By Innocent Anaba
Chief Arthur Obi Okafor, SAN, is a presidential candidate in the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, elections slated for sometime this month. In this interview, he speaks on corruption in the judiciary, minimum wage for young lawyers, effectiveness of the NBA electronic voting system, among other issues.
Considering the fact that a few judges have been taken to court and some exonerated, will you still say corruption is a reality in the judiciary?
The issue of corruption is multifaceted. It exists not only within the Judiciary but permeates almost every facet of our society. The other arms of government are also mired in issues bordering on corruption. Though some judicial officers were tried and exonerated on allegations of corruption, it does not mean that the Judiciary arm of government is absolutely free of corruption. When reference is made to the judiciary, many people are under the misconception that it refers only to magistrates and other judicial officers. However, the judiciary includes all those engaged in that arm of government and they range from bailiffs to court clerks, registrars and every other employee within the system. Corruption is a reality in our society and the judiciary is certainly not immune.
Soon, the NBA will return to the polls to elect a new set of national executives. Would you say the electronic voting system introduced two years ago will work well?
Electronic voting is one of the innovations of the Constitution of the Nigerian Bar Association, 2015 which also introduced the Universal Suffrage that gives every legal practitioner in Nigeria the opportunity to partake in the process of electing the national officers of the association. The significant problem appears to be with the interpretation of what the Constitution means by the phrase “Electronic Voting.” The jury is out on this because of the lacuna created by the absence of a definition clause. Whilst some have argued that it is by voting via the internet, others have opined that it is by direct voting through the use of a voting machine. This controversy needs to be resolved expeditiously. However, notwithstanding the interpretation that may ultimately be settled on, it is critical that the individuals managing the process conduct it in such a manner as would guarantee its integrity and engender confidence of all the participants. Should the NBA get it right, other professional associations and even Nigeria’s election management body may be persuaded to adopt it in the country’s general elections sometime in the future.
In the recent past, money has become a prominent feature in the NBA elections. Do you think things will be different this time around?
The involvement of money cannot be totally eliminated from our electoral processes. However, it is the specific uses to which it is put that needs to be interrogated. A situation where aspirants brazenly use money to induce, entice and influence potential votes and voters should be deprecated by all. However, social media activities, facilitation of movement and production of campaign content necessarily involves the use of resources. The electoral guidelines and the NBA Constitution have made elaborate provisions aimed at discouraging the influence of money on the process and it is the responsibility of the ECNBA to ensure compliance by all those involved.
The committee set up by the NBA to look at the welfare of lawyers, among other things, proposed a minimum wage of N50,000 for young lawyers. Do you think that is enough?
The N50,000 minimum remuneration for young lawyers recommended by the NBA Welfare Committee appears on the face of it as highly commendable. However, there is a major problem with its implementation and or enforcement in a free market economy such as ours. Realistically, the amount is hardly enough to meet the needs of the intended beneficiaries. Secondly and more importantly is whether a majority of law firms in Nigeria have the capacity to implement it. No doubt, there are a few firms that pay much more, but how many young lawyers can such law firms absorb into their employment? In view of the number of persons that join the profession annually, the problem of unemployment will arise.
It is to address this issue that we are proposing a more enduring and effective solution to the problem. Whilst we will vigorously engage and encourage law firms with capacity to embrace the need to pay appropriate remuneration to juniors as a means of enhancing their dignity and that of the profession, we will also vigorously pursue our capacity-building and mentorship agenda for young lawyers. This policy is designed to equip them with the requisite skills that will enhance their competitiveness and earning abilities. To achieve this, we will focus attention on encouraging and empowering young lawyers to form partnerships by the setting up of a specialised unit at the National Secretariat with the specific mandate to provide needed technical support and facilitation of funding by way of loans. When this is achieved, we believe that the present clamour for high remuneration by young lawyers will be greatly reduced since many would have become financially independent.
Any hope that the Nigerian Law School might reconsider its decision on the admission of law graduates from the National Open University of Nigeria, NOUN?
The issue of admission into the Law School of graduates of the NOUN I believe is sub- judice and therefore, it will be inappropriate for me to comment on it at this point. I will, however, urge that the matter be determined expeditiously in the interest of the ambitions, destinies and aspirations of many which are still hanging in the balance. The earlier they know their fates, the better for everyone.
Is there other ways the NBA can respond to the needs of lawyers?
There are many ways that the NBA can make itself more responsive and relevant to its members. Over the years, there has been some sort of disconnect between the National Secretariat and the teeming membership of the Bar which is basically domiciled at the branches. This largely accounts for the seeming apathy of members and has also led to increasing discontent being witnessed currently. Lawyers complain that they do not feel the impact of their professional body in any aspect of their private and professional lives.
We have therefore deliberately set out to alter this narrative by returning the Bar to whom it actually belongs, that is, the branches. We intend to run a branch-driven Bar. We will increase remittances to branches to empower them to be able to meet immediate welfare needs of members. The National Secretariat will be concerned more with policy formulation, direction and supervision to ensure compliance and implementation for the benefit of members. We will work with and for members. Our focus will be on human capital development because we believe that people and not structures, ensure and aid growth. We will identify, recover and plug areas of encroachment on legal services by quacks/other professionals, as well as expatriates. We will re-engineer the Secretariat to provide guidance on expanding vistas of legal practice and also pursue collaboration with other Bar societies, governments and developmental agencies for enhanced opportunities and competitiveness in a globalised economy.
Some lawyers have said that the response of the NBA recently to some critical national issues in the country is nothing to write home about. What is your reaction to this?
It may not be entirely correct to say that NBA’s response to national issues is nothing to write home about. The somewhat muted voice of the NBA on national issues which you allude to may be attributable to the manner and style of the current leadership. Every leader has his/her own style of approach to issues. However, in the #AllinclusiveBar, we believe that the NBA as an organisation should be able to carve and maintain an identity that is distinct from that of the personalities occupying its leadership. The personality of the NBA ought to be guided and driven by the core values that the NBA is known for and should prevail despite the personal inclinations of the officers running it. Once we are able to distinguish self or personal objectives from the collective goals, it would be easy for the opinion of the NBA to resonate on any national issue. Nigeria now probably more than any time ever, requires a bold, loud and audacious NBA that will make the corporate interest of Nigeria its guiding principle and also hold the country’s leadership to the highest standards of responsibility and accountability. We in the #AllinclusiveBar are irrevocably committed to this objective.
How do you think the system can be improved upon?
The vision of the #AllinclusiveBar is one that visualises a Bar of possibilities and greatness. It desires to rally members to harness individual and collective potentials for unparalleled growth and development. We aim at improving the system by availing members as equal stakeholders in the NBA project the opportunity to bring their laudable ideas to the table. Every leader must have a clear vision of where he or she is going and must be sure that his followers are coming along. There is no better template for success than ensuring that members own a vision and key into it.
The details of the Manifesto of the #AllinclusiveBar which can be accessed on the website of the ECNBA and other several social media handles is explicit on the ideas we are bringing on board. These ideas include but are not limited to the following: Empowerment of the branches and the entrenchment of governance discipline. By this, we would incrementally review the percentage of the ‘Bar Practice Fees’ (BPF) accruable to branches of the NBA to a minimum of 25 per cent. Further, to address issues associated with prompt, regular and irreconcilable remittances to branches, we will execute Standing Orders with NBA’s Bankers authorising the deductions to be made as a first line charge on the accounts of the Association and credited to the various branches’ accounts. The #AllinclusiveBar has reached the incontrovertible conclusion that membership of the NBA is domiciled at the branches which are also the major sources of revenue for the association. Additionally, branches are better positioned to impact their respective members as against the National Secretariat. In any event, it is the branches that primarily bear the responsibility for the welfare and developmental needs of their members thereby necessitating that they be availed more funds and resources. The increased resources to branches will come with its concomitant demand for greater accountability and also stimulate the interest of members in how their commonwealth is being administered. It will also mean heightened interest in the general activities of the NBA. This is a tacit way of promoting the all inclusiveness that we stand for, among others.