By Joseph Onyekwere
It was a rocky transition year for the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). The emergence of the deadly coronavirus, which forced the total lockdown of towns and cities in Nigeria, was an enormous setback to all human activities. The result was that almost all social interactions went online. Thankfully, the NBA had already amended its constitution in 2015, such that it conducts its elections online with the participation of all members who have paid their Bar Practicing and Branch Dues as and when due. With this cheery news, the congregational drawback occasioned by the emergence of COVID-19 was not a problem for the association as the election drew near.
But what people thought was going to be a smooth transition turned out one of the most turbulent and controversial in the recent history of the association. Although the campaigns of the three presidential candidates cleared by the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA) were issue-based and civil, the performance of the ECNBA during the build-up left much to be desired. The cleared candidates were Mr Dele Adesina (SAN) and Dr Babatunde Ajibade (SAN) and Mr Olumide Akpata, a member of the outer Bar. ECNBA disqualified Mr Adesina Ogunlana controversially. Out of the successful three, Akpata repeatedly complained and criticized the electoral process publicly. During the buildup to the election, he raised questions about the irregularities in the voter register and the security of the online election platform among others and declared that the process was being manipulated for rigging.
Despite those, the process continued. At the early hours of July 30, the chairman of the ECNBA, Prof. Tawo Tawo (SAN) declared Akpata the winner. He polled 9,891 votes to defeat Adesina and Dr Ajibade. Ajibade polled 4,328 votes, while Adesina garnered 3,982 votes. As the voting was a few hours to conclusion, Mr Adesina and his supporters protested. They called for the suspension of the process. They were ignored. After voting and declaration of result, the protest escalated. The umbrella body of lawyers of Yoruba extraction known as Egbe Amofin joined the call for the cancellation of the poll on allegations of fraud and disenfranchisement of voters. The body had earlier adopted Adesina as its sole candidate for the office of the NBA president, to the chagrin of Ajibade, who protested the decision. While Ajibade acknowledged the flaws in the process and congratulated the winner, Adesina petitioned the chairman of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the NBA, Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN). According to him, there were classical cases of electronic fraud and unconstitutional processes. He, therefore, requested for the cancellation of the election and conduct of a fresh poll. But the BoT rejected the appeal.
While all those were happening, some aggrieved members threatened to form a parallel association if their demand for a fresh poll was not heeded and also threatened to scuttle the swearing-in of Akpata through judicial means. To make good their threat, some collected names of interested lawyers who want to belong to the new association. Reports said over 2000 lawyers showed interest in the proposed association.
Meanwhile, the preparations for the handing over to the newly elected national officers were in top gear at the same time. The handover is usually the climax of an annual general conference of the association. In line with its mandate, the Technical Committee on the Conference Planning (TCCP) of the NBA chaired by the erudite scholar, Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi (SAN) extended a speaking invitation to prominent Nigerians and non-Nigerians. One of those invited was the governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai.
As soon as lawyers saw that El-Rufai was billed to speak in one session at the conference, all hell was let loose. A protest erupted among the members of the profession. They wrote a letter to the TCCP, accusing the governor of having a penchant for disobeying court orders and being deviant to the rule of law. They also accused him of failing to stem the tide in the wake of killings in Southern Kaduna, and having poor human rights record. 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. Soon, the petition gained online traction. Another lawyer, Usani Odum created an online petition for change.org, which generated over 500 signatures. The protesters withdrew their interest to take part in the conference unless El-Rufai was dis-invited. At the meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC), which is the highest decision-making body of the association held on August 20, the body withdrew the invitation.
This decision threw up another round of disintegration protest. A backlash of angry feelings by Muslim lawyers, who felt El-Rufai was unfairly dis-invited, also threatened the unity of the association. Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN) called on the NBA to equally dis-invite Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The group rebuffed the attempt by the outgone NBA president, Mr Paul Usoro (SAN), to placate them by asking that they nominate another Northern Muslim governor. MULAN said its understanding was that the NBA does not want to allow any person tainted with disregard for rule of law to use its platform and so wants the same standard to apply to others slated to speak at the conference. Soon after, two different petitions written by a group known as Justice Concerned Lawyers’ Forum surfaced, demanding for the dis-invitation of Wike and Obasanjo. The Forum chronicled a barrage of human right violations and disrespect for rule of law, including disobedience to Supreme Court order, perpetrated by the duo, especially Obasanjo. The Forum, like many other groups and branches of the Bar, threatened a boycott of the conference if her demands were not met.
“We are of the view that such demand is legitimate and aligns with the cardinal aims and objectives of the NBA as enshrined in her constitution, that is the maintenance of the highest standard of professional conduct, etiquette and discipline; promotion and protection of the principles of the rule of law and respect to enforcing fundamental rights, human rights, and people’s rights; and maintenance and defence of the integrity and independence of the Bar, among others.
“The petitions have created another array of controversies on the invitation of the personalities involved and, just like Mr President said in the case of Mallam El-Rufai, ‘it would not be in the best interest of the NBA to be engulfed in such controversies,” Justice demands that the duo should also be dis-invited without the need to judge them. We strongly align with the demands of the petitioners,” MULAN said in a statement signed by its president, Prof. Abdulqadir Ibrahim Abikan and Secretary-General, Ismaila Alasa. The group, therefore, demanded the leadership of the Bar to cancel the session on which El-Rufai was to speak, dis-invite any speaker(s) who has a record of human right violation and disregard for the rule of law and those who have been indicted anywhere for acts of war or other despicable conducts. Those demands were not met.
“I believe that we must continuously improve on the selection processes to appoint the men and women who serve as judges. First, we must cast our nets wider in search of judges especially at the appellate level,” he said, adding that more rigorous interviews and tests must be conducted to avoid mediocrity, while recognising the best in every region in compliance with the constitutionally stipulated federal character principle. In insecurity, he pointed out that the fight against insecurity and to establish law and order requires the full cooperation of all, especially the various law enforcement agencies in the administration of justice. According to him, in a huge federation such as ours, the criminal justice response is sometimes challenged. While federal agencies may arrest and investigate, the president noted, the prosecution and conviction would have to be done by states because most criminal actions are state offences. “No branch of government can undertake reforms necessary to enhance justice delivery on its own. We need a partnership of progress between the federal and state governments and also the legal profession and our administration of justice system. We need the collaboration of the executive and the legislature also at all levels to drive the reforms that we need,” he said.
In his special address, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad said the judiciary is also doing all that is possible to ensure that there is justice delivery to all without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. By endorsing virtual filing of electronic processes, he said the judiciary is ready to utilise technology in the justice sector and warned lawyers to desist from filing frivolous applications that abuse the court process. He applauded the association for holding the virtual conference during the coronavirus pandemic, noting that it exemplifies the doggedness of the Bar under the leadership of Usoro (SAN).
“The theme of the conference is more of a challenge to all of us to improve our legal system so we can be leading lights of the nation,” he said and urged participants to take advantage of the intellectual discourse that would emanate from the event.
The keynote speaker, Mrs Ibukun Awosika said legal practitioners play a lot of roles in society. She said lawyers have so much opportunity to build and shape a better society. “My challenge for you is that it is time for you to step forward because it is unacceptable and inexcusable considering that those who have the power to influence things for the benefit of our society are lawyers,” she said, adding that they should show more character and commitment in creating values in the practice of law and for nation-building. She urged the NBA to ensure that it holds its members accountable.
Earlier in his address, the outgone NBA President, Usoro noted that while over 21,000 delegates had registered for the conference, about 25,000 delegates were expected to take part in the conference, a veiled sign that the threat to boycott the conference was of no effect. He commended NBA members for remaining united and professional, adding that while “those who are bent on dividing the Bar” would not relent, “we must always remember that we are a united Nigerian Bar Association. We must continue to ensure that we remain a united Bar association; they must not divide us along ethnic, religious and other lines. It must always be ‘one is for all, and all is for all.”
Usoro noted that the association has survived for over 60 years. Speaking on the theme of the conference, Usoro said when combined with last year’s theme, the conference urges lawyers and other stakeholders “to step forward and face the future.” He noted that the association is celebrating not only its first virtual conference but for surviving the coronavirus pandemic, even as “some of our colleagues and judges have passed.” He called for a one-minute silence in honour of the deceased, adding that “we will continue to honour their memory by making sure we remain one united bar.”
In his opening remarks, the Chairman of the TCCP, Prof. Ajayi noted that the conference is a landmark in the annals of the association, adding that it is the “first virtual conference ever of the NBA.” Regarding the controversies that trailed the conference, he apologized to those “who may have felt offended” by the turn of events.
The Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami (SAN) stated that the Federal Government would continue to support judicial autonomy. He noted that his ministry has aided the recovery of USD$301 million looted funds, which have been “ploughed into the economy,” adding that the theme of the conference urges all stakeholders “to step out of our comfort zone” and take measures that galvanise economic development. Represented by the Solicitor General of the Federation & Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr Dayo Apata (SAN), Malami stated that President Buhari has “improved” Nigeria’s legal system through issuing Executive Orders “for better implementation of the law,” adding that there is a need for better understanding of executive orders. He stated that Executive Orders are directives, which outline how to implement existing law, adding that such orders “must flow from the Constitution and Acts of the National Assembly.”
Wike, Ezekwesili, Obi others chart a path for national identity
Eminent Nigerians on the second day of the conference charted a path for the nation’s national identity question and called for the removal of the federal character and quota system in the country. The speakers included the governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, former minister of education, Dr Oby Ezekwesili, ex-governor of Anambra state, Mr Peter Obi and the former minister of women affairs, Salamatu Suleiman. Moderated by Mr George Etomi and Wale Akoni (SAN) leading in the speeches, the participants argued the “national identity and the citizenship versus indigeneship conundrum” and came up with the verdict that the country cannot make progress unless ethnicity, federal character and quota system are done away with.
Governor Wike, represented by his attorney general, Prof Adangor Zaccheaus said until we resolve ethnicity, national identity would continue to elude us. Ethnicity, he said, lies at the heart of Nigeria’s multilateral federalism. “The result is that the nation brought together in 1914 had never seen themselves as one. We should encourage and make sure that no ethnic group dominates our federalism, so we form a nation. “Until we enthrone justice, we will continue with the problem of indigeneship. We need to give equal opportunity to all the constituent units so we can make progress. To think you can bring distinct ethnic nationalities together forcefully by using a centrally dominated federalism will fail,” he said.
Ezekwesili said Nigeria’s failure to transcend from a country put together by Britain to one that has a shared value, vision and sense of common identity based on a social contract was its undoing. According to her, Nigeria missed great opportunities, including after 1967 to 1970 genocide in the Biafran war to transcend to nationhood. “We built on sandy soil. It has been a rent state open to capture by any group that managed to dominate the rest and gain ascendency into leadership. That has made it different from other countries like Singapore that is a multi-ethnic society.
“We have seen that in a search for nationhood, if it happens in a bloody way such as in Rwanda, there must ultimately be a dialogue that leads to nation formation. With Nigeria, that did not happen. Nigeria has produced a deep structural problem for itself. It needs to be deconstructed and reconstructed based on agreed values, vision and common identity,” she declared.
On his submissions, Obi warned that Nigeria will soon go into a second recession within four years. “It is all Nigerians that will suffer it. We have 100 million Nigerians today living in poverty, which is more than China and India combined. It is not peculiar to any tribe. It is across Nigeria. We have 20 million Nigerian youths who are productive, doing nothing. It cuts across all tribes. We have stayed where we are as a consumption economy, instead of being productive,” he declared. According to him, Nigeria owes $90billion today, which makes the country continue to service debts. He advised that Nigeria must look at how it can make the economy productive, create jobs and empower our people. “This will reduce our irresponsible borrowing and wastes. There is no fiscal discipline. We are not the only country with ethnic problems. We have Singapore, Vietnam, Ethiopia and others. We have abandoned what we should do and become our own problem by turning everything into ethnic divisions. We need to stop the system where people go to Abuja to share money. We need political leadership that will care for Nigeria, “he stated.
Suleiman noted that Nigerians are left to wallow in poverty by the political elites, even though they are the ones who vote during elections. She said: “The political class and elites have a common purpose. Using unity schools helped to bring children from all parts of the country together. If you look at people who have done well, they have passed through unity schools. If you have people who are well educated, the quota system will not even exist. If we have educated people, we will have competent hands that will not bother where someone is coming from. We have to innovate and come up with initiatives that will drive this level of progress.” She stated that Nigerians are petty because many people are still suffering, adding that the country must lay more emphasis on education. “We need to move ahead instead of discussing tribes that divide us. Let us commit to quality education. Educating women will help a lot in moving our country forward,” she declared.
Osinbajo assures of government’s commitment to growth
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) had stated that the federal government was committed to saving jobs and creating new ones through the economic sustainability plan. He said that the government has similarly created a survival fund and payroll support for artisans, private school teachers and small businesses. The VP, speaking on the state of the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic, explained that the government’s key worry was how the pandemic would affect jobs.
According to him, the federal government is compiling data, while it already sets the criterion. The session, which the president of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Mr Nduka Obaigbena moderated, had the speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila in attendance. Osinbajo said: “Through the Economic Sustainability Plan, the FG’s focus is to save jobs and create new ones. Similarly, there is a survival fund and payroll support for artisans, private school teachers and small businesses.
“We are compiling the data and we have already set the criteria. There are plans also for other sectors, including the hospitality and aviation sector.” On the economy, Prof. Osinbajo said Nigeria has fared better compared to other economies, although there is severe decline. “Economics like politics is local. Compared to other economies, we have fared better. We, however, recognize that there is a severe decline. The Economic Sustainability Plan is our response to that and we will focus on local industry, local resources and local production.
“For agriculture, we have registered farmers using the Geographical Information System (GIS), tied them to big agricultural businesses, provided some financing and the government will be final off-takers for their produce. This is to ensure that local production goes on,” he explained. As regards Housing, the legal scholar said that 11 state governments have provided land and “these houses are to be built by junior engineers, architects and artisans. We hope to build thousands of 2-bedroom apartments for about N2 million each.” Responding to questions about his political future in 2023, Osinbajo said he is grateful for the opportunity to serve Nigeria and is currently focused on doing just that. “There are issues to be tackled and that has my undivided attention,” he stated. He also advised those who are discontented with certain sections of the newly enacted Company and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) to approach the national assembly for an amendment. “Whatever the proposals for amendment maybe, or the views of the church leadership regarding the question of managing trustees can be brought before the leadership of the national assembly for consideration for amendment of the law. That is the process, which is entirely open, and I believe that should be pursued. We are in a democracy. The national assembly would do what we consider needful in that circumstance,” he said.
The VP in response to a question about the killings in Southern Kaduna said there is a need to address the underlying issues. According to him the government for the first time has created a military base in the area, an air force surveillance squad and combined forces to tackle the mindless killings. Those, he said, are besides several Security Council meetings in which the president had tasked the service chiefs, the governor and stakeholders to come up with a template for peace. He said the government would address punishment for those involved in the circle of callous killings and compensation for families of victims to deter offenders.
Gbajabiamila, in response to what the House is doing amidst COVID-19 pandemic to cushion the effect on citizens, said: “We passed the economic stimulus bill, which spent some time in the Senate but was immediately passed by the House. The bill has a moratorium on mortgages, lifting duties on medical equipment and several others. The passing of the controversial infectious diseases bill was a proactive move by the House, although many people have their views about the section on a vaccine.” According to him, the probe of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is part of the mandate of the House to hold public officers accountable and to fight corruption.
He declared that the state of the nation showed that the country has been stagnant in the last 20 years. “If you pick up a newspaper published 20 years ago, you will see that the issues you read about the power sector are still here today. Talk about corruption and hospitals, you will find that it is the same thing today,” he stressed. He stated that the House would continue to come up with electoral, social and economic reforms. He said the House has a legislative agenda, which has been updated in line with the COVID-19 challenges since the pandemic was not around when it was first launched.
He described the agenda as a contract between the House and Nigerians and urged the public to hold them to account over its contents. He said when the House resumes September 15, the committee for a constitutional amendment would take off, adding that the Police Reform Act is already on its way to Mr. President’s desk for assent.
Obaigbena charged lawyers to ensure that free speech is promoted in the country and that citizens’ rights are always protected. “The NBA should remain a champion of free speech. No matter how uncomfortable you are with anybody’s opinion, you must give everybody free speech,” he said.
Plagued by a plethora of intractable controversies, the outgone General Secretary of the NBA, Jonathan Taidi, few hours to the handover ceremony accused his president, Mr Usoro of attempting to fleece the association N119million, a sign of a divided executive. He also accused him of undermining his office on account of his “personal relationship” with the head of Bar services at the national secretariat, Ayodeji Oni, who he (Taidi) suspended on August 25, 2020, for acts of gross insubordination but was reinstated by the president. According to Taidi, such action by the president was borne out of grievances of not allowing him to have his way with NBA funds.
He said: “Your directive to Ayodeji Oni to resume work today is aimed at undermining my office for refusing to recommend payment to a private company for a contract you awarded to the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company (NSPMC) for the printing of 2019/2020 practice license in the sum of N20 million, which I consider being unlawful. I recall that in September 2019, you sent me an invoice in the sum of N104 million purportedly meant for the purchase of a new elevator for the NBA House. I blocked the attempt to fleece the NBA, and I know you have not forgiven me.” According to Taidi, Usoro paid N15 million to a female staff of the Supreme Court for services not rendered to the NBA, which he (Taidi) refused to recommend, in addition to other infractions.
But Usoro, who said he was taken aback by those allegations, expressed shock that his secretary could harbour what he described as deep-seated animosity against him. “I couldn’t have known you carry so much bile and harbour so much hatred against me all these while,” he said. He maintained that he has no relationship with the lady and did not embark on any attempt to fleece the Bar. He said: “You should have told me and also let me know what makes the contract unlawful. As you know, NSPMC in its letter recommended the third party Company that you are referring to and for your information, I neither know the Company or any person connected therewith, nor do I know anybody whomsoever in NSPMC.
“That invoice was from Otis Lifts and I was in talks with them, to your knowledge, when we considered the option of replacing the single lift that was working epileptically. For your information, I discussed the planned purchase with the Chairman of the Company and our respected professional colleague, Gbenga Oyebode, and he facilitated some discount for us. That plan was abandoned when former President Augustine Alegeh (SAN) reached me (and I was copying all past Presidents with my correspondence and that’s how he knew) and informed me that the contractor confirmed that the three lifts in the building were in place and the power source was all that needed to be fixed for them to work. There was nothing to forgive here because there was no attempt at fleecing the NBA by me or anyone else.”
He stated that the exact amount for the payment to the Supreme Court staff was N10m for the compilation of the Roll for the NBA website. His words: “Actually, it was a payment for N10m (not N15m) for the compilation of the Roll for the NBA website. Yes, you spoke with me about that payment and so did the National Treasurer who sent me a private mail on it and I dropped the payment with no fuss.” Usoro said he responded to those allegations to facilitate the smooth transition of the “current administration.”
Vibrant NBA sections
As it is customary, vibrant sections of the NBA had their meetings. They are Section on Legal Practice (SLP), NBA Women Forum, Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) and the Section on business law (NBA-BL). Mr Ayuli Jemide took over from Mr Seni Adio (SAN). In his acceptance speech, he said chairing the SBL would be a significant task, which he would not take for, granted.
“I, therefore, approach this responsibility with a tinge of expectancy–hoping I can add my quota by leading a team of passionate people to nurture SBL into the future with readiness for the challenges ahead. In the next few days working with the nominations Committee, we would announce the full composition of Council to include the nominated and co-opted members. I give full assurances that Council composition will be inclusive and cater for all demographics, particularly people who represent yesterday, today and tomorrow. I have no doubts that our major immediate tasks would include strengthening the institutional and governance structure of the SBL and building systems for SBL to increase its menu and value proposition to paying members and constituents,” he declared.
Finally, the baton exchanged
All the controversies notwithstanding, Akpata was last Friday sworn in as the 30th President of the NBA. Akpata, who is the first non-SAN to emerge president of the association in the last 30 years, pledged to run an inclusive Bar. The swearing-in ceremony was held at the NBA building in Abuja and was the climax of the 60th Annual General Meeting of the Association, to announce the end of the conference. He was sworn in by his predecessor, Usoro. After the motion for the dissolution of the Usoro-led NEC was moved and approved, Akpata was sworn in. And thereafter, he performed his first assignment of swearing in other members of his cabinet. Acknowledging the role of young lawyers, he pledged to work hard towards justifying the confidence reposed in him and his executive.
“The bar 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 start a new journey together today,” he said.
According to him, the enormous task cannot be achieved if they continue to fan the embers of division when they 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,” he said and promised to bridge the gap between the seniors and younger lawyers. He also promised many reforms, including the body’s electoral process, which he said, ought to be the standard for others to follow, and to establish an efficient data management system for NBA, as lack of a database of voters is a threat to a credible election.
Apata promised a special Lawyers’ Defend Fund, regular capacity building programmes for members, enhanced welfare package, and reconstitution of Continued Legal Education, adding that it is not enough to hit the ground running, “we have to hit the ground flying.”
He immediately announced the constitution of an Electoral Audit and Reforms Committee, comprising distinguished practitioners to audit its 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections and recommend reforms for electoral systems and processes. Ayo Akintunde (SAN) would chair the committee. On NBA Stamp and Seal, Akpata pledged to issue two packs of 48 stamps for free to all verified legal practitioners who pay their Bar Practising Fees not later than 31 March 2021 among other lofty promises.
Whether the ebullience with which the new leadership started would translate to enduring reforms, cheery legacies and a united and vibrant Bar remains to be seen. For now, all fingers are crossed and Akpata, in his shoulders, lays the burden of Nigerian lawyers.
Culled: The Guardian