By Eric Ikhilae
Since its national elections, the NBA has remained troubled, leading to the threat of factionalisation. ERIC IKHILAE examines efforts by the President, Olumide Akpata to return it to the path of peace and unity
At the moment, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) can be described as a troubled house. Since its last national election, through the inauguration of the incumbent leadership, the NBA has moved from one crisis to another.
Prior the election, many members had, leaning on past experience, raised doubts about the transparency of the process, with a former Chairman of the Council of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Chidi Odinkalu, authoring a piece entitled: “How 2020 elections of the NBA will be rigged.”
Two candidates in the election, Dele Adesina (SAN) and Olumide Akpata expressed concern about the process.
In a complaint, dated July 20, 2020, to the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA), Akpata identified some challenges experienced by users of the NBA portal, as well as an IT security firm, whose services he engaged to investigate the portal’s integrity.
Some of the problems, Akpata said, included a voters’ list flawed with anomalies, including duplicity of names and the inclusion of non-persons, among other things.
Adesina’s campaign group raised seven posers for ECNBA and queried its preparedness for the elections. It said the ECNBA needed to explain discrepancies about the voters’ list, verification of members online, use of service provider(s) to develop the election portal and manage the electoral process and non-involvement of aspirants/candidates.
There was equally the disaffection among young members of the NBA who, though account for the majority of the association’s membership, believe that the lawyers’ body is dominated by the Senior Advocates, who have made it a tradition to produce its president in the last 22 years.
While the result of the election held on July 29 and 30, this year became public, another round of crisis erupted, with Adesina and a group, the Egbe Amofin, raising allegations of manipulation, among others.
They queried what they said were discrepancies in the voters’ register and alleged that ‘4,000 ghost voters’ were smuggled into the voters’ register.
In a communique issued, the Egbe Amofin said: “Over 4000 ‘voters’ appeared on the emergency voters’ list used for the election and these ghost voters have no identifiable branches or are not linked or traceable to any branch.
“The NBA Constitution is the organic document that binds its members and blatant violation of same by elected leaders of the NBA is an open show of disrespect and disregard for the very basis of our mutual alliance.”
It hinted that some lawyers might be encouraged to exercise the right to freedom of association if their grievances were not addressed.
The group added: “The Egbe Amofin issues this communiqué and makes the pleas and recommendations with every sense of responsibility, as failure on the part of our great association to urgently address the issues contained herein might, wittingly or unwittingly, lead members of the association to consider other options available in the exercise of the fundamental right of members to freedom of association; a situation that the Egbe Amofin believes can be honestly and sincerely prevented.”
Justifying his group’s position, a member of the Egbe Amofin, Niyi Akintola (SAN), noted that membership of the NBA was voluntary and that no one should be compelled to join or quit. He observed that the country’s Constitution guaranteed freedom of lawful association and freedom of assembly, noting that parallel Bar associations coexist in several countries.
While the Egbe Amofin was dithering on its consideration of a parallel Bar, some young minds from the northern part of the country came up with what they called the New NBA (NNBA) in reaction to the controversy generated by the invitation to Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State and its subsequent withdrawal.
The withdrawal of the invitation to el-Rufai as a speaker at the 60th Annual General Conference (AGC), held for between August 26 and 29, also led to the boycott of the meeting by some members.
Speaking in Dutse, the Chairman of the NBA (Jigawa branch), Garba Abubakar, threatened that his branch would boycott the conference. Abubakar accused the NBA of trampling on el-Rufai’s right to fair hearing, arguing that the governor was not afforded the right to react to allegations raised against him by a group of lawyers – Open Bar Initiative (OBI).
Abubakar added: “If complaints are to be judged on their face value and without due process, similar treatment is to [be] given to the Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, who has serious allegations of abuse of human rights against him, to the extent of the demolition of residential houses and place of worship without observing due process.
“On the strength of this, therefore, we call on the national body under President Usoro(SAN) to reverse the decision with immediate effect; else the Nigerian Bar Association Dutse Branch will boycott the virtual annual general conference taking place in a few days to come.”
The Chairman and Secretary of the Bauchi State branch, Abubakar Abdulhamid and Shasuddeen Magaji expressed similar views in a statement issued last Friday.
Abdulhamid and Magaji, who gave tribal and religious colourations to the whole episode, cautioned that the NBA should be seen to be “promoting the principles of the rule, irrespective of cultural, tribal, religious or political inclination.”
A group of lawyers, under the aegis of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN), Kaduna branch, added its voice to the controversy and equally threatened to withdraw its participation in the conference, contending that the withdrawal of the invitation to el-Rufai was “parochial, sentimental and disuniting.”
Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami opened another front in the many crises plaguing the NBA when he purportedly amended the Rules for Legal Practitioners (RLP) 2007, a move which appeared to water down NBA’s influence.
Acting on his claim that the NBA was factionalised, Malami, in his amendment of RLP, removed, among others, the requirement for lawyers to purchase and affix NBA stamp and seal to court documents. He also abolished the requirement for lawyers for government and ministries to pay annual practice fees, which are the two main sources of revenue for the NBA.
Calls for the reform of the NBA’s electoral process, owing to the recurring challenge of election disputation, precipitated another crisis, leading to a division between senior and junior lawyers in the association.
Shortly after the Akpata-led NBA constituted a committee to review the association’s election process, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) also set up a similar committee. But unlike the one by the NBA, the committee constituted by BOSAN has failed to take off, with about three of its five members declining their inclusion.
It was learnt that Joe Gadzama (SAN), who was named as the chairman of the BOSAN committee, declined the appointment in a September 9, 2020 letter, citing the fact that he was conflicted, having contested in the 2016 elections which his committee was supposed to audit.
Two other members, Osaro Eghobiamen (SAN) and Prof. Offornze Amucheazi (SAN) were reported to have also declined their appointment to the BOSAN committee.
Signs of Good Things to Come
On assuming office, Akpata promised to ensure a united Bar. He has, so far, demonstrated his commitment to mending fences. As a major step to addressing the challenge of factionalisation, Akpata met with Bar leaders from the northern part of the country on September 2, during which he made a profound commitment to bring everybody together.
Akpata, after the meeting attended by over 40 branch chairmen and leaders of the NBA from the northern geopolitical zone, told journalist that “the message we want you to help us put out there is that, at the NBA, we are one. We are not divided.”
He said it was wrong for lawyers, who ought to lead on the right way to go and promote national unity, to be associated with disunity, adding that, as lawyers, “we should learn to disagree to agree. We have spoken unequivocally today that we are one association, and by extension one country.
“The Acting Chairman, Arewa Lawyers Forum (ALF), Elisha Yakubu Kura (SAN), said key resolutions of the meeting were that: “Mr. Akpata reassured us that his administration is very keen on ensuring that we did not have only a united Bar, but also an indivisible one, and we verily believe in him.
“We have unanimously agreed to support his (Akpata’s) leadership of the NBA, and we hereby restate our true allegiance to the NBA and disassociate ourselves from the ‘New NBA’ or any splinter group whatsoever making the waves in recent weeks as a new association/body of lawyers in Nigeria.
“We therefore urge all lawyers not only of the Northern Geopolitical Zone, including those behind the establishment of the NNBA but indeed all legal practitioners in Nigeria to please come together to support Mr. Olumide Akpata and the new national officers to ensure that they deliver on all their core mandates whilst indeed putting the rule of law, the welfare and capacity development of our members at the fore front.”
NBA’s National Publicity Secretary Rapuluchukwu Nduka confirmed this development and assured of a successful outing. Nduka said members of the committee have been named and they have started work already.
“There is no report at the moment about the extent of work they have done. But, I am sure that by the time we have our NEC (National Executive Council) meeting around November, we should have some feedback on how far they have gone,” Nduka told The Nation.
He said the NBA is engaging with the AGF and other stakeholders on ways to ensure an amicable resolution of the controversy generated by Malami’s amendment of the RLP.
Nduka said Akpata, as part of efforts to ensure a united Bar and change the perception that the association was meant for a few, has been touring different states and meeting with the branch leaders and branch Chairman, during which he has been having interactive sessions with lawyers in the states.
“One of the advantages of that is to make everybody understand that nobody is excluded from the NBA. We are working towards having a united Bar. I must tell you that the feedback has been very encouraging. The bottom-line is that people are coming to understand that this administration means well,’’ Nduka said.
He was of the view that the agitation for break-up was as a result of the perception that the association has not been working for them, adding “I think that mind-set is changing at the moment and people are beginning to come together.”
Way to Go
A member of the NBA in Abuja, Dr Anthony Danjuma welcomed the various peace-building efforts by the current NBA leadership and urged it not to be deterred.
“I am delighted at what is currently happening. I hope the NBA President will carry through his promise to ensure a united Bar. We don’t want this division. We, as lawyers, ought to lead by example. We claim to belong to the learned profession, yet we cannot conduct rancour free elections.
“I will advise Mr. Akpata to do all within his powers to reform the election process of the NBA to make it more transparent. I call on the AGF to work with the leadership of the NBA and not constitute himself as an agent of destabilisation. His amendment to the RLP is unacceptable,” Danjuma said.