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#NBADecides2020: The election of unintended consequences (2)

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#NBADecides 2020, election
Professor Chidi Odinkalu

The first part of this piece published, yesterday, highlighted the interplay of forces that shaped the emergence of Olumide Akpata as NBA president. It continues today by identifying the role played by other factors in deciding the outcome of the election.

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

WITHOUT knowing it, he had launched an “anyone-but-a SAN” campaign which did not need any amplifiers to catch fire. There was only one beneficiary of this blowback, a fact that must not have been lost on those who leaked the letter in the first place.

Accounting for fraud: In the week preceding #NBADecides2020, the rigging of the 2018 ballot finally caught up with the Association. On July 22, the EFCC filed 14 counts of cybercrimes charges against two staff of the Association, Sarah Ajijola and John Demide, for various acts allegedly done “with the intent of gaining an electoral advantage in favour of Mr. (Paul) Usoro”, the man who was eventually declared winner in the 2018 vote with a supposed victory margin of a mere 86 votes.

According to the charges filed by the Commission, the activities of Ms. Ajijola and Mr. Demide, including digital identity-theft and spoof voting, resulted in a harvest of 1,004 votes being fraudulently credited to Mr. Usoro. Quite clearly, from the charges, the Commission alleges that but for the activities of these staff, Mr. Usoro clearly lost the election.

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There was an unsettling, Teflon quality to these charges. It is inconceivable that these two minions could have run an operation to rig the elections of the NBA without the participation of the then leadership of the Association. Then, of course, there was the question how minions could have been charged while the beneficiary was free to supervise his own succession.

Unsurprisingly, everyone was fidgety. A man who could procure such a circumstance could hardly be trusted with delivering a credible election. The result was another unintended consequence – heightened vigilance.

Discounting the members: The joke was always that lawyers are poor with numbers. The question of whether this is cock-up or conspiracy has always been an open one. In these NBA elections, it was all nearly all about the electoral roll. Voters in NBA ballots have to meet three conditions. First, a voter must be enrolled as a lawyer in Nigeria.

This record is kept by the Supreme Court. Second, the person must have paid their annual practising fees by 31 March. Access Bank collects these payments. The national NBA keeps this record. Third, the voter must also have paid his or her branch dues by 31 March. The NBA comprises 125 branches. Each branch should keep records of these payments. In reality, few do.

The list of voters should be compiled through a data reconciliation process between the records of the Supreme Court, the NBA Secretariat and each of the 125 branches. The Association has historically never bothered to do this because the gaps are profitable for election rigging and private profit. It was not much different in these elections.

The constitution of the NBA requires the ECNBA to issue the list of eligible voters within 28 days of the vote. With elections scheduled to take place on July 29, the final list of eligible voters should have been out by July 1. In reality, there was none until five hours to the vote on July 29.

The ECNBA issued a provisional list at the end of May with 21, 067 names. By the end of June, the ECNBA replaced the first provisional list with a second, which grew by 86.65% to 39,321 names. This was the list with which members were required to verify their identities. The idea was only those who were verified would make the final list of accreditation.

When the ECNBA eventually issued the final list on July 29, it had dropped by 9,686 or 24.63% from 29,635. This was not at all unreasonable at first blush. The ECNBA had managed to eliminate “Opening Balance”, a prominent member on its initial list, whose existence could not, however, be verified. But, in so doing, it had created a scandal.

An unknown branch called “Diaspora International”, with 87 members had crept into the list. Obollo-Affor branch in Enugu State with 39 names in the penultimate list had ballooned by about 2,000% to over 600, with names harvested from nowhere. Many branches were populated by figments. Mr. Adelodun was practicing in Aba, Ganzallo had migrated to Owerri and in Abuja, they were looking for Ms. Otele.

Meanwhile, many who had verified and been digitally assured that they were confirmed to vote could not find their names. A prominent victim was Chief Priscilla Kuye, the only female president in the history of the Association. This, was the closing balance on the voting roll and with a mere five hours to voting, there was no opportunity to correct it.

To say that this raised hackles about the credibility of the ballot, the integrity of the portal and the abilities if the ECNBA would be an understatement. None of these concerns were satisfactorily answered before the conclusion of the election.

One of the presidential candidates, Olumide Akpata, personally protested these issues to the ECNBA and hired his own digital forensics team to test the integrity of the data portal of the NBA. When he communicated their report to the ECNBA, they took umbrage. The campaign team of Dele Adesina similarly complained.

A credible mess?

When the votes were eventually talliedin the early hours of July 31, there were 18,256 cast, a turnout of 62%. Olumide Akpata polled 9.891 or 54.3% to beat Tunde Ajibade, SAN, who polled 4,328 or 23.7% and Dele Adesina, SAN with 3,982 votes or 21.81%.

Eight hours to the end of voting, over 14,300 (48.25% of the voting roll) notices to prospective voters sent by the SMS channels were undelivered. The margin was substantial but the process was messy. In the end, reluctantly, most people appeared to agree that the most popular candidate was declared winner in the contest for the presidency but the flaws in the process created a mess. Along the way, the NBA also elected in Joyce Oduah only the second woman to be general-secretary in its long history.

It fell to Mr. Usoro, whom the EFCC says was installed with votes from the ghosts, to defend the integrity of the ECNBA. Predictably, even a Senior Advocate of his abilities cannot sensibly square the circle between credible and mess. If and when he assumes office as the 30th president of the NBA at the end of August 2020, Olumide Akpata will have his work cut out.

Restoring the credibility of the Association, distracted as it is by the incredulous lows of electoral fraud and financial malfeasance of the past few years, will be high on his list of priorities. An inter-generational dialogue between younger and older lawyers is needed. The choice of Mr. Akpata is not a rejection of responsible elders at the Bar but of the entitled, unaccountable, old ways of doing things exemplified by Chief Awomolo’s letter.

Above all, however, he will have to work hard to keep his campaign promise of bequeathing to his successor a reformed and much less flawed process than the one that has produced him. This begins with making the NBA credible in the management of membership data and information. That will be the biggest – and most fitting – unintended consequence of #NBADecides2020.

Prof. Odinkalu, a co-convenor of the Open Bar Initiative, OBI, wrote in his individual capacity.

VANGUARD

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