NBA PRESIDENT, AB MAHMOUD

Unarguably, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), is Africa’s largest and most vocal professional body. Despite some internal bickering, the umbrella body of Nigerian lawyers, has continued to discharge its societal role as the voice of the masses and the watchdog of the society. The NBA President, Mr. A.B. Mahmoud, SAN, in a chat with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, reaffirmed his resolve to continue to champion the ideals of the Association in the interest of all Nigerian lawyers, against the background of litigation which has trailed his tenure, over the irregularity of not registering its constitutional amendment at the Corporate Affairs Commission. He also spoke on the October, 2016 DSS raids on the homes of judicial officers, which was widely condemned, and urged the Government to allow some of the judges who have not been found culpable or charged to court, to be cleared, so that they can resume sitting.

What informed the decision of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to introduce universal suffrage and also conduct electronic voting, which resulted in your being elected as President of the Association? What was wrong with the delegate system that obtained in the past?

As you are aware, the Nigerian Bar Association is perhaps, the most influential and prestigious professional association in the country. This is not only because of our size, but also over the years, we have become very influential in shaping national discourse and perhaps, influencing public policies. The leadership positions of the NBA have thus, become highly sought after amongst lawyers for a variety of reasons. In the past, this has led to major crisis. In 1992 at our annual convention in Port Harcourt, there was a major rift. This led to some sort of interregnum until about 1998. Part of the response to that crisis was to introduce a delegate system for electing our leaders. This worked for a while, but became problematic. Many of our members felt alienated. Besides, elections became subject of serious manipulation.

In 2015 my predecessor Mr. Augustine Alegeh, SAN initiated a series of reforms, which led to a major constitutional review. The new constitution introduced universal suffrage, electronic voting and also sought to streamline our branches by introducing uniform bye-laws. It was obvious that there was resistance in many quarters. Some of these grievances were not resolved and spilled into my tenure. It was against this background, that some of the legal challenges to our 2015 Constitution was launched by some of our colleagues.

We have been trying to address and resolve these grievances, but clearly some of them are deep seated. However, we are committed to a process of addressing these grievances and carrying everyone on board. We recognise too, that there is a need to undertake further constitutional review, to address the concerns of our various interest groups. We certainly want to look again at our branch structure, leadership succession and perhaps, what measures can be introduced to strengthen the electoral process. In my view, the electronic voting system has come to stay. The only question will be technical: simplifying the process, making it more user friendly, and provide additional safeguards to enhance the confidence of our members.

What is the impact of the March, 2017 Federal High Court decision nullifying the 2015 NBA Constitution which brought your leadership into power? Some are suggesting that the Judgement not only nullified the Constitution, but also rendered all the elections at national and branch levels conducted under that constitution void. What is your position on this issue?

Our understanding of the Federal High Court decision, is that the last valid NBA Constitution was that of 2001 which was registered in 2004. From that time on, the NBA Constitution had two or so major amendments, under which we have had at least three or four past Presidents. Now the suggestion that all that has been done since 2004 by the NBA has been legally wiped off, is of course, something that has far reaching implications for the legal profession, and it is capable of throwing the profession into complete disarray. It is for this reason that we decided to appeal the decision. That appeal is presently being pursued.

Now the complaint of the litigants as we understand it, is not that any of the NBA Constitution was not validly passed or amended by its members, and at properly convened general meetings. The complaint is that the Constitutions ought to have been registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission. I should point out that, the process of registration of the 2015 Constitution was initiated by the past administration of Mr. Alegeh. It was delayed but not abandoned. The Companies and Allied Matters Act does not stipulate a time frame for this. The Courts have not said that the Constitution cannot be registered. So we view this as an irregularity, which can be cured. We are hoping that Corporate Affairs Commission will register the Constitution, and put an end to the controversy. Regardless of that however, we have also been consulting with the Trustees and other stakeholders, including some of our colleagues with grievances, to put our heads together as colleagues to resolve all these matters, in the interest of the profession and in the interest of the country. The country needs a strong legal profession with a strong voice, and this is not the time for us to consume the Association in our internal bickering.

After almost one year as NBA President, how far have you gone in realising your election slogan of ‘A Brave New Bar’? What is your agenda? What have you done differently? What reforms have you made so far?

Much has been done, and is being done to actualise our vision of ‘A Brave New Bar’. As you are aware, we have four focus areas in our programmes: Regulation of the legal profession; more Representation of our members’ interests; Re-engineering of the Association itself, and promotion of Public Interest, what we call 3Rs and P.

One of the first major initiatives which we embarked upon, was to set up a high powered Committee under the chairmanship of Chief Anthony Idigbe, SAN, to undertake a holistic review of the regulatory objectives and architecture of the legal profession, and address certain key policy issues aimed at raising and enhancing ethical and professional standards. That Committee has been extremely successful in carrying out its work, and it is about submitting its final report which will include a comprehensive draft legislation (which will replace the Legal Practitioners Act), and far reaching policy recommendations that we are confident, will greatly enhance the quality of the legal profession in Nigeria. The Committee pursued its assignment with great energy and enthusiasm. It held several consultations with stakeholders, and also held town hall meetings across the country.

At the last NEC meeting in Aba in March, we approved the NBA Strategic Plan, which was developed by my administration. This is a major achievement, which we hope will provide a clear pathway for our programs and activities, and form the basis of collaboration with our partners. Indeed two weeks ago, we held a donors conference at which many donor agencies and development partners, were in attendance. The strategic plan was presented to them, and this was received with great interest. We have indeed, been negotiating major support with some of the agencies. I am confident that major announcements will be made in the coming weeks on various partnerships.

We are introducing a new level transparency and good corporate governance, in the affairs the bar association. We just engaged the Services of KPMG to undertake a review of our financial processes, management and reporting. This we hope will introduce a new level of prudence, transparency and integrity in our financial management. Our accounts will be properly audited and published, commencing this year by a world class Audit firm. This we hope, will enhance the confidence of our members and also of our partners.

There are several other initiatives that are about to be unfolded on mentoring and internship for young lawyers, on disciplinary processes on Continuing Professional Development and trainings, all aimed at enhancing the quality of the legal profession.

Our flagship activity in the NBA calendar is the Annual General Conference. Prof. Koyinsola Ajayi, SAN is heading the Planning Committee for the Conference in August. This year’s Conference is going to be a major international event. It is being organised, at a level that has never been seen in the history of the legal profession in Nigeria. The Planning Committee is bringing unprecedented innovations and completely new thinking into the Conference, that will bring value to our members and the legal profession in general. Several global thinkers and resource persons have already confirmed their participation. The Conference Planning Committee, will unveil its plans immediately after the NEC meeting holding in the coming week.

So I will like to say that, in spite of the distractions from some of our colleagues, we have remained focused on our goals and objectives. My only concern is that, some of these distractions which often get unduly elevated in the social media, create anxiety amongst some of our partners. It is doing incalculable damage to the image of the legal profession in Nigeria. I will therefore, urge our colleagues to be conscious of this and moderate their conduct.

What is the essence of the Niger Delta and the North East Task Forces which your NBA Administration set up?

In the run up to the NBA elections last year, my colleagues and I in the course of our tours across the country, came to the realisation that the situations in the North East and in the Niger Delta were grave. The crises in the two regions had impacted greatly on our members, and also on the local communities. The crisis in the North East has created the 3rd largest number of internally displaced persons in any conflict in the world. That of the Niger Delta, aside from the huge environmental impact and the devastating consequences on the local communities, has also had a huge impact on the national economy.

We therefore, decided that if I won the election, we must do something to address these issues, not only as a demonstration of our concern and solidarity with the victims of the conflict, but as a means of rebuilding confidence in the legal profession by ordinary Nigerians.

The two Task Forces were constituted under the leadership of Chief Albert Akpomudje, SAN for the Niger Delta and Prof. Muhammad Tabiu, SAN for the North East. A tremendous amount of work has been done already by the two Task Forces. We are also looking to scaling things up in collaboration with our development partners. The NBA is currently working with a number of civil society groups and government departments with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, to develop a Transitional Justice Framework for the country. This, we hope, will be crucial in facilitating the reconciliation process in the various conflict areas in the country such as Southern Kaduna, where I led a special NBA mission last February.

Why did the NBA leadership come out so strongly against the DSS raid on the Judiciary? Many saw it as the NBA and its senior lawyers, supporting corruption instead of condemning it.

Well these matters must be viewed in context. We woke up in early hours of I think, 8th October, 2016, to the news that armed men had invaded homes of Judges, including Justices of the Supreme Court. Now this was unprecedented and unheard of in the history of this country. Not even under military rule. In our NBA Constitution, the protection of the independence of the judiciary is one of our primary objectives. For several hours after the raid, there was no information as to who was behind it or what the purpose was. I personally placed calls to various government officials but there was no information. Under these circumstances, we were alarmed as to what was going on. I had to summon a meeting of the leaders of the Association, to discuss the events. It was under these circumstances, that our initial statement was made.

Nevertheless, regardless of the accusation against the judges, which accusations we subsequently came to know of, there was absolutely no justification for those raids. There can be none in any democratic society. All the allegations were matters within the remit of civil police. The Judges were not terrorists on whom such midnight raids and violent assault could be justified.

In our subsequent statements, we urged that the affected judges, especially those that had made public statements on the matters, which were circulating in the social media, should recuse themselves from judicial functions until the investigations were over, and a decision taken on possible trials or otherwise. Again this position was misconstrued. This position was taken in the public interest, to protect the public image and confidence in the judiciary. We thought it was inimical to judicial administration, to have judges sitting in court in the midst of those controversies.

The NBA has stated its position again and again, that we condemn corruption in all its ramifications in whatever sphere of public life. This means we will fight corruption, even if it is within the judiciary or the legal profession. The perception that is building up, that the fight against corruption has become a mere cliché, should not allowed to take root. Some people question the sincerity of government. It is now felt that the Executive branch is protecting its own, the Legislature is doing the same, so the Judiciary must also do the same. I think this is unfortunate. It is a recipe for descent to anarchy. The NBA will remain resolute its condemnation of corruption, and will continue to contribute to the fight, whether in the Judiciary, the legal profession or other public spheres.

The NBA is aware that there are some of the judges who recused themselves, but have not been charged to court. We have previously called for such Judges to be cleared and allowed to resume their judicial functions. We reiterate that call.

How would you rate the Buhari Administration’s respect for the rule of law and obedience to court orders? The continued detention of Sheik El-Zakzaky and his wife, and the former NSA Rtd. Colonel Sambo Dasuki, suggests a lack of respect for the court decisions. The bail conditions given to Nnamdi Kanu have also been criticised as ridiculous. Kindly, comment on this.

In my statement in Lagos on 10th December, 2016, at the commemoration of the International Human Rights Day, the NBA strongly condemned the continued detention of both Shiek El- Zakzaky and all other persons, against express court orders. This is clearly not in consonance with democratic or constitutional governance. We have raised these issues on a number of occasions with the Government, and I would like to reiterate the call by the Nigerian Bar Association to the government, to respect the judicial decisions and act in accordance with the tenets of the rule of law.

Now, having said that, the Buhari Administration must be commended for its efforts at restoring peace and security in the North East Region. We must remember that rule of law and humans rights protection, have a much broader connotation than obedience to court orders, as important as that is. A lot of human rights violations occur in the wider context of inability of the state to provide security and protection to its citizens.

Notwithstanding these modest achievements, however, we are still far from where we should be as a country. Conflict amongst various communities, whether in Southern Kaduna, or various other places between herders and farmers, or in the Niger Delta, or even in the area of crime prevention and control, much needs to be done.

The Attorney-General of the Federation has been widely criticised for his lacklustre performance as Justice Minister, including what some see as his lack of vision for justice administration and his inability to properly and effectively prosecute the government’s fight against corruption. What is your comment?

I think there are a number of initiatives that the Attorney- General is working on. The NBA has been invited to a number of meetings in his office, as part of stakeholder engagements. For instance, we were invited for the discussion on the anti- corruption strategy, open government initiative, the justice- sector policy etc. Perhaps the Attorney-General needs to speak more on the various initiatives to create awareness. I have in various meetings with him, assured him of the support of the Nigerian Bar Association in the work he is doing. I am sure there are many more areas we can work on together.