By Henry Ojelu
Until recently, the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, has always been known for the promotion and protection of human rights, rule of law and good governance in Nigeria. During the military incursion into politics, leaders of the association fought alongside other pro-democracy groups to restore civil rule in the country.
The association was also active in holding government to account on several occasions in the past. But just like many other things that have gone wrong with Nigeria, the association has seen its powers whittled down by its leaderships’ questionable association with the political class thereby losing the credibility to question government’s actions.
In the last few months, it however appears that there are attempts by some lawyers outside the leadership of the association to restore the activism spirit for which it was once known for. In a revolt to reposition the association, young lawyers within the NBA, last month led a campaign that resulted in the election of Mr. Olumide Akpata as president of the association. Akpata is one of the few members of the association who is not a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, to be elected as president.
Few days to the commencement of the ongoing Annual General Conference of the association, some groups of lawyers kicked against the invitation of Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai as speaker at the virtual conference. The protesters who threatened to deregister from participating in the conference observed that it was wrong for the outgoing NBA leadership to give el-Rufai its platform to speak on national issues when he had failed to tackle the senseless killings in the Southern part of Kaduna.
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One of the prominent groups in the protest, Open Bar Initiative, in a statement by its convener, Silas Onu while condemning the inclusion of el-Rufai’s name on the list of speakers, noted that is sad that at a time when el-Rufai is playing ostrich with the senseless killings in Kaduna, the NBA is giving him a platform to speak. Onu warned that el-Rufai would certainly use the platform to advance his conflated narrative, designed to deceive and confuse the nation on the real causes of the killings.
In his passionate appeal to the organizers of the conference, Onu insisted that the Kaduna killings cannot be justified as a reprisal by the Governor and that giving him audience at the conference would mean that the NBA was condoning his tactics of wilful maladministration regarding Kaduna South security situation.
Few days after Onu’s letter, more lawyers joined the campaign using social media handles to amplify their demands. A number of lawyers were also reported to have deregistered from participating in the conference. Some senior lawyers like Femi Falana, SAN further sustained the pressure on the NBA exco by insisting that the association should follow the pulse of its members.
Two days after the uprising began, NBA bowed to pressure and announced that el-Rufai would no longer speak at the conference. Expectedly, members who led the campaign were elated. The pressure mounted by the members who ordinarily would not have had a say in NBA’s decision, eventually paid-off. Although some northern members of the association expressed their displeasure and even threatened to boycout the conference, the decision remained irreversible having being endorsed by NEC.
Indication that the decision was ‘forced’ became evident when the outgoing president, Paul Usoro, SAN, made a personal statement apologizing to the governor for the ‘hard decision’ which he explained was devoid of ethnic coloration.
Buoy-up by the success recorded by the anti-el-Rufai agitators, another group of lawyers under the auspices of Radical Agenda Movement In the Nigerian Bar Association, RAMINBA spearheaded another campaign for the withdrawal of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State as speakers at the NBA conference
In a statement jointly signed by the Chairman, RAMINBA, Mr Adesina Ogunlana and its Secretary, Ayo Ademiluyi, the group hailed el-Rufai’s withdrawal from the list describing the decision as “ a sanction against poor leadership approach in the handling of the genocidal Southern Kaduna crisis in Governor’s el-Rufai’s jurisdiction, as well as a demonstrable penchant for disrespect for rule of law and high-handedness in official capacity.”.
“We are, however, baffled that the list of speakers at the Conference still retains the names of Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired General and former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as well as that of Mr. Nyesom Wike, the Governor of Rivers State. “We are persuaded that these men by their antecedents vis-a-vis the respect for and promotion for the rule of law and due process are not fit for invitation as Speakers in a function such as the Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, which mantra remains promoting the rule of law.
“We also hold that using them as Speakers on the platform of the Nigerian Bar Association is a huge disservice to the original intendment and core purpose of the Nigerian Bar Association itself, particularly as regards the campaign for supremacy of the concept of the rule of law and the sanctity of judicial pronouncements.”
Our correspondent spoke to some lawyers on the seemingly emerging activism movement in the association especially with the emergence of a president who is not a senior advocate of Nigeria.
Prof Chidi Odinkalu
“In the immediate term, I am glad that the disdain of human life in Southern Kaduna is now a wider look. No one took notice of Southern Kaduna until we got el-Rufai kicked out of NBA meeting. Before that, no one was willing to listen to any of us on Southern Kaduna. Now they are all taking notice and trying to find PR lines and alibis. Progress!
“Going forward, this el-Rufai thing may contribute to a changed narrative landscape of public responsibility. People will scrutinize carefully who is bestowed with the social and professional capitals of the NBA. Of course, it is not going to be a one-way traffic. I expect pushback, of course, but we are not going back to this business of dispensing expensive social capital to ruinous public officials who come to lecture us, even without the humility of listening to us.
“I will expect a few henceforth to duck when NBA wannabes come calling or to ask for iron-class assurances that they will not be de-platformed. And those in NBA asking politically exposed persons to buy their way into our meetings will be careful.”
“The calls for delisting the mentioned gentle men as Speakers reflects a new consciousness on the part of many members of the NBA that the Association should wake up to worrisome concerns in the country.”
“The NBA is a pressure group with a clear objective to promote the rule of law. The Nigeria Bar Association cannot fulfill its objectives without undertaking critical mass activism against oppression, inappropriate conducts, unlawful indulgences and repression of human rights. In view of the foregoing, activism is the fulcrum of its civil engagement, protection of fundamental and socio-economic rights and the host of others. NBA represents that struggle with a forthright resolve to promote the rule of law and the judiciary as the last hope of the common man.
“The mandate of the association on the rule of law starts from within itself. Olumide Akpata’s emergence as the current NBA president-elect is a clear testament to the fact that the esteemed and prestigious position of the NBA president is not meant for just senior advocates but for everyone who is qualified on merit. Olumide represents an era of justice or nothing! That is the import of our statement at the just concluded NBA elections.
“el-Rufai’s disinvitation to speak at the ongoing NBA Conference is part of the tacit resolve to discipline everyone, especially our leaders who disregard court orders, truncate due process and repress the rule of law. For NBA, this is the era of implicit decorum, constitutional adherence and natural justice.”
“No doubt that there is now a shift in the pendulum in the affairs of the NBA and this shift in the paradigm may affect a lot of things for a long time to come. It is not in doubt that the non SANs are in far higher majority but unfortunately they have been ruled for too long. As it stands today with the emergence of a non SAN as the president of the Noble organization, the SANs may not get it for a long time.
That is the Stark truth and his emergence is a big relief because people can experience things in another dimension, however, he has the bounden duty of ensuring that the process of electing his successor is not laced with any hanky-panky or underhand dealings that have purportedly characterized the last three elections of the NBA.
The protests that greeted the invitation of El-rufai as a speaker at the NBA conference is highly regrettable, embarrassing and smack of complete hypocrisy.
“Also,if viewed from the angle of the allegations levelled against El-rufai,then there is no justification for sustaining the invitation extended to Obasanjo and Mr Wike. This is because Obasanjo himself was guilty of disobedience of court orders during his tenure and recently, when a federal high court presided over by Justice Idris gave an order that the past leaders should account for how Abacha loot was spent in a case filed by SERAP, Obasanjo allegedly said the judge was stupid. That apart, we have Odi and Zaki Biam massacre under Obasanjo.
“We also witnessed in Rivers how two hotels were allegedly demolished without a court order,yet the two of them are qualified but El-rufai is not,ditto for Tony Blair who was purportedly indicted in America by a panel of Enquiry for giving wrong information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,yet he is qualified. We have a lot of other pressing and more disturbing issues or problems plaguing the NBA but they chose to close eyes and address inanities.
“I think the NBA should have outgrown these narrow confines of thinking or acting. It should be a guiding light for others to see because if care is not taken, we may have an association consumed in its own indiscretions. The August body must act fast to put its house in order.”
“On the dis-invitation of Mallam el Rufai and protests over Wike, Obasanjo and Blair, I believe the NEC of NBA has exercised very sound discretion by that decision. In so many respects, the decision has reaffirmed the ideals and standards that the association subscribes to. Difficult as it was, the decision underscores the critical role of the NBA in holding leadership accountable to the people. In any case, the NBA is a leading professional body and its level of consciousness and decency must approximate the conscience of the nation. In the light of the reasons advanced, both the disinvite and protests are justified.”