NBA Elections Will be Free, Fair and Credible

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Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), is unarguably the largest professional body in Africa. With almost 200,000 members, the body’s biennial elections come with understandably humongous challenges. This year’s elections to its national offices present no less, and Mr Tawo Eja Tawo, SAN has been given the herculean task of midwifing the elections, which will be by universal suffrage and e-voting. In a chat with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, he outlined the responsibilities of the Nigerian Bar Association Electoral Committee (ECNBA) of which he is Chairman, and gave insights on how his Committee intends to deliver a free, fair and transparent election next month

A few weeks ago, you assured Nigerian Lawyers that your Committee would deliver a credible, free and fair election. What specific plans do you have in place to fulfil this promise, given the fact the last few elections of the Nigerian Bar Association were trailed with controversies?
The assurance to deliver a credible, free and fair election for the NBA, still stands. To achieve that, we will ensure adherence to the attributes or ingredients of a credible, free and fair election, to wit, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability and competitiveness in the 2020 general elections of the National Executives of the NBA. Inclusiveness; where members of the Bar are provided equal opportunities to participate in the elections either as voters or candidates subject of course, to the Constitution of the NBA. Transparency; where members and stakeholders can verify independently, the conduct of the electoral process. Accountability; where the rights of the members with respect to the conduct of the stakeholders and candidates in the election is sustainable, and competitiveness where members will have reasonable and equal opportunities to compete in the elections.

The Committee has a road map of activities for the election, which commenced with the issuance of a preliminary notice for the elections. Thereafter, the guidelines for the elections were issued, and nomination of candidates opened on May 11th, 2020 and closed on May 29th, 2020. We are in the process of screening the nominees, before publication of the list of candidates. There shall be a period for appeals, as provided for in the election guidelines. We have, and shall be issuing periodic statements, to put members in the know of the activities and the electoral process.

We are aware that one of the keys to the successful delivery of our electoral mandate, is the compilation of an authentic and credible voters register consisting of only the names of eligible voters as prescribed by the Constitution of the NBA, in order not to disenfranchise any qualified member from voting. Secondly, since the election is by e-voting, the deployment of a suitable election portal/platform that is easily accessible and user friendly is very important, and this has to be done on the advice and in consultation with a credible IT Consultant engaged for the purpose of assisting in the conduct of the election, which will also include voter education for the use of the election portal.

Nigerian Lawyers were shocked when you stated in a recent press release, that the NBA presented your Committee with an already prepared e-voting platform, over which your Committee had no input. This has raised serious apprehensions in the minds of many, that it could be a ploy to rig the elections in favour of a particular candidate. Is your Committee ready to accept that voting platform to deliver the election? If so, how will you be able to convince Lawyers that the elections will be free and fair?

If you had the opportunity of reading my press statement No. 003 of May 15th, 2020 captioned “The Journey so far”, you would have discovered that those were not my words. However, I want to believe that was the understanding of the reporter who chose such a headline for his story. What I said was that, the Committee was briefed that the NBA has its own e-voting platform/portal for elections developed by an IT firm.

I did not say the e-voting platform/portal was developed specifically for the 2020 elections, and neither did I say anything that should warrant an inference that the NBA developed platform was created for the purpose of rigging the elections, far from it. It may be of interest to point out that, the IT firm, TAVIA, that developed the NBA election portal/platform, is not conducting the e-voting election for the NBA; rather another IT consultant will do that. I went further in that statement to state that, in spite of the obvious advantages of the NBA portal, namely reduction in cost and security of members data vis- a-vis deployment of another election platform or portal, there was the need to engage an independent IT Consultant to analyse, assess and critique the portal as to its integrity, functionality and suitability for the elections, or otherwise advice on other options.

Let me say this, we as a people, not just Lawyers but Nigerians, have so much programmed and skewed our mind set and perception to negativism and pessimism, that we fail to see or look at the good side or intention of a particular exercise or project; rather we look and search for the bad, the ugly and the hidden agenda, even when none exist.

That is why bad news sells faster. Having said that, what is wrong for an organisation that conducts a crucial election biannually to develop an election portal for use for its elections, rather than every two years an IT firm is commissioned or contracted to develop an election portal for the election, and discard same afterwards?

However, like I stated in the said Statement No. 003, the e-voting portal to deploy for the election would depend on the advice and report of the IT Consultant engaged for the election, upon analysing the existing NBA election platform.
Despite your warning to candidates for the various offices, it does appear as if your warning was observed in breach, as many of them have been on all media platforms practically campaigning and canvassing for votes, even when the ban had not been lifted.

How do you intend to assure that all candidates play by the rules? Do your rules and guidelines permit aspirants traversing the length and breadth of the country, visiting Branches to seek for votes? If not, what are your Committee’s plans to deal with this? What exactly do your rules permit for the canvassing for votes? After all, candidates must make themselves known to the electorate at large to share their manifestos and win them over.

The ECNBA has general powers to conduct the 2020 general elections of the NBA; those powers are however, subject to the NBA Constitution. It is in consequence of those powers, that we issued guidelines for the election. The ban for the campaigns has not been lifted, because there are no candidates for the elections yet. Assuming at this stage an aspirant embarks on a campaign spree and upon screening he or she is rightly disqualified from contesting the election, of what benefit would the campaign be? Come to think of it, and in all frankness, what is the campaign for the NBA election all about? Is it for vote buying or letting members know the candidate’s program for the Association and its members? If it is for the latter, paragraph 1.3(f) of the second schedule to the NBA Constitution 2015 (as amended) has taken care of that, to the effect that candidates are to submit copies of their curriculum vitae, comprehensive manifestoes and other campaign materials to the ECNBA for publication on the NBA website. Besides, with a few inquiries from colleagues, members will be able to ascertain and determine the capability of any of the candidates.

The essence of the guidelines and constitutional limitations and prohibitions to campaigns, such as traversing and criss-crossing the entire length and breadth of the country for votes, is to discourage unnecessary spending of money with the attendant urge to recoup same upon being elected.

In terms of any breach of the guidelines or the constitutional provisions by the candidates, we are monitoring the activities of the prospective candidates and their supporters, and we shall not hesitate to impose appropriate sanctions for any violation. This also brings me back to the issue of accountability which I mentioned earlier, as an ingredient of a credible election which pertains to members’ rights to question the conduct of the stakeholders and the candidates for the election.

Some Aspirants have been accused of enticing young Lawyers with juicy monetary offers, by asking them for their account numbers to help pay their practicing fees and Branch dues. Does this not amount to inducement and election malpractice? How are you responding to such allegations?
Inducement or monetary offers to voters, is vote buying simpliciter. It is an anathema to the tenets of democracy, and portends grave damage to any society or organisation that encourages it, as it will scuttle the right to conscientiously call those elected through vote buying to account. In fact, it is inexcusable, both for the vote buyer and the vote seller.
Yes, asking for account numbers from some members for the payment of their Bar practicing fees and branch dues by aspirants or prospective candidates, especially during the election year, amounts to an inducement and election malpractice. However, those are general allegations which we cannot act upon, without proof or evidence of such allegations. That notwithstanding, if the Committee by whatsoever means and ways finds out that any aspirant or candidate indulges or indulged in such or any other malpractice, the full weight of the relevant constitutional provisions will be brought to bear on such aspirant or candidate.

What is your position on ethnic endorsement or adoption of Candidates, despite the fact that the election will be by universal suffrage?
In my humble opinion, there is a seeming difference between endorsement of a candidate and adoption of a candidate. Endorsement of a candidate, is the support or approval of a candidate by a person or group of persons. Adoption of a candidate, on the other hand, is the choice to make a candidate a group’s own candidate, i.e. the group of persons put forward the candidate as their own and only candidate.

Generally, endorsements and adoptions are integral to democracy. Adoption is usually an off shoot of consensus amongst the aspirants or candidates, and the group or platform the candidates seek to represent. It follows therefore, that in the absence of a consensus, adoption of a candidate by a group becomes more or less ineffectual, because other candidates may likely emerge in defiance of the adoption. Having said that, adoption on its own is not bad in a democracy, provided there is a consensus.

My take here is that, adoption arising from a consensus is good because it tends to reduce acrimony, rancour, as well as tension, and brings about collaboration, peace, synergy, unity of ideas and understanding, not only amongst the aspirants or candidates, but also amongst the electorates.

The interim list of voters just released by your Committee, is riddled with so many errors and omissions. Although there is said to be a window of opportunity to correct these errors, it has been revealed that many Branches claim that they don’t have the capacity to verify the list of their members who have paid Branch dues. This will undoubtedly affect the eligibility of many voters. What remedies are available to ensure that Lawyers are not unduly denied their right to vote?

It is not correct to say that the interim voters list released by my Committee is riddled with so many errors and omissions, especially when the interim list is considered with the accompanying ECNBA statement No.005 in view. The import of your statement on the purported errors and omissions, is that the errors were occasioned by the Committee, and that is far from the truth.

Paragraph 1.2(f) of the second schedule to the NBA Constitution predicated the eligibility to vote at the elections on the twin requirement of payment of Bar Practicing Fees and Branch Dues as at when due, which by the Constitution is the 31st day of March of the election year, in this case 2020. To compile the voters list, the Committee’s resource for the assignment is the Bar Practising Fees list from the National Secretariat of the NBA, since Bar Practicing Fees is paid to NBA National, while the Branch Dues list from the 125 branches of the NBA, since the Branch Dues are paid to the branches. Paragraph 1.3 (d) of the second schedule to the NBA Constitution stipulates that the full list of all legal practitioners qualified to vote shall be published by the ECNBA in conjunction with the National Secretariat of the NBA, at least 28 days before the date of the election.

Bearing in mind the said paragraph 1.3(d), the Committee asked the National Secretariat to request from the branches, the list of their members who have paid their branch dues. Based on our request, the General Secretary of the NBA early April 2020 requested for the said list from the branches, giving them about three weeks to do so. When the Committee realised that the response from the branches was very poor, it stepped in and made the request for branches to submit the said list of their members with proof of payment of branch dues not later than May 2nd, 2020.

The time was further extended to May 9th, 2020. Thereafter, the time for submission became open ended so to speak, just to accommodate all the branches. It was disheartening that as at May 29th, 2020, only about 36 out of 125 branches complied with the Committee’s request. From the list we got from the branches with proof of payment of branch dues matched with the Bar Practicing fees list from the NBA Secretariat, we could only compile a list with slightly below 10,000 names. The Committee had to fall back on the stamp and seal list of those who paid both their bar practicing fees and branch dues, and applied for the stamps. The rationale for the stamp and seal list is the assumption that to apply for stamp, the member must have paid both the bar practicing fees and branch dues. The stamp and seal list was obtained from the National Secretariat, bearing in mind the provisions of paragraph 1.3 (d) earlier mentioned. That was how we were able to get over 21,000 names, on the interim list.

The publication of the interim voters register was a strategy adopted by the Committee, to ensure the compilation of a credible voters register. It was a clarion call for the branch Chairmen to take responsibility, and for members to call out their branch Chairmen to do the needful, in order not to jeopardise their chances of voting in the election. I want to reiterate and reassure that, no Lawyer with proof of eligibility to vote will be excluded and/or disenfranchised howsoever, from the elections.

I call on all members and branch Chairmen to utilise the window of opportunity created by the publication of the interim voters register, to do the needful. I am happy with the response so far from the branches, and must say that the strategy is paying off.
How is the issue of Lawyers who were unable to pay their practicing fees before the deadline as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, being resolved?

The period and time of payment of Bar practicing fees as at when due is a constitutional issue, which to me requires a constitutional solution i.e. constitutional amendment. Aside, procrastination and the culture of last minute rush by most people, I am not exempt, to meet datelines can be detrimental sometimes. I want to believe that, that was what affected most of our colleagues who couldn’t pay their BPF before March 31st, 2020 due to Covid-19 pandemic lockdown on March 25th, 2020, especially those in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun State. In any case, I do not rule out the fact that some junior colleagues may not have got the resources to do so before the lockdown.

What would you say are your biggest challenges in this crucial assignment, before and after the elections?
For now, my biggest challenge before the election is the compilation of an authentic and credible voters register for the 2020 general elections of the National Executives of the NBA, occasioned in the main by the initial lack of cooperation from most members and their branch Chairmen. To put a stop to the blame game, I was compelled to discuss and interact with some branch Chairmen via phone calls to ensure progress of the process, and the initial feedback was not encouraging. Some said members, have failed to produce evidence of branch dues payments and the like. But, I am happy to state that, most branches rose to the occasion, and the level of cooperation in that regard became remarkable. In any case, the Committee will not act contrary to the letters of the NBA Constitution.

On the issue of challenges after the election, we are yet to conduct the election, so I cannot at this stage know or speculate on what challenges await me after the election. I pray there are none. We will do what is right under the Constitution, and by the grace of God, we shall conduct a credible, free and fair election; and I want to add that, such cannot be achieved without the cooperation and support of our members and stakeholders. I urge our esteemed colleagues to own the electoral process by making inquiries and seeking for clarifications from the Committee, rather than get involved only by making derisive comments that will tend to distract on the electoral process.

Many are saying that the NBA needs to be overhauled; that it needs to refocus, to play the role of a true Bar Association. Do you agree? Going forward, what do you expect from the incoming NBA leadership?
Before you talk of overhauling or refocusing the NBA, you have to ascertain and examine the attributes of a Bar Association, of which the NBA is one. The Bar Association is meant to represent the interest of its members, promote their continuing education and training, as well as protect the professional integrity of the members. Beyond the interest of the members, the development of a strong, virile and independent Bar Association is central to democracy and human rights by protecting the rule of law, and providing a means and platform for citizens to assert their rights.

Agreed the NBA has to do more by championing the cause of justice, and defence of the rule of law. However, it has been increasingly difficult these days for the NBA to speak with one voice, because the Association is constituted by members with diverse interests, opinions and views. It is not a crime or misconduct to hold and express different views from that of the Association, considering the guaranteed freedom of expression by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), provided such views do not run counter to the Constitution of the Association, or ethics of the profession. And that has always been the constraint of the NBA.

I want to see a strong and virile NBA that will stand on the side of justice, the rule of law, and the rights of the citizens; as such NBA should get involved, and engage more in public interest matters. And, as legal practitioners who are members of the NBA, if we engage more in ensuring the sustenance of justice, rule of law and all that will be beneficial to the generality of the populace, it will invariably impact on the NBA as a Bar Association that all will be proud of.
Thank you, for having me express my humble views.

Quote 1

“IT MAY BE OF INTEREST TO POINT OUT THAT, THE IT FIRM, TAVIA, THAT DEVELOPED THE NBA ELECTION PORTAL/PLATFORM, IS NOT CONDUCTING THE E-VOTING ELECTION FOR THE NBA; RATHER ANOTHER IT CONSULTANT WILL DO THAT”

Quote 2
“YES, ASKING FOR ACCOUNT NUMBERS FROM SOME MEMBERS FOR THE PAYMENT OF THEIR BAR PRACTICING FEES AND BRANCH DUES BY ASPIRANTS OR PROSPECTIVE CANDIDATES, ESPECIALLY DURING THE ELECTION YEAR, AMOUNTS TO AN INDUCEMENT AND ELECTION MALPRACTICE”