Law & Human Rights

June 20, 2024

Benchers’ Crisis: Why combatants must sheathe their swords — Stakeholders

NBA election

File image of lawyers

In this report, Vanguard’s Law & Human Rights examines the background facts and the politics that triggered the on-going crisis at the Body of Benchers led by a prominent silk, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN and harvests the perspectives of stakeholders on the situation with prescriptions on how to avert its recurrence.

By Ise-Oluwa Ige

Background

For almost three months, two respected top lawyers in the country including the incumbent Chairman of the Body of Benchers, BoB, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN and a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr Augustine Alegeh, SAN, have been at daggers drawn over who should preside over the Appointment Committee of the BoB.

Alegeh is claiming to be the incumbent chairman of BoB’s Appointment Committee while Prof. Yusuf Ali, SAN is contending that he is the rightful owner of the seat.

Both of them at separate times were issued letters of appointment by the Secretary to the Body of Benchers, Mr Daniel Tela.

Alegeh’s letter was dated March 28, 2024, and was issued few hours to the expiration of the tenure of office of the immediate past Chairman of BoB, Justice Mary Peter-Odili while Prof. Ali’s letter was issued shortly after Chief Awomolo, SAN took over the helms of affairs of BoB from Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili.

The issuance of two letters to two separate top lawyers by the BoB Secretary, Daniel Tella, within a 30-day period to serve as Chairman of the Appointment Committee of the BoB without withdrawing one for the other or using the latter to countermand the former, appears to have watered the ground for an imminent crisis.

Cause of crisis

Vanguard recalls that on March 21, 2024, the BoB at a well-attended meeting, unanimously endorsed Chief Awomolo as its new helmsman. The silk, however, formally took over the mantle of leadership of BoB on April 1, 2024 from a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Mary Peter-Odili whose one-year tenure expired on March 31, 2024.

Within one month of his emergence as BoB helmsman, Chief Awomolo, reconstituted some of the standing committees of the Body including its Appointment Committee hitherto headed by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi following expiration of his tenure of office.

The committees included Infrastructure Development Management and Security Committee formerly called Building Committee; Finance Budget and Investment Committee formerly called Finance Committee; Publication, Information Technology Committee; Elders Committee; Screening Committee; Legal Practitioners Committee; Human Resources Management formerly Appointment, Promotion and Discipline Committee and Benchers Appointment Committee.

Other committees are Ethics Compliance and Disciplinary Committee, Special Duties/Historical and Archives Committee; Mentoring Committee; Rules and Regulation Committee; Judiciary Advisory Committee with Welfare, Events and Benchers Programme Committee. Two Adhoc Committees were also reconstituted.

By a correspondence dated April 29, 2024, the BoB through its Secretary, Tela, mailed all members of BoB on the issue with an explanation that the reconstitution of the committees was done to reposition them for optimal performance in line with the mandate of the Body.

The mail also said that all reconstituted committee members shall spend two years in office while those who have been serving in one committee or another would remain in office to spend their remaining tenure, adding that the terms of reference would be handed over to committee members in due course.

Three days after Chief Awomolo-led BoB announced its decision on the reconstituted committees,  Alegeh fired a 4-page letter to the BoB to protest the purported unilateral reconstitution of the committees, particularly the Appointment Committee in which he has been made an ordinary member instead of listing him as the Committee’s chairman.

Awomolo can’t unilaterally reconstitute BoB committees—Alegeh

In the letter, he said he was appointed by a letter dated March 28, 2024 during the administration of Justice Odili as the Chairman of Benchers’ Appointment Committee with three-year lifespan but that even though his tenure was still running, another name, Prof. Ali was erroneously published as the new chairman of the Body’s Appointment Committee.

Although Alegeh sent the protest letter to Tella through whom the issue of committee reconstitution was conveyed, no response came from him, a development that made him forward the same letter to Chief Awomolo who also did not reply him.

Frustrated, Alegeh forwarded his protest letter to all the BoB members who received the original mail on the reconstitution of the committee on May 10, 2024.

Upon reading the mail, Chief Awomolo responded to Alegeh explaining that it was the spirit of service to the legal profession and his desire to raise the bar that motivated his decision to reconstitute the committees and that he was never aware that he was appointed at anytime as chairman of the Benchers Membership Committee.

My grouse with you not personal, it’s about rule of law—Alegeh, SAN

But on May 13, 2024, Mr Alegeh, again replied Chief Awomolo, SAN to pledge his support but that he felt he should address the issues he raised in his letter which he said bordered on due process and respect for the rule of law and not in any way personal.

Following the position of Alegeh that the issue should be revisited, Chief Awomolo sent a text message to Alegeh on May 15, 2024 and invited him for a discussion in his office the following day at 11:00am. Alegeh said though he was in the BoB Chairman’s office on May 16, he said Awomolo didn’t get to office early enough which made him leave since he had to travel out of Abuja that day.

But he however said that shortly after he left Awomolo’s office, the BoB chairman called him on phone during which both of them spoke but could not resolve the issue.

That was the situation when Alegeh approached a Federal High Court in Lagos on May 22, 2024 with an originating summon and an exparte application to stop Chief Awomolo from removing him as the Chairman of the Appointment Committee of the BoB and to invalidate the reconstituted committees with the prescribed two-year tenure attached, being in purported violation of the 2024 Regulation of the BoB.

The court had already issued an interim order stopping Chief Awomolo from temporarily removing Alegeh as the chairman of the Appointment Committee while the matter has been adjourned till July 8, 2024.

Twist as Mary Odili disowns Alegeh’s appointment

While the case in court is subsisting, Chief Awomolo, SAN had formally asked a former Justice of the Supreme Court and immediate past Chairman of BoB,  Justice Odili, to throw light on the purported appointment of Alegeh, SAN as the Chairman of BoB’s Appointment Committee.

Justice Odili, in a letter of clarification dated June 3, 2024 and addressed to Awomolo, SAN, categorically denied giving any directive to issue the appointment letter and that she was just seeing the controversial letter of appointment for the first time which content she described as shocking.

Awomolo queries Tela

Following the clarification made by Justice Odili, Chief Awomolo issued the BoB’s scribe a query to explain why he unilaterally appointed Alegeh as the Chairman of BoB’s Appointment Committee.

BoB Secretary, Tela, sings

In a long reply to Chief Awomolo’s query, Tella denied that he unilaterally appointed Alegeh as the Appointment Committee Chairman.

He said although there was no written instruction from the BoB chairman on the appointment, he yet claimed that he orally got Justice Odili’s consent which the jurist had vehemently denied.

Parties should settle out of court—Ahamba, SAN

A top lawyer and respected member of the inner bar, Chief Mike Ahamba, SAN who expressed worry over the crisis rocking the BoB, said the issue at stake is a minor one which should not have gone to court in the first instance.

He however said that since it has gone to court, they should find a way of sorting it out amicably more so when the immediate Chairman of the BoB had denied making the appointment.

“What are they quarrelling over again? Are they paying them? The person who signed the letter of appointment has no power to appoint. And at that level too, I do not expect that such matter cannot be resolved amicably,” he added.

Elders should intervene—Ojo, SAN

Another respected silk, Mr Olalekan Ojo, SAN said: “It is unfortunate. We are hoping that the elders of the profession will have the crisis resolved.”

Combatants should sheathe their swords—Ngige, SAN

Also speaking on the crisis, Emeka Ngige, SAN, urged the parties involved in the disagreement to let peace reign.

“We pray for peace to reign. We don’t need a crisis in the Body of Benchers because we will be sending the wrong signal to lawyers and Law students. The BOB is a body of lawyers with the highest distinction. This is strange and it has never happened before. My advice is that the combatants should sheathe their swords and let peace reign.”

NBA politics is at play—SAN

A respected silk and serving state Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice who spoke with Vanguard on condition of anonymity said in the circumstance of the fresh revelations by Justice Odili, the matter should be quickly settled out of court as it is capable of dragging the integrity of the legal profession in the mud.

He said ordinarily, such matter should not have been taken to court but that what is happening is politics, adding  “Don’t forget, during the tenure of Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, this was how they rose against the top lawyer. NBA politics is here again. The fight is not against Awomolo but against the interest that he represents,” he said.

How we can stop the crisis from recurring—Tella

Also speaking on the way forward, Tela, the Body’s Secretary said he is worried over the implications of the crisis on the integrity of the legal profession.

Tella who said he was merely obeying orders given to him by successive chairmen of BoB said he is hopeful though that the matter would be sorted out one way or the other but that with the recent development, “should the Secretariat only act upon written directives given to it for the records? To my mind, the answer should be yes. This way, the records will speak for itself.”

BoB regulation should be guiding light—Salawu

Another lawyer, Olatunji Salawu, simply said: “I am not a member of BOB, so I cannot tell how it completely works there and I am not familiar with their rules or if the chairman has the power to constitute but my opinion is if he has the power to constitute, then he can also reconstitute. He can choose to reconstitute committees and put those he can work with or those who can make his tenure effective. In other words, he can choose to rejig it if he doesn’t think the committee is strong enough but if there is a written down rule on it or the committee’s tenure, then, he cannot. He has to follow the written down rule.”