By Innocent Anaba, Ikechukwu Nnochiri
A major highpoint of the 2018 Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, would be the exchange of leadership baton between the outgoing President of the legal body, Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud, SAN, and his successor, Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN.
Usoro who hails from Akwa Ibom State, will take over as the 29th President of the NBA.
He was affirmed winner of a keenly contested election where he garnered a total of 4,509 votes to defeat his rivalries, Chief Arthur Obi Okafor, SAN, and Professor Ernest Ojukwu, SAN, who both got 4,423 and 3,314 votes, respectively.
Even though the Prof. Auwalu Yadudu, SAN-led NBA Election Committee, boasted that the poll was free, fair and credible, Usoro’s co-contestants have separately condemned the e-voting process they maintained was vigorously compromised.
The tasks before him in the Bar are therefore, onerous.
Having emerged through an election that was dogged by multiple controversies, it is expected that he would kick the ground running by embarking on a holistic unification/peace-building process.
He is taking over the reigns of leadership at a time the legal body appears more polarised than ever before.
The perceived alienation of former leaders of the Bar by Mahmoud’s administration cannot be isolated from some of the root issues tearing the NBA apart.
The fact that Usoro emerged victorious, albeit mounting insinuations that the process was skewed in his favour, is enough ground to spur him to pursue a vigorous reform initiative that would ensure a credible, free and fair election system for the NBA in subsequent years.
Voice of the common man
In the recent past, the NBA had served as the voice of the people. The judiciary being the last hope of the common man and lawyers playing a major role in that regard, the NBA must once again, pick up its role of being the voice of the common man, by helping to hold government accountable to the people, by ensuring that arbitrariness of government and its agencies at all levels against the ordinary citizen is totally curtailed.
A situation where NBA remained mute amid widespread allegations of human rights abuses by security agencies and flagrant disobedience to court orders by government at various levels, greatly devalued the confidence that Nigerians placed on its ability to function as a vibrant watchdog against administrative tyranny and oppression, which Usoro must correct now.
Defender of the common man
Not long ago, the NBA was a vocal and dogged defender of ordinary Nigerians, as it rose alongside civil society groups to campaign and defended ordinary Nigerians from oppressive government policies and programmes. The role of NBA in rejecting fuel subsidy, challenging draconian laws and government policies that dehumanise the masses, cannot be forgotten in a hurry. But in recent times, it appeared that the NBA had gone to bed in these regards. Usoro must re-awaken NBA to the days of Aka Bashorun leadership, when the Bar Association was able to confront and challenge executive excesses and lawlessness.
It is highly imperative for the new NBA President to revive the traditional values, outspokenness and legal activism that the association was hitherto known for.
The deafening-silence of the NBA in recent years to national issues is not only regrettable, but represents a dent on the integrity of the body as the foremost promoter of rule of law in Nigeria.
Reforming the Bar
The legal profession has its challenges, ranging from poor pay for young lawyers, corruption in the bar, harsh operating environment, abuse of court processes, unethical behaviour among some lawyers. These are at the core of the challenges facing the NBA. It’s an open secret that a lot of young lawyers are poorly paid, even when some seniors and firms which engage them are doing well. For Usoro, he must ensure that this unhealthy practice is stopped and young lawyers are paid well.
Corruption in the Bar
A situation where lawyers
get involved in compromising judicial officers must be fought against by the NBA. Usoro may need to get National Executive Council, NEC’s approval for the de-baring of any lawyer caught bribing a judge, so as to restore the much needed confidence in the profession. A situation where senior lawyers are prosecuted for bribing a judge does not portray the profession in good light, hence lawyers involved in compromising judicial officers must be de-barred to nip in the bud the ugly development. A situation where the ordinary citizen believes that a judge could be paid money to give a particular judgment, is not only dangerous for the society, but diminishes the esteem of the profession, hence, Usoro must take steps to challenge the perception by doing something concrete about it.
Harsh operating environment
Though this may not be exclusive to the bar, but whereby through legislation or laws, the environment is made harsh for the profession to flourish, the incoming president must make it a point of duty to see that such legislations are challenged or through advocacy, get such laws repealed. Perhaps this calls for the bar taking more than a passive interest in the economic policies of government. The NBA under Usoro should be able to dissect government economic policies and raise the alarm when they have the capacity to create more problem for the masses and society in general.
Abuse of court processes, discipline and unethical behaviour among some lawyers
Even though there are reforms embarked upon by government and heads of the various courts through rules of practice to ensure that the issues of abuse of court processes and unethical behaviour among some lawyers are addressed, the Usoro administration must help by ensuring that his members, who often engage in these practices, are dealt with. The bar should lead the way in ensuring that the conduct of lawyers in the practice of law as experienced in developed climes, is adopted here, so that some lawyers don’t continue to constitute a clog in the wheel of justice, which has turned out to be the case in some instances.
With the controversy generated by the two online elections, the incoming administration should take the matter back to NEC, or call a broad-based stakeholders’ meeting to look at the issue once again. When the delegate system was in force, there was never a time an election was adjudged to be rigged. But the two last online elections have attracted so much condemnations. As a matter of fact, the election that produced Mr Mahoud, SAN, who is bowing out tomorrow is still being challenged in court by Chief Joe Gadzama, SAN, and the matter is at address level, while the election he is seeking to nullify has been served out by Mahmoud.
The other contestants in the just-concluded election are also spoiling for war. Even though Prof. Ojukwu, SAN, who has insisted that the election was rigged had promised not to go to court, Chief Obi Okafor has called for an audit of the election result and may head to court if he was not satisfied with the outcome. This has made it imperative for a review of the online voting system, so that whoever emerges in the association’s election does not have to carry the burden of a disputed poll. Consequently, there is no doubt that the new NBA President is set for a turbulent two-year tenure that could make or mar the reputation of the umbrella body of legal practitioners in the country.
While some critics, both within and outside the Bar, believe that Usoro was already wired to fail, the onus now rests on him to carve a niche for himself on the bright side of history, by discharging the mandate of his new office without fear or favour.