This article written by Prof. Chidi Odinkalu shortly after the conclusion of the last NBA election is very instructive now.
“There is no reason why the (Nigerian) Bar should spend four days in organizing elections in which there are fewer than 2,000 voters…. Returning credibility to our Bar requires that this situation be reformed urgently. To do so, the NBA must set a target for leadership selection based on universal suffrage by 2016.” – Chidi Anselm Odinkalu (9 August 2012).
These words contained in an article published in Premium Times on August 9, 2012 articulated the case for reform of the processes for leadership succession at the Nigerian Bar. Four years later, on August 1, 2016 and for the first time in a quarter of a century, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), concluded its leadership elections based on universal suffrage. Far from the fulfillment of a prophecy, the recently concluded NBA election was a belated effort by the Association to update its governance and institutional processes. It was long overdue.
At the end of the voting, Abubabakar Balarabe Mahmoud, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and former Chair of the Kano Branch of the Association whose campaign platform offered “A Brave New Bar”, emerged winner, polling 3,055 votes to defeat Joseph Kyari Gadzama, also a Senior Advocate and former Chair of the Abuja Branch of the Association, who polled 2,384 votes. For the position of General-Secretary, Abiola Olagunju of the Ibadan Bar polled 2,721 votes to beat off the challenge of another ex-chair of the Abuja Bar, Desmond Yamah, who polled 2,510 votes. Five of the 13 positions available, including the three Vice-President positions, had single candidates who were returned un-opposed. The position of Publicity Secretary of the Association did not have any eligible candidate and would be filled at a later date.
The contest this time was different in many ways. It marked the return of universal suffrage at the Bar. The NBA achieved this by amending its constitution in 2015 to abolish the delegate electoral system. This was also the first time that the NBA would be deploying remote voting through an online platform. The demographics of the NBA have changed in the two-and-a-half decades since Port Harcourt. The economic power still lays with the senior lawyers but the votes were with the young lawyers. The voting electorate was dispersed in 118 branches of the Bar across what appeared to be an uneven footprint of both density and bandwidth.
All of this created ample room for conspiracy theorists. Ahead of the vote, one of the camps involved in the presidential contest sued to restrain the NBA from organising the vote, asking the Court to order the Association to revert to the old voting system. Less than 24 hours before the voting was to proceed, the Federal High Court threw out the case and paved the way for a historic ballot. How this denouement came about is a story that bears telling and review.
As always, the contest for the NBA Presidency was manifestly the most competitive. In all, it attracted 5,439 votes, 208 votes more than the 5,231 cast in the contest for the position of General Secretary. Unlike past elections since the turn of the Millennium which were restricted strictly to selected delegates, the right to vote this time was open to any lawyer who had paid his/her Bar Practicing Fees and branch dues by the eligible date of March 31, 2016.
According to official figures issued by the NBA, a total of 24,305 persons fulfilled this requirement. Of this number, 47.92 percent or 11,646 actually updated their records on the voting platform, enabling them to participate in the ballot. Of the number that updated their records, 59.52 percent or 6,932 were accredited to vote. The 5,439 votes cast represented a turnout of 22.38 percent of the eligible electorate; 46.7 percent of those with updated records or 78.46 percent of the accredited voters. From the field of just two candidates this time, the winning candidate secured 56.17 percent of the votes cast.
By contrast, the last time the NBA ran a leadership contest two years ago in 2014, there were 1,453 votes in all, a mere 60.95 percent of the votes tallied by the losing candidate in the Presidential race this time. Augustine Alegeh, a Senior Advocate and outgoing President of the NBA, emerged with 691 votes or 47.56 percent from a field of five candidates beating out another Senior Advocate, Dele Adesina, who scored 370 votes or 25.46 percent.
The number of voters in the end was 22.37 percent of the 24,305 lawyers who were notionally qualified to vote. With this turn out, many would argue that the attrition rate – that is the number or proportion of eligible voters who didn’t participate – appeared substantial. There were many reasons for this. There is still significant digital illiteracy at the Bar. Voter education could have been improved with more time. Trial and testing of the voting platform solution could have been enhanced. The navigation experience on the voting platform itself could similarly be improved. Reflecting a Nigerian tendency, data management at the NBA is far from optimal. The interposition of validation and accreditation stages before voting meant that only the most passionate activists were ever going to vote.
When all these factors are accounted for, it is evident that for an online voting platform making its debut, the participation rate was encouraging. There clearly are challenges that the Bar would need to address as it faces up to a future of data-driven, digital governance.
Old Politics, New Campaigning..
It should have been obvious that the introduction of One-Lawyer-One-Vote (OLOV) with a technology driven solution would have far reaching effect on the campaigns. Indeed, less than two months before the election, Threemedia.com in an article published in June 2016 predicted that “social media will determine who wins the NBA’s 2016 election.” This may have been self-evident to the cognoscenti of new media but at the Bar until that point, it was retail politics as usual.
The delegate system of election at the NBA, which existed until now, encouraged expensive retail politics. Winning votes lay in the hands of branch delegates who revelled in their status as electoral brides and bled candidates for money, hotel bills and sundry predilections. Candidates spent money and time courting endorsements from all over the country, seeking the support of ethnic and tribal lobbies and mobilising funds from politicians interested in installing the leadership of the NBA. This made the elections into offices at the NBA increasingly exorbitant, unaffordable and prone to capture by politically exposed persons (PEPs). Reflecting this reality, one senior politician in 2014 claimed that “NBA is too powerful to be allowed to decide its leadership all by itself.”
By introducing OLOV backed by a technology solution, the NBA addressed three problems. First, it sought to recapture the independence of elective process from external, political influence. Second, the new system sought to reduce cost. Third, the system also aimed to achieve more efficient and transparent management of leadership transition in the NBA.
The immediate effect was to re-locate the politics of the NBA from retail to wholesale campaigning. The logistics and costs of outreaching all 118 branches of the NBA in person were mammoth. In an ideal world, a candidate could short circuit that with a smart, data-driven, campaign intelligently spiced with carefully selected campaign stops in locations designed to reflect the diversity of the NBA. In practice, the dynamics of the campaign made this difficult. The J.K. Gadzama campaign, with what appeared to be the support of the incumbent Governor of Bauchi State who is himself a very senior lawyer and also the Chairman of the Arewa (Northern) Lawyers Forum, claimed a block endorsement of all the branches of the NBA in the 19 States of northern Nigeria. The Secretary of Arewa Lawyers, himself, also currently the Attorney-General of Jigawa State, disputed this. This split in the Arewa Lawyers triggered a race for the votes of each and every branch in the North and, ultimately, around the country. It dictated that both presidential candidates had to visit all 118 branches. An escalation of cost was inevitable.
While the visits to the branch network grew enthusiasm and escalated cost, it did not necessarily reach the right voters. As the branch network campaigns advanced, it became evident that necessary work on threshold eligibility for voting had been missed and many lawyers lacked the digital skills and literacy to participate effectively in voting. The campaigns had to re-tool and take to social media. WhatsApp groups and clusters emerged touting candidates and their selling points. The campaigns began to improve their web platforms. Twitter feeds and Facebook groups joined in and campaign slogans were reduced to hashtags. Young lawyers took the NBA elections digital and in time even viral.
The JK Gadzama campaign initially branded itself with the pay-off line #JKIsOK. But as campaigning wore on, it faced attacks on two fronts, one branding and the other with his antecedents. On social media, many ridiculed the line “JK is OK” with the riposte #OKIsNOtGoodEnough. His previous association with former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) also became a major focus of attack. As the campaigns evolved, digital images began circulating questioning whether a person with deep partisan past was a suitable leader for the Bar at this time. Both lines of attack appeared to resonate on social media. In his defence, Mr. Gadzama was said to have left the PDP in 2015. To make his point, he was said to have sued the party for a declaratory order affirming his departure. This defence did not win him many friends and it became clear these attack lines were hurting the Gadzama campaign. Late in the campaign, it became necessary for his campaign to re-tool but the damage had already been done.
AB Mahmoud promised #ABraveNewBar. It would be accurate to say that JK Gadzama’s campaign had an earlier start and had made progress with its retail campaigning game before AB Mahmoud fully tooled up. The frog-jump strategy of Mahmoud’s campaign required a skillful melding of both digital and retail politics. On the social media front, the AB Mahmoud campaign proved much more adept and in tune with the times. A one-minute campaign video produced and digitally distributed by AB Mahmoud in the last month of the campaign recorded over 140,000 hits in its first fortnight, a daily average of over 10,000 hits. A senior lawyer, Ayisha Osori, quipped that this was “a brave new way to #ABraveNewBar.”
The last effort by the Association to organise a leadership transition based on universal suffrage in August 1991, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, broke down in mutual recriminations, “acrimony and sleights of hand” and put the NBA in coma for nearly a decade. At that time, there were fewer than 20,000 lawyers on the Roll of lawyers in Nigeria, most of whom were male. The politics of the NBA was largely testosterone-driven.
At the return of universal suffrage in 2016, the number of lawyers on Roll had increased by over 500 percent to about 100,000. 25 years ago, the NBA could bring every intending voter to one place. In 2016, the demographics of the NBA had changed vastly. No space in Nigeria can contain the number of lawyers who may wish to vote. The introduction of digital voting reflects this reality
This favoured younger lawyers who have the mastery of digital skills, the interest to use it and the energy to make friends with it. It also meant that candidates could not run an entirely androgynous campaign. Campaign messaging had to address interest groups too: young lawyers; female lawyers; rural lawyers; commercial bar. In the changed landscape forced by the new system, the traditional raucousness of the NBA’s politics would prove a poor match for a surgically focused campaign that targets the major demographics of the Bar with suitable messaging. In this again, the Gadzama and Mahmoud campaigns were far apart. While the Gadzama campaign appeared strong in the old, rambunctious style of NBA politics, the Mahmoud campaign was more adapted to the changed messaging induced by new technology. Its messaging covered the major demographics and it had a targeted energy that was powered by the presence of youths who understood that technology and scale under universal suffrage had changed the game.
A Brave New Bar?
While the voting was in progress, the NBA’s new process of elections was besieged by attacks from various interested quarters seeking to discredit it. Allegations of conspiracy to produce pre-determined outcomes were freely made. In support of this, bulletins were issued citing several senior lawyers who were supposedly excluded from voting, including Gboyega Awomolo (SAN) and Emeka Ngige (SAN). But both senior lawyers did in fact vote. In his case, Chief Ngige’s vote is one of the best advertisements for the new system: he was able to vote from the United States. Another young lawyer, for instance, who was on honeymoon in Dubai voted from the comfort of his hotel room without having to abandon his newly wed spouse.
At the close of voting on July 31, the tallies were immediately evident. However, at the request of the NBA, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had deputed officials to the NBA Situation Room, where they monitored the process of voting through the 48 hours that it lasted. The INEC officials also worked with NBA’s Electoral Commission, led by Ken Mozia, a Senior Advocate, to verify the results before announcement. Shortly before this, leading members of the J.K Gadzama Campaign had distributed posts on social media claiming to have won and alleging that anything other than a declaration of their candidate as winner was evidence of manipulation. In the end, the results did not bear out their claims.
Following the announcement of the result, the Gadzama Campaign team issued a statement in which they claimed to “reject the results of the elections and call for the immediate cancellation of the same.” In a distinction that reflects the state of digital literacy (or lack of it), the release by the Gadzama team also called for “fresh electronic (and not Internet) elections.” They have also threatened legal proceedings. Former Bar President, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), promptly went on record to discredit this idea.
In the interim, the process of transition to a new leadership at the Bar has begun. The 2016 Bar elections show that a different kind of NBA is possible. It has many positives. The voting platform was designed in and by Nigerians. The voting system guarantees improved revenues for the NBA as lawyers will now be able to link access to voting to the payment of their practising fees and membership dues. As the NBA beds into this new revenue possibility, it will be able to protect and defend its independence and ward off politically exposed predators. There are also new opportunities here. Digital literacy at the Bar will improve, hopefully making Nigerian lawyers more competitive and accountable generally. Young lawyers will have a bigger voice in the affairs of the Bar because that is where the votes, energy and tech-savvy lies. It will also put the NBA on the path to a data-driven organisation and effective programmes and service delivery. All of this makes the promise of #ABraveNewBar somewhat prescient and timely. In A.B Mahmoud, the Bar also has a new leader whose temperament and intellect is well suited to the challenge.
This said, it is essential to acknowledge the leadership of the outgoing Bar President, Augustine Alegeh (SAN), whose leadership has been indispensable in the progress made by the Bar. When he assumed leadership in August 2014, Mr. Alegeh was not very well known in politics at the Nigerian Bar. Many saw this as a constraint on the realisation of his ambitious agenda. As he prepares to leave office, it would be fair to say that, proving doubters wrong, Mr. Alegeh has re-shaped the Association’s physical and fiscal architecture as well as its governance. He would easily be remembered as one of the more consequential Presidents in the annals of the NBA. In his wake, it is no longer in doubt that with minimal effort, #ABraveNewBar is indeed possible.
A product of Federal Government College Sokoto graduating class of 1975, A.B. Mahmoud, the President-elect of the Bar, has been a lawyer for 36 years. A former Attorney-General of Kano State, Mahmoud is married to Patricia Mahmoud, the senior-most judge on the High Court of Kano State. He is also currently Vice-Chair of the Council of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, as well as the Pro-Chancellor and Chair of the Governing Council of the Kano State University of Science and Technology.
To the in-coming President of the Bar, congratulations!
Prof. Chidi Odinkalu writes in his personal capacity.