By: Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
At its Annual General Conference held in Lagos last week, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, perfected the change of guards, between its former President, Mr. Olumide Akpata and Mr. Yakubu Maikyau, 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. This piece is not about the Akpata administration but rather an attempt to set the agenda for the new Executive Council of the NBA.
The expectations are high indeed, given the promises made by the candidates during their electioneering campaigns and the status of those constituting the new Exco, especially the principal officers. Mr. Maikyau has been involved in NBA affairs for long being very active in NBA matters ever before he indicated interest in the presidency of the elite organisation. The same goes for the new General Secretary, Mr. Adesina Adegbite, also an accomplished Bar man. The team parades several other experienced and tested hands which give no room for any excuse as the Exco is not entirely new, at least not to NBA matters. What this means is that the Exco should hit the ground running. This piece is only advisory for the new Exco, as a guide.
By its aims and objectives as stated in its Constitution, the NBA is to be preoccupied with:
- ‘Maintenance and defence of the integrity and independence of the Bar and the Judiciary in Nigeria;
- Improvement of the system of administration of justice, its procedures, and the arrangement of court business and regular law reporting;
- Promotion and protection of the principles of the rule of law and respect for the enforcement of fundamental rights, human rights and people’s rights’.
Of course there are other objectives but I have only highlighted these ones to guide my thoughts on the issues that I consider urgent and germane. The new Exco should prioritise its goals and not fall into the same trap as professional politicians who promise everything but do nothing. It is worth stating that the Motto of the NBA is: ‘Promoting the Rule of Law’. This is similar to the Motto of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, which is captured in the Latin maxim ubi jus ibi remedium, (where there is a right, there is a remedy). The NBA, by its nature and composition, is different from all other professional associations and pressure groups, because it is also an interventionist agency for the protection of the rights of others, beyond its registered members. It cannot but be pro-people, especially the masses and the underprivileged in the society. For this and many reasons, the NBA has become the mouthpiece of the oppressed of the society, the official defender of the judiciary and judicial officers and indeed the conscience of the nation.
Two eminent lawyers and nationalists of old, have given us some guides on how lawyers should function, namely Sir Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams and Pa Tunji Gomez. Sapara Williams was the first Nigerian to be admitted into the Inner Temple on November 17, 1879. He came back to Nigeria to help liberate his people from oppression and injustice, he campaigned vigorously for press freedom and for the abolition of the notorious Seditious Offences Ordinance of 1909, which fortified Colonial authority.
According to Sapara Williams, “the legal practitioner lives for the DIRECTION of his people and the ADVANCEMENT of the cause of his country.” For Pa Tunji Gomez, everything a lawyer does should be “a matter of CONSCIENCE.”
STATE OF THE NATION
We are presently in the election season, which means that those in the positions of authority are more likely to abdicate their responsibilities to the people that they were elected or appointed to govern, in pursuit of selfish electoral fortunes. The NBA should constantly interrogate the affairs of Nigeria against its stated aims and objectives, as the voices of lawyers must be heard on issues concerning the masses of our people, especially those of security and welfare. To this end, the NBA NEC should mandate every NBA Branch to raise the stake of discourse on the State of the Nation as part of the agenda of their monthly meetings. A gathering of lawyers cannot be complete if it does not discuss and take decisions on fundamental and topical issues affecting the nation. Lawyers should not just gather to discuss branch dues, practicing fees, stamp and seal, NBA elections, etc; we must affect society for good. It does not matter what the government in power feels or says, the NBA MUST be guided by its own Constitution and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The NBA as an organisation CANNOT be pro-government, it just cannot happen, because it won’t work. And it is gratifying that the President-elect has indicated this in some of his interviews after the election. The Exco can count on the support of all lawyers in this regard. In my humble view, the responsibilities associated with the office of the President of the NBA may not permit him to be the official spokesperson of the Bar, but he must delegate that function to other officers so long as any intervention from the Bar on national issues has his input.
STATE OF THE BAR
The Bar in Nigeria is too fragmented and nothing says this more than the previous election that ushered in Akpata. The new Exco should strive to build bridges across the Bar and work assiduously to downplay the issues that drove the campaigns during the election, which divided the Bar along ethnic and class lines. The Bar should henceforth speak with one voice, devoid of all manner of dichotomies. It was shocking to me the angle that the last Exco brought to the last Conference in Lagos on the issue of BIG WIGS of the Bar, where an attempt was made to showcase senior lawyers considered to be less of courtroom advocates but who have in their career achieved landmark milestones. It was totally an avoidable distraction, if you ask me. The Nigerian Bar is unique in the sense that it combines advocacy with solicitorship and so any lawyer called to the Bar in Nigeria is entitled to continue to combine both. When it became necessary for him to do, Mr. Olumide Akpata donned his wig and gown and appeared in court to defend the NBA against the attempt to whittle down its powers and we all hailed. I am sure that if he has any reason to do so, the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, will adorn his Silk and appear in court; so too the Honourable Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, SAN and the Honourable Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Mr. Festus Keyamo, SAN and indeed all other senior lawyers currently engaged in one political assignment or the other.
Lawyers and judges have become endangered species, as the practice of the legal profession, whether on the Bench or at the Bar, is increasingly becoming a dangerous path to tread. The persecution of lawyers, purely on account of the prosecution or defence of the cause of their clients, cannot continue. The Exco should have Standing Committees comprising seasoned lawyers and activists, across the six geo-political zones, monitoring cases involving lawyers who are victims of overzealous security agencies, to take them up with superior authorities and to file cases in court for judicial pronouncements. Judges are unofficial members of the NBA and as such, the NBA Constitution requires that the NBA should ensure that judges are independent, well catered for and protected.
The relationship between senior and young lawyers calls for urgent review. We need to find a balance between ambition and consolidation. The senior lawyer has spent years setting up his practice, invested heavily in it and is looking forward to the days of harvest. This is expected. However, he didn’t build the practice alone, so he must show enough magnanimity to accommodate the needs of those working with him. I’m concerned with the pitiable plight of young lawyers, especially in terms of remuneration, but given that law practice is mostly personalised, the new NBA Exco should as a matter of priority consolidate on the Akpata initiative on the guidelines on the issue of remuneration. As the African saying goes, if the hunter should reflect on the vicissitudes of hunting in the wild, he would most probably be unwilling to share his game. It is a commendable and pragmatic move that must not be allowed to die. However, this must correspond with established ethics of the profession, especially on the issue of due deference to and regard for senior lawyers.