‘NBA is Firing Again On All Cylinders’

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The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is unarguably the largest professional body in Africa, with over 200,000 members spread across 125 Branches. The daunting of task of administering such a large number of learned persons, comes with huge challenges. Olumide Akpata assumed office as NBA President in August 2020, and hit the ground running. Apart from pulling off a successful Annual General Conference of the Association in Port Harcourt, Rivers State recently, his administration has tried to rise to most occasions and play the role that is expected of a Bar Association, which many Lawyers had complained that the NBA had not been doing in recent years. Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi discussed several issues with the NBA President, including an account of his stewardship so far, concerns about Association and its members, judicial reform and the welfare of judicial officers, the #EndSARS Report and White Paper, and plans for the rest of his tenure

The Nigerian Bar Association recently had a highly successful Annual General Conference in Port Harcourt; this marks your mid-tenure as President. Looking back over the last one year that you have been in office, especially with humongous challenges occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, what would you say have been your major obstacles and how are you surmounting them? What would you also say have been your major achievements as NBA President so far? What have you done to regain the NBA’s past glory?

Thank you very much. As this question appears to be multi-layered, let me take the issues one after the other.
Yes, our Administration is beginning to wind down. Indeed, our Annual General Conference which we recently held in Port Harcourt actually did not coincide with our mid-term point, we marked that milestone at the end of August. You will recall that a combination of factors, made it necessary for us to postpone the Conference to October from the usual dates in August.

That said, for me, it has so far been a very worthwhile experience leading the Bar, at arguably one of the most difficult times in its recent history.
In terms of what I consider to be the major obstacles that we have confronted along the way, I think it would have to be the numerous challenges we’ve faced from diverse State institutions which, most times, directly impinge on the core mandate of the Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”) as a body. Let me put this in context:

Not too long after we assumed office, we were greeted with news of the purported amendment of the Rules of Professional Conduct by the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation. Most of the proposed amendments, strike at the very heart of the NBA and its ability to function effectively. We have, in last one year, made every effort to engage with and encourage the Honourable Attorney-General to reverse this illegality but our efforts have yielded absolutely no results, except for what I consider to be very feeble and rather incredulous attempts to disown the document, even though it has since been gazetted. We are now forced to approach the Courts over a matter that appears, at least to us, to be pretty straightforward.

There was also the crisis that was then rocking the Cross River State Judiciary, on the issue of the appointment of substantive Chief Judge for that State. For me personally, this was an issue that was totally avoidable, if only those in the executive arm of Government would stop trying to extend their political turf to include our hallowed Temples of Justice. The issue in Cross River State was, thankfully, eventually resolved; but unfortunately the same scenario is playing our in a number of other States, and we are looking into them.

There were also issues around the autonomy of the Judiciary and ensuing industrial action by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (“JUSUN”), which resulted in the locking up of our courts for upwards of two months due to the noncompliance by State Governors with the relevant provisions of the Constitution regarding autonomy of the Judiciary. You may recall the various steps the NBA took to ensure that the industrial action was called off, so that we do not become the proverbial Banana Republic where lawlessness becomes some kind of article of faith.

Beyond this, you will also recall that our inauguration was soon followed by the events of the #ENDSARS protests and its violent unravelling, resulting in the destruction of critical infrastructure in different parts of Nigeria, especially Lagos State, as exemplified by the destruction of the 100-year-old Lagos State High Court building. Throughout this period, the NBA couldn’t afford to be silent. In fact, at a point, Nigerians looked to the Association for succour in the face of disenchantment with the State. Thankfully, the NBA’s voice was heard loud and clear, throughout that unfortunate episode.

There was also the issue of the unconstitutional extension of the tenure of a former Inspector General of Police (which we are challenging in court), the recent invasion of the home of Honourable Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili, JSC, just to name a few.
Now, these issues, taken as a whole, have constituted obstacles along our way, in terms of the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to tackle said issues which could have been better spent on improving the circumstances of our members, whose mandate we hold in trust. Now, this is not to say that we are oblivious of our commitment to the larger society, but the issues we have had to deal with on that front, literally every month since we came into office, could have been totally avoided, if some our State actors would simply do the right thing. But, I guess that is asking for too much. Through it all though, I am happy to report that we have come out even stronger; a feat which I consider to be a tribute to the resilience of the NBA.

We have adopted a multi-dimensional approach, to dealing with these issues as they arise. Where we are not able to negotiate through back-end channels, we approach the institutions and individuals involved to state the position of the NBA, try to appreciate the sentiments of the other side, and then work towards of a win-win situation.

A perfect example in this wise, is our visit to the Office of the Inspector General of Police, over the incessant harassment of Lawyers at Police stations. That engagement crystallised in a Memorandum of Partnership between the NBA and the Nigeria Police, on how both institutions can jointly work to address this very disturbing and recurring situation. This is in addition to setting up a working group that will continue to engage with the Police and other security agencies, on issues like this. We similarly, deployed this approach in resolving the issue in the Cross River State Judiciary, and also during the JUSUN strike with reasonable success. Where this non-combative approach fails however, we have not hesitated to resort to the Courts for judicial intervention.

Coming to the other leg of your question, it is always tricky for one to be the assessor of one’s own performance due to the biases inherent in human nature; hence, the famous nemo judex in causa sua principle of natural justice, that no man should be a judge in their own cause. I think it is always better for that judgement to be reserved, for what we in law refer to as the proverbial man in the Clapham Omnibus the objective by-stander.

Having said that, and because you have put me on the spot, I would venture to say that, one our major achievements has been our ability to get the NBA firing again on all cylinders. The truth is that the NBA is a very important Association as far as Nigeria and indeed, Africa is concerned, with so much expected of it by its members and indeed, the society at large. When we came into office, we took the decision that the NBA must begin again to meet and exceed these expectations. And, I am happy to report that the feedback would appear to be that we are scoring high marks in this regard.

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This does not by any stretch imply that we have reached the promised land. Not at all. There is still so much to be done. But, looking at where we are now as compared to where we are coming from, we can begin take pride in what we have been able to achieve, as it is not by mere happenstance that many of our members, including those who have been on the side lines for many years, are beginning to take pride in the Association again, because by their assessment, some of its lost glory have been restored under our watch.

You seem to have had a running battle with the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN. He has levied several allegations against you. While many Lawyers have tried to dismiss these allegations, what are the real issues between you and the AGF? Your offices are meant to work in cohesion, for the progress of the legal profession. Also, the fact that the AGF was conspicuously absent at the recently concluded NBA AGC in Port Harcourt, may have lent credence to allegations of a frosty relationship between the leadership of the NBA and the AGF. Being the flagship event of the Association, many noted that it is the first time in the nation’s history, that a sitting AGF would be absent from the NBA AGC. What could have been responsible for this?

I honestly think that this issue has been unduly over-flogged for want of a better word, or perhaps, the situation has been exploited by agents of mischief to achieve whatever untoward agenda. For the record, the NBA is not at war with the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN; and I personally do not have any axe to grind with him. I think two major events have unfortunately helped to shape this narrative that one reads every other day, about the so-called animosity between myself and the AGF, namely, the purported amendment of the Rules of Professional Conduct in the early days of our Administration which I have referred to in the course of this interview; and the circumstances surrounding the recent invasion of the home of Honourable Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili, Justice of the Supreme Court and indeed, the second most senior judicial officer in the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

In the first case, the NBA did what it had to do, by informing its members that the purported amendment was ultra vires, null and void, having not followed due process. We also informed our members to disregard the purported amendment, and promised to engage the office of the AGF on the circumstances that led to that bizarre development. We are happy that we have been vindicated on that score, as the AGF recently stated on live television that he had no knowledge of how the purported amendment came to be.

With respect to the AGF’s absence at our AGC, I am not aware that this was the first time in the nation’s history that an Attorney-General of the Federation would not participate at our AGC, as you have alluded. But, I don’t believe it has anything to do with some of these unfortunate developments. The Honourable Attorney-General is a very senior member of the Bar, and in his message to the Chairman of the Conference Planning Committee, he stated that his absence was as a result of circumstances beyond his control. I think what is most important, is that his absence did not in any way affect the eventual success of the Conference.

On the decision that we took over the invasion of the home of Justice Mary Odili, this was obviously not informed by any ill-will towards the person of the AGF or anybody. It was based on the testimony of one those involved in that dastardly act, who claimed to be acting at the behest of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation, rightly or wrongly. What we merely did, of course, with the approval of the NBA National Executive Council, was to invite the Honourable Attorney-General to provide clarification on the role(s), if any, that he played in the events leading to that criminal act. We believe it was a considered position taken in the interest of the Bar, the Bench, and of course, members of the public. As was widely reported in the media, the NBA appointed a Special Investigator in the person of Dr Monday Ubani, the Chairman of the NBA Section on Public Interest and Development Law, to investigate this issue. From the interim report presented by Dr Ubani to the NBA National Executive Council a few days ago at its quarterly meeting in Abeokuta, Ogun State, the Honourable Attorney-General has so far cooperated with the NBA in unravelling those behind this unlawful act. So, the point must be made and reiterated that, I do not have a running battle with the Honourable Attorney-General.

All said, as an Association, the NBA has a duty to speak up and call out anyone whose actions or conduct might be considered as undermining our profession or our democracy. It is a sacred duty that we will continue to discharge, no matter who is at the other end.
You had also engaged the EFCC as an institution, but many also perceive that there could be a personal grudge between you and the EFCC Chairman. Kindly, shed some light on this.
Again, I think this is one of those artificial creations of the rumour mill. We only had recourse to engage the EFCC over the brutalisation, by EFCC operatives, of one of our members who doubles as the Chairman of the NBA Makurdi Branch, at the Makurdi Zonal Office of the Commission.

We had petitioned the Commission to investigate the allegation, and ensure that adequate disciplinary measures are meted to the officers involved. But, the feedback we got from the Commission, is that its officers denied brutalising our member. In the circumstance, we are exploring a judicial remedy to the issue, particularly from the standpoint of our member concerned, who is constitutionally empowered to challenge the unlawful infringement of his fundamental rights by agents of the State. I don’t understand how that translates to a “personal grudge” between me and the EFCC Chairman. Perhaps, those who perceive that there is personal grudge between me and the EFCC Chairman would have preferred for me to have swept such an occurrence under the carpet, and let artificial peace prevail. Well, for those who know me, they would attest to the fact that this could never have been an option.

Last year, there was an open attempt to cause divisions in the Bar, with the purported attempt by some Lawyers in some parts of the country to create a parallel Bar. Was this imagined or real? How have you resolved this issue? What has become of the issue of the stamp and seal, and the other amendments made by the AGF?
Well, I always knew that the purported balkanisation of the Bar by a faceless group at the cusp of our assumption of office, was going to die a natural death. Only that it died too soon…(laughs). On a more serious note, I would say that the alleged attempt to create a parallel Bar by some Lawyers in some parts of the country as you have alluded to, was more imagined than real. In any case, we have thankfully moved beyond that for good.

What transpired was that some Lawyers, especially from the Northern parts of the country, felt aggrieved with the way the NBA handled the issue of the invitation to His Excellency, Governor Nasir El-Rufai as one of the guest speakers at the 2020 Annual General Conference of the NBA, and one way that they felt they could air their grievance was to threaten to pull out of the NBA. As you may recall, within a few weeks of our inauguration, we were visited by forty Chairpersons of the various branches of the NBA in the North and some other very senior members of the Bar who distanced themselves from the splinter group “New NBA”, and declared their support for the one indivisible NBA, under my leadership.

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With the massive support that we have received from our members thus far, any group seeking to balkanise the Bar, would be labouring in vain. But, the attempt, even if unsuccessful, was instructive in the sense that it brought to the fore the need to further strengthen the Association, and reposition it to continue to meet needs of its members and delivering value to them. In this way, any proposal to balkanise or destabilise the Bar, will struggle for consensus, and would eventually fizzle out. I am happy to inform you that the Bar is probably stronger and more united now than ever before, and it is my hope that succeeding administrations will take steps to consolidate on this solidarity that is the strength of the Bar.

With regard to the Stamp and Seal and Practicing Fees, our members have carried on, in total defiance of the purported amendments to the relevant provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct, even as they await the outcome of our matter in Court. As a matter of fact, the statistics show that more Lawyers paid their practising fees this year, than they had done, in any non-election year in the past. This, to me, is a vote of confidence by our members, and we cannot afford not to justify this overwhelming support and approval.
Many Lawyers believe that you have performed creditably. What will be your major focus in the remaining one year of your tenure?

It is actually less than one year…we will handover in August next year. We are gratified, that many members of the Association hold the view that we have performed quite well. As we enter our final months in office, our focus will shift to institutionalising some of the structures we have put in place for sustainability. For example, we are now implementing some of the far-reaching changes that were brought about by the recent amendment to the NBA Constitution, particularly with respect to the administration of our Secretariat and the conduct of our elections. We are also trying to finalise work on the digitisation of our Bar Practising Fees payment system, so that members can pay their practising fees with ease. One of the promises that I made during our campaigns was to leave behind a sanitised data ecosystem for the Association, having regard to our membership and our numbers; we are also taking steps to conclude this before the end of the first quarter of 2022.

As we begin to wind down, efforts will be directed at ensuring that these structures are established and fully entrenched, so that the next administration will not have to grapple with the same issues. And lest I forget; as I told members at our recently held NEC meeting, we are also working on shoring up the finances of the Association by setting up the NBA Fund, which would be very reasonably funded before we leave, and also ensuring that we clear the bulk of the Association’s outstanding liabilities. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised, as it would make the Association more viable and better able to add value to the professional lives of our members.

The number of Lawyers who have been engaged in fisticuffs is sharply rising across the different Branches of the Association. How do you intend to deal with this? What sanctions for instance, have the two Lawyers who fought in a Gombe court recently, faced?

The NBA, from time immemorial, has always taken the discipline of its members seriously. I, however, don’t agree that the situation is as pervasive as you have indicated, particularly on the issue of fisticuffs amongst Lawyers. I think many of our members conduct themselves well both in, and out of Court. It is just that in the world we live in today, where information dissemination is now instantaneous with much wider coverage, you only need one or two of such occurrences to be reported, for the impression to gain ground that Lawyers are unruly and badly behaved. Having said that, the unfortunate situation that happened in a Court Gombe State stands condemnable, and the NBA through its Disciplinary Committee is currently on top of the situation, and the recommendation of the Committee is being awaited. Those involved in a similar incident in Lagos, are currently being prosecuted. We will not hesitate to make an example of any of our erring members to deter others, and to prevent a situation where we lose what is left of the esteem that the society has for our noble profession.

You recently set up a Committee on the vexed issue of conflicting judgements at the Appellate Courts. Why did you feel the need to establish this Committee, and what has it done so far?
The reason for setting up the Committee, is not far-fetched. The Judiciary is the last hope of the common man; and Lawyers who are Ministers in the Temple of Justice cannot be seen to be taking steps that besmirch the integrity of the institution of justice. That would simply signal the end of the Rule of Law. It is for this reason, that the NBA felt it had a duty to intervene by setting up a Committee chaired by Dr Babatunde Ajibade, SAN, so as to ascertain whether there had been any breaches of our Rules of Professional Conduct by the Lawyers involved in those controversial cases. The Ajibade-led Committee has submitted its report to the NBA-NEC in which it recommended, and this was unanimously accepted, that the NBA should immediately bring our members who were involved in this unfortunate debacle before the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee for appropriate sanctions.

Instructively, while we were in the middle of the quarterly meeting of the NBA National Executive Council last week in Abeokuta, Ogun State where the Report of the Ajibade Committee was considered, the news broke that the National Judicial Council (NJC) had also taken steps to discipline the three judicial officers involved in the unfortunate notorious cases.

Again, security agents, fake or real, recently invaded the residence of a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court, using a spurious search warrant as their authority to do so. This drew the ire of members of the Bar and Bench. Taking very prompt and decisive action on this issue, you set up a high-powered Committee to investigate and report to the NBA. Many weeks after, not much has been heard of its progress so far? What has the Committee been able to unravel? What can be done to stem this ugly tide of showing flagrant disrespect to the Judiciary? What kind of sanctions do you believe (if indeed, you do) should be imposed on erring judicial officers who allow their courts to be used for forum shopping, those who issue conflicting court orders, and even Magistrates who issue illegal search warrants, as a deterrent?

After the ugly events of 2016 involving our Judges and the security agencies, and what was considered by many to be the very loud silence of the Bar at the time, we felt there was an obligation on us to be heard in unequivocal terms on this dastardly act. As I always say, the intimidation of the Judiciary under whatever guise, would spell doom for all of us. As the Bench can only been seen, but usually not heard, it is the duty of the Bar to fight its ‘wars’. That was what informed the decision we took to appoint Dr Monday Ubani as our Special Investigator, to amongst others, investigate the circumstances leading to that bizarre incident and report back to the NBA. Dr. Ubani has met and interviewed with most of the dramatis personae, albeit he is yet to get the perspective of the Nigeria Police whose officers were involved in the act, and this is not for want of trying. We do not want to believe that the Force is protecting some of these officers, as it may be too premature to reach such conclusion. But, rest assured that at the end of the day, Dr Ubani’s Report would be made public, given the interest the incident has generated, and rightly so.

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Having said that, until the Judiciary becomes truly autonomous, we will always find ourselves in such embarrassing situations from time to time depending on the personality, character, ideology, and worldview of our leaders. Again, if all those who are involved in this act are not roundly condemned and prosecuted, the sense of impunity would continue to fester, and these despicable people will continue to believe that they can always get away with such actions. At the NBA, we continue to emphasise the need to respect the Judiciary as an equal arm of Government, and not to take advantage of the gentility of Judges, informed by the nature of their training and indeed, calling, to ride over them roughshod.

As for Judges who submit themselves as willing tools to unscrupulous politicians, dealing with them is totally within the remit of the NJC, which like the Bar, has in recent times risen to the occasion in disciplining its errant members. We believe that is the way to go, in order to enforce sanity and decorum in the profession across its two spectrums of the Bench and Bar.

The NJC has over the past few years, been accused by Lawyers of not giving enough leverage to the NBA to participate in the selection, screening, and appointment of judicial officers. How do you intend to take pursue this matter?
That allegation is not spurious. It is however, an issue we have to address holistically. I do not think it is strictly speaking, the case that Lawyers do not have leverage in the appointment of judicial officers. The NJC is a creation of the 1999 Constitution. Now, the Constitution provides for the composition of the NJC, and states that it shall be include five members of the NBA of not less than 15-year post-call appointed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria on the recommendation of the NBA. Instructively, the participation of the NBA representatives is expressed to include the consideration of persons for appointment to superior courts of record. So, by the letter of the law, the NBA has a say in this matter. I think the issue that we have had, is the domineering influence of the judicial officers in the body before whom some, if not all of these Lawyers appear from day to day, and are naturally beholden to. So, the participation of the NBA in the past, may have been less than effective. Under my watch, we have made it categorically clear that the NBA will not be a rubber stamp in the process of appointment of judicial officers, and we have continued to intervene in the process, making sure that our views, even if in the minority, are clearly articulated and recorded.

The Judiciary is in dire need of reform, from the remuneration of judicial officers to their conditions of service etc. Can the Judiciary truly be considered to be the third co-equal arm of Government? What has the NBA done to bring the plight of judicial officers to the fore?
I had already stated the imperative of treating the Judiciary as an equal arm of Government with the Executive and the Legislature, which is sadly the case only in theory.
Let me now turn to what we have been doing to balance this equation, particularly through advocacy in our various public engagements. At the recent Legal Year Opening Ceremony of the Supreme Court and elevation of new Senior Advocates of Nigeria, I emphasised this point, calling on the Executive to give due consideration to the welfare of Judges.

During the occasion last year, we had made similar appeal to the Executive. Happily, there was an increase of about N10 billion in the total budget of the Judiciary for 2022. However, it goes without saying, that this sum is still too meagre to meet the multifaceted needs facing the Judiciary. I understand that budgeting is a function of revenue, and these are not the best of times for global economies, Nigeria inclusive. Yet, I believe that our leaders can still improve on this number by cutting the profligate cost of governance both at the Federal and State levels, and channel the surplus to critical institutions of our democracy, such as the Judiciary. This is a challenge that I expect the next President of Nigeria to take up in the interest of our democracy. To the NBA, this matter is of such critical importance, that it shall be one of the key issues to be examined at a Justice Sector Summit we are convening in collaboration with the Justice Reform Initiative and the United Nations, and which will be held on the 25th of January, 2022.

What is your view on the #EndSARS Report, and the White Paper that followed it?
We chose to be silent after the leaked #EndSARS Report went viral, and took the better step of awaiting the Government White Paper. Having read the White Paper, it would appear that we are back to where we were before the commissioning of the Panel; namely, Government’s refusal to take any responsibility for the events that took place at the Lekki Toll Plaza on 20th October, 2020; and the counter-narrative by the civil society. Unfortunately, none of these groups are ready to yield ground to the other. While the Panel says there was a ‘massacre in context’; the Government is of the view that there is no evidence of such from the proceedings of the Panel. Unfortunately, a few clerical errors and/or omissions in the Panel report, have been unduly exploited by the Government, and those who have its sympathy, to rubbish the back-breaking work of the Panel.

For me, I think that the argument over whether or not there was a massacre, misses the point. After the level of destruction that we witnessed last year arising from the disenchantment of the Nigeria Youth, one would have thought that the Government would be fixated on ways to remedy this situation by taking measures targeted at reducing the widening trust deficit between it, and the masses.

So, I think this has become another missed opportunity by a Government fighting tooth and nail to force its own narrative down the throats of the citizens, instead of taking the high road towards achieving the greatly needed national healing; so that we can all collectively move beyond that ugly patch of our history for good. The question the Government must ask itself is, what is the rationale behind setting up an independent panel, having vouched for the integrity and competence of the membership, and having expended huge public funds in the process, only to turn around to set up another Committee to cast aspersions on the integrity and competence of the same Panel members, because the findings of the panel were unpalatable?

Thisday

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