Olumide Akpata is a Senior Partner and Head of the Corporate and Commercial Practice Group at Templars Law Firm. In this interview with Innocent Anaba, he speaks on his aspiration to become the next President of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and his vision for the association. Excerpt:
Why should lawyers choose you, and not your fellow contestants, as President of the NBA?
In answering this question,I will rather restrict my answers to why I believe Nigerian lawyers should choose me, without any reference to my fellow candidates, both of whom I have tremendous respect for.
I have always said, and I will repeat it today that my life as a lawyer has been dedicated to the service of the NBA, championing capacity development of lawyers, expanding the frontiers of law practice, and of course to the service of my clients and the society.
In the course of my involvement in the activities of the Association, and I have been very involved, it soon became obvious to me that there is a widespread sentiment within the profession that the NBA is grossly lacking in utilitarian value and that many lawyers have remained members of the Association out of compulsion.
The often-asked question by many lawyers is, what does the NBA do for me? Beyond this, there is also a wide spectrum of lawyers who are often alienated from the affairs of the Association and are not treated as equal with others. This should not be. An Association whose members do not join, or do not remain part of, out of a voluntary sense of commitment and involvement but due to compulsion is on the verge of extinction.
I am confident that I possess the tools to lay a solid foundation for a Bar that works for the overall interests of all segments of the Bar. Therefore, the promises that I will make to the members when the time comesare focused on how to achieve the aims and objectives of our Association such that the Association can add value to all its members and the society.
That said, what I think that I bring to the table are recent and relevant record of result-oriented leadership in almost all positions that I have been privileged to hold within and outside the Bar; a clear understanding of the issues affecting the Bar and practical solutions for dealing with them; a deep appreciation of the role that the Bar plays or ought to play as the watchdog of the society and a commitment to deliver as such; and availability to steer the ship.
On the last point, I really want to be a hands-on President and so, as I had mentioned elsewhere that my partners at my law firm have agreed to allow me to take a two-year sabbatical to focus on the office should I become President. The idea being to afford me enough time to deal with the many challenges facing the Bar and to create a stronger institution out of it without been distracted or bugged down by the extreme demands of work.
I should quickly add that this, in itself, is an aberration and I hope that I would be the last President who would have to make the sacrifice of leaving work to focus on Bar leadership of the Bar since leadership and law practice ought not to be mutually exclusive. However, given where we are at the moment and the amount of work that needs to be done, such full dedication is crucial, and I sincerely do not believe that any other candidate can genuinely offer this.
Young lawyers often complain that the NBA does nothing other to collect their annual dues and organise the Bar conference. What are your plans for them?
Anyone who has followed my activities especially at the Bar will attest to the fact that the NBA Young Lawyer has been of primary focus and interest for me. In fact, I always have to defend myself to tell our more esteemed seniors that I am for everyone, and indeed, I am.
Frankly one of the fundamental principles that guide my actions is that it is impossible to chart the course for the future of any association or organisation and the young persons who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of that future have no seat at the negotiation table. It just cannot work. If I emerge as NBA President, I will bring institutional focus to issues affecting our younger colleagues.
In this regard I must say here as I have said a number of times at different fora, my idea of welfare for the young lawyer does not lie in providing hand-outs to them. Rather it is about equipping them with modern skills and tools to provide for themselves.
So, should I become President I will fashion out policies that will significantly improve the welfare and well-being of young lawyers and lawyers generally. Issues around welfare in terms of better remuneration, health insurance, protection from sexual and other forms of harassment at the workplace and access to finance for those seeking to set up their own practices will be front-burner issues for me.
I also recognise that if we do not train our young lawyers and aspiring lawyers in contemporary legal subjects and in a practical manner, they will not be fit for the future. If our young lawyers are not fit for the future, it will create room for lawyers from foreign jurisdictions to surreptitiously fill up that space and this would not be good for the future of the profession.
That is why one of my chief contribution will be to make dispensations to young lawyers to enable them to satisfy the requirements of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Programme every year and tom participate in enriching and relevant capacity development programmes to be organised in various parts of the country and not just in our major cities. This would not be new to me because the NBA-SBL under my leadership organised several of such programmes across the entire through our various subject-matter focused committees.
For instance, in partnership with the International Bar Association, we organised a free training for 100 young lawyers on the fundamentals of International Legal Business Practice and there were several others. If I emerge NBA President, I will ensure active partnerships and collaborations with international organisations and agencies to provide our young lawyers with capacity building opportunities that will adequately prepare them for the future that we all are speaking about.
Further, I will pledge to ensure adequate representation of young lawyers in all appointments made in the two years of my Presidency as a means of mentoring, empowering and preparing them for future leadership in the profession.
The NBA under my administration will also put in place a highly competitive scholarship scheme based on very transparent criteria for a number of young lawyers to be drawn from NBA Branches in each of the geo-political zones to attend conferences/training abroad every year for the two years of my administration. We shall also encourage senior lawyers and law firms to institute similar schemes across the country.
These trainings will be specially selected in order to broaden the knowledge of the beneficiaries as well as hone their skills, in specific emerging areas of law or legal practice, which they will in turn impact to other members of their branches, upon their return. The essence of this is to expand their horizon and enable them to enlarge their network, develop an appropriate interest in contemporary areas of law practice, learn the art of business development and increase their commercial awareness.
I also hope that we will also establish NBA mentorship programme for young lawyers and law students to be administered by the NBA Mentorship Committee to benefit the young lawyers. This programme will also be extended to our colleagues at the Universities and the Nigerian Law School.
This will involve pairing selected Nigerian law students with some young lawyers to provide them guidance and support as they transition from being students to becoming legal practitioners. For the young lawyers, we will have a one-on-one and group mentoring initiatives where we can pair them with more experienced lawyers who may be in private practice, in-house, in academia and so on depending on their path they want to pursue.
There is so much that I hope we can achieve with and for the young lawyers and time would not permit me to discuss all of those on this platform.
What are your thoughts on the practice of zoning adopted by the NBA for its elections?
The rotational presidency policy was introduced as part of the solution to the crisis that engulfed the NBA between 1992-1998 when NBA had no national President and was run at the Branch level only. It is a testament to the success of the policy that there has been no repeat of such crisis to date. It is also in compliance with the policy that all three provisionally cleared candidates in this year’s race are from the Western Geographic Zone as defined by the NBA Constitution.
As with everything, the policy has its merits especially from the point of view of ensuring fair representation, but there are also concerns amongst some who believe that the office holders should be chosen solely based on their competence and character and not any other factor.
These days, money seems to play a big role in NBA elections. There is anecdotal evidence that some presidential candidates spend hundreds of millions, if not billions on the electorate, including on young lawyers, in a bid to win their votes. What are your thoughts on this seemingly ‘money for votes’ practice?
Honestly, I do not share these sentiments. I admit that in time past we had the issue of money politics in the NBA especially during the practice of delegate voting. But this is exactly what the universal suffrage introduced by the Austin Alegeh SANadministration and implemented for the first time in 2016, was put in place to tackle.
While we cannot say we are there yet, we have made considerable progress. In fact, the 2020 ECNBA has also gone a long way to minimise the place of money in our electoral process and I commend them for this.
Have you secured the backing of any regional body association of lawyers for the 2020 NBA presidential election?
I have not secured the backing of any regional body association of lawyers for the 2020 NBA elections and I haven’t presented myself for adoption by any of the bodies. Indeed, only one of the bodies came out to say that they have adopted one of the candidates, but that has not stopped another candidate from that same Zone from contesting.
In recent times, the NBA has failed to take a critical position on obvious injustice by the Federal Government and some state governors. Do you think the body has lost its activism role and what will you do in this regard if you emerge president of the body?
I completely agree with you that the NBA has in recent times lost its voice as the prime defender of the integrity and independence of the Bar and the judiciary and of the Nigerian society at large. For too long the NBA has yielded its position as the conscience of the Nigerian society and the bulwark against tyranny and injustice in Nigeria.
The truth is that for as long as the Bar fails to carry out this sacred duty, we would continue to dash the hopes of the millions of our compatriots who look up to us to fight against all forms of injustice, condemn unpopular government policies and check abuse of power. It is for this reason that the NBA must strive diligently and consistently to restore the dignity of the Bar.
Once again, should I have the honour of leading the Bar as its President, the voice or opinion of the Bar must and shall be heard or made or rendered loud and clear on every topical issue, policy, action, etc. of various governments/their agencies and/or on issues of national and global discourse.
What difference would your presidency bring to the NBA if you succeed in your aspiration?
Should I become President, I think that there are five areas where we can certainly make real difference. First will be reforming the institutional and governance processes of the NBA to have it run as a proper institution as we have in other parts of the world.
The second will be significant involvement of the Bar in the promotion of rule of law, improved administration of justice, defense of the Judiciary, law reforms and legal education reforms.
Third will be the welfare of the members. Like I often say, lawyers’ welfare is an important component of the dignity of our profession. As part of its core mandate, the NBA must ensure the welfare of its members. While the role of the Bar certainly includes acting as a watchdog, we should, in working to protect our society, not neglect the welfare of everyone at the Bar.
The fourth will be to have a Bar where every lawyer feels welcome, has a voice and a seat at the table and can aspire to any heights without limitation or discrimination regardless of their station or status whether they be young lawyers or senior lawyers, senior advocates or non-senior advocates, lawyers in private practice or those that are in-house or in the academia or working as law officers.
Lastly, will be to have to put in place policies that will help us lay the foundations for a Bar that is globally competitive and prepared for the future in terms of technology in law, cross border law practice, new and emerging practice areas for Nigerian lawyers and so on.
Do you see any problem with the block voting pattern at the local NBA branches?
I do not have any data to support the existence of a block voting pattern, but I do not see any problem with that. However, we now have a one-man-one-vote policy so the possibility of such block voting patterns across branches is somewhat doubtful.