I would bring a lot of experience from that area.

Whenever people ask me, is the two years not too small, I always ask them which of the things on the list you want us to remove. But I think all of them are achievable. They are not projects that have an end on itself. They are things that are continuous. Our accounts for instance, shouldn’t we have an open, transparent account? For us to have an open transparent accounting system, we have to write an accounting guideline. There is none in the bar. The Leadership of the bar has no spending limit. The President can sign off in one receipt, N5b. I will provide a guideline that caps the power of the President to sign off on expenditures. I will provide a guideline that caps the other officers’ power to sign off alone and to a certain rate. I have done that before. 2003 I put up a resolution at NEC meeting asking them to provide a financial guideline and cap the expenditure limit but it didn’t work. Since that 2003, no president has a spending limit. So these are the things that should be done and are all in the 14 objectives of the constitution. So, you see, they are all important. Shouldn’t I deal with the rule of law? Shouldn’t I get the police to stop molesting our lawyers in service and also the general citizens in the country? Should I cancel rule of law out? Shouldn’t I reorganize the Governance structure in NBA Secretariat? So that we give them life, so they can run on autopilot? So you don’t need a President to be elected for things to be sustained. Shouldn’t we create sustainable programs? Shouldn’t I strive to create employment for lawyers, especially the young ones as I have prescribed. I want to impose a minimum wage and I am going to enforce it. So, all these are important and regardless of the time frame must all be included.

DNL L&S: Talking about the Minimum wage,  I am looking at for instance how you intend to impose payment of  minimum wage on a firm that is not breaking even. Some firm say they are just helping the young lawyers to gain experiences and truly sometimes you see that some really cannot pay these young lawyers. I am worried about whether this enforcement is not going to make them send the few they employed away thereby creating more unemployment. How do you intend to enforce this minimum wage against firms in a free market?

Ojukwu: Any lawyer you pay N15,000 or N20,000 today is unemployed. A person in a place like Abuja cannot even come to work with that sum for the 25 days. You would not have done anything new by saying go home if that is what you pay. But that is not my focus. There is no connection between treating our lawyers with dignity and employment. None at all. A lawyer spends 5 years in the university and spends another one year in the law school and probably spends one year at NYSC and he comes out and you pay him that peanut, you have treated him with indignity. You have dehumanized him. You have created an environment that will not allow him to have self-consciousness and respect for himself. You are going to bring him down psychologically and many of them would be hunted for ever based on that. We should not do that. We should not encourage the continued treatment of our young lawyers with indignity.

What is my prescription? If you cannot pay, don’t hire. What does it lead to? It leads to a spiral because the bar itself has not focused on creating employment, they have left that total vacuum for lawyers to say; “come and stay in my office and not pay.” The Profession should focus on projects that create employment for lawyers. You are not going to employ everybody no matter how good the economy is, you will still have some problem with employment at some point but you are to eliminate as much as possible the unemployment of your own professionals. Starting with how you train them, which is the key to creating employment. The bar has not focused on the training of lawyers in Nigeria. They are disinterested and the major reason why people are unemployed is how they have been trained. So, the bar should write a blue print for training both for LLB and for the law school. It is a long term thing but sooner than later, it would start working.

The bar has not focused on retraining. Continuing Legal Education program which is also key to creating jobs and employment. There is no mentoring program going on in the university. The bar doesn’t have a single competition managed by the bar through the whole universities which is over 40 in the country. In other countries, the professional bar runs over 30 competitions in different areas of life and competence and skill. So, by the time students leave the university, they have already formed a career path. They have already created a network and a place for employment. I have run a competition 13 times in the country for the all law faculties. It is called “client’s interview and counselling skills competition.” None of the students from any university that took part in client interview and counselling skills competition is unemployed. I am not exaggerating it.  They relate with me all over, even on social media and they tell me this is what made them where they are now. So I know the effect of mentoring. The profession does not have a single competition. So, those are areas you create path growth for employment.  Now xray the standard of the person you are going to employ. What has happened is that when they put these people in the office and say just stay here, they are not even competent to them. They don’t even expose them to anything. They don’t allow them to do any job, so they stay there and just waste their time. So we are deceiving ourselves.  The bar doesn’t have a data base. If we create a data base and focus on finding placement places, it would force us to raise the standards of our training in the law firm and it would also raise the standard of practice.

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Another challenge is charges. Many lawyers do not know how to charge clients. We have to run capacity building programs to train lawyers on how to charge. That is different from those who just want to undercharge. They will always be there. They are the dead part of the profession. They will always be there but majority want to charge but don’t know how to do it. I wrote the book on charges in Nigeria in 1997 and that is the only book in Nigeria on how to charge. We should train lawyers to charge so that they can charge well and pay their lawyers well. So it is a win-win situation for lawyers to be paid fair minimum. Not adequate, just something that goes to the psychology of the training of the young person that I am asking for. It is a human right matter for me.

I recognize the fact that a lawyer may be employed for pro bono without paying salary. That is one of the things I am talking about my incubator and transition programs. Programs that are going to give little or no allowance. But it must be an intensive short program managed by the bar. And that period enhances the capacity of the person that would be employed. Now if a law firm identifies the need for such person to be employed the least you can do is to write an agreement. Give the person a letter of employment saying you are here for 6 months, after which, we may employ you or we may not. So you have an idea of what you are doing. 90% of our lawyers are employed without a written letter. And that for me is indignity. And it is the reason why they are paying pittance. So, why you can be free not to pay, specify it in a letter. It cannot be forever, specify their duties and responsibilities, and specify the conditions. So, for me, it is not something I am shaking on. I would not lose any sleep in enforcing it. I am going to enforce it. It is something that is dear to my heart. To change the vicious circle of mistreatment of our youths.

DNL L&S: How are you going to enforce the payment of salaries and regulate the mode of charging by Lawyers?

Ojukwu: The thing is that in free market, there are no enforcement mechanism for charges. In fact it is anti-trust and in places like America. In free markets it is actually a crime to peg cost of goods and services but we are coming from a different environment and we can meet the problem from several ways. One is by education. That is the basic thing that is lacking. When I wrote the book on our professional charges in 1997, it was based on my experience as a young lawyer in the firm that I started with. In that firm, my boss was an old lawyer who was no more connected with the practice after he returned from politics. And even though he had lots of rich clients he could not charge well.  And it showed in our office then. And I queried him every time on why he doesn’t charge well. So he started allowing me to charge them and I became very effective with charging. When he saw that I was effective, he started pushing them to me to take their brief and charge. When I started partnership with my classmates, they also allowed me as the person charging for them. So, my experience from there after a few more years I put them together after talking to a few more colleagues abroad and that was how I wrote the book on charges. So the first thing is education. The psychology of the capacity to charge properly is not in most of us. There is no training in the University, law school, even in continuing legal education. Nobody is told anything about how to charge. So, how do you expect them to learn it? So that is the first thing we would do. Mass reorientation and training on how to charge. The principle of not accepting below standard is the best. I always give them example, when we were in Aba, clients will leave us, leave the bigger and biggest boys on top and head to Lagos to go and brief Rotimi Williams who would not agree to see them even with the deposit of as much as N5000 then in the 1980s. To get an appointment with Rotimi Williams then was like going through the eye of the needle. You could stay in a hotel for two months waiting and yet they leave Aba to come and stay just to see him. Doesn’t it tell a story that if you remain on your track they will come and meet you? At the end, clients actually seek out for serious business, people who charge better. Those who charge low, they don’t have confidence in them and if you create that character, they will know it.

The second thing is that we would do a few things to see how the law can help us. For example we are in control.  We are the AG, we have people in Lands offices, so we should leverage on that relationship to get a statute. What I have not fully conceptualized is how to make national statute but I know land is a state matter. So we can get the state land instrument registration law that makes it mandatory that any land instrument registered in land must bear the franking of a lawyer and if it bears the franking of a lawyer, it must bear our stamp in compliance with the rules and if we start unearthing documents that have not been franked or stamped and start declaring them invalid, it will have a spiral effect.

I am also thinking about writing it in the rules. Actually my idea is that we should write it in the rules as a professional misconduct not to charge as prescribed by law. The Remuneration Committee recognized this lacuna and made it a professional misconduct in the Rules for charging but that Committee does not have such powers. So we would include it it the Rules of Professional Conduct. And we have a platform in which you can discipline people and make them fall in law. These are the areas am thinking about. When I wrote the rule on stamp and seal, nobody gave it a chance. They were telling me it’s not possible and when everybody is bragging now I remind them that I wrote the rule.

DNL L&S: The ECNBA have started working, Are there any of their modalities that you are not comfortable with or do you nurse any fear about the modalities put in place by the Committee for the general conduct of the election?

Ojukwu: Well, I am very confident in the committee. Particularly the composition. Particularly their integrity, honesty and competence. Where I have a problem is the time frame. It seems to me that they are working under pressure of time. While it seems that they are conforming to the constitutional provisions as to the timelines, but I thought that they should have been more flexible with themselves in moving things a little earlier than waiting for the time lines to all come to fruition as specified exactly. Because one of the areas I have small challenge is that I would prefer us to have some pilot testing of the platform they are building and that will help also the members who are going to vote understand the process. So, I know that in one of the NEC meetings the Chairman made a promise that there would be time for testing of the process, if that is going to happen, I have no problems because a lot of people may need a lot of assistance on those things especially when it is digital. So, I hope we would have enough time to train us all on how to vote.

DNL L&S: Some people are agitating that at the last election, by this time, the vendor was already known and demonstration made to NEC. Are you worried that we do not even know the vendors for now?

Ojukwu: Well, as at now, I don’t think it would be right to know. I don’t think demonstration at NEC meeting is what we are looking at. Such a demonstration is just a simulation and it was on a platform which is not dynamic. Just a photograph. It is a test that would get one branch to do an election even if it is mock but on real time that I am talking about.

DNL L&S: People are also worried about the backend. What would happen, if between now and when the election starts, we do not have such test voting and we don’t know who the vendors would be.

Ojukwu: Nigerians generally don’t trust anything. Nothing is trusted. We are always thinking that there must be something somewhere. Agreed that it may have been a character built over the years by the mistrust created by Military and subsequent civilian governments that have not built trust over the years and even at the NBA level, we have not been open and transparent and honest with our leadership and management of our lives. So you cannot blame us for not being trustworthy. But personally I have this character of not distrusting first. If I distrust you, I point it out immediately. I don’t wait for you to test it. At the NEC meeting when the electoral committee was constituted, I objected to one of the members and he was removed. I didn’t wait for any trial run. Other than that, I don’t have any fears. That backend, if you understand computing and internet, you can never guarantee everything, and that is why majority of countries all over the world refuse to do e-voting for elections because they see some problems of not really controlling everything like manual. So, it is not a challenge peculiar to us. There must be a last point that you would not get to know what he is going to do. There are encryptions at the last points that you cannot just share. So we just have to trusts them to do the right thing. Left to me I wouldn’t even send any observer.

DNL L&S:  There was a time that it was rumored that A.B Mahmoud had a candidate although he came out to debunk same does that worry you?

Ojukwu: Yes there was such rumor and I took him up on that many months before he went public. We discussed it and he assured me that he wasn’t going to influence any result and I believed him 100%. In fact one of the main reasons why I am contesting is because A.B is the President and I trust that he would be fair. If I didn’t trust him I won’t contest.

DNL L&S:  Who do you consider as your strongest contender in the coming election and why?

Ojukwu: Nobody! Not a single person. I am not saying the bar is not going to survive without me but in this group of contenders there is no other person that has the capacity to run the future bar.

DNL L&S:  Assuming you are to step down your ambition, who would you urge your supporters to support and why?

Ojukwu: The contemplation of stepping down would not even arise in my dream but assuming something happens beyond my control and I am held up from running, I would rather ask the bar to give a special dispensation to start all over again and look for people. There is no other candidate in this contest that is competent to take the bar to the future as we dream of it. They don’t have the antecedents, they don’t have the experience, and they don’t have the selflessness the Bar requires in 2018 and I am saying it sincerely and I will say it to them on a stage anywhere and I will challenge them to show me the antecedents and competence they have. They have contributed nothing to the bar. If my friend Sir Mazi Afam was still in the race he is the only person that brought value to the contest. He was chairman of a branch, he was secretary of the bar. The rest are just strangers at the bar. I am really disappointed that Mazi Afam Osigwe was disqualified.

DNL L&S:  You were the pioneer leader of the Eastern Bar Forum (EBF), we have heard so many things about the adoption issues and all that. How did EBF become very distant from you the pioneer leader and how do you react to its adoption process?

Ojukwu: Are they distant? One thing I must say is that I have never complained about EBF’s formal adoption, and I don’t complain about it. It is actually them that are complaining about me not coming for adoption and it is interesting that in the history of what we used to do, it is the candidate that has not been adopted and his supporters that are angry and bitter and complaining.  This time, it is the other way round, the persons that have adopted themselves are complaining about you not being adopted. So, there is a problem. In the life of every organization, there are changes that happen from time to time. When I engineered the foundation of the EBF, I set it up to protect ourselves and also to give a platform for developing lawyers in that region and I was very crazy about it because as a young person I witnessed the war. I ran with my parents on foot throughout the whole of Eastern Region. And as a 7 to 10 year old child carrying things on my head and all that stuff and watching my mother sell her cloths.  So, I lived through the war as a person. I saw the impact of the war, where we stayed behind big trees in the night for more than two hours to avoid bullets flying around. Because I was involved with my parents in open discussions as a young man, I got more information and history and so on. And so, when I grew up I knew that there is a problem within the Eastern Region, a mistrust, a seed of discord was sown but from my university days I started interacting more with people from Old Eastern Region who were my classmates and we were just like brothers but yet there was this antagonism that existed within the Region. So, as a young leader at the bar, I started following the history of the contest at the National level and found that each time we presented candidates, from the Eastern Region we failed.

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Two attempts were made between 1998 and 2002 by OCJ Okocha to create a platform for the Old Eastern Region lawyers. Each time it fizzled out after election. So then came what we called the South Eastern Bar Forum headed by one Late Chief SMC Ihekweazu. It was made up of only Igbos and I refused to join because I said to them it would not work. My own vision was to have a forum that had more sections of the area together rather than one tribe. My dream was to create a platform to unite people because I come from a family that is not sectional. My two sisters are married to non-Igbos, my two partners Faotu and Yusuf are not Igbos. Those forums are voluntary private organizations that has nothing to do with the bar. So, when the South Eastern Bar Forum failed in the next election in 2002 to 2004, I knew that we had to do something and that was when I engineered the setting up of the Old Eastern Region Bar Forum then. And after few meetings the members said I should become the chairman and I was chairman for about six years. I wrote the first constitution of the forum and got it approved. None of the other forums had dues, I got the Forum to have dues and levies. So, it is on record that on my handover after the election I left over N2m. So that is the background to the EBF.

One of the things we set out to achieve with the forum was to be able to bargain for positions with the other parts of the country fairly and that was why we embarked on what you call adoption. Election then was Delegate System and in Delegate System, an average of 10 persons represented a branch. In a Delegate System, you represent the group you are delegate for. You have no right to represent yourself no matter your personal interest. If you think contrary to the group’s interest, you are to resign as a delegate. So, as much as possible, we had to organize a platform to have group interest and that was the basis of the adoption system. And suddenly, 2014, the bar introduced a rotation of key positions which now reduced the struggle in the sections of the country which was what  I set up the forum to bargain for. It now reduced the problem. I am for rotation because it reduces ethnic tension among lawyers. Each group is now given a chance to produce certain key positions and that position comes to you alone. So, whom are you bargaining with now? I don’t see any reason why I should agree with people who still think we should continue to bargain among ourselves. The fact that there is a provision in the constitution for adoption does not mean it must be activated even when it has outlived its usefulness. During my tenure as chairman, the first attempt with Olisa Agbakoba and Chris Uche running as presidents, we only agreed to adopt people on other positions and suspended adoption for Presidency to try to reconcile them. It was when we came to Abuja on the meeting we agreed finally to reconcile the two that Chief Chris Uche decided not to be part of it and we only had Olisa Agbakoba running on the platform.

Secondly, the delegate system has been changed to a one man one vote. So, we are no more representing a group of people. You are representing yourself, so I don’t understand the hue and cry about adoption. If a few people have made their own decision, you can also choose to make your own decision. Those who insist inspite of the universal voting that others must succumb to their own adoption process are only those who are disinterested in the development of openness and transparency. What they want is dictatorship in the bar, they want to grab power at all cost. They don’t want equal participation. They want to deprive Nigerian Lawyers of decision making right. There are not more than 150 registered members in EBF. In the adoption process, they had about 50 people primary group that did the adoption before they brought it out to the hall for approval. In that 50 group of men and women, only about 10 persons made the decision, others were onlookers. Now, there are about 7000 members in Lagos branch, updated to vote. We expect not less than 2000 to vote from Lagos. Using the expectation of 2000. Between the 2000 who would make their own decision and the 150 people, what difference would they make? Why are people talking about adoption in a one man one vote? So, they want the 2000 Lagos lawyers to go home and not vote. So, I want the 2000 plus Lagos lawyers to make their decision. Let the 10 people who collected money from them in Port Harcourt vote for them vote for those they have adopted.

I am a democrat. The fact that I founded the EBF based on the best democracy, full blown equal participation, engineering and putting people together to be a bridge builder and I succeeded 100%. In this circumstance of universal voting and zoning, the principle of adoption becomes antithesis to bridge building and to democracy and equal participation and responsible leadership. Any leader that emerges from the adoption in this instance, will only be beholding to a group of 10 people not to 55000 lawyers who will make the decision. So, the background to this made me to know that the adoption had outlived its usefulness and that I wasn’t going to participate. The EBF rule requires you to give consent to be considered for adoption by a letter of undertaken. I didn’t send any letter asking to be adopted and I know that two other candidates did not send. So the only person that sent a letter to them was the only person that was adopted. You have asked someone to give you consent and he refuses and you turn around to condemn him? Does it make sense? As long as you are going to ask someone to give you consent, it means that it is his discretion and once he has not given you the consent you cannot consider him and that is also what they did. They didn’t consider any candidate except the person who sent a letter. If it was mandatory to give the consent, what they could have done was to list 4 people and vote for them. But they only listed one person.

So, I didn’t take part in the process because it is antithesis to my position to get everybody to participate in decision making in the bar. They will say you are running away from the constitution you wrote and I ask how? Let us assume that what I did was to create a prison in 2004 and in 2016 Alegeh opened the door for us to escape from the prison by bringing universal voting, which we have been battling for years to get with Chidi Odinkalu leading the crusade, and I now have freedom, and you are insisting you are remaining in prison and I should also remain in prison? I tell them I have found my freedom and I am not going to succumb to bondage. So those who want to remain in bondage are free to remain in bondage, I don’t see how 50 people or even 150 lawyers in Nigeria can make a decision for 55,000 lawyers in Nigeria.

Any Forum that still focuses its goal on adoption has outlived its usefulness. If they want to remain relevant, they ought to redesign their goals. As long as they continue to focus on a single goal of adoption of candidate, they have outlived their usefulness, period!

DNL L&S: The present leadership of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) is at its last lap what would be your fair assessment of the administration?

Ojukwu: Not very satisfactory in some respects. There are many things yearning for activities and actions which did not happen. While the current leadership has brought some respect and prestige to the bar by the personality of the like of the NBA President A.B Mahmoud, SAN there are some things that this regime has not done satisfactorily. The list is quite a long one. The 14 objectives in the constitution is my parameter. Just the 14 objectives. Most of them have not had any activity. The tools for activating some of those activities are embedded in our constitution where for example the constitution has provided for standing committees. Many Committees were not inaugurated. Many forums were not activated. We had agreed on welfare for members, in this regime there was no insurance.

DNL L&S: would you also have the office of the President of the NBA. Some people have been very critical of that office that it is not provided for in the constitution.

Ojukwu: Those criticisms are myopic. The reality is that there is no name that is important for the activities of the bar. We have had different names at different stages. Under Olisa Agbakoba he created Program Officers and all activities were focused on the programs. Under JB Daudu he put them into Directorates. So, the name doesn’t matter. The important thing is focusing on the 14 objectives in the constitution and activating work and actions to give us a relevant bar. The name is immaterial. Offices in the Secretariat were not contemplated to be provided in the constitution and they are not and so anybody criticizing the president for having OPNBA is myopic. I will look at the secretariat generally and reorganize it for governance. As it is now, we do not have the capacity in the secretariat to create a relevant bar. So that is my primary focus. Creating capacity.

DNL L&S: You are the only one that have come out openly to attempt to put the present TCCP in proper line with respect to the forthcoming AGC. In fact you wrote to the president where you raised issues relating to fees, tablet for the conference, accounts, budgeting. Have you gotten any response from the NBA? And what is your advice to the George Etomi Committee?

Ojukwu: Well the president responded to me privately and assured me that they will take actions on those issues that I raised and I believe he must have taken that decision. Because I asked for decision to be taken because at the time we left the NEC, we were not sure what decisions were made. The focus of my inquiry was for the bar to make a decision. So apparently from the publications that have been done, decisions have been made especially as it involves conference fees. I am not very happy with the hike of fees, I still would have wished it was lower and if I have a chance to talk with the chairman of the conference planning committee, I would still urge him to review that fees downwards despite the fact that it has taken effect. Because if you go through discussions with members across board; young middle seniors there is a massive complain against the hike of the conference fee and for me we can run and conduct an annual conference of the highest standard without making our members break the bank.

DNL L&S: The secretariat is very important to the administration of the bar. From past administrations. The success of every leader directly or indirectly is tied to the person manning the secretariat. We found out that if there is no accord between the president and the general secretary, we would find a serious issues. In fact we are beginning to wonder if the Secretary comes after the president in hierarchy even with the provision of the Constitution for 1st to 3rd Vice President.

The next person after the president is the 1st vice president. It is not the correct order to assume that the General Secretary comes after the president. I am going to change that and restore the proper order. I have been part of the bar and I have criticized it in the past where they have to highlight the general secretary as next to the president. In the constitution the General Secretary is number 5. I will change that position where the secretary has been made to be second. This will not alter his functions. But I am a strong believer in constitutional obedience.

DNL L&S: It is looking like what operates now is the GS operating as second in command both in function. So we were wondering if there are some unwritten code to that effect.

Ojukwu: Yes that is what operates in the NBA today. Look at their letter headed paper. It shows the Secretary following the president. That is an anomaly and that is what has been happening over the years and I have been critical of it. Many years back when I wasn’t even thinking about for any reason of going to be head. I am going to change that. All those distorted history. I am going to change them.

DNL L&S: What then would have been the role of the 1st to 3rd vice President?

Ojukwu: As at today, they are very irrelevant. We have made them irrelevant in the system. We have given them token jobs to do. The Vice Presidents in the Future Bar would have opportunities to contribute actively.

DNL L&S: Make a wish on the contestants for the post of the General Secretary. There are about 5 of them. Which would you be comfortable working with?

Ojukwu: The reason why it may not be proper for me to assess them is because I am not the electorate. I am only going to cast my own vote. There are more than 55000 electorates. And if we have at least 25000 vote, it will be irresponsible for me to decide for them who should be secretary. It is also going to be irresponsible for me as a leader to have a preferred candidate to be an officer that works with me. That will ignite the first conflict once you start the work. I told you I am a bridge builder, so I have to use all those strategies to contribute in building the bridges. So, I will welcome any of them on board and if I find any of them with less capacity, I will help him to grow his capacity. I would not manage anyone without capacity but I will not push you aside, rather, I will help you build capacity. I have done it many times even for the bar. I told you the only staff in the institute were employed by me and I trained them. Some got better jobs and left after the training. Some of them were hijacked by the President and the Secretary of the bar then into the mainstream NBA because of the short training I gave in few weeks and few months for them. So that has been my focus all my life, develop people’s capacity. So any secretary that comes with less capacity than I want I will give them opportunity to upgrade.

DNL L&S: Any parting word for your supporters in the race?  

Ojukwu: For the first time in many years, with my election as president of the NBA, lawyers in Nigeria would be proud once again that they belong to this profession.

DNL L&S: thank you so much sir.


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