Olumide Akpata,I

n this piece, Vanguard Law and Human Rights recalls the hostility that greeted the emergence of Mr Olumide Akpata as the 30th President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in 2020; examines more than a dozen promises he made to the bar upon assumption of office and determines the extent of their implementation with a survey on the nature of the bar Akpata left behind and the expectations of the inner and the outer bar from his successor.

In July 2020, Mr. Olumide Akpata, a senior partner at Templars, one of the leading commercial law firms in Nigeria, made history when he defeated, by a landslide, two strong members of the inner bar—Dr Babajide Ajibade (SAN) and Deacon Julius Dele Adesina (SAN)— to emerge winner of the presidential election of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).

The outer bar candidate, who coalesced a coalition against the Bar establishment, polled 9, 891. His arch rival Dr Ajibade, SAN, polled 4,328 votes while Adesina, SAN, had 3,982 votes.

It was the first time in about three decades that the president of the NBA would be emerging from outside the rank of Senior Advocates, an elitist group of lawyers who had, whether by design or accident made the Bar Presidency exclusive to themselves.

But before the sudden change in the order, feedback from members of the NBA indicated that there had been a long-standing hunger amongst junior lawyers for a paradigm shift.

However, the election that produced Olumide Akpata was, controversial, with Adesina calling for its cancellation on the grounds of alleged rigging.

He had equally petitioned the Chairman of NBA’s Board of Trustees, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) to express his grievances.

He said his complaint was not only about the election itself but also the process leading to the election which showed instances of lawlessness and gross violation of the NBA Constitution.

He also alleged that the then NBA president, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) unduly interfered in the conduct of the election as if it was his personal show or project.

In fact, some aggrieved members of the Bar from the North, following the complaints of irregularity, threatened to balkanize NBA pushed for a splinter NBA known as ‘New Bar Initiative’.

Vanguard Law and Human Rights recalls that proponents of the ‘New Bar Initiative’ provided a link in the social media through which interested lawyers could join the body.

Interestingly, within 48 hours of its introduction, over 1, 000 lawyers were reported to have filled forms signifying their intention to become members of the ‘New Bar Initiative’.

Some Yoruba lawyers also threatened to break away to form an association of Yoruba lawyers.

Though Ajibade who came second also  criticized the poll, he later conceded defeat and congratulated Akpata.

It is without saying that the bar suffered a serious crack following the outcome of the election which altered the status quo.

Akpata promises electoral reforms

That was the situation in August 2020 when Olumide Akpata took his oath of office as the 30th President of the Nigerian Bar Association.

But in his inaugural speech, Akpata declared his intention to undertake an urgent reform of the NBA electoral process.

BOSAN congratulates Akpata

In an interesting turn of events, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) congratulated Akpata  in a September 7, 2020 letter signed by Prof. Ben Nwabueze, SAN, the Chairman of BOSAN and Mr Seyi Sowemimo, SAN the Secretary of BOSAN.

In the letter, the body indicated that all its members offered their best wishes to Mr. Akpata for a successful tenure.

The body went ahead to mention that they were not unaware of the complaints that arose in the aftermath of the election, but expressed their comfort at the commitments the President made in his inaugural address to improve the electoral process of the NBA and bridge divisions caused by the election.

They further pledged their fidelity to the NBA and promised to offer all necessary support to reposition and reinvigorate the Bar.

That was the encouragement Akpata needed to commence work and he started off on that note.

How Akpata fared in office

It is now history that Akpata’s two-year tenure of office expired on August 26, 2022. He had since handed over to his successor, Mr Yakubu Mikyau (SAN) who belongs to the inner bar and he is back to Templar where he took two-year leave of absence to serve the bar.

But how did Akpata fare while he was in office for two full years? What is the general assessment of his tenure by lawyers in both the outer and the inner bar? How did Akpata himself rate his performance?

To answer the first question touching on how Akpata fared while he held office, it would be fair to visit the archive to dig out and dust off the document containing the promises he made to the Nigerian lawyers when he contested the election.

Vanguard Law and Human Rights reports that the Akpata’s blueprints for NBA excavated from the archive showed that he promised to address more than a dozen different issues during his tenure including electoral reforms in the NBA; the welfare of lawyers in Nigeria; harassment and brutalization of lawyers, capacity building for lawyers, mentorship within the bar; slow pace of justice dispensation in Nigeria; promotion of rule of law; law reforms; dichotomy within the bar; ethics and discipline; overhauling the outdated Nigerian Law School curriculum; poor remuneration of lawyers, among others.

This report will examine the promises by Akpata one after the other and finds out the extent of their implementation.

Electoral reforms in NBA

In 2020, Akpata argued that the electoral process of NBA ought to be the standard for others to follow and should, to the extent humanly possible, be devoid of the glitches that characterised the election that produced him. He therefore promised to constitute an Electoral Audit and Reforms Committee with a pledge to implement whatever recommendations they come up with well ahead of time to ensure that the 2022 election is devoid of those glitches that were noticed in the 2020 election.

Although, two years after, another election (2022 NBA election) had held with Mikyau (SAN) emerging the winner after securing a total of 22,342 votes to beat his major opponent, Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN), who got 10,842 votes, there was, as expected, a muffled complaint of irregularities from Gadzama (SAN).

But Akpata said he did constitute the committee as promised and that his administration used its report to reform the NBA electoral process and delivered the least acrimonious NBA National Elections since the introduction of electronic voting in NBA in 2016.

 “Our effort not only reduced voter apathy given the geometric increase in the number of voters in the 2022 elections, but for the first time in the NBA electioneering process, we set up a formal forum, an Election Appeals Committee – for the determination of election petitions and appeals by aspirants and candidates. To enhance neutrality, we also provided dedicated and exclusive permanent space for the ECNBA to reduce its reliance on the NBA and its resources,” Akpata had said.

Poor remuneration of lawyers and improving the welfare of lawyers in Nigeria

Akpata had also two years ago promised that the core of his mandate was to expand and deepen the market for legal services in Nigeria and consequentially improve the financial standing of NBA members while the vexed issue of the poor remuneration of lawyers which has made the legal profession in Nigeria a laughingstock would also be tackled headlong.

Looking back, Akpata said he was satisfied with what he achieved. He said his administration began a lawyers’ remuneration or income-focused project that is aimed at (i) enabling lawyers to charge the right fees for their legal services; and (ii) ensuring that reasonable living wages and emoluments are paid to our members by their employers.

“For this, we have, after about a year of extensive engagements and consultations, put together a comprehensive report and action plan for achieving the desired objectives. This report which has been approved by the NBA National Executive Council (NBA-NEC) will enter full implementation upon the enactment of the relevant administrative and legislative instruments to finalise the process, while some aspects of the implementation are expected to begin by 1st January 2023, as per NBA-NEC approval,” Akpata said.

Besides, Akpata said: “We designed and implemented a comprehensive health programme by deploying different approaches to cover the health needs of our members.

“In particular, we introduced the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) for lawyers; paid the initial NHIS medial insurance subscription for 1,000 members across branches; and we re-launched the critical ailment insurance policy under which our members who are diagnosed with “critical illness” are entitled, at no extra cost to them, to receive N1 million as support towards the treatment of such critical illness.

“We negotiated an accidental medical expense cover that entitles our members to a reimbursement of their properly documented medical expenses up to a capped amount to cover initial treatments for minor injuries; collaborated with Leadway Assurance for telemedicine access to licensed medical doctors; and established a N100 million NBA Medical Fund from which funds will be applied, from time to time, to support the medical needs of our members who do not qualify under other limbs of our health programme.

“We are also working with Leadway Assurance, we increased the death benefit entitlement for our deceased members by 100% (from N1 million to N2 million) to ensure that their named beneficiaries get this amount from the NBA as support through their difficulties. During our tenure, we settled/successfully processed life insurance claims for about 207 members.

“This is aside the fact that we introduced and successfully implemented an Access to Finance Scheme which allows our members (most of who operate as sole practitioners and small practices) to borrow at single digit interest rates from our partner banks for their capital expenditure and working capital purposes under a structure that is backstopped by the NBA.

“We established the NBA Stabilisation Fund in which we have set aside a seed capital of N1.5 billion to enable the Association meet critical future needs within defined parameters.

“We also paid the annual subscription for Law Pavilion on behalf of all our young lawyers; negotiated hugely discounted subscription fees for senior lawyers and offered two free packs of stamp and seal to all members upon payment of their Bar Practicing Fees.

“As globalisation continues to impact the legal services industry, many of our members have sought to become licensed in foreign jurisdictions. We have leveraged available avenues to seek institutional exemptions from certain licensing requirements for Nigerian qualified lawyers who wish to qualify in some of the jurisdictions like the United Kingdom,” he added.

Harassment and brutalisation of lawyers:

Akpata had in 2020 also promised to strengthen the NBA Human Rights Institute and also engage the heads of the various security agencies proactively and constructively from the outset, to set the tone for a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship between their respective agencies and the NBA. 

Akpata said tgat in the last two years, “We have constantly intervened in cases of harassment of our members by security agencies, an ugly trend which has significantly abated since we assumed office. This, we achieved through building meaningful partnerships with the top brass of the security agencies, through high level engagements in deserving cases, and through utilisation of the Lawyers Defence Fund that we established.”

Sexual harassment policy

Besides, Akpata said,  “For the first time and with the support of the NBA Women Forum, we prepared and launched a Sexual Harassment Policy for the legal profession in Nigeria. On the back of this policy, we have commenced investigations into some reported cases of sexual harassment including against some law firm employers and persons in authority.

Promoting Rule of Law

The Akpata-led NBA had vaunted two years back that it would exhibit zero tolerance for disobedience to lawful orders of courts and would not hesitate to take all legal steps available to it to protect, defend and maintain the rule of law in Nigeria while association’s mandate of promoting and protecting the fundamental rights of the generality of citizens would be taken seriously.

Looking back again, Akpata said he delivered on this score. According to him, “We actively provided legal support and defended human rights and the Rule of Law during the EndSARS protests; participated in the EndSARS panels set up across the country; worked actively on the reform of the Police Force in the wake of the EndSARS crisis; commenced at least five public interest lawsuits against the Federal Government of Nigeria challenging the legality or constitutionality of certain government actions; played an active advocacy role in the enactment of the extant Electoral Act; were active actors in the 2021 JUSUN strike intended to promote financial autonomy of the judiciary across States of the Federation; and through our interventions, we curbed executive interference and disregard for judiciary in a number of states and pushed for the payment of the emoluments of about 30 magistrates in Cross River State who had not been paid for over two years, among others,” he added.

Mentorship and capacity building within NBA

Twenty-four months in the saddle, Akpata said he was satisfied with what he had done on mentorship and capacity building within the NBA .

According to him, “To ensure inclusiveness at the NBA, we established a Law Officers Forum with a mandate to deliberate and resolve issues that have continued to agitate law officers across the country; set up a lawyers with disabilities forum; re-introduced and empanelled the Governing Council of the Corporate Counsel Forum to focus on our in-house colleagues, and reserved some statutory seats at the NBA-NEC for young lawyers and special interest groups within the NBA.

“We revitalized the NBA Institute of Continuing Legal Education (NBA-ICLE) which has in the last one year since its Governing Council was reconstituted, entered into several strategic local and international partnerships; organised over 60 free trainings, workshops and capacity building sessions in contemporary and emerging areas of law with a total of about 30,000 lawyers participating; and has been working in the area of mentoring, career development and job retention for our younger members through its Career Development Unit.

Law reforms

Two years after, Akpata said he had delivered on his promise to rejig the NBA Law Reform Committe. “We took over the NBA office at the National Assembly after years of abandonment and started a partnership with the House of Representatives under which the NBA provides specialist support on critical and systemically important laws coming out of the National Assembly.  This helps ensure that those laws are well thought out and meet best standards,” he said.

Dichotomy within the Bar

Akpata upon assuming office declared that his emergence as President of the NBA was indeed a victory for the different segments of the legal profession who had long been seemingly treated as outsiders instead of as equal members of the Bar. He promised that the NBA under his leadership would ensure that the different constituencies in the profession were given a voice.

According to a respected silk, Prince Yusuf Kadiri SAN, “Olumide Akpata surely over delivered on his promise to “make the bar work for all”.

“To the glory of Almighty God, the Bar now works for all the segments and strata of the legal profession, and will surely continue to work for all of us, rather than the old order of the past where only very few cabals cornered everything of the Bar to themselves and their families and forebears and kinsmen/kinswomen and tribesmen/tribeswomen only, etc “

Slow Pace Of Justice Dispensation In Nigeria

One of the areas that Akpata administration promised to focus on was re-engineering the justice dispensation system in the country in such a way that it would be faster than what it is presently.

Looking back again, Akpata said it was a promise kept. “We started a technology-driven monitoring process that would help address issues around the slow justice system, congestion of our courts, frequent adjournments and the delays in the court system, which result in slow administration of justice. The test-run of this process was completed across a number of selected courts recently.

Ethics and Discipline

Akpata administration had also hinted that it would champion an improvement in the disciplinary procedure in the legal profession by commencing an urgent review of the association’s Rules of Professional Conduct and the amendment to the Legal Practitioners Act.

“These two fundamental documents must be reviewed to bring them into conformity with modern trends. They have held us back for too long. In this regard, my administration will table the extant Legal Profession Regulation Review Committee Report and the KPMG Diagnostic Report for consideration, before the NBA-NEC to enable us take appropriate next steps.

The immediate past President of NBA , Olumide Akpata indeed did a lot even though certain factors worked against the administration in having a 100% implementation of the promise.

“Outdated” Nigerian Law School Curriculum

Akpata’s administration had also promised to look into the curriculum of the Nigerian Law School on the account that “what is taught in Law School is entirely different from what we have in real practice.

Akpata while handing over said “We began the advocacy for the reform of the system of legal education in Nigeria to keep up with the realities or demands of today’s market and the needs of the 21st century client. We had a successful Legal Education Summit in Ado-Ekiti with all stakeholders in the legal education system at every level. We also developed a bouquet of recommendations and action plan and started early-stage engagements for the implementation of these recommendations by the regulators of the legal education system in Nigeria,” he added.

Outside what he promised, the administration of Olumide Akpata had also recommenced the publication of a world class journal befitting of the NBA (the NBA Law Journal) after several years of abandonment, and successfully published two volumes (Volumes 11 and 12); commenced and pursued the digitisation of the processes at the NBA including rebuilding its digital infrastructure; migrating the association’s BPF payment to an online only platform.

Although the Akpata administration suffered a vitriolic attack from some its members particular lawyers at the inner bar towards the tail end of its tenure over the handling of a petition it filed against a partner in the Chambers of Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) and the violent protest that erupted during the just concluded NBA Annual General Conference, majority of lawyers in both the inner and outer bar still returned a pass verdict on the administration.

What lawyers say about Akpata’s tenure performance

Beside the implementation of virtually all the promises he made to the NBA when he was taking over the mantle of leadership of the lawyers’ association, majority of lawyers who spoke with Vanguard are of the view that Akpata tenure was a huge success.

According to a legal luminary, Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), “Without any doubt, the emergence of Mr. Olumide Akpata as the President of NBA in 2020 was a landmark attainment, given his sterling performances, his laudable achievements and the various activities that the Bar witnessed under his tenure.

“Mr. Akpata made a vow to devote two years of his life to the service of the NBA and I believe this was part of the reasons behind his many achievements. He was bold, assertive and I dare say, very daring. He ignited the firebrand active Bar and made several landmark pronouncements.

“Mr. Akpata continued on the template of the transparency that his predecessor-in-office, Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN entrenched in the management of the affairs of the Association. Though bugged down with the unnecessary junior/senior counsel controversy, his was a largely successful tenure,” he added.

But an outspoken senior silk and leader of the Yoruba Lawyers Association, Egbe Amofin, Chief Adeniyi Akintola SAN, had described Akpata as a “Boy” while he lashed out at him for allegedly having no respect for his elders at the bar and the bench.  He had also dismissed his tenure as divided, disclosing that many senior lawyers including Yoruba lawyers distanced themselves from his presidency.

But some senior lawyers countered Akintola including the former Chairman of National Human Rights Commission  (NHRC), Prof Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, Lagos lawyer and human rights activist,  Mr Femi Falana (SAN) and a respected silk, Prince Yusuf Kadiri (SAN).

Specifically, Prof Odinkalu told Akintola (SAN) that he had two failed attempts at the NBA Presidency and therefore lacked the standing to call Akpata a “Boy”; Falana (SAN) said the description of Olumide Akpata as “that boy” or “eleyi” smacks of empty arrogance of monumental proportion. It is a jejune statement that ought to be withdrawn by the learned Senior Advocate.”

For Prince Yusuf Asamah Kadiri SAN, he said the claim made by Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Niyi Akintola about a purported collective decision of Yoruba lawyers to isolate themselves from the administration of the immediate past President of the NBA, Olumide Akpata was not correct and that it was also not correct to say that senior lawyers were not attending the events organised by the Akpata-led NBA.

In fact, he went ahead to say that contrary to the claim of Akintola (SAN), Akpata enjoyed the support and encouragement of an uncountable number of leading lights in the legal profession who are illustrious sons and daughters of Yoruba.

He went further to list some of the elders who supported and donated their goodwill to Akpata’s administration to include Chief Afe Babalola SAN (who is about 94 years old), the 90 years old Chief Mrs Folake Solanke SAN (the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria), among several others.

A one-time Attorney-General of Abia State, Prof Awa Kalu (SAN), simply said that Akpata discharged the functions of his office creditably.

Also speaking in the same vein, a respected silk, Prince Yusuf Asamah Kadiri SAN, said: “Olumide Akpata led the Bar with an uncommon courage and determination, and has restored dignity, prestige, respect and honour to the NBA and the Nigerian legal profession, generally, as a formidable voice that must be heard and listened to and carried along in the scheme of things in the affairs of Nigeria, Africa, and the entire world. Olumide Akpata has surely left indelible footprints in annals of history, and posterity will surely score him as an A+++++++.”

*Next week, we will conclude this piece setting agenda for Akpata‘s success

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.