On August 25, 2014 in the city of Owerri, Mr. Augustine Alegeh SAN was sworn in as the 27th President of the Nigerian Bar Association. He hit the ground running with unprecedented reforms, projects and innovations which have made the Association the envy of all other professional bodies in Nigeria. As he hands over to Mr. A.B. Mahmoud SAN next week at the Annual General Conference in Port Harcourt, he reminiscences on his highs and lows in his two year tenure, including the controversy which has trailed the Association’s recently concluded elections by e-voting.
Your administration saw the first of many introductions in the history of the NBA. The introduction of an NBA Insurance Scheme, the NBA ID Card, the nationwide implementation of the NBA Stamps and Seals, and it culminated with the nationwide elections in which every Nigerian lawyer could vote for their representative officials in the NBA, and no less noteworthy, through electronic voting from anywhere in the world. What would you like your administration to be remembered most for?
My administration will best be remembered for putting the welfare and best interest of our members in the front burner at all times. The “best interest of majority of NBA members” was the central theme of all our programs. All of us who served in the last two years would be pleased if our focus on the welfare and interest of our members is remembered by NBA Members.
Much has been said about the 2016 Electronic Voting that for the first time allowed a universal adult suffrage for all Nigerian lawyers. It has been applauded for its innovation and you yourself have received commendations for keeping this Campaign promise of yours made in 2015. But as much as the elections may have come and gone old criticism about the cost and monetisation of the NBA elections have again surfaced. You openly denounced this yourself in your speech “My Plans for the NBA” delivered in 2014. As outgoing president how have you managed to tackle this problem such that going on from your time as President the electoral system for the NBA is more meritorious and less driven by the amount of financial strength a candidate has?
The introduction of e-voting made the 2016 NBA elections simple, easy, fair, transparent and credible. The cost of the elections to NBA and the Candidates was also reduced drastically.
We had a total of 5442 voters at the elections. The cost would have been astronomical if we had to converge in Abuja, for example to vote. Air tickets alone, at an assumed cost N40k for a return ticket would have cost about N217M. Accommodation for three  nights per delegate at an assumed cost of N60k would have cost about N326M. Voting venue, printing of ballot papers and logistics would have cost about N20M. We must also appreciate that for there to be further reduction in election expenses the candidates themselves have to resist the temptation of engaging in voter tampering.
The system has just started and I believe that in the years ahead it will get better and reduce expenses to an acceptable level.
In stating your agenda for the Bar in 2014 you eloquently said “In effect the NBA President is the lead spokesperson for millions of Nigerians”, and it is right that the NBA President speaks with the voice of the Bar, representing its time honoured traditions of independence and objective representation on poignant issues in the Nigerian society. How have you as the NBA President balanced the responsibility of representing the views of the Bar while also working with the Government to implement policy that actually makes a difference in Nigerian life?
In the last two years the Bar as the voice of the Nation has been vocal and responsible. We have spoken up and matched our words with action. During the 2015 elections we did not just speak up but we also at our own cost organised voter education and mobilisation campaigns all over the Country. We have constructively engaged Government on all fronts and we have achieved tremendous success on several fronts.
On the issue of the Bar’s responsibility to speak out on behalf of Nigerians and make commentary on the state of Nigerian society, in the area of Legal Representation for Nigerians incarcerated in Nigerian Prisons- statistics show that as at June, 2016 of the 63,142 people currently in Nigerian Prisons 17,879 have been tried and convicted and 45, 626 are still waiting for their trial. The NBA is the bastion of civil rights and freedoms, and over 70% of inmates languish in prison with their constitutional rights infringed daily. Is this not a poignant issue for the Bar to champion? Should the NBA as the largest conglomeration of lawyers in Nigeria not have a program for providing representation to prisoners in need of legal representation?
The NBA has been in the forefront pushing and leading efforts to reform the administration of criminal justice in general. We of course realise that the penal system is an important institution in this regard. We have made a number of interventions. We have provided leadership to the review of the Prisons Services Act. We believe that enabling an appropriate legal framework is a necessary step towards prisons reform. We have also been very vocal in our advocacy for dealing with the problem of prison congestion. It is simply unacceptable that we have more than 40,000 persons awaiting trial. Many, for a minimum of five years. We have also re-organised our Pro-bono programme to provide an efficient platform for our lawyers to do pro-bono work. This has increased the number of Lawyers providing legal aid to prison inmates tremendously. We have engaged all justice sector participants in our efforts to deal with the scourge of Awaiting Trial Inmates. This work is continuing even till date.
You also noted as part of your agenda for the Bar that the process of appointing the NBA’s representatives on Boards, Commissions and Parastatals was shrouded in secrecy. You commissioned a committee to inform the NBA of where such representative appointments of the NBA were to be made and of those who had occupied such positions. Now at the end of your tenure what is the NBA’s process of appointing the representation to these positions?
We introduced the General Practice Committee and the Committee advised us in making appointments on behalf of the Bar. We put in our best to ensure that appointments were spread across board and all new but competent faces were recommended to represent the Bar.
The 56th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association will take place from the 19th to 26th August 2016 with the theme “Democracy and Economic development”. What informed the choice of theme and what can be expected from this year’s conference?
This year’s conference focuses on the relationship between economic growth and democracy. There is the need to ensure that there is economic growth and development for the populace in order to sustain any democracy. We have invited a top class faculty to discuss this central theme and indeed for every session at the Conference. We chose this topic because we see an urgent need to provide some economic growth for Nigeria in order to sustain and solidify our democratic experience.
You set up and inaugurated the Database & Documentation of Nigerian lawyers Committee in association with the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The Supreme Court in conjunction with the NBA and notable IT company- Microsoft, is in the process of incorporating a new electronic mail system and virtual database that create a unified network for all Nigerian lawyers all over the world. Could you tell us how far the project has gone and when it will be completed?
The judicial email project is a Project that was initiated by the Judiciary with the NBA acting as a Partner since the NBA membership represents the main users of judicial services. I believe that the project is ready for launching before the end of 2016.
On February 10th 2015 the current NBA Anti-Corruption Commission was inaugurated with the main objective of eradicating corruption from the legal profession and maintaining the ethical standards of the Bar. Bearing in mind that this is a wide and encompassing task, what progress has the Commission made since inauguration and more importantly what institutional systems have been created in the NBA to ensure the NBA’s institutions are strong enough to discourage, detect and penalise corruption?
Our main role in the anti-corruption crusade is to draw the attention of the Nation to the adverse effect of corruption and to identify and draw attention to areas in our society where corruption thrives. We have done this consistently and effectively and there is currently the willingness of more and more Nigerians to join in the fight against Corruption.
You organised the first-ever African Bar leaders’ conference in April with the theme “Reducing Poverty and Promoting Sustainable development”. How can the NBA lead the various Bar Associations on the continent in building on this collaboration?
We organised the AFBA conference to engender collaboration among the various Bar Associations and Law Societies in Africa. After the Conference we visited South Africa and had fruitful meetings with the Bar Associations in South Africa.
The collaborative efforts are yielding positive results as AFBA leaders are constantly communicating and discussing rule of law issues as they affect the different Countries. Recently, a Lawyer was killed in Kenya in circumstances suggesting State involvement and several AFBA leaders weighed in on the matter.
The NBA Women Forum has gradually suffered a decline in active participation of female lawyers which may or may not be an assessment of female lawyer’s participation in the NBA as a whole. However do you think that an active NBA Women’s Forum can benefit the NBA today or do you believe a focus should lay more on getting more female lawyers active in the NBA as a whole?
The NBA Women Forum appears inactive because the tenure of the Last Executive lapsed. We have already inaugurated a Steering Committee to run the affairs of the Forum and organise elections at the AGC so the Forum would be fully operational shortly. The Forum plays a great role in the NBA without preventing Women from participating directly in other NBA affairs. We have women as Chairs and Secretaries of several of our Branches.
In a tenure that has largely been acclaimed as successful and innovative what are the most significant projects you regret not being able to see completed?
Life is dynamic and there is always room for improvement. There is no significant project that we have left undone and I have no regrets. My executive put in its best and we are collectively happy with our modest achievements.
The innovation of this year’s NBA Elections and the universal suffrage for Nigerian lawyers were welcomed heartily by legal practitioners in Nigeria. However a shadow was cast on these great leaps by the low participation and accreditation of lawyers which saw serious difficulty at some periods in the process. For instance it was necessary to lengthen the period of registration because of the introduction of the new technology. Therefore with the benefit of hindsight how can the NBA’s electoral committee improve future elections?
When a system is new there would be challenges but the e-voting system introduced by the NBA is a brilliant system. The system has revealed that several Lawyers are yet to catch up with technological advancement. There is an urgent need for Lawyers to educate themselves and catch up with the digital age. The judicial email would be launched soon and Lawyers who are lagging behind in this regard would find it difficult if not impossible to file processes in our Courts.
The NBA electoral portal had two demos of how to vote but it appears most of those who had problems omitted to view the demos. The other problems were minor problems but as I have always maintained the system can only get better in future elections.
The Gadzama Campaign Organisation has alleged that the recently concluded NBA Presidential Election was not conducted transparently or fairly and on the basis of these allegations have rejected the result and instituted proceedings to negate it. What would you say is the NBA’s response to these allegation?
I am not aware that JK Gadzama SAN has instituted any Court action in respect of the elections. It is not unexpected that the loser at an election would be unhappy with the outcome but it is apparent to all who engaged the system that the system was free, fair, transparent and credible. In fact, JK Gadzama, SAN participated at all stages and was hopeful of victory. He sent a team to witness the declaration of results with the expectation that he would be declared the winner but the Bar decided otherwise and all we can do as friends and colleagues is to encourage him at this time. I even invited him for a meeting but he wrote to say he is on vacation. Time is a healer and I am sure that after reflection in his solemn moments he will call and congratulate the President –Elect, AB Mahmoud, SAN in the best traditions of the Bar. We remain one happy family at the Bar at all times.
The NBA Insurance Scheme has been a truly invaluable introduction into the welfare scheme of the NBA. For the first time Nigerian lawyers have a real functional scheme in place and even begun to benefit from it. However many lawyers are still not aware of their entitlement to the insurance scheme by virtue of their NBA membership. How can the NBA continue to create awareness of these NBA welfare schemes?
I believe most lawyers are now aware of the available welfare packages but the National Secretariat still has the task of publicising these packages so that more members can benefit from them.
As the Ikeja Branch crisis ensues following the annulled Branch Elections of the Executives, what lessons might the NBA be able to learn? How does the NBA intend to rebuild bridges between the aggrieved parties to enable the “Tiger Branch” continue to contribute productively to the NBA?
The issue in the Ikeja Bar is a simple one of compliance with the Constitutional Provisions set out and contained in the NBA Constitution. It is sad that some members believe they are not bound by the Constitutional Provisions. All our members must lead by example and obedience to agreed and laid down principles cannot be compromised. The Ikeja Branch has held fresh elections which have produced a Chairman and I urge all members of the Ikeja Branch to join hands with him in developing the Branch.
It has been suggested that the office of General Secretary of the Association should be a full-time salaried job. From the benefit of your experience in office, would you agree with this proposition?
The NBA does not require a full time salaried General Secretary. The current status of the General Secretary is almost perfect. My suggestion is that we need to strengthen the office of the Executive Director so that the day to day operation of the National Secretariat is left to the Executive Director while the NBA National Executive dictates policy and have oversight functions.
As one of your first acts as President in 2014 you dissolved the Section On Legal Practice however as perhaps one of your final acts as President you have now reinstated an interim-steering committee. What has informed the need to create the interim-steering committee for the section?
It is not correct to state that I dissolved the section on Legal Practice [SLP]! What happened was that the Section failed to hold elections and purported to install a new Chair without completing the election process which had been started earlier in Abuja. We decided not to recognise such an EXCO and appointed an Administrator to steer the affairs of the section until November, 2014 when the election process would have been completed with a proper election. Some members went to Court so we deferred the elections and then a new Constitution was approved in 2015 and we have now set up a steering committee in line with the new Constitution and the Committee is to steer the affairs and organise elections at the AGC.
The point must be made that SLP in the last two years was fully operational and had several programmes in Uyo, Lagos and Abuja. The Section will also run its programs at AGC 2016 in Port Harcourt.
What would be your advice to the incoming president of the NBA?
My advice to the incoming President is that he should always put the best interest of the Bar as the primary condition in decision making. I know he has the experience, exposure, competence and credibility to excel as President of the Bar.
It has been commonly said by past NBA Presidents, although without a tinge of regret, that the NBA presidency preoccupies its holder greatly to the detriment of their legal practice. Is this true for you?
The position of the NBA President is extremely challenging and to faithfully discharge the tasks of your office your practice will suffer but it is a sacrifice worth making. I am happy that I will be handing over and passing on the baton to a competent hand. I am also very happy to be returning to my practice, my family and a quiet life.