As a lawyer, the unfolding scenario post last week’s election of the Nigerian Bar Association leaves one totally abashed. That is, of course, not to suggest that the NBA is populated by super humans who are infallible. It is only to recognise the fact that the legal profession is held to a measure of standard, which places it a ton above the common human frailties like the ones we are currently seeing. This point should also be made: the NBA, not society, places these standards on itself, so it is double tragedy when such a body fails itself.
Let us take a quick reckoning of the place of pride that the legal profession set for itself. To start with, lawyers never leave any opportunity to let you know that they are the only set of learned people on earth and that the profession is nobler than any other one. But there is nothing noble about tendencies like nepotism, cheating, desperation, selfishness and outright lack of discipline that practitioners have demonstrated concerning this election.
For an organisation, which, by its own constitution commits to being a watchdog of democratic governance, personal liberty, defence of constitutional values and vanguard of national rebirth, (obligations, which are even more pronounced than the welfare of members) those who have voices in the NBA should be ashamed for the disservice they currently do to the strategic position of the bar in national electoral reforms, electoral development and sanctity of one man-one vote.
On August 1, the South-West Lawyers’ Forum, otherwise known as Egbe Amofin, issued a communiqué rejecting the election of Mr Olumide Akpata as President of the NBA due to various allegations of manipulation.
Signed by Chairman of its steering committee, Chief Niyi Akintola (SAN), and Secretary, Dr Oluwole Akintayo, the group claimed that 4,000 ‘ghost voters’ were smuggled into the voter register. It also identified the alleged “disenfranchisement of a significant number of lawyers who underwent the verification process; failure to make available the final voters’ list 28 days before the election… and the creation of a Diaspora branch of the NBA for voting contrary to the stipulation of the constitution,” as further indication of the manoeuvring of the process. It called for the cancellation of the elections.
Now, these complaints, whether they are right or wrong are a smear on the integrity of the NBA, which unlike any other national professional association should be an upholder of the rule of law, ethical behaviour and respect for constitutionalism. That the “learned” now so wantonly dance naked in public is a testimony to the pervasive corruption of values in the country and the tragic fact that no one, not even the bar, is able to show a road map to progress.
The contentions in these elections are not surprising though. Free, fair and credible elections are generally process-driven. So, if the process is tainted as has been suggested of the electronic voting process since 2015, it is predictable that, (given the aversion of Nigerians to losing elections) someone was bound to cry wolf after all.
However, the fact that the NBA elections have recently become contentious and acrimonious with allegations of the deliberate exclusion of members and the programming of processes for pre-determined results is worrisome. If prominent bar members like Dame Priscilla Kuye, a former president of the NBA, could not vote despite qualifying to do and indeed, receiving her voting link, it is impossible to dismiss these allegations.
Regardless of the possible legitimacy of these claims though, the Egbe Amofin does discredit to its position in a way or two. The first is that it had pitched its tent with a candidate before these elections. That candidate unfortunately lost the election and would be the beneficiary of the reversal that they are seeking for. Would these complaints have emerged if this candidate won? Can the group’s position then be said to be in the interest of a better the NBA?
More importantly, there is something called the greater good. A consideration that should have persuaded the Egbe Amofin, to in spite of its misgivings about the last elections, seek to protect the reputation of the NBA and pursue internal reforms that would eliminate the recurrence of these errors in future elections. The truth is that there are no perfect elections anywhere, but democrats overlook some of these complaints just for the love and preservation of institutions every now and then.
That throws up the more fundamental issue of how much love people have for the NBA and if the association has not become a tool for the perpetuation of certain hegemonies and the suppression of the progress of others. And a natural corollary, if the current order has not generated an internal rebellion, for which even if this election was conducted a million times, the result may not be different in any material detail.
The first own goal was a letter authored by Asiwaju Adegboyega Awomolo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and life bencher. In the letter, which was addressed to another life bencher and former NBA President, Chief Thompson Okpoko, Awomolo solicited that senior lawyers should insist that the NBA presidency must remain exclusive to members of the SAN rank.
He noted that allowing an “outsider” become president would put public ridicule on the inner bar. In conclusion, Awomolo wrote: “… It will be a great failure of leadership for the senior advocates to surrender leadership to outer when there are willing and able senior advocates.” Observers, including Professor Chidi Odinkalu, hold the opinion that this letter, with the repulsion it bore amongst the bar, did much more for Akpata’s candidacy than could be imagined.
But it got worse when another silk and former NBA President, Mr Joseph Daudu, also wrote to give various reasons why only senior advocates should be presidents. Daudu went a step further to endorse Deacon Dele Adesina, SAN, who happened to be the same person adopted by the Egbe Amofin.
These two gentlemen’s letters recognised the fact that junior lawyers are able to overrun their preferred candidate if the elections were allowed to go on. So, to forestall what they perceived to be a diminishing of the silk status, they encouraged undemocratic decisions that might bar non-inner bar members from contesting the presidency or/and the eventual reversal to the delegate system that denied most lawyers from voting until 2015! All just to massage egos!
It is this same tendency for self-preservation that has pitted many young lawyers against the senior advocates’ rank, which many lawyers now see as more political than meritorious. A point, which brings more ridicule to the rank than the possibility of a non-member being president.
These senior advocates speak about the non-participation of junior lawyers in the activities of the NBA until elections approach, yet they do not understand that positions like the ones they are promoting alienate the young. It makes them see the NBA as nothing but a parasitic organisation, to which they pay periodic dues without commensurate consideration.
A widespread reality of young lawyers today is pathetically paltry remuneration, which is perpetrated by and even justified by some of these seniors.
An August 28 tweet by a legal practitioner, Orji Uka, for instance, quoted Daudu as saying at a Section of the Business Law Conference in 2014 that rather than ask for better salaries, young lawyers should be the ones paying since they are learning from the firms! “Mr Asue Ighodalo had to pick the mic to openly break with Daudu, SAN. Nwagu and I (only) gave the former a standing ovation. Of course, you don’t blame other young lawyers. The bosses were also in the room,” Uka tweeted to explicate how reluctant the young lawyer of today is to applaud a motion in his favour!
Many of these senior lawyers have, in addition to the hubris of their professional accomplishments, appropriated oppressive patriarchal and cultural values that reduce juniors to mostly overworked, underpaid and timid people contrary to the training and disposition expected of lawyers. While some may argue that this treatment is probably a result of the economic situation in the country, the fact that seniors know how to treat their own children and elevate them even above their seniors in the bar, exposes the wicked selfishness at the root of these suppressive behaviours.
Whether the Akpata victory stands or not, the legal profession in Nigeria needs to reposition itself as one of nobility. That starts with encouraging equal opportunity for all regardless of rank, ensuring that everyone gets a fair deal. And if it stands, Akpata already has his task cut for him. There is no association when rank divides; he must work to print his name in gold by stemming all emerging tendencies that can make the revered image of the NBA blow up before our very eyes.
Adedokun tweets @niranadedokun