Lagos — The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has sent many heads in the country spinning with recent developments which were unexpected as they were unsavoury. First, it was the brouhaha which greeted the virtual election on July 29 – 30, 2020 that birthed a new national executive with Mr. Olumide Akpata as President. He overcame a stiff challenge from two Senior Advocates of Nigeria in the 3rd national election that featured electronic voting. The 47-year old lawyer from Edo State is the first member of the Outer Bar (non-SAN) to be elected President of the NBA in about three decades. And just as we thought that victors and losers will enjoy a champagne toast to celebrate the outcome of a civilised poll held by “learned professionals,” we were treated to the spectacle of a PDP vs APC type of controversy. Lawyers, senior and young, chorused accusations that you will hardly associate with this group of professionals. They said the elections were rigged; the electoral register was bloated and many lawyers were disenfranchised. Confirmation of the “imperfect elections” came from Mr. Akpata himself and the Chairman of the NBA Board of Trustees and former President, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba. Mr. Akpata said: “For me, I say the shortcomings notwithstanding; those shortcomings did not materially impact on the process to the point that there was a subversion of the will of the people.” Responding to a petition sent by one of the candidates, Mr. Dele Adesina to the Board of Trustees, Dr. Agbakoba said: “We note that the elections were not perfect. We reviewed your petition and note that it raises serious issues. Nonetheless, our advice will be the overall interest of the Bar should be paramount on the mind of every Nigerian lawyer and to that extent, we urge that all lawyers and no less the candidates be mindful of the need to promote a cohesive. united and strong Bar.” You would think these were INEC officials proffering excuses for a flawed general election in Nigeria!
We had hardly recovered from this controversy when the NBA came up with a new one as it prepared for its annual general conference which eventually saw the enthronement of Mr. Akpata as the 30th NBA President. The association had invited several officials to speak, among them, Vice President ‘Yemi Osinbajo, former President Olusegun Obasanjo as well as the governors of Rivers and Kaduna states, Nyesom Wike and Nasir El-Rufai respectively. A lawyer, Usani Odum organized an online petition to stop Mallam El-Rufai from speaking, and collected over 3,000 signatures. The petitioners listed 10 allegations of human rights and security infractions against the Governor and his son, Bello. The NBA balked and disinvited the Governor to the conference which annoyed the Kaduna State branch of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN). They said Chief Obasanjo and Mr. Wike should also be disinvited because the pair are in the same class with the Mallam. If they asked me, I would have advised against disinviting the Kaduna State Governor. In fact, the allegations levelled against him qualify him for the platform! How else do you understand how his mind works, the security challenges he faces, and most importantly engage him in an intelligent discourse on governance in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria? If security is a prerequisite for an invitation, will the Vice President qualify to speak, given the amount of violence that we see in many parts of Nigeria, not least in his own state and the President’s home state of Katsina?
For two lawyers from the North, Nuhu Ibrahim and Abdulbasit Suleiman, the treatment meted to Mallam El-Rufai was the last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, as they have floated a new organisation named New Nigerian Bar Association, (NNBA.) They wrote to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation to inform him of the emergence of the body, saying it will be “inaugurated soon.” The NBA, which now risks being spilt in two factions, prides itself as “Nigeria’s foremost and oldest professional membership organisation and Africa’s most influential network of legal practitioners, with over 120,000 lawyers on its roll in 125 active branches across the 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria.” Regardless of these glowing credentials, the NBA has not shown any shine that will stand it out from any other grouping of Nigerian professionals, or indeed, a typical political party.
Like a Nigerian political party, the NBA has not been able to rise above zoning, as its constitution rotates the presidency among the three old regions of North, West and East. Nearly all its elections, since e-voting was introduced in 2016, have been marred by allegations of fraud and corruption. For example, the poll which held August 18 – 20, 2018 at which Mr. Paul Usoro emerged as President, was described as a “robbery,” by a group of lawyers who said they discovered “no less than 4000 fake telephone numbers and 1004 fake emails deployed to rig the elections.” Since the NBA is a microcosm of the Nigerian macrocosm, the challenges it is facing with e-voting belies the claims of “experts” who claim this method of voting will solve the challenge of poor polls in Nigeria. But there is something more concerning than disputed ballots. The NBA, like a typical Nigerian grouping, has fallen into the fault lines of the Nigeria project. Sadly, the disagreement on the disinvitation of Mallam El-Rufai has followed religious lines – it is northern Muslims that are most disappointed. This was also the case as lawyers from the South West were most vociferous in their condemnation of the recent election in which one of their own, Mr. Adesina placed third.
If lawyers, with their learning, modernistic facade and global panache, cannot disagree without resorting to ethnic and religious sentiments, do we expect anything different from the common man who does not pretend to any standing or status, and grapples daily with hunger and ignorance? And this leads me to a billion-naira question: Is the formation of the New Nigerian Bar Association a tepid response that will come to nothing, or does it reflect a go-it-alone sentiment that will resonate with other segments of the population that have cause to be angry about anything? Whichever way, the NBA is “falling our hands,” to use a well-known Nigerian lingo, indicating that the happenings fall sorely short of our expectations. Or perhaps, we had no basis to nurse those expectations in the first place.