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The Body Of Benchers and the organization of commotion – By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo

Nigeria has a way of making  special occasions ordinary.  Graduates of the  Nigerian Law School were called to the bar a few days ago. The venue was the International Conference Center Abuja.  Invited guests  lined up under a bitter sun. At some point  the queue  was two kilometer long.  The  motor traffic around the center  was utter chaos. The elderly and the young, parents and friends, languished in  hopeless queue and questioned the point of attending. Disappointment was visible on all faces. There was no one to minister happiness.


People came from everywhere. Their elaborate attires showed the richness of our diversity.  They had come  for a momentous occasion. Their children were becoming lawyers. They came from Sokoto, Yenagoa, Lagos, Tokyo, New York. The organizers of  that ritual  must believe it would lose solemnity if it didn’t hold  only in Abuja. So at every of the four sessions they gave out more tickets than the auditorium could sit. Some  guests lost their temper and  two hours on the queue to get into the ICC compound. They took their frowns into another queue inside the compound.

One of the security officers offered an explanation. He  said people were deliberately processed slowly because of  Boko Haram. If anyone had Boko Haram in mind then he would have avoided the  human and vehicular chaos in and around that centre. At all the four security  points, only tickets were checked. There were no metal detectors and no frisking. Only stern faces, incompetence and clumsiness.

Guests who got into the building at 9.15 am for the 10 am morning session were told the auditorium was full.  No one apologized. They were blamed for not coming, perhaps, at 6 am. They had come from South Africa and Australia and Calabar. But they had to sit on dirty white chairs in a makeshift overflow.  And guests continued to pour in. The  makeshift Overflow overflowed and a second overflow was opened. Dignitaries ran and tumbled over each other.  An elderly professor ran with me into the new room. The seats were few.  There was no room for decorum. A man who came from America muttered curses about the black race and backwardness.

The ceremony began in the auditorium. The television in the overflow was outdated , analogue screen. The technicians came  late and spent an hour fixing it.  People continued to pour into the filled overflows. Some hung on the stair case. Everyone settled into the confusion. The focus switched to the two hazy small screens.  They must have been bought in the 1980’s and forgotten in a dusty store.

The Chief Justice is the head of the Body of Benchers.  He was resplendent in his robe. The Body of Benchers is the most distinguished legal body in the country. It admits into legal practice and has the responsibility to maintain professional discipline. It is constituted by our legal leading lights.  What it didn’t show that day was that it had the capacity to organize any  solemn event.

The tedium in the overflow was made worse by the address of the Chief Justice. He read largely from a prepared speech. It was all drabness. Children made noises of fatigue. Some guests hanging on the stair case succeeded in enticing or cajoling  security officers and were smuggled into the main auditorium. The International conference Centre was an Ogbete  scene. The Body of Benchers sat in dignified benches and robes and pretended they were not aware of the chaos they authored outside.

The graduates were called by name. Of the about  4000 that graduated,  3000 had ordinary pass.  They were barely allowed to graduate. Perhaps for logistical reasons. So that the Law School is not clogged up. So that those leaving the university this year can have spaces. The Body of Benchers did not apologize to the parents for the poor performance of the students. This distinguished body perhaps didn’t address its mind to the results.

That elaborate disorder christened ‘call-to-the-bar ceremony’ by the Body of Benchers was effectively a ‘let-my-people-go’ ceremony.  If what the Body of Benchers showcased  in the organization of the ceremony is reliable, then the fault may not lie with the  bumbling students. The students  must have performed poorly because the quality of education they received was miserable.

It is the prerogative of the body of wise learned men to decide how to conduct these rituals. But if they can’t see that dragging everybody to Abuja is cumbersome then they must spread the ceremony over a month rather than two days. They should at every occasion restrict the invitations to just a number they can manage with dignity. The ceremony ended. No one, not even the Chief Justice, apologized for its agonizing shoddiness.

But wasn’t all gloom. Parents heard the names of their children and shouted ‘Praise da Lord.’ The three best students were all women.  I was told  they have been dominating for a while. Where they do not dominate is in the appeal courts and the supreme courts. The Body of Benchers  itself is masculine.  The  Benchers must look at the results. And  must ask  why  themselves  why women graduate best from law school but don’t fill the supreme court. Women have the capacity to fill 50% of seats in the appeal courts and the supreme court, on merit.

There were 29 first class students. The North was missing in action. The north must challenge the domination of the south. This cannot be reversed by quota system. It will be challenged by improving the quality of education across the whole region. This is where rivalry is healthy and this where rivalry is most needed.  It is not in the allocation of seats in the senior courts by quota system.

Abuja airport was clogged. The ceremonies lacked meaningful content. And they inflicted unnecessary pain.  Let these ceremonies take place in the states or in the six  law school campuses. So that families and friends can celebrate with the new wigs without gnashing their teeth.


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