President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Paul Usoro, SAN spoke to New Telegraph on his achievement in the last one year, NBA transparency regime, judiciary and sundry issues.
How has been the journey so far since you assumed the leadership of the Bar?
One of our significant achievements this year has been the introduction of online payment system for the Bar Practice Fees (“BPF”) by our members. Gone are the days when our members had no choice but to queue in banking halls and go through the tedious manual processes for the payment of their BPF. Now they can make their payments online from the comfort of their homes or wherever else they may be, at any time of the day or night including weekends and even from outside Nigeria. The plan which is already in the work is to extend this online payment facility to cover payments for all other NBA national-related fees and dues payable by our members and third parties.
To what extent has the financial accountability and transparency of the association fared in the last one year?
We have, at this NEC meeting, published the Management Accounts of our association for Quarter 2 of 2018/2019. That is a promise kept and a statement made on the resolve of your National Officers to be consistent in being financially accountable and transparent in the management of the NBA’s funds. Our commitment which you should hold us to is that not a Quarter will pass in the two years of our administration without our publishing the NBA’s Quarterly Financial Statement.
One of the positive knock-on consequences and effects of financial accountability and transparency is that it forces prudence on the managers of the association’s funds, knowing as we do, that there must be an accounting to our members for every expenditure that we make as published in the Financial Statements. That fact is always present in our minds and, in part, informs the prudent management of the association’s funds by this administration as you would find in our Q2 Management Accounts which we would present to this august body shortly.
Are there any reforms your leadership of the Bar has put in place?
As part of our campaigns, we had committed to institute internal reforms in our Secretariat such that it would be responsive to our members’ needs and serve the association better. The feedback I receive from our members almost on a daily basis has been overwhelming in that regard.
I have heard from members how their problems were resolved in quick time merely through phone calls to our Secretariat personnel. It is no longer news that stamps are delivered to our members within days of the orders being received at the Secretariat from the Branches. The extremely few complaints that we have received in this regard were resolved in quick time and always in a manner that exonerated our National Secretariat of any blame or fault. To enhance the Secretariat’s efficiency, we would be placing before you, our NEC members, in the course of this meeting, for your kind approval, a new fit-for-purpose organogram. One of the innovations in the new organogram is the inclusion of the position of an Internal Auditor. In any properly organized establishment, the Internal Auditor is significant livewire personnel for ensuring prudence and accountability in financial management. His role is so central to achieving these ideals such that no serious and successful organization operates in modern times without the personnel that fulfill that role. In our match towards the entrenchment of financial transparency, accountability and prudence, we consider that position critical for the NBA and we are counting on the support of the NEC in approving the new organogram which includes that function.
Work has started on the revamping and modernization of our website. The NBA deserves a modern website with the right customer experience, aesthetics and functionality and that is what we are committed to unveiling by or before the next NEC meeting. Websites, apart from serving as information portals have their functional uses. Their interactive profile in modern times allow for online resolution of problems and issues by visitors to the website. These are attributes that are lacking but which we will be introducing in our revamped and modernized website.
As earlier mentioned, the online payment platform which is hosted at the NBA website would be enhanced to cover online payments of all fees and dues to the association. The website enhancement would include the creation of an online platform for ordering stamps in a manner that would ensure that branch dues and other branch levies are fully paid and satisfied by the person making the order as a condition precedent to the placement of the orders. Let me quickly assure that we would, in expanding these frontiers ensure that the Branches are fully carried along and their concerns addressed and resolved.
The 2019 elections are over, what would you say is the NBA’s position on the 2019 National Elections’ Monitoring?
The 2019 National Elections have come and are gone albeit with the rumbles remaining. We acquitted ourselves very well in monitoring those elections and publishing objective, fact-based reports thereon. As you would recall, the Osun State Governorship elections provided us with a test-run in the monitoring of this year’s elections and we did not lower nor deviate from the high standards that were set by our monitors in that election. I must here thank all our members countrywide who volunteered for the monitoring exercise and duly sent their reports including photographic images to the National Committee for compilation of our reports. For the Governorship Elections that were held on 9th March, 2019, the Branches did not receive a dime from the national body and yet, our members joyfully and enthusiastically volunteered and creditably carried out their monitoring functions and sent reports to the National Committee the end result of which is the final Monitoring Committee Report that would be presented to NEC.
What is the association’s provision for members’ welfare?
Our members have for some time now been clamouring for the resuscitation of the life insurance cover that used to be in place for our members, but which unfortunately was not renewed and was therefore not operative in the last couple of years. We have hearkened to the calls of our members and, apart from having discussions with Leadway Assurance Plc., the company that originally provided us with the insurance cover that became defunct, we have held talks with WAPIC Insurance Plc., another reputable insurance company. Both organizations have made presentations to us on insurance covers that extend beyond life and include medical expenses, temporary and permanent disabilities and critical illness benefits. Their proposals have been uploaded and placed before NEC for final consideration and approval. As soon as approval is obtained, we would work to re institute this welfare package for the benefit of our members.
What plans does NBA have for the 2019 AGC Technical Committee?
This year, we started the planning of our Annual General Conference quite early. NEC had, during our 6th December 2018 meeting, graciously given me the anticipatory approval to constitute the Committee which I did and would presently, in the course of this meeting, present the membership list to members. One of the innovations that we introduced in the constitution of this year’s TCCP is that we appointed three Chairmen from each of the NBA Zones as members of the Committee and representatives of their respective zones. The Chairmen directly feel the pulse of our members in the Branches and we believe that those of them that have been appointed as members of the TCCP would better appreciate the thought-process that goes into the planning and organization of the AGC apart from their bringing fresh and vibrant perspectives into the Committee’s work schedule. We are confident that this year’s TCCP will deliver on the promise of a world-class AGC that would be within the economic reach of our members. The Committee would be presenting their first report to NEC very shortly.
President Muhammadu Buhari will be sworn in on May 29 for another term of four years. What is your assessment of the rule of law and due process under the Buhari-led administration in the last four years?
Perhaps, the single most dominant and talked-about issue in our professional life this year has been issues and matters concerning our Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON. Our current travails as represented by the Onnoghen CJN saga are too well known to all of us and too painful to bear recounting. Suffice to state that throughout this unfortunate and bewildering incident, the NBA has stood on the side and in defense of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the principles of separation of powers between the three arms of government. As we have consistently pointed out, the Onnoghen CJN incident is but a metaphor for these immortal and immutable principles. It reminds us of how dangerously insecure the tenure of our judicial officers is, by extension, how susceptible to attack the independence of our judiciary is. These principles, we must reiterate, have no political, tribal or religious colourations and the positions of the NBA were impervious and blind to these divisive and inhibiting considerations.
We must commend our members who stood up to be counted in the struggle for the promotion and protection of the rule of law vis-à-vis the Onnoghen CJN saga and it is our earnest hope that the Executive arm of the Federal Government of Nigeria would see reason not only to terminate the on-going ugly and self-immolating spectacle at the Code of Conduct Tribunal but also find a way to resolve all the surrounding issues relating to Onnoghen CJN in a way and manner that would retrieve for us all and in our collective interest what may be left of the shredded and tattered dignity of our justice sector. The NBA remains unrelenting in its campaign in this regard.
What are the programmes of the Bar in the coming days?
I must, at this point, highlight some of the significant issues and activities that will engage our minds and occupy our time and effort in the coming months before our next NEC meeting:
NEC had graciously granted me an anticipatory approval for the composition of the Constitution and Electoral Review Committee. We would be publishing the composition of the Committee in the next couple of days with matching orders for them to consult with our members and Branches and come up with a reviewed Constitution and Electoral process for our association. Similar to the composition of our TCCP, we would ensure that representative Chairmen are appointed to this Committee from the Branches. The Committee would have a timeline that would ensure the presentation of the amended Constitution at our Annual General Meeting that would be held during the AGC in August 2019.
Given the association’s debt overhang as shown in our financial statement, it is imperative that we have alternative sources of funds. This is an area that we would be working quite hard at in the coming months including raising funds from our patrons and members. We would update NEC with our effort in this regard.
We have already started working on the verification of our membership data as a prelude to creating a clean database of our members which would be used for all purposes including but not limited to our NBA elections. This was one of our significant campaign promises and we are hoping to be largely done with this project by or before the AGC in August 2019.
In the coming days and months, we would pay more than the ordinary attention to issues concerning our young lawyers starting with the constitution of the Council of the Young Lawyers Forum for which NEC had graciously granted me an anticipatory approval during the 6th December, 2018 meeting. Happily, we have great champions of young lawyers amongst the National Officers one of the leading ones being Akorede Habeeb Lawal, our Assistant Publicity Secretary.
He could easily pass as one of the most young-lawyers-centric members of our team and he bubbles with several ideas and thoughts concerning young lawyers most of which he has shared with me and which we plan to implement in the coming months.
You are the first ever NBA President to face corruption charge, any update on the matter?
I had presented to you during our 6th December, 2018 NEC meeting the facts of this charge. Those facts have not changed howsoever. The Proof of Evidence which was subsequently served on me does not contain any fact that contradicts the position that I presented to you, to wit, that I am being prosecuted for (a) professional fees totaling N1.1 billion that were legitimately earned and paid to Paul Usoro & Co (“PUC”) by Akwa Ibom State Government (“AKSG”) between 2015 and 2016; and (b) professional fees totaling N300 million that were paid to PUC by Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State for the benefit of our colleagues who provided professional services to the Governor.
The PUC Bank Statement of Account that forms part of the Proof of Evidence clearly shows that the N300 million was duly paid to those colleagues of ours who rendered those services to the Governor. The N1.1 billion was not and is not the property of AKSG and nobody, apart from the EFCC, has claimed otherwise.
The N300 million to the best of my knowledge was not paid from the coffers of AKSG and no one apart from the EFCC has so claimed. As the trial unfolds, we will keep our members duly informed. I must thank all our members, from the depths of my heart, for the overwhelming support and solidarity that Mfon and I have enjoyed and received from all of you across the nation.
You have seen this persecution for what it is: a struggle for the soul of our profession and means of livelihood and not just the persecution of Paul. We are so very touched by your faith in us and your show of love, from telephone calls, personal visits, text messages and other forms of communication. I must also thank most sincerely, my team of lawyers, led by our past President, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), for all their work on my behalf. We cannot repay you for this show of faith and love for and in us. Our prayer is that the Almighty will reward you all abundantly. We feel confident that our collective effort would be rewarded and truth will ultimately out and we will all be vindicated.
Perhaps, I need to mention here that my current persecution is not isolated. As a profession, we are under siege. For the very first time, both in our country’s history and in the history of our association, the NBA elections of 2018 has been the subject of purported investigation by the EFCC. I do not believe that such an investigation is within the purview of the EFCC, seeing as there was no financial or economic crime that was alleged. I am also not aware that the EFCC has taken as much interest in the activities of other professionals and their associations as it has taken in our profession and our association, particularly in recent years. To put it mildly, our profession and indeed the justice sector, I repeat, is under siege. Even the Independent Corrupt Practice Commission (ICPC) has taken to inviting our past Presidents and Secretaries for questioning over the contract award for the construction of our National Secretariat.
But then, these agencies do not act alone; they act in close collaboration with some of our members. The petition that triggered the purported EFCC investigation into our 2018 elections, for example, was written by one of our members. Indeed, we have taken to reporting ourselves to the EFCC even in internal matters of the association which could be resolved internally. We do need to rethink our ways and reassess our circumstances in this regard, in our collective interest, for our collective good and for the good of our profession and our association.