Funmilayo Odude, Legal Practitioner, Damod Law Practice

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Going beyond the buzz of NBA elections 04 Aug 2020

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) held the elections for its national officers on July 29, 2020. It was undoubtedly one of the most popular elections of the association in recent times. Part of the reason the elections drew much attention was that one of the contestants for NBA President – Olumide Akpata, who went on to win the election into that position – is quite popular among young lawyers. Also, many young lawyers who are eager to see progressive change within the association were actively engaged with respect to the elections on different social media platforms.
Beyond the legal profession, the average middle-class Nigerian seemed interested in the outcome of the elections with the hope of seeing a new leadership in the NBA that would revivify the association. People are keen to see an NBA that is a pressure group, which is capable of demanding accountability from public officials and promoting rule of law in Nigeria.
The NBA is self-acclaimed as Nigeria’s foremost and oldest professional membership organization and Africa’s most influential network of legal practitioners. But beyond that, by virtue of being the body of all practicing legal practitioners in Nigeria, the NBA is properly positioned to be the ombudsman of Nigerian democracy. It ought to be the frontrunner in the fight against corruption, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the advancement of rule of law and good governance in Nigeria.

The association has an observer status at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and a working partnership with many national and international governmental and non-governmental organizations. Yet the NBA has become so weak that it is incapable of protecting even its members who are unjustly arrested in the course of representing their clients. Given this weakness of the association, how can it aid the society?

There have been calls for all sorts of reforms in the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. There is an advocacy for police reform, particularly a call to dismantle the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force. Nigerians are also demanding an end to human rights abuses. Other advocacies include prison reforms, reforms in the appointment of judges and judicial processes and procedures. The NBA is not known for spearheading or actively pursuing any of these reforms.

In its constitution, the NBA has very laudable aims and objectives, including: 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; establishment, maintenance, and operation of a system of prompt and efficient legal aid and assistance for those in need but who are unable to pay for same; promotion and support of law reform; maintenance of the highest standard of professional conduct, etiquette and discipline; and encouragement and protection of the right of access to courts at reasonably affordable fees and of representation by counsel before courts and tribunal.

Other aims and objectives of the NBA are: 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; and establishment of schemes for the promotion of the welfare, security, and economic advancement of members of the legal profession. However, in the mind of the average member of the association, the NBA connotes only two things: collection of dues and the yearly general conference that it organizes.

Rather than be the anchor for change, the NBA itself has been steeped in all manner of impropriety, thus losing the confidence of its members and the society. During his tenure, the outgoing President of the association, Paul Usoro, SAN, was facing a criminal charge bordering on fraud and corruption alongside former government officials of the Akwa Ibom State government. Just a few days to the 2020 elections, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) charged two lawyers to court for cyber-fraud committed during the last elections of the association in 2018.

There have been a number of senior lawyers who have faced or are currently facing criminal charges involving corruption, fraud, inducement and bribing of judges. Yet, there have been no statements from the NBA relating to internal investigations being carried out, reprimands or disciplinary actions against the lawyers.

Lord Chief Justice Hewart famously remarked in the English case of R v Sussex Justices ex parte McCarthy that justice must not only be done, but it must also be seen to be done. While lawyers are fond of using this remark, the NBA has not been seen to do anything of note to promote the rule of law in Nigeria in recent years.

Can one man, however, bring the desired change to the NBA? I greatly fear that the winner of the elections would be doomed to unrealistic expectations of both members of the association and the society. Like we are prone to do with the Nigerian political sphere, we have created a one-man-saviour syndrome in a complex, bureaucratic structure. Surely, I believe that whoever heads the NBA is an important factor in bringing about the desired change and reformation we desire to see.

But just as an ‘incorruptible Buhari’ is leading an administration under which institutions like the EFCC and the Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC) have been accused of massive and systematic financial malfeasance, it would take more than the occupant of the office of President of the NBA to bring about true reforms.

The President of the NBA is, by the association’s constitution, the principal spokesman of the association. He or she is empowered to direct all the other officers of the association; coordinate the activities of all branches of the association; and provide direction and leadership to all committees of the association. However, the decision-making organ of the NBA is the National Executive Committee (NEC). The NEC is a ludicrously large body that comprises all the national officers, all past presidents and general secretaries, all chairmen and secretaries of registered branches, chairmen and secretaries of sections, and other ‘deserving’ members co-opted by the NEC not exceeding 180 members.

In emergency cases, the national officers may make decisions. But they must report to the next National Executive meeting for ratification. In fact, a national officer may be removed from office by two-thirds majority of the NEC for disobedience to the NEC.

The laudable aims and objectives of the association are to be carried out by committees. These committees are to be constituted by the NEC on the advice of the President. The NEC appoints the members of the electoral committee in charge of NBA’s elections. Decisions by the NEC are either by consensus, simple majority or where it is so decided in respect of an issue by secret ballot.

The NBA has eleven standing committees, including the judiciary committee and the law reform committee. The former is responsible for investigating allegations of corruption or misconduct involving any member and members of the judiciary and others; while the latter is responsible for liaising with the National Assembly and making inputs into laws being contemplated or considered by the legislature, and also advising the NEC on laws to be proposed to the Federal Government for promulgation or reform. There is also the human rights committee, which promotes and protects the principles of the rule of law and fundamental human rights and liberties.

The failure of the NBA to achieve all of these objectives cannot be blamed on the national officers alone. Members of these committees are also culpable.

Any chance at a progressive change might start with, but must go beyond, the person occupying the office of President of the association. Unlike the President of Nigeria who gets to pick his Vice-President and ministers, the President of the NBA must work with other elected officials like him and a large NEC whose composition is likely to include the “principalities and powers” who resist reforms or progressive change of any kind.

The social engagement that led to the emergence of the winner of the elections must be sustained to actualize whatever reforms are to be implemented. Social engagement must be intelligent enough not to focus on just the President or national officers but also on the different structures that make up the whole of the NBA – the branches, sections and committees.

The different heads of these structures must become equally popular and be engaged with their programmes and tasks. The activities of the NEC should become of interest to lawyers who must demand transparency and accountability.

Nigeria’s democracy needs a strong, independent, vibrant and reliable bar association. However, in order to take its place, the NBA must first clean its house. The generation that will dispense with the ancient principles of legal practice that relate more to form but have no substantive benefits has arrived. The passion for a better bar association and a better country is available. But is the intelligence to make it happen present?