By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
At its National Executive Council (NEC) meeting of August 20, 2020, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, was briefed on efforts made by all stakeholders to resolve the controversies associated with the last election of its national officers, following which the Board of Trustees has since released a statement that seems to have doused all the tensions generated by that election.
The new Executive Council (Exco) will be inaugurated this week, to take charge of the affairs of the NBA for the next two years. The expectations are high indeed, given the promises made by the candidates during their electioneering campaigns.
The Exco is not entirely new, at least not to NBA matters. The President-elect, Mr. Olumide Akpata, has been the head of the NBA Section on Business Law, he has been part of the organization of NBA Conferences for many years and he has been working in the background with many Excos before him.
The General Secretary, Mrs. Joyce Oduah, is in history the second female lawyer to be elected into that position, about twenty-nine years after the legendary Mrs. Hariat Balogun. The two Vice-Presidents are officers familiar with the NBA terrain. Mr. Kunle Edun, the activist Welfare Secretary, was in the saddle with Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN, as the Publicity Secretary of the NBA.
What this means is that the Exco should hit the ground running, more so that we are not likely to have the usual luxury of ceremonies and travels that consume the time and resources of leaders, all due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This piece is an attempt to set an agenda for the new Exco, purely as a guide.
By its aims and objectives as stated in its constitution, the NBA is to be preoccupied with:
1. ‘Maintenance and defence of the integrity and independence of the Bar and the Judiciary in Nigeria; 2. Improvement of the system of administration of justice, its procedures, and the arrangement of court business and regular law reporting; and 3. Promotion and protection of the principles of the rule of law and respect for the enforcement of fundamental rights, human rights, and people’s rights’.
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Of course, there are other objectives but I have only highlighted these ones to guide my thoughts on the issues that I consider urgent and germane. The new Exco should prioritize its goals and not fall into the same trap as professional politicians who promise everything but do nothing. It is worth stating that the Motto of the NBA is: ‘Promoting the Rule of Law’. This is similar to the Motto of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, which is captured in the Latin maxim ubi jus ibi remedium, (where there is a right, there is a remedy).
The NBA, by its nature and composition, is different from all other professional associations and pressure groups, because it is also an interventionist agency for the protection of the rights of others, beyond its registered members. It cannot but be pro-people, especially the masses and the underprivileged in the society. For this and many reasons, the NBA has become the mouthpiece of the oppressed of the society, the official defender of the judiciary and judicial officers, and indeed the conscience of the nation.
Two eminent lawyers and nationalists of old, have given some guides to the new NBA Exco, namely Sir Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams and Pa Tunji Gomez. Sapara Williams was the first Nigerian to be admitted into the Inner Temple on November 17, 1879. He came back to Nigeria to help liberate his people from oppression and injustice, he campaigned vigorously for press freedom and for the abolition of the notorious Seditious Offences Ordinance of 1909, which fortified Colonial authority.
According to Sapara Williams, “the legal practitioner lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country”. For Pa Tunji Gomez, everything a lawyer does should be “a matter of conscience.”
State of the nation
The NBA should constantly interrogate the affairs of Nigeria against its stated aims and objectives, as the voices of lawyers must be heard on issues concerning the masses of our people, especially those of security and welfare. To this end, the NBA NEC should mandate every NBA Branch to always list State of the Nation as part of the agenda of its monthly meetings.
A gathering of lawyers cannot be complete if it does not discuss and take decisions on fundamental and topical issues affecting the nation. Lawyers should not just gather to discuss branch dues, practicing fees, stamp, and seal, NBA elections, etc; we must affect society for good.
It does not matter what the government in power feels or says, the NBA MUST be guided by its own Constitution and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The NBA as an organisation cannot be pro-government, it just cannot happen, because it won’t work. And it is gratifying that the President-elect has indicated this in some of his interviews after the election. The Exco can count on the support of all lawyers in this regard.
In my humble view, the responsibilities associated with the office of the President of the NBA may not permit him to be the official spokesperson of the Bar, but he must delegate that function to other officers so long as any intervention from the Bar on national issues has his input.
State of the Bar
The Bar in Nigeria is too fragmented and nothing says this more than the last national election. The new Exco should strive to build bridges across the Bar and work assiduously to downplay the issues that drove the campaigns during the election, which divided the Bar along ethnic and class lines. The Bar should henceforth speak with one voice.
The inability of the NBA to implement its resolutions on the fate of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria will haunt the association for a long time to come. Another ugly scenario is already playing out from the decision of NBA NEC on the cancellation of the invitation extended to the Governor of Kaduna State as a speaker at the NBA Conference. This is not the Bar that we grew up to know and cherish.
Lawyers and judges have become endangered species, as the practice of the legal profession, whether on the Bench or at the Bar, is increasingly becoming a dangerous path to tread.
The persecution of lawyers, purely on account of the prosecution or defence of the cause of their clients, cannot continue. The Exco should have Standing Committees comprising seasoned lawyers and activists, across the six geo-political zones, monitoring cases involving lawyers who are victims of overzealous security agencies, to take them up with superior authorities and to file cases in court for judicial pronouncements. Judges are unofficial members of the NBA and as such, the NBA Constitution requires that the NBA should ensure that judges are independent, well catered for, and protected.
The relationship between senior and young lawyers calls for urgent review. We need to find a balance between ambition and consolidation. The senior lawyer has spent years setting up his practice, invested heavily in it, and is looking forward to the days of harvest. This is expected.
However, he didn’t build the practice alone, so he must show enough magnanimity to accommodate the needs of those working with him. I’m concerned with the pitiable plight of young lawyers, especially in terms of remuneration, but given that law practice is mostly personalized, the NBA must find a way to set some guidelines on the issue of remuneration.
As the African saying goes, if the hunter should reflect on the vicissitudes of hunting in the wild, he would most probably be unwilling to share his game. For instance, the NBA could give a guideline to the extent that any Senior Advocate of Nigeria, or a senior lawyer aspiring to be an SAN, should not have a lawyer in his office who earns less than N100,000 monthly as his basic salary, quite apart from transport fees to attend court and other benefits. Gladly, Mr. Akpata is renowned for running one of the best law firms in terms of the welfare of young lawyers, so he should make this a priority.
However, this must correspond with established ethics of the profession, especially on the issue of due deference to and regard for senior lawyers. A major issue that played out in Mr. Akpata’s favour was the campaign by young lawyers against senior lawyers. That ugly development should die and be buried upon the inauguration of the new Exco, as it will not augur well for the Bar, should it be allowed to fester beyond its election campaign value.
I have good reasons to believe that Mr. Akpata does not personally share this banal sentiment at all, having himself worked tirelessly to produce two erudite Senior Advocates of Nigeria within the space of just two years. Being the immediate beneficiary of that anomalous rebellion, the President-elect should make it his priority to build a bridge between young and senior lawyers, in the overall interest of the Bar.
The NBA Exco must audit the last election so as to improve on it. To the extent that the Board of Trustees has confirmed that the election was flawed, it should not be difficult for the Exco to take up the pitfalls immediately and give a roadmap for a credible election in 2022. The late President Umaru Yar’adua admitted that the election that brought him into office was not perfect, so he set up the Honourable Justice Muhammadu Uwais Panel for electoral reforms.
It is believed that the inability of leaders after him to implement the recommendations of the Uwais Panel, has been the bane of free and fair elections in Nigeria. An association of learned minds, with less than thirty thousand active voters, cannot afford to conduct a flawed election. The new Exco should work assiduously to abolish this odious legacy if it can be so-called.