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December 6, 2022

NBA shuns Call to Bar ceremony over Olanipekun’s refusal to resign

…as 4,711 new lawyers take oath 

By Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Abuja

The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, on Tuesday, boycotted the Call to Bar ceremony of 4,711 new lawyers that were admitted into the legal profession.

The legal body, in a statement by its National President, Mr. Yakubu Maikyau(SAN), said its decision to shun the ceremony was based on the refusal of the Chairman of the Body of Benchers (BoB), Chief Wole Olanipekun(SAN), to resign.

NBA, the umbrella body of legal practitioners in the country, said it had in a letter it also copied to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, asked Chief Olanipekun to step aside as leader of the BoB.

The call followed a claim by a leading partner in his chamber, Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde, that he influenced judges to deliver favourable judgements for his clients.

The NBA said it had, in view of the weighty nature of Ogunde’s claim and the negative impact it has on the overall image and integrity of the legal profession in the country, urged Olanipekun to allow his Vice, Justice Mary Odili(retd), to preside over the Call to Bar ceremony scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

In the statement he made available to Vanguard, the NBA President, Maikyau, noted that he had in the said letter dated December, 4, made position of the association known to the BoB Chairman.

“In that letter, I requested the Chairman of the BoB to recuse himself from presiding over the Call to Bar Ceremony scheduled for 6 and 7 December 2022, for reasons clearly articulated therein. 

“I sent the letter to the Chairman and all Benchers by email on 4 December 2022, I also submitted a hard copy of the letter on 5 December 2022 to the Secretary of the BoB along with one hundred and fifty (150) copies of the letter for circulation to all Benchers.  

“It would be recalled that my predecessor-in-office had, on 22 July 2022, written to the Chairman of the BoB to recuse himself from office on the same grounds set out in my letter.

“But the Chairman refused to acknowledge the said letter nor bring it up for consideration more than  5 months since its delivery to the BoB. 

“My present letter is to bring to attention the earlier call made by my predecessor and to emphasise the damage being done to the legal profession by reason of our collective silence over such devastating issue, with the expectation that the Chairman will see reason to show remorse and for the BoB to ask the Chairman to recuse himself knowing that no one is bigger than the legal profession. 

“At the meeting of the BoB held on 5 December 2022, I drew the attention of the Chairman to my letter and called for deliberations on same, since it directly impacts on the propriety of the Chairman presiding over the Call to Bar ceremony.

But this was not done nor were the hard copies of the letter distributed to the Benchers.

“The meeting of the BoB was adjourned to January 2023, on a date to be fixed by the Chairman.  

“In the circumstances therefore, having regard to my firm persuasion that the matters raised in my letter should have led the BoB to ask the Chairman to recuse himself in the interest of safeguarding the integrity of the Legal Profession, I am in good conscience unable to attend and participate in the Call to Bar Ceremony. 

“The NBA under my leadership cannot be part of the ceremony superintended by the current Chairman of the BoB for all the reasons stated in my letter under reference. 

“To do so will be to endorse, celebrate or condone a practice that I consider unwholesome and unprofessional, by virtue of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007.

“I assure all members of the NBA that the sole motivation for my letter to the BoB is my conviction on the need to salvage the image, reputation, and integrity of the legal profession in Nigeria, which has been negatively impacted by the email by Adekunbi Ogunde, a Partner in the Law Firm of the Chairman of the BoB.  

“I congratulate our colleagues – the new wigs, for the great feat they have attained by fulfilling the requirements for joining the noble profession of Law. 

“I pray that God Almighty will keep and preserve them as they contribute their quota in building the legal profession and the nation at large. 

“The NBA remains committed to the protection of our legal space and shall spare no effort to stop any external incursions or actions amongst members that can destroy our dear profession of law. 

The issue

The BoB is a statutory body that is responsible for the formal call to Bar of persons seeking to become legal practitioners as well as disciplining of erring lawyers.

Members of the body are categorized into Benchers and Life Benchers.

According to the NBA, Olanipekun’s partner, Ogunde, sent an email to Saipem Contracting Nigeria Ltd to solicit for a brief, after the Rivers state government preferred charges against the company over allegations of $130 million fraud.

Though the firm of Henry Ajumogobia (SAN) was already defending the company, however, Ogunde allegedly told the management to consider hiring Olanipekun & Co to take over the case.

NBA noted that Ogunde had in the said email, claimed that her principal, Olanipekun(SAN), has more “influence” with judges across all courts.

“A quick research about Wole Olanipekun & Co. will show that the law firm is the leading litigation firm that has helped other multinationals in sensitive, highly political matters. 

“It will also reveal that the presence of our lead partner, Chief Olanipekun in the matter will significantly switch things in favour of SAIPEM.

“Chief Olanipekun 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 order words, Chief Olanipekun is the head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria. 

“Wole Olanipekun & Co. has also helped other multinationals, such as in the famous cases of MTN tax dispute, Shell Petroleum, Equinor (former Statoil) dispute etc., avoid huge pay outs in more complex, sensitive and highly-political matters,” NBA quoted Ogunde’s email to have read in part.

It insisted that Olanipekun’s resignation will help to salvage the image, reputation and integrity of the BoB and the legal profession.

Disciplinary Committee independent — Olanipekun

Meanwhile, in his speech at the Call to Bar ceremony, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, maintained that though the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, LPDC, is under his Chairmanship, he stressed that the Committee operates independently and “not controlled in any way or manner by either the Body or its Chairman”.

He said: “Howbeit, may I caution that proceedings before the LPDC should not be politicized, sensationalized, publicized and advertised in advance or while the proceedings are ongoing, by complainants for whatever reason howsoever, as so doing negates the principle of fair hearing, which all lawyers subscribe to.

“This is apart from the fact that such steps might pre-empt and prejudice the proceedings band decisions of the LPDC”.

On his part,  the Director-General of the Nigerian Law School, Prof. Isa Hayatu Chiroma(SAN), said the 4,711 new lawyers that were admitted into the Bar on Tuesday, met all the required conditions that were set by the Council of Legal Education.