By Ise-Oluwa Ige
In this report, Law & Human Rights examines the facts and the law as they affect the letter written by a lawyer in the Chambers of Chief Wole Olanipekun(SAN), Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde, to a foreign firm—Saipem, to take over a brief from the chamber of Chief Odein Ajumogobia, SAN, in order to deconstruct NBA’s petition that follows and the politicisation of the investigation process.
It all started on June 20, 2022. Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde, a United Kingdom-trained lawyer, sent a three-page letter to Saipem’s top executive, Francesco Caio soliciting for offer of legal services in a criminal case instituted by Rivers State Government against Saipem SPA, Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited, Mr. Walter Peviana and four others.
The letter, Ogunde disclosed, was the outcome of a weekend research she did on a number of complex cases on-going in various law courts in Nigeria where she felt the services of Olanipekun & Co where she is a partner, could be required.
The document she emailed to Saipem’s Caio to scout for the brief later turned out to be a ‘letter-bomb.’
In the Saipem case, Rivers State Government had filed criminal information against the foreign firm of conspiring to cheat and with intent to defraud it of the sum of $130 million being advance payment for the construction of the OCGT power plant in Port Harcourt.
The charge was filed at the registry of the state High Court in Port Harcourt by an Abuja-based lawyer, Chief Godwin Obla, SAN, on behalf of Rivers State Government on November 19, 2021.
The law firm of a former Minister of Petroleum, Ajumogobia & Okeke, was briefed by the foreign firm and thus, represented Saipem SPA (first defendant), Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited (second defendant), Mr. Walter Peviana (third defendant) and Vitto Testaguzza (6th defendant) in the case.
The opposing parties in the matter did not waste the time of the court as they agreed to settle the case out of court in April, 2022 or thereabouts.
But in June 2022, after the case was long dead, having been settled out of court, Ms Ogunde, clearly oblivious of the status of the case, did a proposal to Saipem’s top executive, Francesco Caio, advising him on the need for a more influential lawyer/law firm to handle the criminal matter for them.
Ogunde plotting to hijack Ajumogobia’s brief
It was her argument in the emailed proposal that Saipem needed to consider using their firm (Olanipekun& Co) to prevent a huge pay out to the Rivers State Government.
She argued that a quick research about Wole Olanipekun & Co would reveal that the law firm was actually the leading litigation firm in the country with the track record of helping multinationals in sensitive and highly political matters in the past, adding: “The presence of our lead partner, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR, in the matter will significantly switch things in favour of Saipem.”
According to her: “Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR is currently the Chairman of the Body of Benchers which is the highest ruling body in the Nigerian legal profession, made up of Supreme Court judges, Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal and Chief Judges of all State High Courts including the Rivers State High Court. In other words, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR is the Head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria.”
She thereafter listed few famous cases including MTN tax dispute, Shell Petroleum, and the Equinox (former Statoil) dispute, where her principal had demonstrated such capacity in the past.
She ended up saying: “We are aware that another law firm is currently in the matter but you will agree that highly sensitive and political matter requires more influence.”
The document titled: USD130m claim in Nigeria—Rivers State Government vs Saipem SPA, Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited and Others, was also electronically sent to other key functionaries of Saipem including Merlo Silvia, Puliti Alessandro and Chini Simone.
Ms Ogunde emails has been the topic of interest in the last five weeks in the legal circle.
What the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners say on solicitation
Vanguard Law and Human Rights reports that although the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 does not forbid outright advertising and soliciting provided it is fair and proper in all circumstances and complies with the provisions of the Rules, yet Ogunde’s letter appears to have violated the provisions in section 39(2) (a) (b) (c) and (d) of the 26-page Rule book.
The said section 39 (2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 specifically provides that a lawyer practising in Nigeria shall not engage or be involved in any advertising or promotion of his practice of the law which (a) is inaccurate or likely to mislead; (b) is likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise, bringing the legal profession into disrepute; (c) makes comparison with or criticises other lawyers or other professions/professionals; (d) include any statement about the quality of the lawyer’s work, the size or success of his practice or his success rate or (e) is so frequent or obstructive as to cause annoyance to those to whom it is directed.
It was not long before the letter-bomb which Ogunde emailed to Saipem was activated as the top management staff of the foreign firm gave their counsel and former Minister of Petroleum, Chief Ajumogobia, SAN, a copy of the letter from Chief Olanipekun’s Chambers.
Were the criminal case against Saipem involving USD130m not settled out of court with the professional assistance of their lawyer, Ajumogobia, it is not totally impossible that the letter might have been kept away from their lawyer and perhaps, acted upon since the objective of every right-thinking client is to get what he wants from the court.
But in the instant case, Saipem actually did not need any legal services of any reputable firm as advertised by Ogunde to its management staff, at least for the case in question, neither did it have any reason not to mention Ogunde’s letter to their counsel and saviour, Chief Ajumogobia (SAN).
And there was fatal explosion
It was therefore not surprising that as soon as the top management staff of Saipem called the attention of their lead counsel and former Minister of Petroleum, Odein Ajumogobia to the mail from the Partner in Olanipekun & Co, trouble erupted.
Although it was an email, not counter-signed by Chief Olanipekun who has been a close friend of Chief Ajumogobia for three decades, the former minister and prominent member of the inner bar, lost his cool as he picked offence at the content, the language and the intent of the mail.
Exactly 77 hours after Ogunde sent her letter to Saipem’s top executives; disturbed Chief Ajumogobia originated another mail to Chief Wole Olanipekun not only to express his displeasure but to call his attention to how the young lawyer tore the professional rule book of lawyers into shreds.
Ajumogobia’s letter to Olanipekun
Ajumogobia’s letter read: “I am shocked and appalled at the content of the letter written by one Adekumbi Ogunde who describes herself in the letter as a partner in your firm.
“I must also express my extreme disappointment and utter disillusionment that a letter of this nature should emanate from your chambers, given your stature at the bar generally and as the current Chairman of the Body of Benchers, in particular.
“My sentiments about the unfortunate but unmistakable allusion to ‘influence’ with “Justices of the Supreme Court, Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal and Chief Judges” with whom you happen to serve on certain bodies in the legal profession, with regard to a matter before a Court, is better left unsaid.
“Suffice it to say that the attached letter is in my opinion tantamount to gross misconduct of the worst kind.
“For the record, our mandatory Rules of Professional Conduct expressly prohibit self-advertising and solicitation by Nigerian legal practitioners!
“Rule 39 expressly provides that “A lawyer shall not engage or be involved in any advertising or promotion of his practice of the law which makes comparison with or criticizes other lawyers or includes any statement about the quality of the lawyer’s work, the size or success of his practice or his success rate.
“The email from your firm could not be more egregious in its breach of this essential mandatory rule, especially in its acknowledgment that the defendant companies had already retained counsel.
That I and my firm of Ajumogobia & Okeke were retained in the matter, was a matter of public record and was personally known to you and your firm, since you had asked me about the matter during our Unilag Law Faculty Alumni dinner at Harbour Point in February.
“The attached email from your firm also contains false and misleading statements with several defamatory imputations of and concerning myself and my firm.
“In the circumstances, we demand within seven days of the date of this letter, a written apology to the firm of Ajumogobia & Okeke from Wole Olanipekun & Co, for this most deplorable conduct of Adekumbi Ogunde and your firm.
“In addition, we demand that Wole Olanipekun & Co sends a letter to Saipem top management to retract your said letter. The retraction and a copy of the apology to my firm must be copied to the top management of Saipem SA and the same recipients as the original email, namely: Caio Francesco <[email protected] Saipem.com> Cc: Merlo Silvia <[email protected]>; Puliti Alessandro <[email protected]>; CHINI SIMONE <[email protected]>
“I trust that your firm will comply with our demand forthwith,” he signed off.
However, Olanipekun & Co which expressed shock at the content of the letter denied involvement in the matter and insisted that Ms. Ogunde acted on her own as she did not have any authority to send the letter on behalf of the law firm.
The law firm in a letter dated 24 June, 2022 also apologised to Ajumogobia and retracted the offensive letter of solicitation as demanded while promising that internal actions would be taken on the matter.
Olanipekun said it held Ajumogobia in the highest esteem and attested to his sterling qualities as a legal practitioner and also noted he remains a friend of Chief Wole Olanipekun, the firm’s principal.
In fact, Chief Olanipekun complied within 24 hours of the receipt of the seven-day ultimatum given his law firm by Chief Ajumogobia to retract the offensive document and copied same to Saipem management staff with a promise that the matter would be handled appropriately by his chambers.
Two Associate Counsel in Olanipekun law firm, Messrs. James Adesulu and Quam Bisiriyu,also issued a disclaimer dated June 24 and addressed to Mr Caio reiterating that the letter by Ms Ogunde was written “without the instruction, authority, mandate and approval of Wole Olanipekun & Co.”
“In parenthesis, we dissociate ourselves from the letter under reference, as the writer was on her own,” adding: “the letter is hereby retracted unequivocally, in spite of the fact that it was unauthorised and done without our permission, authority or consent.”
The disclaimer, which was copied to Mr Ajumogobia, maintained that Olanipekun & Co had a high regard for him and his firm.
Ogunde on her own sent a mail to Chief Ajumogobia to apologise for the gaffe while her father and former Ogun State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Wemimo Ogunde, SAN, together with her mum profusely apologised to Chief Ajumogobia.
Other well-meaning Nigerians also came into the matter to apologise to Chief Ajumogobia.
The documents leak, NBA takes over
In the meantime, while the two law firms were trying to handle the embarrassment caused by the letter-bomb, the correspondences had leaked to the press and journalists began to feast on the documents.
At a time the two law firms thought the matter was over, the Nigerian Bar Association,NBA, acted on various media reports about the issue and filed a petition against the young lawyer before the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee.
Specifically, in the petition marked BB/LPDC/901/2022, NBA called on the LPDC to “on behalf of the Applicant that Adekunbi Ogunde of Wole Olanipekun & Co be required to answer to the allegations contained in the Statement/Affidavit.”
Mr Aikpokpo-Martins who signed the petition on behalf of the Incorporated Trustees of the NBA, which was dated July 19, 2022, said Ms Ogunde violated “the extant rules of professional conduct for legal practitioners (Rule 1 of the RPC) by soliciting for briefs and peddling the influence of the principal partner of her law firm, Chief Wole Olanipeku.”
He said members of the legal profession, particularly members of the NBA “were very disturbed by this infamous letter alleged to have originated from arguably one of the most successful, biggest, respected and most distinguished law firms in Nigeria.”
NBA says Ogunde’s letter puts legal profession into public ridicule
The petition pointed out that Ms Ogunde’s conduct puts “the entire legal profession to national and international public ridicule and odium.”
The NBA stated that Ms. Ogunde is “expected to exhibit and maintain a very high standard of conduct, professionalism, respect for the integrity of court and the judicial process when discharging her professional duties and responsibilities to clients, the legal profession and members of the general public.”
NBA demands Olanipekun step down as BoB Chairman
Three days after the petition was filed, the NBA wrote the Chairman of Body of Benchers, BOB, Chief Wole Olanipekun asking him to recuse himself from his position to pave the way for the investigation of a partner in his law firm, Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde.
NBA President, Olumide Akpata gave the advice in a letter addressed to Chief Olanipekun dated July 22, 2022, and titled: Re: Petition Against Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde By The Nigerian Bar Association For Alleged Misconduct.”
Akpata stated that the LPDC, “a Standing Committee of the BoB whose processes come under the supervision of the Chairman” to consider whether the partners of the firm of Wole Olanipekun & Co. are not liable to be disciplined by this august body in view of the fact that the respondent, Ms Ogunde, has the ostensible authority to act as a partner and indeed acted for and on behalf of the said firm.
“Against the backdrop of your partnership relationship with Ms. Ogunde, vis-a-vis the prosecution of the petition by the LPDC, it is clear, albeit unfortunate, that you have been put in a situation where your continued occupancy of the office during this period would conflict, or be reasonably interpreted to conflict, with or influence the processes of the LPDC, by fair-minded observers and right thinking members of the public, both within and outside our profession.
“By reason of your close professional ties and involvement with Ms. Ogunde, it would be an infraction of the salutary principles of natural justice for the said petition to be heard by the LPDC while you continue as Chairman of the BoB, of which the LPDC is a committee.
“As Lord Denning put it: “Justice must be rooted in confidence; and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking that the Judge is biased.
“Consequent to the above, I am constrained to invite you to recuse yourself from the chairmanship of the BoB henceforth and to allow for the emplacement of an interim leader of the BoB, in order to enable the LPDC to carry out this particular assignment, amongst others, without coming under an undue suspicion of impartiality,” the letter stated.
Olanipekun cries foul
More than 24 hours after the letter was released and published by the media and same trending on social media, Chief Olanipekun cried out that the NBA President did not send him the letter.
Olanipekun, in a brief chat with Vanguard, said he would not understand why the President of the NBA, Mr Olumide Akpata would write him a letter requesting him to step down as chairman of BoB and leak same document to the media without serving him a copy more than 24 hours after same had become public.
SANs fault NBA president’s approach
In the meantime, some prominent members of the inner bar including Chief Mike Ahamba, SAN, Chief Bennbella Anachebe, SAN and Chief Samuel Okutepa, SAN had faulted the NBA President Mr. Olumide Akpata over his method of handling the probe issue as it affected Chief Olanipekun.
All of them who separately spoke with Vanguard said without looking at the merit of the case before the disciplinary committee of the NBA, contended that the association’s President should have first sought audience with Chief Olanipekun, a former President of the NBA, and perhaps other elders or past Presidents of the NBA before writing such letter if still necessary.
According to them, the fact that he wrote the sensitive letter and leaked it to the press showed that his intention was less than noble.
According to Chief Mike Ahamba, the entire letter by the NBA chief was, and remains a mere opinion.”You don’t ask anybody to take steps on an issue about which he is ignorant of. I believe that the President of the Bar ought to have contacted Chief Olanipekun even though the subject-matter of the crisis is worrisome to some of us.
“All the same, it is always good to follow procedure. He should have asked him what his comment on the issues is. He should have listened to him before asking him to step down. That the letter was written at all was worrisome because of speculations behind the move by some lawyers to the bench. It is worrisome when you see this kind of accusation.
Everybody must have a fair hearing,”he said.
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria who pleaded anonymity said the NBA President didn’t give Olanipekun the benefit of the doubt that he could be independent in the handling of the case, adding: “In any event, it is only in Oyinbo land that somebody will quit his job because of a mere call by somebody who appears to have ulterior motive in writing such letter.”
Also contributing, Chief Okutepa said: “The letter was not in the best tradition of how things are done irrespective of what anybody feels about it. Chief Wole Olanipekun was a past President of the Nigerian Bar Association and whether we like it or not, he is a superior member of the bar and if I were to be in the position of the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, I won’t write such letter. I would go to meet with Chief Wole Olanipekun or involve senior members of the Bar, elders, past Presidents, and then meet with him and have discussion because whether anybody likes it or not, he is the leader of the bar.
“To do a letter to him and before he gets it, it is on social media, it is a very terrible thing that he ought not to do. You may not like Wole Olanipekun as a person but the institution that we all belong to must be preserved by the decorum we accord to ourselves.
“I’m not saying Wole Olanipekun is above disciplinary process and I am not going to go to any argument as to whether or not what happened is correct or not correct, but there are better and respectful way of dealing with issues that affect the profession.
Another Abuja-based silk, Chief Ben Anachebe, SAN, said the letter was written with underlined mischief. “It was not supposed to have been written being mindful of his status without hearing from him first. I will think as a former President of the Bar, he ought to have made a personal contact with him alongside other senior members of the Bar.
“I have it on good authority that Chief Olanipekun who in fact, I spoke with today, that up till now, he has not sighted a copy of the letter and same has been released to the press.
“The fact that a junior in the Chamber of Chief Olanipekun wrote a letter and the content was considered to have violated the rules of practice does not justify asking Chief Olanipekun to resign.
As a matter of fact, Chief Olanipekun has many friends,relatives and colleagues serving in his chambers or other chambers at the Bar. So does it mean that tomorrow, if anybody whom he knows is brought before the Committee, he has to step aside in order not to interfere with the proceedings? Truth be told, some people are blowing this matter out of proportion.
“Chief Olanipekun was conferred with the rank of SAN in 1991 when the President of the NBA must either be in law school or in the university. He should have shown better respect or a better approach,” he added.
Notwithstanding the ‘politicisation’ of the approach adopted by the NBA President to demand that Chief Olanipekun must step down as BOB Chairman on the one hand and Ms. Ogunde clinging to the straw of limited knowledge of litigation practice as defence on the other hand, it is important that the popular principle of law—Ignorantia juris non excusat, meaning “ignorance of the law excuses not” must be seen to apply in this case. The NBA must pursue this case to its logical conclusion to serve as deterrent to others who may have been indulging in the worrisome practice. The President of the NBA should be supported by all legal practitioners in his bid to stamp out unwholesome practice in the bar.