By Bizibrains Okpeh
Finally, after decades of neglect, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has established the Lawyers With Disabilities Forum (LWDF) to cater to the specific needs and welfare of Lawyers With Disabilities (LWDs) in Nigeria. In his presidential address at the meeting of the National Executive Committee of the NBA (NBA-NEC) on 24 June 2021 at the NBA National Secretariat, Abuja, Mr. Olumide Akpata, the NBA president, proposed the creation of three additional NBA fora, including an LWDF, which was approved by the NBA-NEC. Mr. Akpata’s courage to come through with his campaign promise to “unite the Bar” and make it “work for all” reminds one of the wise traveller in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”.
In this living poem, Frost narrates the triumphant story of a wise traveller who in the course of his journey finds himself at a crossroads where “Two roads diverged in a wood,” and the wise traveller “took the one less traveled by, And that…made all the difference.” Only that in Mr. Akpata’s case, this road has never been trodden in the history of the NBA.
What was said?
Reminding the meeting of the focal point of his presidency, Mr. Akpata reiterated his drive to run an all-inclusive Bar. “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…to propose, for NEC approval, as follows:… (c) The establishment of a Lawyers with Disabilities Forum to spearhead and drive issues concerning lawyers with disabilities.
The NBA president further proposed for approval a 10-member committee as initial members of the Governing Council of the Forum, that is, “(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.”
The bigger picture
The creation of the LWDF wouldn’t have come at any better time. Yet, it would be of utmost importance, I think, to put things into proper perspective. For several decades, that is to say, over 60 or 70 years, lawyers with disabilities in Nigeria have suffered untold neglect under the watchful-sleepy eyes of the NBA. Not only are they objectified by the very NBA Constitution that purports to protect them and cater to their welfare, by labelling them “disabled” and worse still “incapacitated,” they are also systematically disempowered and excluded from the NBA leadership structure.
In one of my earlier articles, I considered in great detail this systematic and institutionalised neglect. Still, at the risk of being repetitive, for a somewhat concrete example, I would dare to say that a combined 1,799 page-document recovered from the NBA website, reporting the various activities, schemes and programmes of the NBA for the period of 2018 to 12 March 2020, shows that within this period, no mention, whatsoever, not even for the sake of it, was specifically made to lawyers with disabilities and/or their welfare. Except for once, when it was reported that the NEC was in negotiations with some insurance companies in respect of a life insurance scheme for members that would include “medical expenses, temporary and permanent disabilities and critical illness benefits,” and two other instances where mentions were made generally to PWDs, in circumstances totally unconnected with the welfare of lawyers with disabilities.
In fact, for the most part, there was no report from the office of the welfare Secretary/Committee on the welfare of lawyers with disabilities. In other words, in 804 days, 19,296 hours, nothing was said or done or even contemplated to affect the situation of lawyers with disabilities positively. Isn’t this too long a time for any responsible, responsive, and accountable organisation to barely discuss any issues about persons with disabilities within it? This is just to mention but a few instances.
For this long, lawyers with disabilities have been exiled to the margin of the Bar where they remain at the mercy and irregular and unsustainable charity of the NBA. After all, isn’t mercy at the mercy of the giver, and charity an act of free will? For all practical purposes, when the dice fall on the welfare and rights of LWDs, the numbers largely show the NBA as a sleeping watchdog. But perhaps the wind of change has come.
The new hope
Elsewhere, I did posit that the NBA, not undermining its other functions, must necessarily work “to ensure the Nigerian legal profession is of all, and for all” by shifting its focus “on tackling barriers to access by PWDs, retention and progression of LWDs within the profession.” It is gladdening to see the NBA take a more sustainable positive action towards protecting the interests of lawyers with disabilities. Indeed, special mention must be made to Mr. Akpata who, unlike his predecessors, has the courage and “presidential will” to work in the light of the literary wisdom of Robert Frost. But is it yet a triumphant story for lawyers with disabilities in Nigeria and the Akpata led NBA?
As much as we bask in the euphoria of this wind of change, it is my hope, and indeed the hope of all lawyers with disabilities, I believe, that the NBA will work to consolidate this change by ensuring that LWDs are adequately represented at the NBA-NEC and entrenching an inclusive NBA Constitution by taking advantage of the ongoing NBA constitution amendment.
Finally, we also hope that the newly created LWDF will work to live up to its mandate and the expectations of LWDs. Now that the cloud of change has gathered, we hope that the rain of change would water the collective dreams and aspirations of LWDs, providing the enabling and sustainable environment for their growth and progression within the largest Bar in Africa.. Indeed, we hope that the road now taken makes all the difference.
Okpeh is a lawyer and disability rights advocate and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org