ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION, MR. OLUMIDE AKPATA, AT THE MEETING OF THE NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION (NBA-NEC) ON 24 JUNE 2021 AT THE NBA NATIONAL SECRETARIAT, ABUJA, FCT
Distinguished NEC Members,
It is my pleasure to welcome you all to the second quarterly NBA-NEC Meeting for the year 2021. I must begin as always by expressing my deep gratitude to you for making the sacrifice of keeping on hold your notoriously busy schedule and travelling from different parts of the country at this perilous time to attend this meeting. On behalf of the Association, please accept our sincere appreciation.
By the time we were departing Uyo, Akwa Ibom State after the last NBA-NEC meeting on 18 March 2021, there was nothing to indicate then that the legal profession in Nigeria was about to be thrown into another round of crisis. As you already know, on 6th April 2021, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) embarked on an industrial action to press home the agitation for the full financial autonomy of the Judiciary at the State level. This action came at a time when the judicial system was still recovering from the Covid-19 induced lockdown which greatly affected the courts for months and the destruction of courts in some parts of the country following the violence that followed the #EndSARS protests.
As you are aware, the NBA initially took steps to prevail on JUSUN to shelve the then planned strike on grounds that the timing was inauspicious. This move was not favourably received by JUSUN leadership which proceeded with the industrial action. Subsequently, the NBA consulted and reappraised the situation, and in recognition of the fact that the primary objective JUSUN strike was in the interest of all well meaning members of the society especially legal practitioners, we took the next best step, which was to throw the NBA’s weight behind the strike action, and to call on all relevant stakeholders to ensure that the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution are complied with by the States whose Governors swore an oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution.
Although I said this in the course of various updates to the members on the JUSUN Strike, let me use this occasion to specially thank the Branches and their leadership for heeding the call of the NBA to visit and put pressure on their respective State Governments. I have always believed in the potency of the NBA and our ability to achieve significantly more than we are currently achieving, only if we can put our various interests and differences aside and work towards one goal.
Let me also repeat what I said after the strike action was finally suspended, which is to praise the resilience and perseverance of our members who probably made the biggest sacrifice by being deprived of their source of livelihood for over two months. It is my hope that these sacrifices will not be in vain and will contribute towards our quest for a more independent and efficient judicial system in Nigeria.
In my characteristic candour, let me however tell you that while it is my hope that we never have to tread this path again, the reality on ground is that it is not yet Uhuru. As some of you may already know, I was appointed by the National Judicial Council into a committee led by Honourable Justice Sidi Dauda Bage JSC (rtd) to monitor compliance by the various State Governments with the Memorandum of Agreement reached by JUSUN and the Governors Forum. I will continue to provide regular updates on this as things proceed.
State of the Nation
In the course of this meeting, we will be deliberating extensively on the topical issues affecting the nation and Nigerians including the state of insecurity in the country exemplified by the incessant kidnapping of school children especially in the Northern part of the country; the attacks on public institutions and on members of police and military especially in the South-East; herders/farmers clashes; community clashes; numerous reports of extra-judicial killing of citizens in various parts of the country; the agitations and unabating quest by different segments of the country to secede from Nigeria; the famous Twitter Ban and other government policies and conducts that seem to undermine our democracy and Rule of Law. These are critical issues that must continue to concern us as an Association and in respect of which our position, shaped by the deliberations at this meeting, must be made clear.
On some of these points, I had on your behalf and on behalf of other members of the Association, stated the position of the NBA. I am, however, aware that our position might not have gone down well with everyone. For instance, I have received messages and calls from a section of our members suggesting that we should not have taken the stand that we took on the ban of Twitter. In response to that let me repeat what I said earlier. I strongly believe that the NBA has the ability to achieve significantly more than we are currently achieving, only if we can put our various interests and differences aside and work towards one goal. No matter our personal, political or other sectional interests, we are legal practitioners on whose shoulders lie the fundamental responsibility to defend and protect the democratic system of government that we have chosen for ourselves. If we allow these divisions, it is not only the Association or the legal profession in Nigeria that suffers but our entire democracy.
Harassment of Lawyers
At the NBA-NEC meeting in Uyo in March 2021, I said that unfortunately, the spectre of harassment of lawyers by security agencies has not stopped. Regrettably, some appear ready to take it another notch higher. I speak in particular about the unfortunate incident in Makurdi, Benue State where the Chairman of the NBA Branch was physically assaulted and brutalised by the officers of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in the presence of the Attorney-General of the State and other well-meaning lawyers. Unfortunately, there are other less high-profile incidents but which are nevertheless worthy of condemnation.
As I promised you, I have not and will not shy away from taking on any official of government, no matter how highly placed who fails to accord the deserved respect and recognition to lawyers, or who believes that lawyers can be assaulted and harassed without consequences. Not only did I speak with the Chairman of the EFCC to express my displeasure about this development, but I have also personally written to him to request an urgent investigation into the incident and disciplinary action against those involved. In my letter, which I believe a few of you may have read, I also drew to his attention the unfortunate prevalence of incidents where lawyers are constantly harassed, arrested, and detained for either providing legal advice to, or preparing transaction documents for, their clients. I requested that such debasing treatment must cease forthwith. I promise to follow this case to its logical conclusion with a view to avoiding a recurrence. This ugly situation is not limited to the EFCC, and we will take similar steps in respect of other security agencies.
Encroachment of the Legal Services Space
The encroachment of the exclusive preserve of the legal practitioners by non-lawyers is on the increase. Recently, we have seen several media reports of non-lawyers who publicly advertise to offer, and sometimes offer legal services. We have also seen lawyers who purport to offer their services in a manner that is not consistent with our rules or practice. It is unfortunate that these non-lawyers are in many cases aided by our colleagues to the detriment of the profession. For lawyers like this, I have asked the NBA Disciplinary Committee to investigate the complaints against them and take appropriate actions. For the non-lawyers, the leadership of the NBA Section on Legal Practice has taken certain steps to address some of the known cases of infraction and I strongly urge the Section on Legal Practice to do more in this respect including possible prosecution of the offenders. My team and I are available to provide the support and resources that are needed to fully address this scourge. We must take all actions necessary to protect our own turf and our members are advised to desist from encouraging such conducts and instead report incidences of breach to their local branch of the NBA for necessary action.
Section’s Conferences and Annual General Conference
Let me use this medium to commend the Section on Public Interest and Development Law (NBA-SPIDEL) and the NBA Section of Legal Practice (NBA-SLP) for their recently held annual conferences in Ibadan, Oyo State and Uyo, Akwa Ibom State respectively. Anyone who witnessed either or both events will attest to the fact that they were both well organised and well attended. This accords with the vision behind the establishment of the various Sections for the NBA. I am aware that the NBA Section on Business Law (NBA-SBL) is also putting finishing touches to its Annual Conference preparations. I encourage our members to plan to be part of it.
That brings me to the Annual General Conference of the NBA. You would have noticed that there has not been any publicity regarding the 2021 AGC and many members have wondered whether there will be any AGC this 2021 and whether it is in fact necessary to hold one. Let me assure you that there will be an Annual General Conference of the NBA this 2021. The current plan is to hold the conference in the city of Port Harcourt, but on account of Covid-19 and other challenges, the date of the Conference will not be August as we have become accustomed to. The Chairman of the Technical Committee on Conference Planning will provide more details about this during this meeting.
Crisis in Branches of the NBA
Many of our branches are still immersed in different forms of crisis and leadership tussles. As at the last count, we had crisis, at varying levels, in about a dozen branches of the NBA. This includes Abeokuta, Dutse, Abuja, Ikeja, Uyo, Uromi, Auchi, Katsina and several others. Of these, the crisis at the Abuja Branch seems to be the most prominent and long drawn. At the last NEC meeting when I provided an update on this, NEC mandated my team and I to investigate the issues and find ways of resolving the crisis across the branches.
At some of the branches, we have taken steps to reconcile the parties, or to set up caretaker committees to manage their affairs. At some others, we are still in talks with the key persons to resolve their issues. For the Abuja Branch, I have come to the conclusion that, subject to the approval of NEC, it would be best to create two branches out of what is currently known as the Abuja branch. The situation has deteriorated to the extent that a reconciliation will no longer be possible. With the approval of NEC, I will, after today, set in motion the process of ensuring the separation of the Abuja branch and an equitable distribution of their assets and liabilities.
Updates from NBA Standing and Ad-Hoc Committees
One of my cardinal promises to the members of our great Association was to ensure that the NBA works for all. To ensure that this is actualised, we decided that it was imperative for the various Standing and Ad-Hoc Committees of the NBA to be properly established and manned by competent hands for the full implementation of the enormous responsibilities that the NBA Constitution and the members have placed on us. This we did and the NBA-NEC graciously approved the Committee membership recommended by us.
I am very happy to report that for the first time in a while, many of the Committees of the NBA are up and running efficiently and almost independently of the National Officers, which is how it ought to be. I have attended some of the Committees’ meetings and I am gratified to know that the NBA is in good hands and that indeed the future can only be bright. We shall hear directly from some of the Committee Chairpersons in the course of the meeting today when they update the Association on their activities and outlook for the rest of the year. I enjoin you to also read the Bar Activities section of the NEC Bundle to see my update on the activities of our various Committees in the last three months. I am indeed grateful to the leaders and members of our committees for the work that they are doing towards making the Bar better for us.
NBA Constitution Review
While I commend many of the Committees for the good work they have been doing, it is pertinent to single out the NBA Constitution Review Committee, if only for the time-sensitive nature of their assignment.
By section 20 of the extant Constitution of the Nigerian Bar Association 2015 (as amended), a proposal for the amendment of the NBA Constitution must be received by the General Secretary of the Association not later than 60 days before the date of the Annual General Meeting at which such proposal is intended to be moved. The Constitution further provides that the notice of such amendments shall be made available to the members not later than 30 days before the date of the Annual General Meeting at which such amendment is intended to be passed. All of these mean that the Committee has been literally working round the clock to ensure that they meet this deadline. I commend the Committee and the leadership for the job they have been doing and at some point, during the meeting, we shall hear the Committee Chairman give us some highlights regarding some of the proposed changes that we can expect.
Announcement of Fora and others
As I have often said, I am focused on building a Bar that not only has utilitarian value for its members, but one that would also work for all. One way to achieve this is to ensure inclusiveness within the Bar by giving various segments of the Bar due recognition and an opportunity to discuss and deal with issues affecting them in an institutionalised manner. It is to this end that I have the pleasure of making some announcements as I round up my address.
The first is to propose the establishment of three new fora of the NBA created along special interest groups that are deserving of their own forum and governing council. The second is to announce the appointment of some of our young lawyers as permanent observers at NEC meetings.
With respect to the fora, I wish to propose, for NEC approval, as follows:
(a) The establishment of the Law Officers Forum – NEC had previously approved the establishment of joint committee of NBA and LOAN to discuss issues affecting law officers in Nigeria and how the NBA can support the law officers towards achieving their objectives. One of the feedbacks that we have received is the need to establish an NBA Forum for Law Officers hence this proposal. It is also proposed that the current members of the NBA-LOAN Joint Working Committee will constitute the maiden governing council of the new forum.
(b) The establishment of the NBA Corporate Counsel Forum – our colleagues who work in-house as legal counsel are very deserving of a forum that focuses on their issues. I am therefore announcing for your approval, the establishment of an NBA Corporate Counsel Forum with the following as the initial members of its governing council – (i) Seye Kosoko (Chairman); (ii) Shola Dosunmu; (iii) Rachel Onochie; (iv) Dapo Otunla; (v) Nnanna Oketa; (vi) Osose Aziba (Secretary); (vii) Cecilia Madueke; (viii) Uzoma Uja; (ix) Obianuju Othniel; and (x) Yakubu Belgore.
(c) The establishment of a Lawyers with Disabilities Forum to spearhead and drive issues concerning lawyers with disabilities. The following people are proposed for approval as initial members of the Governing Council that will midwife the affairs of the Forum: (i) Asia Ahmad El-Rufai (Chairman); (ii) Patience Etumudom; (iii) Kassim Lawal; (iv) Florence Marcus; (v) Ikem Uchegbulam; (vi) Duni Prosphen; (vii) Daniel Onwe; (viii) Chukwu Emmanuel Ufio; (ix) L.A Archibong; and (x) Shakira Eletu.
With respect to the young lawyers’ permanent observers at NEC, this is imperative because the NBA Constitution does not currently have provisions for young lawyers to be appointed or co-opted into NEC. For a profession whose majority membership is made up of young lawyers, I do not believe that this is appropriate or just. However, pending the conclusion of the ongoing constitutional amendment which should, hopefully, address this point, I believe that some of our young lawyers deserve to be amongst us to observe and learn from the proceedings at NEC even if they are not yet entitled to vote at the proceedings. To this end, I am announcing the following as young lawyers’ permanent observers at all NEC meetings during the term of this administration: (i) Muntasir Adamu Muhammad; (ii) Daniel Ojonugwa Odiba; (iii) Deborah Okey; (iv) Dignity Ekop; (v) Oke Godslove Odinde; (vi) Ibrahim Oyekunmi Hassan; (vii) Rita Nwokocha; (viii) Patricia Udeh; (ix) Geoffrey Netochukwu; and (x) Abdulkareem Abdool.
Ladies and Gentlemen, my team and I are genuinely committed to building a Bar that Nigerian lawyers will be proud of. However, as you would expect with leadership at all levels, there will be different challenges to grapple with. We have indeed had, and continue to have, our fair share of the challenges (both within and outside the Association), but we remain confident that with the support, guidance, and wise counsel of NEC, we will make the right decisions. There will also be criticisms from all corners, but we appreciate and welcome them because constructive criticisms are indeed necessary to enable us to evaluate our performance, rethink our strategies and come out better and stronger.
On that final note, I thank you once again for making out time to attend this meeting. I wish us all very peaceful and fruitful deliberations and safe return to our respective stations.