ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION (“NBA”), PAUL USORO, SAN DELIVERED AT THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION (“NBA”) 2020 QUARTER 3 AND PRE-ANNUAL GENERAL CONFERENCE (“AGC”) NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE (“NEC”) MEETING HOLDEN VIRTUALLY ON 20 AUGUST 2020
Colleagues Introduction It gives me great pleasure to welcome all of you to this 2020 Quarter 3 and Pre-AGC NEC meeting of our great Association. We thank the Almighty for today and for life. This NEC meeting is significant in many respects. To start with, this is our first NEC meeting after the advent of full-blown coronavirus pandemic (“COVID-19” or “Pandemic”) in Nigeria which prompted a consequential national lockdown. On 12 March 2020 when we had our last NEC meeting, we were experiencing the onset of the Pandemic but soon thereafter, Nigeria went through a community spread of the dreaded disease from which we are yet to recover.
As a result of the Pandemic and the attendant national lockdown, we could not hold our 2020 Quarter 2 NEC meeting. This NEC meeting is therefore scheduled to consider not just Quarter 3 issues but also accrued issues from Quarter 2. This explains the scheduling of this Pre-AGC NEC meeting literally one week before our scheduled AGC that would hold on 26-29 August 2020 – as against the tradition of holding the meeting on the eve of the AGC commencement. It was deliberately so scheduled to afford us time to consider all the pending issues in a calm and deliberate manner.
The second reason that this NEC meeting is unique is that this is our first-ever virtual NEC meeting, no thanks to the dreaded COVID-19. In one sense, I can say that this is a welcome development because it affirms our transmutation, as an Association into the technology age where meetings can be held despite our being in disparate location and places. In these days that social distancing has not only joined our lexicon but is now the norm, it is gratifying and heart-warming that we could still hold our meetings, whether NEC or Committee meeting, without regard to the physical distance between our members. From that perspective, our NEC meeting today signifies our triumph over COVID-19.
However, from a different perspective, most, if not all of us, miss the physical and social bonding and camaraderie that traditionally accompanies our NEC meetings especially in the last two years when we have made it a practice to hold our meetings in our newly completed National Secretariat in Abuja. Most of our NEC members, particularly our Chairmen, had enquired of me the possibility of holding a physical NEC meeting at the NBA House in Abuja, albeit, for a limited number of members e.g. the Chairmen of all the Branches. That would have afforded our newly elected Branch Chairmen and Secretaries the opportunity to introduce themselves, physically interact, build friendships and know each other. Sadly, that is not possible given the mandatory limitation on physical meetings and the number of persons who could attend such meetings.
I particularly feel deprived of our usual physical and social bonding during our NEC meetings given the fact that this would be the last NEC meeting that I would be privileged to preside as your NBA President. My tenure as we are all aware comes to an end at the end of this month with the swearing-in of the incoming administration on 29 August 2020. I would have loved that we had this last meeting physically together and enjoy each other’s company and banters either in our brand-new Secretariat or in Port Harcourt where we had planned to host our AGC. Alas, that could not happen, given the pervading COVID-19 pandemic.
We must however thank God for His mercies and for life, for, as the graffiti on the back of our lorries reads, “many have gone”. During this interregnum, a number of our colleagues, both on the Bench and in the Bar have passed on. These include such eminent personages like Honorable (Dr.) Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte CFR, CON, retired Justice of the Supreme Court and mentor and role model to a number of us, Chief M A Ajomale, past Chairman of the Body of Benchers and Life Bencher, urbane gentleman and active and consistent Barman, Alhaji AGF Abdulrazak, SAN another past Chairman of the Body of Benchers and Life Bencher and one of the first, if not the first Senior Advocate of Nigeria from Northern Nigeria, my classmate, friend and renowned jurist, Honorable Justice Nonyerem Okoronkwo, JCA who will be committed to mother earth next weekend, Alhaji Inuwa Abdulkadir, Life Bencher and another active and committed Barman, Honorable Justice Nasiru Ajanah, the Chief Judge of Kogi State and past Chairman of Okene Branch, Honorable Justice Jude Okeke, Judge of the Federal Capital Territory Judiciary and past Chairman of Abuja Branch.
There are sadly many more of our colleagues who passed on at this time. Not all were COVID-related passages; some passed on from old age and other ailments and we thank God for their lives. Others were cut down, some in their prime, by the devastating COVID-19. As at date, Nigeria has recorded 985 deaths from this dreaded Pandemic. We pray for the peaceful repose of all lives lost whether from COVID-19 or any other ailment or circumstance. In regard to our colleagues in particular, we must remember them fondly and pay them deserved tribute by continually refining and conducting our lives, our profession and our Association in a manner that not only honors their memories but also brings deserved adoration and respect to all of us.
These quarterly NEC meetings traditionally afford us the opportunity to review our scorecard and strategize for the future. Today’s meeting would not be any different and we would carry out that exercise through the various reports that shall be presented hereat. However, even before delving into the reports, permit me, in the succeeding paragraphs of this Address, to highlight briefly some of our milestone achievements and activities since our last meeting on 12 March 2020.
One of my proudest achievements this year has been the completion of the construction work at our National Secretariat in Abuja. During our last meeting, I informed members of the active resumption of the construction work and committed that we would be handing over a completed Secretariat building to the incoming administration. Even though COVID-19 slowed us down, I am pleased to inform our members that we have kept to that commitment. We would very shortly watch video clips of the completed building. Ahead of that video, however, I would in this Address highlight a few of the salient completed features. We now have a ramp that would facilitate entry into the Secretariat by our physically challenged colleagues. That was not provided for in the initial design of the Secretariat; we saw the need for it and worked it into the construction completion plan.
We inherited one epileptically functioning lift that routinely trapped persons including some of our members during NEC meetings. It was always with anxiety that our members joined that lift. Now we have 3 (three) functional and efficient lifts with no record of anyone being trapped in recent months. The basement of our building that was always water-logged has now been converted into a beautiful, welldesigned and fully functional car park that can accommodate up to 50 vehicles. Construction work has been completed on all the floors of the building and we now have 5 (five) lettable floors that should earn the Association income.
The only significant outstanding work is the construction of a motorable access into the building. As I reported in the last NEC meeting, the city plan envisages the construction of an access road through an adjoining ravine, to the left of the building, facing the building from Muhammadu Buhari Way. That access road appears not to be in the immediate contemplation of the government. We have however approached the Abuja Municipal Council Area authorities for approval to construct a motorable access into the building from Muhammadu Buhari Way. Early indications suggest that our application would be favorably considered.
Some neighboring properties have secured similar approvals for themselves and constructed access into their property. We are hopeful that our application would be similarly granted. The envisaged access would lead directly to the Secretariat’s basement car park and would greatly enhance the value of the property, inter alia, for letting purposes. We are assured by our contractors that construction of the access would be completed within one month from the grant of approval by the Abuja Municipal Area Council and we are assiduously pursuing that process. Another project that we are starting is the partitioning of a space for e-library that would be used by lawyers visiting the Secretariat.
COVID-Related Relief Measures
The COVID-induced national lockdown has occasioned very severe economic reversals for Nigerians generally. In the wake of the pandemic and to reduce the spread of the disease, courts were shut down nationwide and that meant that, our colleagues who depend entirely on court practice for their earnings and livelihood were very adversely impacted thereby. Transaction lawyers and Solicitors were no less affected as there was a general slow-down in transactions and business activities generally. Some organizations including law firms had to reduce their workforces and, in some cases, compensation packages. The most vulnerable and the most impacted in our profession were our young lawyers some of whom lost their jobs or had their compensation packages slashed. To ameliorate their circumstances, we came up with two relief schemes for them.
First, we worked with LawPavilion to provide all young lawyers who had paid their 2020 Bar Practicing Fees as at 31 March 2020 one-year subscription of the LawPavilion bouquet of offerings. As we are all aware, the LawPavilion bouquet includes law reports, statutory enactments and all the Rules of Courts of the various courts of record in Nigeria, both Federal and States. In general terms, this is an invaluable resource for any and all lawyers. For a focused and ambitious young lawyer, in particular, the LawPavilion subscription should be and is a priceless resource, a significant empowerment tool and an assured route to self-development and professional realization. We do hope that it has and will continue to serve that purpose for all the beneficiaries of that scheme.
We also believed that a cash relief would be most helpful to our vulnerable young lawyers and, to this end, we constituted a Welfare Committee led by our most hard working and reliable member, Dr. Olawale Babalakin, SAN OFR. Dr. Babalakin lived up to his reputation; with his team, made up mostly of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, he worked our senior members and raised almost N100m. I truly cannot thank our Welfare Committee members and our senior colleague-donors enough for their generosity, self-sacrifice and support for this scheme.
The Welfare Committee recommended, and we accepted to distribute the relief funds to all young lawyers of 1-4 years Post-Call who had paid their 2020 Bar Practicing Fees as at 31 March 2020 at the rate of N10,000.00 to each beneficiary. Just last night, the bank accounts of the second set of 1,502 beneficiaries were credited with their share of the relief funds bringing the total number of beneficiaries so far to 7,341 young lawyers (i.e. with the addition of the first batch of 5,839 beneficiaries). The expressed gratitude from most of the beneficiaries makes the effort worth the while. The bank accounts of the outstanding beneficiaries would all be credited between today and next week and the full account of the disbursements will, as usual, be published for our members’ information and records. By the way, we have already published the full names of donors, including the NBA.
In talking about the COVID-related relief measures, I must pay tribute to our various branches and, for the second time, our senior members. Most branches organized relief materials and programs for our members and our senior colleagues made very generous contributions to these efforts. Some of these senior colleagues contributed both to the Branches’ efforts and the National Welfare Committee COVID-19 Relief fund. This show of love, amongst others, is the reason we have always sued for respect and acknowledgement for our senior colleagues. They play critical and invaluable roles in our lives and practice and we owe them a collective debt of gratitude. On our part and to assist the Branches the best we could, we promptly paid the traditional 10% of the 2020 Bar Practicing Fees to the Branches in April 2020. I am told that, the 10% payment, in the years that it had been made, has never been made that promptly from the National Secretariat. The expressed gratitude from our Branch Chairmen made the exercise most fulfilling for us.
Still on welfare issues, albeit, not necessarily COVID-related, we have ensured that our life insurance scheme continues to work for our members. In our last meeting, I had erroneously indicated that we had facilitated the payment of death benefits to surviving beneficiaries of 15 of our deceased colleagues, counting from the resumption of the scheme in September 2020 to 12 March 2020 when that meeting was held. The correct number actually was 18 deceased members’ families and not 15. Returning to the present, between our last meeting and today, we have facilitated the payment of death benefits to 14 additional surviving beneficiaries of our deceased colleagues, bringing the total number of settled death benefits to 32. We owe a debt of gratitude to our most reliable insurance partner, Leadway Assurance Company Limited and we feel gratified that we resumed the scheme during this administration. As at date, we are processing additional payments and it is our hope and expectation that, in our Annual General Meeting report, we would report a higher number of death benefit payments. To be sure, these death benefits do not make up for the loss of our loved ones. However, it is always more devastating when the lost loved one is also the breadwinner of the family, nuclear and/or extended, or a contributor to the financial well-being of the family and other dependents. More often than not, life loses its meaning for the surviving members of the family in those circumstances and the future seems so very bleak. It is our hope that the payment of the death benefit of N1,000,000.00 to the beneficiaries of each of these our deceased members would help or has helped in cushioning the pains of the loss and restoring some hope to them.
Rule of Law – Virtual Court Hearing Practice Direction
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA played very prominent and significant roles in relation to the administration of justice. Following the news of the community spread of the disease in Nigeria, we contemplated the vulnerability of our judicial officers and attendees of courts generally and met with the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honorable (Dr) Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR to share our concerns and discuss the need for the shutdown of courts nationwide in order to stem the probability of our courts serving as vectors of the disease, with debilitating consequences mostly for our judicial officers and staff. We remain grateful that His Lordship, the CJN, took immediate action thereon and obviously saved lives thereby. However, the prolonged closure of our courts also had a most destructive economic effect on our members and stakeholders in the justice sector generally. With the indefinite shutdown of our courts, the rule of law appeared to lie prostrate and almost lifeless. To remedy the situation, the Bar pushed the idea of virtual court proceedings into national consciousness and our representatives at the National Judicial Council (“NJC”) prepared and presented a Paper thereon to the Council which prompted the establishment of the Ad-Hoc Committee on COVID-19 as it relates to justice administration. The NJC Committee was headed by Honorable (Mr.) Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivor, CFR and had 3 (three) of our representatives as members – Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN OON, Damian D Dodo, SAN OFR and my humble self. I am pleased to inform our members that our representatives on the Committee did us proud; they played pivotal roles in the drafting and final publication of both the Committee’s Final Report and the Virtual Court Hearing Guidelines that was published by the CJN as the NJC Chairman.
Those Guidelines have been adapted and implemented by our various courts, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps, the 3 (three) greatest inhibiting factors to fullblown implementation of virtual proceedings in our courts are (a) skill and knowledge gap in relation to technology amongst our members and the judicial officers and staff; (b) technologically ill-equipped courtrooms; and (c) funding. These are however not insurmountable challenges; the pathways to resolution were mapped out and recommended by the NJC Committee in its final report and we look forward to implementation of those and related recommendations. However, the burden of pushing for those implementations and reforms still rest on the Bar given that we have a bounden duty to fight for the judiciary and the Rule of Law. Indeed, virtual court proceedings should be the precursor of a full-scale technological revamp of our justice administration and processes. The benefits of such a revamp are unquantifiable, and they go well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. It is my hope that the succeeding administration will continue the relay race in that regard.
2020 NBA National Officers’ Elections
I must finally talk about our 2020 NBA National Officers’ Elections that were conducted on 29 and 30 July 2020. Whatever one may say about those elections, one thing that cannot be taken away from it is that, that was the first ever of our National Elections where everyone was turned into election monitors as well as electoral and returning officers, all rolled into one, from the comfort of our homes, using our various devices and tracking the ballot, right from the first vote up to the last. For most of our members and based on the comments I have received, this was an exhilarating experience in transparency. And it was fun. The transparency was unparalleled, and we are expecting that subsequent Bar elections will build on that quality of transparency.
This would be my last Address to NEC as President of the Nigerian Bar Association. It has been a great privilege and an honor to serve you in that capacity. I must in particular thank all the NEC members for the tremendous support that I have enjoyed from all of you this past two years. Without your stout support, I would not have served out my term, particularly with the attempted and failed coup by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (“EFCC”) under Ibrahim Magu at the inception of this administration, notably during our first NEC meeting. That coup attempt which was solely intended to take me out as the NBA President, and the sustained persecution before and after the failed putsch, was of course hatched and executed with the active connivance, support and urgings of some of our members. The good news is, you all stood by me and foiled that coup because you knew me and did not believe the malicious lies and falsehoods that were told about me both by the EFCC and some of our conniving colleagues. You believed in me, trusted me and encouraged me. In those dark days, one of my very good friends and a member of this body, sent a message to me and said “don’t ever ever contemplate any weakness at all don’t bow never ever. Who born dem?”. By the way, pardon his language; he is a Warri-boy and he knows himself. Mena, you are special and you may not know how much I appreciated (and still appreciate) your message and support. Thank you ever so much. God bless and keep you. Most of you sent similar messages of support and solidarity to me and these kept me strong, these kept me going and, together, we have achieved so much, notwithstanding those distractions. I remain eternally grateful to all of you and pray continually for God’s blessings, rewards and sustenance for you.
In point of fact, your support went beyond foiling the antics and attempted putsch of the Ibrahim Magu-led EFCC. You gave me your support in all the projects and reforms that we undertook in this administration. One of our lasting reforms has been in the governance structure for the Association. Like clockwork, we have published the NBA’s Quarterly accounts, every quarter, since the beginning of this administration, without fail. We have received resounding commendation from all of you for this. At this meeting, we will present for approval the Quarters 1 and 2 Accounts as well as the updated 2019 Annual General Conference Accounts, amongst others. We have also instituted workforce reforms in the National Secretariat which are on-going and would be continued by the succeeding administration. These reforms constitute the foundation for the institutionalization of our Association on which platform succeeding administrations will be able to function and focus on upbuilding and specific projects for the benefit of our members, profession and society at large.
I definitely cannot cover the field today in identifying and expressing gratitude to everyone who made my job easy as the President of the NBA and Chairman of NEC but I must close out by isolating and mentioning four classes of persons in this Address i.e. Past NBA Presidents and NBA Trustees, my fellow National Officers, Chairmen of NBA Branches and Mfon, my soulmate. I have enjoyed a very special relationship with all past NBA Presidents and NBA Trustees, a number of whom have, at different times attended our NEC meetings. I communicate with them regularly and update them constantly on our activities. They constitute my advisory council and a strong support base for me, and I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart. May God bless and continue to keep you for all of us.
My fellow National Officers have been most gracious and kind to me in these two years. This is perhaps one of the few NBA administrations that has not experienced any serious blow out or revolt amongst its national officers. A few minor skirmishes, yes, we have had those and those are not unusual in any family, even of two but there was no incident that commanded sustained national attention and/or concern amongst our members. Regardless, not once did I press on any of my colleagues on an assignment and they were not ready to oblige even when I was infamously stingy with expense approvals. Literally all of us were willing to sacrifice and make a success of this administration right from day one when we were sworn in and promptly discovered that we not only inherited an empty till but had huge financial liabilities to contend with. The Association indeed owes all my colleagues a debt of gratitude for all the sacrifices they have individually and collectively made in serving the Association. I personally owe them my debt of gratitude for the support I have enjoyed from them and for making our tenure a resounding success. I have always had a very special relationship with my Branch Chairmen. We have a dedicated and exclusive platform on which we communicate, and I was quite active on that platform until recently when the demands of office became all-consuming and made my appearance thereat rather epileptic. Even then, I was only physically absent but emotionally still present at the platform. More importantly, I have started remedying and will do even more to remedy my absence in the days leading up to the completion of my tenure and beyond. What can I really say about my Branch Chairmen? They were and are God’s special gift to me. They constitute my bastion of support. Just think of it, if 125 of them had sided with the Ibrahim Magu’s EFCC in the failed and malicious coup attempt that I referenced earlier, I would not be here today. You trusted and believed in me. You did not believe in the lies about me.
You staked your names with me. I thank God for all of you, past and present Chairmen of our Branches. The relationship that we forged is not and cannot be transient. It will survive my tenure as the NBA President. Please, feel free to reach me at any time. I know you would continue to be there for me and I would also always be there for you and with you.
Finally, let me talk about Mfon, my soulmate and life partner. In my inaugural address, I had openly confessed that you complete me. In truth, I cannot tell your story today because we have a meeting to conduct and conclude. But I will, someday, God sparing our lives. Suffice for me to say that you have been my rock. In those moments when I was buffeted with all sorts of anxieties, doubts and fears and I could not share them with any other, you were there, with words of encouragement, advice and suggestions and also giving comfort. You fought some of my battles – real and imagined – on my behalf, without my prompting and, in instances, without my knowledge, some, at personal cost and danger to yourself. I could not have wished for a better partner and soulmate. My prayer is that God should continue to bless and keep you for me.
Some members have openly expressed concerns as to whether I would continue to be active and present in future NEC meetings after my tenure as NBA President. I thank all of you who have expressed and/or harbored those thoughts and concerns because they exemplify, in my humble opinion, how highly you think of me and my modest efforts in managing the affairs of our great Association. I wish to assure all of you and everyone else that I will continue to be a permanent fixture in our NEC meetings for as long as God spares my life. We owe a lot to our profession and I consider it my bounden duty to serve the Association in any capacity that I may be required to. Indeed, I look forward to our physical NEC meetings camaraderie and bonding post-COVID, whenever it may please God for that to be. Once again, thank you, my distinguished colleagues and NEC members for all you have done for me and with me and thank you for listening.
Long Live the Nigerian Bar Association.
Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Paul Usoro, SAN