By Innocent Anaba
Afam Ozigwe is the only candidate whose quest to contest for the office of the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, was rejected. In this interview, Ozigwe took time to explain why he sued the NBA, his feelings about the electoral process and his views about the outcome of the Bar election.
What would you say about the electoral process put in place by the NBA Electoral Committee?
I had cause to express reservations about the electoral process and I think so far, events surrounding the NBA election have shown to sceptics and those who felt that I made a wild allegation about attempts to unjustly influence the process and take decisions not supported by law, that the allegations were actually not unfounded. I say this bearing in mind the reasons for my disqualification. I will only describe the grounds for my disqualification as being spurious because the matter is pending in court.
I also have to refer to other aspects of the election that not only robbed the NBA electoral process of confidence, but going to affect voters’ turnout and lawyers’ participation in the election.
Now, we had cause to point out that the mode the electoral committee embarked on in collecting data, was not only wrong but impracticable and in conflict with the letter and spirit of the NBA Constitution, and that it also wrongly gave too much power to the branches and that the power could be abused. We did point out that the proper thing for the NBA to do was to rely on data collected from the statement of account, that it was wrong to ask branches to collect tellers from members and that this was worrisome in the light of the fact that some candidates paid practice fees and branch dues for young lawyers and kept those tellers without handing them over and did the submission of documents on their behalf and only gave them photocopies of tellers, long after the date stipulated for that.
And we pointed out that if you look at the second schedule, article 2d or 2f presupposes that the act of registering to be a voter is the act of the lawyer, and that under the NBA Constitution, the electoral committee lacks the power to delegate data collection to branches, that all the branches are supposed to do is to submit the list of members of their branches that paid branch dues and for NBA to match it with its data and produce the preliminary voters’ list and require lawyers to go online and register to vote. So, by updating your records, you have indicated that you want to vote. Unfortunately, this was not done. In some places like Abuja and a few others where there were crises, you see an unwholesome situation where after publishing some people’s names as voters, or publishing their names in the preliminary voters’ register, suddenly their name disappeared entirely from the final voters’ list, because they said a faction not recognised by the NBA submitted their names, even when they could not fault the fact that they paid Bar practice fees and branch dues; you said because a man you do not recognise submitted their names, they will not vote. So, you see Abuja dropping by more than 50 per cent, and it is intentional because I was originally from Abuja branch and it was supposed to be my strong base and so, they were cherry-picking. Anyone they felt was supporting me, even down to my own wife, was weeded out of the voters’ register and all the lawyers in my office.
Why did you decide to approach the court in spite of the fact that you still belong to the NBA?
I filed a motion for injunction to stop the election into the office of the president. My contention is that the NBA Constitution allows the First Vice-President of the NBA to act in the absence of the President; that the substance of my suit relates to my unlawful disqualification and unlawful exclusion from the election. In other words, my suit stands on being allowed to participate in the election into the office of the President. So, why I sought to have the court restrain conduct into that election, is to enable me participate. But also realising that the current leadership of the NBA has not had a record of respecting court orders, as we saw happen in NBA Abuja branch, my counsel felt that it was important to include a prayer seeking the nullification of the election if NBA, despite the pendency of the suit, goes ahead to conduct the election. Now, you would expect a lawful and respectful organisation faced with this kind of situation, whether it is right or wrong, to hold on and await the outcome of the court. That’s my understanding of the Supreme Court in the case of Peter Obi vs INEC.
Do you think the court action you filed will solve the problems?
If I were on the NBA Electoral Committee, knowing that this issue has been presented to court, I would, even in the absence of an injunction, not conduct an election into the office of the president knowing that the NBA will not grind to a halt. But like I said, this leadership, not having shown the propensity to obey court orders or pendency of suits, we had to include a prayer, asking that if they go ahead and do this, this should happen, because this is also elementary. In Ondo State, I think when Olusegun Mimiko came into office and there were indications he was going to dissolve local government councils and the chairmen went to court to challenge that, and he went ahead to dissolve them and conduct another election. When the Supreme Court gave judgment in that matter, it threw away those who benefitted from that election because it was conducted when a suit was pending.
But I didn’t want to take that chance too, because these individuals were also boasting that I will waste my two years in court, that after all, 2016 NBA presidential candidate, J. K. Gadzama (SAN) is still in court. This is also another aspect of this matter that we may want to look at – delay in cases, the need for courts being faced with cases that are time-bound to, as much as possible, resolve them to avoid undue delays. If there’s anything wrong with Gadzama challenging the election of A.B. Mahmoud (SAN) and A.B. Mahmoud now having six months to the end of his tenure and the court adjourning the matter till the end of September, by which time the court will resume for adoption of final addresses, the man whose election he is challenging would have gone away. Then you’ll see the same defendants arguing that his suit has become academic. There’s everything wrong with such a situation.
With electronic voting, everyone believes that doubt will be eliminated in the conduct and the outcome of the poll. What is your take?
When the administration I served as general secretary introduced electronic voting, the president then did say that the society should emulate it. Even before the election, people already believe that this election will never meet the least of international best practices.They believe the electoral committee is conducting a concluded election, and that is not complimentary. So, it’s no longer about me, I would want to see the electoral process sanitised. I would want us to develop a system of appointing independent persons to conduct the elections; a situation where there’s more openness than we have presently. I would want a system where branches must not receive cash payments so that payments can be easily verified. I want to see a system where NBA is actually able to keep records, because to contest for some of these offices, you are required to have served in a branch exco. Some people simply say they have served, but we have no way of verifying whether they have said the truth or not. I would also want to see a situation where we remove some of the restrictions that limit people’s ability to participate, like saying you must have been in NEC for two years. We need to have a stabilised way of saying, ‘this is how you calculate age at the Bar, so that somebody who will turn 10 in November, is not trying to contest in June for that same office when she has not turned 10.
Despite your professed love for the NBA, why did you go ahead to sue the body to court?
I have never resigned to fate. I don’t believe in crying without doing anything. I went to court … I love the NBA, but I love justice more. Normally, I don’t think it is right for someone to sue an association he seeks to lead, but sometimes to sanitise a system; you need to challenge the system. I also went to court so that this does not happen to another person. If that makes me a sacrificial lamb, so be it. Some people call me and say, by suing the NBA, if you apply tomorrow, they won’t give you. When it’s my time to take Silk, if it is the will of God, I will take it. I will not for fear of what will happen today, fail to take a necessary action, and it’s not about benefits, because if it were, I’m sure if I sit down to negotiate, I can be promised juicy things. But at some point in your life you must live for or be remembered for something and I want people to be able to reference my case as a point where people stood up to challenge this system. Probably, this has continued because people always accepted this in silence, but I never do and I don’t believe we should. Otherwise the democracy we are enjoying would not have come; there are people who suffered, who fought the military, who went to jail, who went on exile to get here.
We will do all that is necessary for us to diligently get justice in the matter.
I may not be able to predict what the other counsel may do, or the judge’s preparedness to hear the matter, but from what I have seen of the judge, he seems prepared to, because when it appeared the counsel were going to get into lengthy argument about the propriety of granting an interim injunction to restrain their election, the judge said no, as far as he was concerned, the NBA could go ahead and conduct the election, it doesn’t really matter, but if he gives judgment and he finds that there is merit in the plaintiff’s case, he would nullify the election. For me, this shows the judge has a clear understanding of the issues.