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NBA 2020: The quintessence of Olumide Akpata’s candidacy

NBA 2020: The quintessence of Olumide Akpata’s candidacy
June 14
13:50 2020

In another couple of weeks, Nigerian lawyers under the aegis of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) would be expected to go to the ballot to elect the next round of national executives of the foremost association, as the 2-year tenure of the incumbent officers is expected to elapse this August. Happily, the current COVID-19 pandemic would have little or no impact on the exercise as the extant Constitution of the NBA which came into force in 2015 introduced electronic voting. Having been deployed successfully in the last two cycles of elections although with some glitches, plans are being perfected to deploy same for the July 24th-25th election.

The elections come at a rather depressing period in the recent history of the association. It is one where despondency, hopelessness and gloom have afflicted the lower rungs of its membership. For context, the last couple of months have seen the poor welfare and remuneration of young lawyers dominate discussion on social media and other traditional media in the country. This state of affairs so entrenched in the legal services industry, has led many a young lawyer to question the rationale of their studying the supposed ‘professional course’ at the university in the first place. It is that bad.

When on the 3rd of June 2020, a social media influencer tweeted that “as a Lawyer, law had better be your side hustle“, many lawyers couldn’t help but agree with such a depressing, yet honest admonition as it mirrored their circumstances. It was therefore not surprising that the comments that trailed the tweet, mostly by young lawyers, read like a chapter from the book of lamentations with each commentator, sharing their own story of what has almost become an occupational hazard. This situation raises serious concerns for the welfare system in one of the leading body of professionals in Nigeria and can no longer be overlooked.

I dare say that as at today, apart from the primary role of the NBA in promoting the rule of law and acting as a bulwark against tyranny and oppression, its next big agenda, should be the welfare, material and otherwise of its membership. And this is where the Olumide Akpata candidacy resonates.

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Incidentally, he shares my view above. He argues, “lawyers’ welfare is an important component of the dignity of our profession. As part of her core mandates, the NBA must ensure the welfare of her members. The NBA must strive to ensure that her members can earn decent wages, have better working conditions, enjoy improved access to healthcare under a workable insurance scheme. The NBA must also defend her members against all forms of harassment. While the role of the NBA certainly includes acting as a watchdog, we should in working to protect our society, not forget the welfare of everyone at the bar“.

Let me be clear, while it is acknowledged that all the other candidates have campaigned on the need to improve the welfare of members of the profession, none of them, at least to my knowledge, has committed a part of their career to the actualization of the ideal like Akpata who has in the last couple of years, invested a better part of his career to the mentorship, and welfare of many young lawyers through diverse platforms particularly during his stint as the Chairman of the NBA Section on Business Law (NBA-SBL), and up till this day. Beyond that, he walks the talk in the remuneration structure in his own law practice that boasts a whopping 150 staff or more, and even more recently put this commitment beyond the realm of speculation with the Covid-19 Pandemic Endowment Fund for Lawyers which he conceived. To that extent, I think it is easier to believe when he makes it one of the pillars of his Transformational Leadership blueprint as against those who preach what they have not been seen to practice. Charity after all, they say begins at home.

I first met Olumide Akpata on the 6th of February 2018, at the Harbour Point, Victoria Island, Lagos. I was among the 50 lawyers sponsored by the NBA-SBL to the Bey-health conference on Medical Ethics, organized by the Bey Health institute, the brain child of the inspiring Dr. Olatokumbo Shitta Bey, in collaboration with the NBA-SBL which had Akpata as its Chairman at the time.

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The energy he exuded throughout the 2-day conference, and the powerful speech he delivered at the session dedicated to young lawyers at the conference vindicated his passion for the profession, and interest in the career trajectory of the young lawyer. While advising on the need for exploring new areas of law practice, he had said, “it is not that there are too many lawyers out there, rather there are too many lawyers doing the same thing“. That advisory which is at the heart of the problem of law practice in Nigeria today, was enough to seal my first impression of the man.

Between then and now, Akpata has been more visible, and heard in matters appertaining to the mentorship, capacity building, remuneration and general welfare of the young lawyer, and members of the profession at large, than any of the other candidates in his avowed commitment to make the practice of law exciting and inspiring for the lawyer. At the NBA-SBL Labour Law symposium held last December at the Oriental Hotel, Lagos, which I had the privilege to attend, he was visible, and in his vintage inspirational manner, reiterated the importance of mentorship in shaping the career of young professionals. For a man who leveraged on the guidance of mentors having had the privilege of tutelaging at the offices of the great Dr. Mudiaga Odje, SAN (now of blessed memory), and moving from there to help in establishing one of the most successful law firms in Nigeria today, he should know.

A rather distinguishing attribute of Akpata which we cannot miss, is his ability to walk the talk, and match words with actions. Guided by his convictions in the invaluable roles of mentorship, networking and Continuous Professional Education in the making of the 21st century lawyer he has over the years invested in partnerships and collaborations that make this possible. A partnership that have seen many lawyers granted scholarships to pursue diverse professional courses of interest, local and international conferences, seminars and workshops of which I was a beneficiary in 2018.

Perhaps the latest of such intervention was the 2 weeks all-expense paid intensive training organized by ‘Friends of Olumide Akpata’ for young lawyers on Emerging Areas of Law. It was one of its kind in the recent history of the profession and saw 30 lawyers drawn from different parts of the country on a competitive basis to converge on Lagos for what many of the beneficiaries described as a career changing exercise.

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With the current status of legal practice in Nigeria today, there is no question that this mindset and thinking must permeate the pyramid of the association across its 125 branches, as it is indubitably clear that that is the only way the Nigerian lawyer can be relevant for the times. And we can be sure that an Olumide Akpata presidency of the association would drive this ideal.

Watchers of development in the legal services industry across the globe would testify to the new, and fast-paced dimension that law practice is taking, and Nigeria as the largest bar in Africa must not be left behind in that circus. For example, the 2018 IBA conference held in Rome had a very instructive theme which speaks to this reality thus, “Is the 21st century lawyer – a businessman or a practitioner?”. The answer to that question is anybody’s guess, but the point is that a great deal of rising to that responsibility is in electing a leader of the association who is not only on top of the changing landscape of the practice, but also helped in pioneering and consolidating it in Nigeria and West Africa at large; an intersection which Olumide Akpata occupies almost exclusively relative to the other aspirants.

Beyond matters of welfare and capacity building, Akpata looms large in his administrative capacity. I understand he’s a stickler for excellence who doesn’t compromise on getting the job done the right way. It is therefore not surprising that his Chairmanship of the NBA-SBL between 2016 and 2018 remains arguably one its finest era in the 16 year history of the business law forum. Having earlier served as the Vice Chairman and Secretary of the Section, he must had seen enough to drive the NBA-SBL to the notch he took it when he bowed out with a thunderous ovation in 2018. With the benefit of hindsight, all of these must have come even effortlessly having built one of the most thriving law practices in Nigeria from nothing to something to reckon with in the Nigerian business climate. Thus, there is no question of his administrative adroitness, physical stamina, and emotional intelligence to lead the association which many of its membership believe has not impressed in recent years.

And we saw a clear vindication of this capacity recently in the presentation of the 2019 Annual General Conference Planning Committee Report. Having served as the Co-chair of the well attended conference, his committee remitted a whopping 200 million Naira to the coffers of the association net of all expenses. It was the first in the recent history of the NBA, but more importantly in the context of this intervention, a tribute to his managerial and accounting skills which no doubt would be a plus in the larger management of the NBA.

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On the human rights front, Akpata is as visible as his very self. Writing in his dedicated column for The Business Day Newspaper on the topic, Police Brutality, Abuse and Harassment of Lawyers-Are We Still Partners In The Protection of Law And Order, on 4th June, 2020 he argues, “As a profession, lawyers need to take a firm stand on this and to insist that enough is enough as we do not know how far this can get. Our voice must be very loud in condemnation and in appropriate cases, our might must be felt.  This is the only way we can retain the clout to defend the rights of others: for if a lawyer cannot defend his own fundamental rights against abuse, how can he defend those of others?”

I believe it is this worldview that dictates his commitment to issues of rights abuse by state actors against members of the public and those of the profession.This commitment is not negotiable as the “Promotion of the Rule of Law”, is at the corner piece of NBA’s mandate. It is gratifying therefore that he is not oblivious of its imperatives.

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The legal profession world over is going though tremendous changes and its Nigerian arm needs to catch. But we cannot do this without the adroit leadership and foresight that Olumide Akpata packs.  Indeed, as Seni Adio SAN, the incumbent Chairman of the NBA-SBL rightly observed, “in elections of this nature, the decision that one makes must be guided more by an objective consideration of the current state of affairs of the legal profession in Nigeria and a patriotic view of this and how one wants the Nigerian legal profession to be competitive in the 21st century…”

I cannot help but agree with the learned silk that the choice of who leads our association in 2020 must be benchmarked against the stark realities of the legal profession in Nigeria today with a view to making it better and more profitable for lawyers irrespective of their standing at the Bar. And this is where the quintessence of Olumide Akpata’s candidacy finds resolution. He embodies all the necessary attributes needed to set a new pace for the legal profession in Nigeria. And his antecedents as I have tried to highlight put all of these beyond the realm of platitudes or conjectures.

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If I might add, as a non-silk, his candidacy holds refreshing vistas for the relations between the inner and the outer bar. Whereas the association in its post-crisis history has been led by learned silks, the emergence of a non-silk as the president of the NBA, would not only come as a breath of fresh air, but also might serve to bring the intentions of the draftsman of the NBA constitution to completion and make for more sense of belonging in the overall relations between silks and non-silks in the August body.

Elegant, suave, humble, sociable, a blend of the old school and the new school, Akpata packs a punch and easily stands out among his peers as the candidate to beat. His rich cast of networks both at home and in the international scene as vindicated in his circulated profile inspires and can only be a goldmine to draw from in achieving his transformative ideas for the legal profession in Nigeria.

As the NBA clocks 60, I have no doubt that all of the above are what must define and undergird the world view of its 30th president. Hence I have no hesitation to unreservedly endorse the candidacy of Olumide Akpata. Not for his own good, but for the good of the legal profession in Nigeria, and our association which must now be seen to work for its members and the society at large.

Raymond Nkannebe writes from Lagos. He tweets @RayNkah

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