An Outer Barman Becomes NBA President

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Olumide Akpata

The much awaited outcome of the 2020 election into national offices of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), was made known just before midnight, last Thursday, July 30. Deputy Editor, THIS DAY LAWYER, JUDE IGBANOI who monitored the entire process, gives an account of how the election was lost and won, while Stephen Kola Balogun who was disenfranchised and unable to vote in the election much to his chagrin, also makes comments and suggestions on how the incoming President of the NBA, Olumide Akpata, can redeem the dented image of the Association going forward

Ushering in a New Era in the NBA
Jude Igbanoi
Nigerian Lawyers through a highly controversial and much criticised process, yielded the mantle of leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to a new set of national officers last Thursday night. The election of NBA’s national officers through electronic voting and by universal suffrage, saw three prominent Lawyers lock horns in a highly contentious election, which is still being trailed by criticisms.

The Electioneering Campaigns
The race started with four Lawyers who had expressed interest to contest for Presidency. One of the Lawyers and former Chairman of Ikeja Branch of the Association, Adesina Ogunlana, was disqualified from the race, having been adjudged by the Tawo Tawo led Electoral Committee, as not meeting the requirements for the office. This left trio of Mr Dele Adesina, SAN, Dr Babatunde Ajibade, SAN and Mr Olumide Akpata to complete the race.
The campaigns were as tough, engaging and rancorous, as can be imagined. There were accusations and counter- accusations of mudslinging, unethical practices and breaches of electoral rules. The Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA) chaired by Mr. Tawo Tawo, SAN, had the unenviable task of delivering a free and fair election. Tawo Tawo talked tough and laid down stringent guidelines, but most of the rules and guidelines were observed in breach by some of the candidates.

Some candidates for instance, were on record to have gone to different parts of the country campaigning from Branch to Branch, in defiance of the NBA Constitution and ECNBA rules. In the face of these humungous challenges however, the election held as scheduled, and winners emerged, howbeit with a great deal of criticism and outcry.

Shortcomings in the Electoral Process
For many, the ECNBA was saddled with challenges it just couldn’t handle and lacked the capacity to deal with, but despite these hurdles, it managed to deliver on its mandate to midwife the election, even with its imperfections.
Several debates were held on electronic, social and print media, with each candidate espousing their manifestos. The message echoed by all three candidates weren’t really different from each other, all promising to focus on the welfare of young Lawyers and to reposition the NBA.
The social media was inundated with all sorts of campaign messages in various formats, video clips, slides, posters and write-ups.
This space would not be enough, to adequately analyse some of the unwholesome practices that some resorted to.
The challenges faced by the ECNBA, are just too numerous to itemise here. Amongst them were the inability of many Lawyers to accredit for the election, unavailability of a list on accredited voters up to an hour before the election, alleged padding of the list of some Branches, names missing from the list in some Branches, appearance of what some refer to as a strange and unknown Branch (International Diaspora Branch), etc.

The Politics and Intrigues of Zoning and Regional Adoptions
There is no gainsaying the fact that, one major factor that came into and indeed made or marred this election, was the complex issue of zoning of certain offices in the NBA. The NBA 2015 Constitution further entrenched the principle of zoning the office of President and General Secretary of the NBA, on rotational basis. For those who are not versed in Bar politics, a little background may be necessary. Simply put, the office of President is zoned to rotate between the three major geographical areas of the country, North, West and East, with each taking its turn to produce a President every two years.

Outside of this simple constitutional provision, comes the complex arrangement of adoptions by ethnic and regional micro-organisations. The North operates under the umbrella of Arewa Lawyers Forum, the West groups under Egbe Amofin, while the East congregates under the auspices of Eastern Bar Forum.

What these ethnic bodies have done over the past two decades, is to pick candidates for the office of President to fly its flag for the election. In some instances, it had worked to produce good and desirable outcomes, but in the past few elections, many have deliberately elected to refuse to subject themselves to the jurisdiction of these ethnic bodies and run as independent candidates. Also because each zone has a number of minority groups, it has become increasingly difficult for these regional bodies to achieve maximum cohesion. A case in point was when the Eastern Bar Forum adopted Arthur Obi-Okafor, SAN as its candidate for the 2018 election, Paul Usoro who refused to subject himself to the jurisdiction of the forum chose to run, and he eventually won against the anointed Obi-Okafor.

This year also, the West whose turn it was to produce the President diligently picked Dele Adesina, SAN as its candidate, but Dr. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN, Olumide Akpata and Adesina Ogunlana chose to run on their own, in spite of Egbe’s choice. Ogunlana was later to be disqualified from the election, but Ajibade ran till the end and came out in second position, behind the winner Olumide Akpata.
The desirability of these ethnic bodies have always been a topic of debate amongst Lawyers, and like the 2018 election, this year’s outcome lends further credence to proponents of the dismantling of these regional bodies.

One of the drawbacks is that while zoning appears to be a workable constitutional issue, adoption has become highly unattractive as the sub-group who are in minority in each region find it difficult to have their voice against the dominant group. Again like the 2018 election when Usoro being from the minority Akwa Ibom – Cross River section couldn’t hope to secure the ticket of Eastern Bar Forum, but chose to run independently, this year Olumide Akpata didn’t dream of or even bother to secure the Egbe Amofin ticket, but ran with the backing of his minority Mid West Lawyers Forum and won.
For many Nigerian Lawyers, this spells the death knell for ethnic Lawyers forums and adoption, for the purposes of national elections. Their continued relevance therefore, is shaky and uncertain for now.

2020 Presidency: Gain of Outer Bar, Loss of Inner Bar?
One intriguing aspect of this year’s election is the fact that, for the first time in over three decades, a non-Senior Advocate of Nigeria is emerging as NBA President. In the 80s, before the historic Port Harcourt Debacle of 1992, the office of NBA President was never the exclusive preserve of SANs, as it later became the convention.
Its on record that the most distinguished NBA President didn’t get into office as SANs, they took silk after serving in that office. One of the most respected NBA Presidents, the late Alao Aka-Bashorun was not SAN, and never became one till his passed on. Dame Priscilla Kuye, 1992 NBA President, is also not a SAN. It was only from 1998 that the rank of SAN was considered a prerequisite for running for the office of President. Thus, we had Chief T.J. Okpoko, SAN (1998-2000), OCJ Okocha, SAN (2000-2002), Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN (2002-2004), Chief Bayo Ojo, SAN (2004-2005), (with Prince Lanke Odogiyon finishing his tenure), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN (2006-2008), Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN (2008-2010), J.B Daudu, SAN (2010-2012), Okey Wali, SAN (2012-2014), Augustine Alegeh, SAN (2014-2016), A.B. Mahmoud, SAN (2016-2018), Paul Usoro, SAN (2018-2020).
Now that the over two decade jinx has been broken with the emergence of Olumide Akpata, a non-silk as President, what will be the implication for the Bar and the various statutory bodies, including the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Body of Senior Advocates (BOSAN) in which the President is supposed to represent the Bar? Will Akpata’s success at the polls pave the way for other members of the Outer Bar to aspire for the Presidency? These and many other questions, would be determined by the way the Akpata Presidency handles the seething discontentment being felt by some members of the Inner Bar.

Chief Awomolo’s Letter to Chief Okpoko
In the heat of the campaigns, one of the prominent leaders of Egbe Amofin, Asiwaju Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN wrote an open letter to the leader of Mid West Lawyers Forum and a past President of the NBA, Chief T.J. Okpoko, SAN, cautioning him about the implication of letting a non-SAN become NBA President. For the teeming young Lawyers, most of whom were still basking in the euphoria universal suffrage, it was a trigger to identify with one of their own, a member of the Outer Bar. Many saw this as a major boost for Olumide Akpata. Unwittingly, a boost for Akpata came from the most unexpected quarters.

A Critique by Chidi Odinkalu
Describing the election as ‘a deeply flawed exercise’, the convener of the Open Bar Initiative and former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Dr Chidi Odinkalu described the election a sham, citing many irregularities on the part of the ECNBA and the NBA itself.
Odinkalu commended the candidates who contested for various positions in the election for their “spirited” campaigns, but called the election a scandal.
He said: “The ECNBA was, in my view, unfit for purpose. At all turns, it was tone-deaf at best, or transparently on the wrong tarmac. The best that can be said about its capabilities, communication and outreach, is that they were abysmally sub-par. That is kind too.
“The process was deeply, deeply flawed. Discovering that, did not require any huge skills in rocket science.
“The electoral roll was a scandal. The hide-and-seek was befitting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
“It’s unfortunate that, rather than speak up about the flaws in the process at the time they arose, some folks chose to accommodate them, in the hope that their camp will benefit from the flaws. Now, the same people complain about what they deliberately chose to overlook. Principles should matter. “The sense of entitled arrogance communicated in Asiwaju Gboyega Awomolo, SAN’s communication galvanised clarity and resistance to the tendency he represented in his unfortunate epistle.
“So, in the end, the most popular candidate was announced as winner of the contest to lead the Association. That does not, and should not make anyone blind to the flaws in the process. Neither the candidates nor the NBA, deserves what this ECNBA served up as an electoral process. There is no way to minimise that point.
“It would be worthwhile for the new leadership of the NBA to consider instituting a root and branch internal inquiry into leadership elections in the NBA and begin from its first day in office to prepare something seminally different and better in 2022.”
On the jubilations that trailed the announcement of the winners, Odinkalu said, “Amidst the euphoria of elections, many colleagues appear to have forgotten that we are in a virulent pandemic. They chose to abandon the discipline of the easy non-pharmaceutical mitigations that the season requires of us. It’s difficult to see how infections could not have been passed or contracted, in the ensuing contact sport of merriment. Hopefully, we can remember to do better.
“I wish us all luck. The new leadership will be in my prayers.”

Conclusion
The 2020 NBA national elections have come and gone, with winners and winners, no losers! The battle ahead for the incoming ‘Exco’, is how to justify the trust reposed in them by Nigerian Lawyers for the next two years. How to rebrand the NBA, as enunciated and promised in their manifestos. How to reform and refine the electoral mechanism of the Association to smoothen out the rough edges, and evolve a truly reliable and credible election. How to defend their mandate, especially to assure the Inner Bar that the Bar will not lose its traction, relevance and cohesion, on account of being led by a member of the Outer Bar. How to retain the leadership position of the Nigerian Bar in Africa, and prominence on the global scene.