Udora Orizu writes that the decision of Nigerian Bar Association to withdrew the invitation it gave to Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, to speak at its 2020 edition of NBA Annual General Conference indicates a more activist, decisive NBA in the future
On August 29, the 60th Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) conference finally came to end, but this year’s edition will be one for the books, as it generated controversy over the invitation extended to the Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai as one of its speakers.
Following furore over the decision of the National Executive Council of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to invite the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, to speak at its 2020 Annual General Conference, the NBA on August 21st finally withdrew its invitation to El-Rufai as a panelist at the virtual conference which was scheduled to hold from August 26 to 29.
The just concluded conference themed “Stepping Forward” and the question is: “Who is a Nigerian? A Debate on National Identity” with a special session focusing on the topic: “Am I a Nigerian – A Debate on National Identity, The Indigeneship-Citizenship Conundrum” had the Kaduna State governor and other
eminent Nigerians such as Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Former President of Nigeria Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and so many others selected as speakers at the virtual conference.
The withdrawal of el-Rufai followed protests by many lawyers who cited alleged injustice for victims of Southern Kaduna attacks, and accusations by human rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), that El-Rufai was promoting impunity through disobedience to court orders. The lawyers opined that such a leader who doesn’t have regard for the rule of law and justice does not deserve the NBA platform to address any national issue. Petitions also greeted the announcement of the governor as a speaker with over 3,150 signatures, rejecting his nomination.
Announcing the withdrawal of the invitation, the NBA in a Tweet last Thursday via its Twitter handle @NigBarAssoc, wrote, “The National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association at its ongoing meeting resolves that the invitation to the Kaduna State Governor, H.E. Nasir el-Rufai, by the 2020 Annual General Conference Planning committee be withdrawn and decision communicated to the Governor.”
Also in a separate letter titled, ‘Request to Withdraw the Offer of Platform at the 2020 Annual General Conference of the NBA to Mallam Nasir el-Rufai,’ addressed to the Chairman, Technical Committee on Conference Planning, NBA, Prof. Koyinsola Ajayi, some lawyers said the governor must not be allowed to speak at the conference.
The letter, which was signed by Silas Onu and Auta Nyada, listed 10 allegations against el-Rufai and his son, Bello, who is a Special Adviser to Kaduna Central lawmaker, Senator Uba Sani, accused the duo of poor human rights record as well as his inability to stop the killings, particularly in southern Kaduna.
Human right lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, had also in a letter to the Chairman, Technical Committee, Conference Planning Committee, Nigerian Bar Association, Professor Konyinsola Ajayi SAN, called on the association to remove el-Rufai’s name on the list of speakers for the event over the Southern Kaduna crisis.
Falana reminded the committee that a similar decision was taken in 2006, when lawyers were mobilised to boycott all courts in the country to protest the disobedience of court orders by some officials and agencies of the Federal Government and the administration of the Federal Capital Territory under the leadership of el-Rufai.
Bowing to the demands of his colleagues, the outgoing NBA President, Mr Paul Usoro (SAN), described El-Rufai as a friend but explained that why the association withdrew the invitation it once gave to El-Rufai, to speak at the conference was because the majority of the association’s members objected to the governor’s presence at the conference.
Usoro also apologised to El-Rufai for “the unintended embarrassment” which the invitation withdrawal might have caused him. The apology was contained in Usoro’s August 21, 2020 letter addressed to the Director-General of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, Mr Asishana Okauru.
Usoro stated in his letter that El-Rufai was invited as a panelist at the conference without the input of the NBA NEC as a body. While noting that he voted against the motion for the withdrawal of the invitation, however, stated that the NEC’s decision had nothing to do with ethnicity or the substance of the allegations levelled against El-Rufai.
Following the withdrawal of the invitation extended to El-Rufai by the NBA National Executive Council, the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN) asked the association to dis-invite Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and former President Olusegun Obasanjo or they will boycott the conference.
But, Usoro asked the Muslim lawyers to nominate another northern Muslim governor to replace El-Rufai.
In his message to the group, he explained that there is no ethnic and religious consideration in the decision to drop El-Rufai.
He said that neither the NBA nor NEC was set out to sit in judgment against El-Rufai and so, did not deny him a fair hearing.
“I have received several messages from our members that have attributed ethnic and religious considerations to the decision. That is not correct and is very far from the truth. Neither the NBA nor NEC belongs to any religious or ethnic group. We are lawyers and professionals dedicated to the ideals and the promotion and preservation of the rule of law, and we belong to one indivisible family of the NBA. I implore all our members to please not view this issue however from an ethnic or religious perspective. We are one united NBA with no religious or ethnic bias or predisposition and shall ever so remain.”
”NBA will be willing to have any other northern Muslim governor feature in its conference. The issue as I understand and see it is localised to El-Rufai and not northern governors and/or Muslims. I guarantee that if we have any other northern Muslim governor who is ready to be featured at the AGC, he’ll be given a slot.”
Responding, MULAN, is a statement by its General Secretary, Ismaila Alaasa said their understanding was that the NBA did not want to allow any person tainted with disregard for rule of law to use its platform, and so wanted the same standard to apply to others slated to speak at the conference.
“In this respect, our view is that former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who never had any regard for the Supreme Court or respect for citizens’ rights cannot be allowed to speak at the conference. The same brush tars Governor Nyesom Wike who has unapologetically abused the rights of citizens, including demolition of hotel or other property without a court order in Rivers State and he is not entitled to speak on our platform. We don’t want to attach any ethnic or religious colouring to the decision of the NEC. We believe that the Technical Committee on Conference Planning (TCCP) has enough clout to get untainted persons as speakers apart from El-Rufai, Wike and Obasanjo.”
According to MULAN, the nomination of another Northern governor as a replacement for El-Rufai will send a very wrong signal to objective observers and therefore it is not advisable.
The Muslim lawyers further demanded that, using the standard by which Mr El-Rufai was disinvited, “Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should also be on the list of Speakesr to delist.”
It said Blair’s country “has sufficiently indicted him in Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry Report (1House o Commons (UK), “The Report of the Iraq Inquiry”, (UK: Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 2016) in which he was said to have ‘deliberately exacerbated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein when there was no imminent threat. He did that to justify his joining the USA in attacking Iraq and killing millions of innocent people.”
MULAN said dis-inviting the three personalities to speak at the NBA Conference would do a great deal of damage control and show the whole World watching the ensuing drama that in the NBA, the rule of law and Human Rights are colour blind and know no class, tribe or religious affiliation.
Following the El-Rufai snub some aggrieved northern members of the Nigerian Bar Association have pulled out of the group; alleging that the legal body is biased.
The lawyers say they have constituted a new group called New Nigerian Bar Association (NNBA).
In a statement, the new association said recent developments within NBA have generated increased concern which necessitated their withdrawal from the association. It said the incidents have exposed the inability of the NBA to manage and contain the heterogeneity of its members as well as their various interests.
The new association said NBA mandatory membership is against the provisions of the constitution which recognises freedom of membership of every association, as provided in section 40.
The lawyers said their interests are no longer taken into consideration in major decisions of the NBA hence the formation of the new association.
The statement reads, ”Its penal powers has been deployed discriminatively on the basis of ethnicity and regionalism, As a body of lawyers who have undergone training towards ensuring the promotion and protection of human rights and liberties, the NBA is supposed to live above sentiments, regionalism and discrimination on any basis and of any kind. Therefore, the NBA cannot afford to be seen not to be upholding the rights and freedom of its own members if at all, it should be seen to be practising what it preaches.”
”The New Nigerian Bar Association have been watching the activities of the NBA, an association we all looked forward to joining with high hopes before being called to the Nigerian Bar, forcing idiosyncrasies of few on the majority of its members, especially in recent times.
No wonder, NBA NEC, which is the highest decision-making organ of the association failed to uphold the fundamental principles of fair hearing which in itself, is the fundamental aspect of Rule of Law, on the allegations against the Executive Governor of Kaduna state, Mallam Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai as were contained in a petition by Chidi Odinkalu Esq. a long time foe of His Excellency and a lawyer of eastern Nigeria extraction, but the NBA failed to extend the same treatment to Southern invitees who were also petitioned and are also alleged to have committed similar or more human rights abuses than those alleged against Mallam El-Rufai.”
“A cursory chronicle of the membership composition of major organs of the NBA would reveal lopsided representation despite having large numbers of lawyers from all parts of the country and especially northern Nigeria who have diligently paid their bar practising fees and have distinguished themselves in the legal profession. The New Nigerian Bar Association feel that lawyers, as professionals like doctors and accountants should have more than one association regulated by the general council of the bar.”
”The legal practitioners’ act (LPA) which regulates the legal profession in Nigeria did not establish the NBA. In fact, the NBA was established as an incorporated trustee by the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).
”It is no longer gainsaying that a group of lawyers can freely join any lawful association for the protection of their rights and interests as lawyers and citizens of Nigeria pursuant to the above-cited section 40 of the constitution. Even section 1 of the LPA, which seemingly conscripted all lawyers in Nigeria to mandatory membership of NBA is, for all intents and purposes, at loggerheads with Section 40 of the constitution which makes the former null and void and of no effect whatsoever.”
Reacting to the paralleled NBA, the just sworn in President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olumide Akpata, described the formation as unfortunate, calling for a united body.
Akpata who was sworn in as NBA’s 30th President, while giving his inaugural speech last Friday, flayed the move to establish a regional bar.
He said, ”I am not unaware of very recent events and agitations that have tended to divide our Bar along regional and religious lines. This is rather unfortunate for an egalitarian Association like ours. The Bar that I want to lead henceforth is one that is united on all fronts and that recognises that our diversity is, perhaps, our greatest strength. I plead with all Nigerian lawyers to bear this philosophy of unity in mind as we commence a new journey together today.”
”This enormous task cannot be achieved if we continue to fan the embers of division at a time when we desperately need to unite and speak with one firm voice. We must be kind, magnanimous, respectful, and sensitive in our words and actions, as doing otherwise would be a great disservice to our vision of building a stronger and formidable bar. Now is the time to come together because a divided Bar is a defeated Bar.”
Also Mike Ozekhome, (SAN), who also spoke at the handover ceremony advised aggrieved members against forming an alternative association.
Ozekhome said, ”Drop all these issues of trying to form an alternative Bar, whether you call it new NBA or progressive NBA, it’s not going to work. The reason is that when you begin to create a different Bar, calling it, for example, Northern Bar or new Bar, then people, very soon, are going to start calling for Southern Nigerian Army, Southern Nigerian Navy, Western Nigerian Air Force, Eastern Nigeria Tax Authority, etc; where are we heading to? That is nothing but balkanisation of Nigeria and God forbid.”
Despite the saga currently playing out between the NBA and El-Rufai, this disinvitation indicates that there is an increasing awareness over the responsibility public offices place on public officers in the country.
Though, if the reason for the disinvitation is based on the arguments that El-Rufai has no regard for the rule of law, then it’s understandable why Muslim Lawyers Association called on the NBA to disinvite any speaker who has a record of human right violation and disregard for the rule of law. After all, what they are accusing El-rufai of, most of the Nigerian politicians (including some of the invited speakers) are guilty of it.
But, with the insistence of the NBA to stand against El-Rufai, it clearly shows that in the future, there’s likely to be a more activist and decisive NBA that will have a stronger voice in things that are happening in the judiciary, and the country in general and also be able to take certain stance to create change.
Thanks to them they are beginning to show the direction the NBA will go, which will be perhaps a more proactive NBA.