BY Dayo Benson
MR. Augustine Alegeh SAN is one of the five candidates, including four senior advocates vying for the office of the president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA. A candidate of the Midwest bar forum, Alegeh in this interview spoke on why he is offering himself for the top job, his visions and missions if elected as well as other related issues.Excerpts:
YOU are one of the candidates running for the office of the NBA president. Why did you put yourself forward?
First, I take it to be a positive development that more lawyers are taking interest in the affairs of the Bar, with over 120,000 lawyers enrolled at the Bar. If more lawyers are involved in the affairs of the NBA, then we’ll have quality a association at the end of the day.
On your question specifically, as they say in law, the briefs have been filed. All the manifestoes of the candidates are in. The reason why I am the best candidate to lead the bar at this time is evident from a close review of the programmes contained in my manifesto.
The programmes I have put forward are contemporary. They deal with the present challenges of lawyers. They don’t address the problems like politicians with promises and grandiose ideas. We have come forward with specific details and specific programmes and we have set out on how to achieve them.
We have taken on the welfare of lawyers and I believe that definitely a lot has to be done about it. When we take care of the welfare of our lawyers then each member will fulfill their obligations to the association as they will have a sense of belonging.
I have put forward different programs. I propose to institute an insurance policy for lawyers from our bar practicing fees . The policy would be flexible to meet the needs of lawyers. It would be a choice based policy where each member would be able to opt for the policy that meets his peculiar expectations.
I propose to increase the share of branches from bar practicing fees from the present 10% to 20%. It is a constitutional matter and I intend to seek an amendment to the NBA Constitution to achieve this proposal. The proposal would also have a tied on proposal to allow remittance of BPF share to branches by direct debit via a standing order from the BPF account.
This would ensure that the branches get their share timeously and would relieve the National Secretariat of the burden of calculating, computing and remitting the share to Branches through the existing cumbersome process.
I intend to seek constitutional amendment to enable us have electronic voting at our NBA National elections with the hope that same will eventually apply to NBA branches. The concept of traveling to the delegates conference to vote in July when you will also need to travel for AGC in August is burdensome. Given the security challenges in the country, we should avoid doing things that will make us gather in large numbers.
I don’t think we should expose ourselves to security hazards unnecessarily. We need to be security conscious.
My definite promise is to have reduced affordable conferences fees. Everything ties to each other. I want to make this point that service to an association must be selfless service, but that service must also come with clear cut ideas that will bring positive change. I have read all the manifestoes and I challenge you to read all of them. You will be satisfied that the only clear cut ideas are those that I offer and I have clear ideas of how to implement them.
Do you think two years will be enough to achieve all these programmes you have itemised?
I believe that two years is long enough. I have three programmes and all of them are mind based programmes- Refocus, Reform and Reinvigorate. Let’s all understand that our welfare is of primary importance to us. Once you develop an idea and it sinks into people, you don’t need 100 years in office.
A lot of people have been asking ‘why have we not had this insurance policy in place? We had it some years ago, what happened?’ we need to understand that even if you want four or seven years it still won’t be enough if you don’t know how to go about it.
Personally, I believe that even a tenure of one year is enough to make landmark changes in the NBA, refocus on the welfare of members, reform the secretariat, reinvigorate the entire bar as the voice of the people. These are things you can achieve in six months.
When I was challenged to create a database for the NBA, a programme that had been tried by several administrations and failed, in 60 days I had it up and running!
On the insurance policy for instance, I propose open architecture, where a lawyer can come and say ‘I want retirement benefits.’ Another lawyer can come in and say ‘I want an accident policy.’ The insurance company can say ‘we can give you a crossbreed, but you will get a little from each. If you want to put all your eggs in one basket, it’s your choice.’ There are different packages. Once you pay your practicing fees, your name is given to the insurance company as a beneficiary of the scheme. Its automatic and its very simple.
I have another programme for example. I would propose that NBA would work with Chief Judges of the High Courts and other Heads of Courts to make certain changes in our rules.
For instance a practice direction stipulating that only affidavits prepared by lawyers should be allowed for filing would go a long way to eradicate false depositions and also provide an additional revenue source for Lawyers.
All that the court officials do is ask ‘how much have you paid?’ they stamp it and they give it back to you. But you see that is not the aim of an affidavit. An affidavit ought to be a statement of truth. When we insist that ‘each affidavit must be prepared by a lawyer” all the false depositions in affidavits will stop. Will a lawyer prepare such an affidavit, sign and put his stamp and seal?
If you go to the Federal High Court today and file an affidavit, you must affix a passport photograph. But that is not the requirement of the Evidence Act. It was brought about by a simple Practice Direction of the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court. I intend if I am elected and sworn in, I will have a meeting with all branch chairmen. We’ll come up with a menu of requests to the CJs and the chairmen will then go to the CJs in their respective states to implement these things.
If a CJ agrees, practice directions can be done in one month. I don’t have to travel to every branch to implement this. Why do I have to travel to every branch? The chairmen in these states represent the NBA. They are the ones will meet their state CJs.
The best way is to sit down and brainstorm with them so they understand the formulation of the policy and are thereby properly equipped to implement same.
You once said that you will declare a state of emergency in legal education. How do you intend to go about this?
Since I was called to the Bar 27 years ago, I heard that standards are falling. Each year standards keep falling. I don’t like complaining, I believe in practical solutions. I asked myself, we have members in the Council of legal education and we must give them an NBA position for them to push for implementation at the Council.
I intend to declare a state of emergency and I intend to involve those in academia, those who have a stake in legal education and we’ll sit down together and examine all the issues in legal education. Beyond declaring a state of emergency, I also said ‘develop and put forward an NBA position.’ That is critical.
Now, if we are teaching law students about Petroleum law, we have to get lecturers from Sciences to teach them about hydrocarbons. They have to understand the composition and content of petroleum. If you want to teach them business law, you must get someone from business admin and accounting to teach them the basics in that field.
What I have learnt in my interaction with foreign lawyers during international Arbitrations is that when you are discussing with them, you wonder whether it’s an accountant that you are talking with or whether it’s a chemist. You hear them talking about Bonny Crude and they tell you ‘this one is heavier.’ So, I asked them, ‘were you an engineer before?’ they said ‘No. when we were being taught about Petroleum law now, they also taught us about petroleum.’
So, we need to go to Harvard, Oxford and some of the best schools in the world, get their course curriculum and ask ourselves, ‘which one of these do we intend to remodel in our curriculum after?’ it may seem utopian! It may be too high for us to achieve in one day, but lets us start from somewhere and determine where we want to go and the changes we want to put in place.
Position on legal education
If the NBA comes up with a position on legal education, it should be asking ‘what are the criteria for employing lecturers at the law schools or the universities?
We need to keep asking these questions. I am not an educationist, but what I know is that I employ lawyers and the quality of service they give to me is unacceptable.
For some time I used to think they were lazy, but everybody can’t be lazy. They were sent to us ill-equipped. What I do currently is that I employ and train you for three months. If I see that there is promise, I keep you. The only case where we let go is where we see that this person is totally lost.
You have expressed concerns over lawyers in the North East whose practice has been adversely affected by activities of insurgents. Beyond what you have done to help them in your personal capacity, What do you intend to do to address these issues, if you become NBA president?
Some things you do out of concern for your brother will touch you eventually. I once received a text message from a Magistrate in Gombe. I don’t know him personally, We were there to deliver speeches, but I said ‘we have colleagues next door whose professional lives are in shambles. What should we do for them?’ I launched that appeal fund on that day, and today people are rushing to add money to that appeal fund. I beleive I can still do more.
Out of the five candidates contesting the NBA president, you are the only one fully endorsed by all the branches in the Midwest your forum. How did you manage to achieve this feat?
You know we toil in vain, but for the Grace of the Lord. I take it as a blessing from God and I intend to do what I can. I am not the most Senior Advocate of Nigeria from the region. I am not the most politically active lawyer from the Midwest.
Lawyers are known to object to almost everything, and it is very difficult to find such a large body of lawyers agreeing on one issue. It is all by the special Grace of God. Before this endorsement, they had been speaking to me. They convinced me to come into the race and I thank God that what they said to me in private they have been able to prove in public.
But I have this to say, I decided to contest not because I was endorsed. Not because I thought I was going to be endorsed, but because I felt I have something positive to offer to the NBA. Also, I have a positive record of service to the association. I have a proven record of performance.
Many lawyers have been complaining that the NBA is losing focus as the voice of the masses and not taking position on national issues. How do you intend to restore the peoples’ confidence into the association?
I have said this several times and I would like to repeat it again, that the challenges we have in the NBA is our structure.
Let us take the issue of the National Conference for example. The NBA was offered only one slot and our President cried blue heavens! Despite his cries, they insisted on only one slot. They also went ahead and published the name of the president as the person to take that one slot. He rejected it.
But do you know that in the conference that was held during Obasanjo’s administration the NBA was given only one slot and nobody complained. So, times are different. At that time nobody complained, but now everybody is complaining.
If elected I will not just criticise, I will give reasons for my criticisms and offer concrete suggestions and alternative proposals. If you galvanise all lawyers and they stand behind the President, that voice will be strong and it will be more respected by the Government. I commended Olisa Agbakoba SAN when he won the case against the federal government on financial autonomy for the judiciary.
There are insinuations that you are a government sponsored candidate, just like the outgoing NBA President, what do you think people have this impression about your candidacy?
First, I want to say this. If our president was a Government candidate, why then did he boycott the national conference when the government refused to give the NBA more slots?
That shows you clearly that the man is not a Government candidate. What further proof do you need? Here is a president who said ‘no, I am not going to be part of it if the NBA can’t have more than one slot.’
Let me state this clearly, personally I am not a card carrying member of any political party. I do not sit on the board of any government agency. Not at the state level and not at the federal level. I have stayed away. I have worked for Labour Party and I have worked for the PDP.