REFLECTIONS ON THE NBA ELECTIONS OF 2016. 2018 AND 2020 RESPECTIVELY: IMPERATIVES OF THE AUDIT AND REFORMS OF THE ELECTORAL PROCESS PROMISED BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NBA
By Adebola O. Lema ESQ
Last week I published an article titled: ‘Hon. Isaac Kekemeke’s outburst and the dearth of political campaigns in Nigeria: My intervention’. I had also completed another article by Thursday last week on ‘Internal democracy in political parties in Nigeria: A critical assessment’. However, due to the swearing-in of the 30th President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olumide Anthony Akpata on Friday, the 28th of August, 2020 and issues arising from his inaugural speech I was compelled to halt the publication of the article and opted for “Reflections on the NBA elections of 2016, 2018 and 2020 respectively: Imperatives of the audit and reforms of the electoral process promised by the President of the NBA”
In retrospect, prior to 2015 the NBA operated the 2009 Constitution which was adopted in Lagos in the same year after a successful Annual General Conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) held at Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos State. Recall that it was at this AGM that the late Pa Tunji Fortunatus Gomez (who died in July, 2018, a few months after his 90th birthday celebration) moved a motion calling for the abolition of the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria. He later formed the ‘Movement for the Abolition of the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria’ (MARSAN). The said Constitution only permitted nominated delegates from each of the branches of the NBA to vote during our biennial Election to elect the National Officers to run the affairs of the Association for two years.
In 2014, the NBA delegates elected Austin Alegeh, SAN as its 27th President in accordance with the 2009 NBA Constitution and one of the key items in his manifesto was ‘universal adult suffrage’ where all lawyers in Nigeria will be able to vote provided he or she has paid his or her practising fee on or before the 31st of March of the year of election. As proposed, Austin Alegeh, SAN pursued vigorously the constitutional amendment and it was a successful endeavor. The subsequent outcome of the constitutional amendment and voting birthed the NBA Constitution 2015 (as amended in 2019). The said Constitution introduced the following innovations; a) Uniform Bye Laws for Constituent Branches of the NBA; b) Online Voting; c) Universal Adult Suffrage; d) Term Limitation; e) Reduction of the years of call for positions in the NBA; and f) Introduction of Welfare Secretary and Provost at the Branch level etc.
As much as the NBA Constitution 2015 (as amended 2019) introduced many forward-looking innovations, the online voting has posed a recurring challenge every election year from 2016, 2018 and now 2020. In 2016, the contest for the Presidency was between Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN and Chief Joe Kyari Gadzama, SAN. The Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA) returned Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN as duly elected President of the NBA and he was sworn in as its 28th President in Port Harcourt, Rivers State with pomp and pageantry. Even as Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN was savouring his victory, Chief J. K. Gadzama, SAN disputed the result. He thereafter followed his disputations of the result of the election with an action which he filed at the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The matter was however struck out after the expiration of the disputed tenure of Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud SAN. It had become an academic exercise as a new President in Paul Usoro SAN had then been elected and sworn in.
Just as Chief J. K. Gadzama, SAN was vociferous about his allegations of manipulation of the electoral process, so were his followers who did not miss any opportunity to remind whoever cared to listen that the election was manipulated by the powers-that-be at the time. The extent of the manipulation was also pleaded in the processes that were filed in Court. However, the details of the manipulation were not vividly brought to the attention of members of the NBA, therefore many (including the writer) felt the allegations were not strong enough to overshadow the support the winner, Mr. Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN had and therefore wave off the allegation as unsubstantiated. So when the matter was struck out by the Court we thought that was the end of allegations of manipulations in the elections of our National Officers. We were however proved wrong in 2018 when the late Olumuyiwa O. Olowokure, Esq (may God rest his soul) released a damaging report of how the 2018 NBA election was officially manipulated by persons entrusted with the data (email addresses and telephone numbers) of members of the NBA.
Let me digress a little. The 2016 election was the most-friendly election thus far in the annals of online voting in the NBA. Apart from being the most-friendly in terms of actual casting of votes, it was also seamless during the verification exercise and data update. The NBA/ECNBA technical partner was LawPavilion as I was made to understand and the Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN’s administration would have engaged them again in 2018 but for the fact that the 2016 post election suit instituted by Chief J.K Gadzama was still in Court and the President felt that it would be wrong for the NBA to continue with the technical partner. What a grave error of judgement! LawPavilion needed not reinvent the wheel as it had been working with the NBA for a long time and therefore knew what the job of conducting online election entailed. Compared to the 2018 election which was problematic from the very beginning with a very cumbersome verification exercise coupled with the lack of trust in the service provider (Chams Plc) owing to the allegations of conflict of interest, the exercise conducted by LawPavilion two years earlier was an exemplary exercise.
This lack of trust and conflict of interest in the service provider made the then NBA President to assure all stakeholders that there will be three stages of the election processes; a) Verification exercise, b) Voting exercise and c) Post Audit exercise. Sequel to the breakdown of the exercise into three stages, the NBA also introduced another entity (Crenet Limited) to carry out the verification exercise and allowed the initial service provider to conduct the voting exercise only. It was this assurance by the President that candidates relied on and then declared their confidence in the process only to be badly let down by the administration of Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN. Alas, the 3rd stage was never done and if done the report was never made public till date.
As mentioned earlier, the election from day one had many challenges and many believed it was an attempt to disenfranchise many members of the NBA. But as a committed member I soldiered on believing that an imperfect system can be made perfect with sincerity of purpose. Within a few minutes into the election complaints by members started coming in from across the country which bordered on email addresses and telephone numbers harvesting through changes in the legitimate email addresses and telephone numbers that was sent from the branches to the National Secretariat of the NBA. Throughout the election (24 hours period) I was at the situation room in Lagos and several complaints were brought to my attention. However I will share only five (5) of the grievous complaints.
A dear and close friend of the NBA Lagos Branch alleged that his email address and telephone numbers were compromised hence there was no way he could receive his voting link and did not receive any link during the period of the election. Secondly, an elderly friend of mine telephoned from NBA Okitipupa Branch. He intimated me of the fact that he requested for his link and the response he got was that he had requested for his link earlier and if he had not received the link he should wait. When he requested for his link the second time he got a response that he had voted. He did not vote during the election but his data (telephone numbers and email address) were compromised. We became aware of the extent of the compromise when late Olumuyiwa Olatokunbo Olowokure Esq released his interim report indicating that 1004/1005 members email addresses were compromised with domain of airmail.cc, firemail.cc and openmailbox.org email address on a branch by branch basis. And behold the report contained my Okitipupa friend’s email address which was compromised from firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com while my Lagos friend’s email was changed from firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com. The then Secretary and later Chairman of NBA Okitipupa Branch had his email address changed to firstname.lastname@example.org; Another senior member and learned silk of the NBA Okitipupa Branch had his email changed to email@example.com and another colleague of NBA Okitipupa Branch had his email changed to firstname.lastname@example.org
For a proper understanding of the process of collation of the names of the eligible voters in the NBA let me give a proper background facts. The names, Supreme Court Numbers (SCN), telephone numbers and email addresses of members of the NBA from the respective branches were sent to the National Secretariat of our dear association in trust by the Chairmen and Secretaries respectively. The National Secretariat staffers in the Department of Bar Services in turn communicated the “names, SCN, telephone numbers and email addresses” of members of the NBA to the ECNBA. If there are any interference with the details, to wit, names, SCN, telephone numbers and email addresses, the NBA and staffers in the Department of Bar Services ought to be held responsible.
Who is late Olumuyiwa Olatokunbo Olowokure Esq? Olumuyiwa Olatokunbo Olowokure popularly known as ‘OO’ in NBA circles was born in the United Kingdom to a Professor father (who later worked at the University of Maiduguri, Borno State and retired as a Professor of Accountancy). He hails from Ijebu-Ijesa, Osun State. OO had his early education in the United Kingdom. He loved Tottenham Hotspur (a Premiership Football Team) till death as a result of his early days in the United Kingdom and interest in sports. He was called to the Bar in 1986. He was a committed member of the NBA Kaduna Branch in his life time and was a former Chairman of the Branch. He was the head of the Technical team of the Arthur Obi Okafor, SAN campaign during the 2018 election and he committed his all even in the face of a life-threatening ailment. OO is no more but his resourcefulness was such that he caused thorough investigation into what went amiss at the election and came out with a succinct and demonstrable report of what happened to the email addresses and how it happened branch by branch. Please hear him “Dear Colleagues, RE: NBA ELECTIONS I understand a directive to appoint a post election auditor (KPMG) had been issued by the immediate Past President of the NBA (before he left office) in respect of the just concluded NBA elections. Whether he is the appropriate authority to make such an appointment is a conversation for another day. We do not know what criteria was used to select KPMG so as to ensure its impartiality and indeed what the auditor’s terms of reference are. But whatever the case I expect any post election audit to explain to the 1005 members in the attached list, how and why their email addresses were changed to the strange airmail.cc, firemail.cc and openmailbox.org domains just before the elections commenced without their consent and why nothing was done to rectify the situation before the conclusion of the election and announcement of results. I also expect any post election audit to disclose who changed these email addresses and in whose favour the access to vote delivered to these fake email addresses was exercised. Additionally, I expect recommendations on how to prevent such a debacle ever happening in the history of the NBA again. Similar instances of indiscriminate, unauthorized telephone number changes and regular domain email address changes also occurred. I expect elders, branch chairmen and members to demand answers. This is no longer about any particular candidate it is about the very future and existence of NBA we demand answers. I have for ease of reference listed the members affected by the airmail.cc, firemail.cc and openmailbox.org email address substitution debacle on a branch by branch basis. The attached list shows the names and branches of members affected on a branch by branch basis and includes the following; Abuja 163, Afikpo 34, Ahoada 14, Bori 34, Effurun 21, Ibadan 11, Ijebu Ode 29, Ikare Akoko 21, Isala Ngwa 11, Isiokpo 11, Lafia 17, Lagos 51, Oji River 21, Okitipupa 31, Okrika 19, Omoku 23, Osogbo 11, Port Harcourt 32, Ugheli 92, Ungogo 124. Full details can be gleaned from studying the attached list. Note that all figures, names and details are extracted from documents issued by ECNBA, I stand to be corrected on this assertion by those that have scornfully suggested that details produced by me have been fabricated or are a product of hacking the system. Facts are sacred this debacle will not and cannot be swept under the carpet it must be dealt with full on or posterity will never forgive us. O.O.Olowokure Esq, 1st September 2018”
The allegations made by O. O. Olowokure Esq subsequently formed part of the petition submitted to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) being the body responsible for the prosecution of persons charged under the Cyber Crimes Act and after a thorough investigation, the EFCC has filed charges against two staffs of the NBA at the Federal High Court. The charges contained the names of some members of the NBA whose details were compromised and their names were amongst the 1004/1005 names published in the email of 1st of September, 2018 by OO. It is now two years and nothing has been heard from the NBA leadership. Is the NBA saying the information supplied by O.O. Olowokure Esq were forged?; Is the NBA saying the information supplied by O.O. Olowokure Esq were not genuine and therefore irrelevant? Is the NBA saying the charges by the EFCC are baseless and frivolous? What has the NBA done on the allegation by O.O. Olowokure Esq that the voting details of 1004/5 members were corrupted during the 2018 NBA elections? These questions were never answered before we embarked on the 2020 election.
The result of the NBA 2020 elections have been released and winners have emerged but there were concerns from many stakeholders even before the elections and these concerns were not attended to substantially by the ECNBA even as it went ahead with the elections. Firstly, the ECNBA did not have any interaction with the candidates until Monday, the 27th of July, 2020, two days before the election. This is way below our expectations and against the rule of transparency and integrity which are sine qua non for elections world-over. Secondly, how do we justify the failure of delivery of over 14,000 notices. President of the NBA, Olumide A. Akpata captured his reservations on the election as follows “The above notwithstanding, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that there were several glitches in the build up to the Election”
Reading the inaugural speech of the President of the NBA and particularly on his interest on electoral reforms, thus; “Additionally, I am immediately constituting an Electoral Audit and Reforms Committee, comprising distinguished practitioners of the highest standards to audit our 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections and recommend reforms for our electoral systems and processes. The Committee is made up of the following lawyers each of whom I have already spoken to. I pledge to implement whatever recommendations they come up with well ahead of time to ensure that the 2022 election is devoid of those glitches that we noticed in the 2020 election and that we truly set a standard that others will aspire to”, I am elated that his administration is interested in electoral reforms in the NBA and has gone ahead to name one of our best in the conduct of election in the NBA as Head of the Electoral Audit and Reform Committee in the person of Mr. Ayodele Richard Akintunde, SAN. I am also impressed with the fact that the Committee will be auditing the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections and recommending reforms of our electoral processes. We can only hope that with the caliber of persons nominated into the Committee and the seeming resolve of the President to reform the electoral process that the NBA will finally exorcise this divisive election ghost in the NBA and set us on the part to redemption.
Ending this, let us recall the final words of late OO; “Facts are sacred this debacle will not and cannot be swept under the carpet it must be dealt with full on or posterity will never forgive us”. I am of the firm view that it is in the interest of the NBA to listen to all stakeholders and resolve the genuine concerns and allegations of rigging in the NBA Elections of 2016, 2018 and 2020 respectively. Our elections have been dubbed biennial and perennial fraud. Doing this will calm frayed nerves; correct past misdeeds; reassure those who have lost interest in the NBA and lastly avail us the opportunity of redeeming our natural leading role as the watchdog of society/defender of our colleagues and the masses of Nigeria who hold us in high esteem.
I pray the President follow his words with action by carrying out the recommendation of the Electoral Audit and Reform Committee if and when they are made.
ADEBOLA O. LEMA ESQ is the Managing Partner of Fountain Court Partners, a Lagos Law Firm. email@example.com