NBA, ‘New NBA’ and El Rufai

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For six decades, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has held sway as the sole professional umbrella body to which every Nigerian Lawyer proudly belongs, from the day of Call to Bar. In its glorious days, when the NBA leadership sneezed, even the all-powerful military juntas caught a cold. Apart from a brief hiatus occasioned by the unfortunate Port Harcourt debacle in 1992, the Association had managed to fulfil its role as the voice of the voiceless, and the custodian the nation’s conscience. Are the developments in the Association in the past few weeks, spelling the death knell of the monopoly of the body which currently boasts of over 140,000 learned men and women? That cohesion which the NBA used to have, appears to be fast withering and waning, as a splinter group emerged a few weeks ago, calling itself the ‘New Nigerian Bar Association’. The challenge that senior members of the profession and the leadership on the NBA now have to deal with, is how to rein in the young boisterous Turks whose intents and purposes are yet to be fully understood. The inevitable question on lips of barmen and analysts of bar politics is, did the New NBA emerge as a result of the disinvitation of the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El Rufai who felt slighted by this? Or is it an ugly aftermath of the recently concluded 2020 NBA elections, which has resulted in controversial and unsavoury results that are still being contended? Raymond Nkannebe and Abdulrasheed Ibrahim interrogate the intricate issues in the unfolding saga in a Crossfire!

The Faulty Premise of the So-Called New NBA

‘The decision to disinvite El Rufai, was not taken on the basis of ethnicity or religion’ – Raymond Nkannebe

Background 

Recently, some supposed Lawyers from Northern Nigeria, namely, Nuhu Ibrahim, and Abdulbasit Suleiman basking in the euphoria of their self importance or perhaps, craving for cheap fame, but clearly actuated by rather parochial and conceited motives, declared their intention to float a “New Nigerian Bar Association” in a widely circulated press release over what they described as “the recent rumblings from the Nigerian Bar Association”.

“What has been happening recently has exposed the inability of the NBA to manage and contain the heterogeneity of its members, as well as their various interests. Its penal powers have been deployed discriminatively on the basis of ethnicity and regionalism”, part of the statement read.

The duo, no doubt, were making reference to the decision of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) – its highest decision making body, withdrawing the invitation it had earlier extended to the Kaduna State Governor, Mal. Nasir El-Rufai, to be one of the Speakers at its 60th Annual General Conference, following a petition written against the Kaduna State politician and general outrage from lawyers, on account of his poor human rights record and alleged mismanagement of the Southern Kaduna crisis.

Ordinarily, one would think that a group who claim to “have undergone training towards ensuring the promotion and protection of Human rights and liberties” would appreciate such a bold decision by the NEC of the NBA, to the extent that it shows that the Association can rise to the demands of its members, as well as deploy its platform to censor untoward behaviour as well as exacting responsible leadership from Nigeria’s largely irresponsible political class.

But, that was not to be, howbeit unfortunately. Any reading of the press statement gives the impression in the mind, of a group driven by primordial ethnic and religious sentiments, rather than the growth and development of the legal profession in Nigeria.

By going as far as identifying the ethnicity of the signatories to the petition written by Open Bar Initiative – a Civil Society Organisation with extensive advocacy in Bar-leadership accountability and improvement in the quality of the legal profession in Nigeria, and forcing a feud between them and the disinvited Governor, the group gave itself away as tribal champions who should not be seen or heard, angling to promote a splinter cosmopolitan organisation like the NBA, which in many respects, is a microcosm of Nigeria. Hear them:

“No wonder, NBA NEC, which is the highest decision-making organ of the Association failed to uphold the fundamental principles of fair hearing which in itself, is the fundamental aspect of Rule of Law, on the allegations against the Executive Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, as were contained in a petition by Chidi Odinkalu Esq. a long time foe of His Excellency and a Lawyer of eastern extraction, but the NBA failed to extend the same treatment to Southern invitees who were also petitioned and are also alleged to have committed similar or more human rights abuses than those alleged against Mallam El-Rufai”.

Issues

The circumstances in which the Kaduna State Governor was disinvited have been clearly explained away by the immediate past President of the NBA, Paul Usoro, SAN, in a letter addressed to the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) and other interest groups within the NBA, with due courtesies. The thrust of that narrative has also been corroborated by other attendees of the NEC meeting, to the effect that the disinvitation motion was put to vote, and was resolved in favour of those who wanted the Kaduna Governor withdrawn. In other words, it wasn’t the sole and capricious decision of one man with intent, solely to embarrass the embattled Governor.

It is also claimed with some force that the “NBA failed to extend the same treatment to Southern invitees who were also petitioned and are also alleged to have committed similar or more human rights abuses than those alleged against Mallam El-Rufai”. Wonders shall never end! While it may be argued that there were other panelists at the Conference who like El-Rufai, have ugly human rights score sheet, it must be put in context that as at the time the NEC held its quarterly meeting, only one such petition lay before it, namely the one against El-Rufai. Thus, it couldn’t have embarked on a determination of what was not before it.

Admittedly, a number of petitions were also raised in the wake of the dis-invitation of El-Rufai, however, whatever their merits, it is my considered view that they were actuated by Shylock syndrome and sheer arrogance. Of course, the NEC didn’t get the ‘opportunity’ to consider those petitions even if on the surface, as the Annual Conference was already before it. Does that necessarily translate to the NEC being partial as touted? Not in the least, to my mind.

I think it must also be put in context that, the decision to disinvite El-Rufai was not taken, as far as one can verify, on the basis of his ethnicity or religion. Indeed, the NEC of the NBA is a body accommodating members of virtually all religious persuasions and ethnic identities. And the reason is not hard to seek: to attain the paramount goal of inclusion. Hence, no single group could claim that their head was shaven in their absence, as the Conveners of the “New Nigerian Bar” seemed to suggest. To be sure, as pointed out by respected Senior Advocate and Rights Advocate, Mike Ozekhome, who was in attendance at the NEC meeting, the motion to disinvite the Governor was moved by a Northerner, and the few votes against it were recorded by Southerners. I do not think anything could be more suggestive of a process undertaken shorn of ethnic or religious considerations, as alleged.

Elsewhere, the group claims that “a cursory chronicle of the membership composition of major organs of the NBA would reveal lopsided representation despite having large numbers of Lawyers from all parts of the country, and especially Northern Nigeria who have diligently paid their Bar practicing fees and have distinguished themselves in the legal profession”. It is not clear whether what was intended here was leadership, or membership of the “major organs of the NBA”. However, whichever it is, it is not supported by verifiable facts.

Firstly, there is no barrier of whatever kind to becoming a member of any NBA organ. Membership at all times remains voluntary, subject to the rules and processes of the individual NBA organ. It is therefore, false, to suggest that Northerners are exempted from membership of NBA organs. On the other hand, if what was intended was the leadership of these so-called NBA organs; that too would be erroneous. In recent years, the leadership of the NBA is zoned regionally to the East (including Rivers, Cross River, Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa); the South West (including Edo and Delta States) and the North (Arewa). In 2016, Mr. Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, SAN emerged the 33rd President of the Association after beating his closest rival, Joe Kyari Gadzama, SAN in what was clearly a Northern affair. In line with this extant zonal arrangement, by 2022, the lot would once again fall on the North to field the next President. If that does not guarantee a sense of inclusion, one wonders what would!

Admittedly, in the history of the NBA, few leaders of the Association have emerged from the North, but it is also true for members of other ethnic nationalities who have watched the dominance of the Yoruba in the leadership position of the Association. This situation however, is informed by a number of factors not connected, at least in the opinion of this writer, to any strategic plot to keep out other regions from the leadership of the Association. In the context of Northern Nigeria, her well documented history of low literacy is indeed, a factor, having produced its first Lawyer, only in the year 1955 in the late Abdulganiyu Abdulrazaq, SAN. It was therefore, only natural that it played catch up.

But, that is beside the point in so far as other ethnic nationalities that have not equally produced much of the past leadership of the Association, have not called for balkanization of the Bar – the apparent lopsidedness in the leadership of the Association having been structurally taken care of in the extant Constitution of the Association.

If for any reason, Northern Lawyers think they have not been adequately represented in the leadership composition of the NBA Sections which I imagine the Conveners allude to, then it must be stated that it takes more than mere payment of practicing fees to do so. As with the theme of the just concluded Annual Conference of the NBA, they may want to “Step Forward” and participate fully, so as to win the confidence and support of members of the disparate NBA Sections over time to produce its leadership. I have struggled to see how breaking away from the NBA would achieve that, to no success.

And so, whichever way it is interrogated, the so called New NBA proceeds from a faulty premise that cannot ground the needed support, to play  sister-role to the NBA.

In the year 1979 when the Association of National Accountants of Nigeria (ANAN) was established distinct from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), such decision was anchored on strong ideological grounds to liberalise the accountancy profession in Nigeria and to float a virile home-grown accountancy body, which would provide a path to a recognised professional qualification, which was of the highest international standard. It was not informed by a proxy ethno-religious warfare levied on behalf of a politician with questionable and disturbing rights credentials.

On the question of whether the Legal Practitioners Act, Cap L11, LFN 2004 nominates mandatory membership of the NBA and the limits of such contention vis-a-vis the right to Freedom of Association and Assembly guaranteed in the 1999 Constitution (as altered) being advanced as a legal justification for the new NBA, I have seen and read a number of reactions from very senior members of the Association who, with tongue in cheek, seem to argue that there’s no mandatory membership of the NBA, and in the process, providing some sort of moral support to the clearly misguided Conveners.

Unsurprisingly, most of these commentators belong in the camp of those still suffering from chronic Post-Traumatic-Election-Syndrome wrought by the victory of Mr Olumide Akpata, at the recently held elections into the National Offices of the NBA. The threat of balkanisation from the Northern group therefore, provides a veritable opening for this group, to ventilate pent-up anger wrapped in the garb of altruism, which however, is not so difficult to see through.

Happily, as at today, the only relevant decision of our appellate courts that sit on the question of the limits of membership of the NBA, is those of her Ladyship, Nimpar J.C.A in the case of Nigeria Bar Association v Kehinde (2017) 11 NWLR (Pt.1576) 225 where the erudite jurist put the point thus: “The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) was established for the purpose of regulating the affairs and conduct of all legal practitioners in Nigeria, and upon being called to the Nigerian Bar, there is automatic membership to the NBA on a Lawyer. See Chinwo v Owhonada (2008) 3 NWLR (Pt.1074) 341. Hence, as long as one has elected to join and remain within the noble profession, he is a member, and ought to comply with the directive of the Association”.

Suffice to say that, until that decision is set aside by the Supreme Court, it remains the determinative position on the matter irrespective of the contrived jurisprudence of those seeking to substitute their emotion-laden ratiocinations for the binding precedent of the Court of Appeal.

Conclusion 

Let me conclude by borrowing the apt words of Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, that the move by the Conveners of the so called “New Nigerian Bar Association” is “wrong and dead on arrival”. In any event, there is nothing Nationalistic in the press statement issued in that regard, that could engender support of Nigerian Lawyers across the 125 branches of the NBA. Through and through, the statement was directed to only one group of Lawyers: those of Northern extraction. In their own words, “Members of this Association have commenced consultations with very Senior Lawyers of Northern Nigerian extraction and those practicing therein, with the view to constituting the Trustees and for purposes of fixing date for formal inauguration of the Association”.

Thus, in the estimation of the Conveners of this so-called “New Nigerian Bar”, Nigerian Lawyers from other parts of the country outside the North, are not fit for purpose either as members or Trustees. It is strictly an Arewa affair: such a fundamental flaw! Perhaps, if a Yoruba or an Igbo were to be in El Rufai’s shoes, maybe this sudden “New Bar” wouldn’t have been conceived. And, you wonder whether Northern Nigeria Bar Association wouldn’t have been an apt name for this proposed organisation threatening to make heaven and earth, one.

Raymond Nkannebe, Legal Practitioner, Lagos

Between NBA and El Rufai, a Walk on the Tight Rope 

“With that decision of disinvitation, the leadership of the NBA made a great blunder – Abdulrasheed Ibrahim 

Controversies

That the outgoing Leadership of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has created a mother of all controversies by its invitation and disinvitation of Mallam Nasir El Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State to its this year virtual Annual General Conference, to me is very disappointing. By this singular act, the NBA leadership has not only divided the Lawyers on this issue, but also the non-Lawyers. The NBA is now on trial in court of the public opinion, as to the propriety of such action. I have always expressed the view that, as people that claim to be learned, we should always think deeply before we act or speak, so as to avoid a serious conflict in our midst that may irretrievably break us apart. While the NBA is trying to navigate itself out of a ocean of grievances that accompanied its just concluded elections of the National Officers, it was forum shopping for another conflict. Some Lawyers that are aggrieved by the outcome the elections are spitting fire and brimstone to threaten the monopoly of the Nigerian Bar Association, vis-as vis the right to the Freedom of Association as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The echo being generated by that debate was yet to subside, when that of the NBA’s invitation and disinvitation of El Rufai as one of the Guest Speakers to its 60th   Annual General Conference came in like a sparkling light. Another floodgate of arguments and counter- arguments was opened amongst Lawyers and non-Lawyers.

I was mourning the loss of a younger brother, when a friend sent me a chat message asking for my view on the issue. I told him that as long as we continue to see ourselves as Northerners or Southerners, or as Fulani, Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba men and so on rather than as patriotic Nigerians, this country will not progress. In the cause of my search for the detail, I read through the statement released by the outgoing NBA President Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN that the decision had no ethnic or religious coloration or connotation. PUSAN went on that :

“…The second point I must clarify is that, NBA NEC, by its decision was not passing any judgement on Mallam Nasir El Rufai. NBA NEC is not in a position to pass such judgement without having all facts and hearing from all the sides, and it did not set out to pass such judgement. NEC merely made a judgement that it was not in the best interest of the Association to be engulfed in the controversy that trailed the invitation of Mallam El Rufai for the Conference, and that it was best if the safety-valve of disinviting the Governor, was applied. Indeed, NEC did not howsoever or at all, discuss the substance of the issue that has been raised against the Governor by the different groups and persons who clamoured for his being disinvited – and there was very considerable clamour in that regard. I perhaps need to mention that, prior to the NEC meeting I had personally taken urgent and strident steps, working with the TCCP, to douse the clamour, but we had no success”.

Upon reading the former NBA President’s statement, the question I asked myself was that, if the NBA leadership truly had no facts to pass such judgement, on what facts did it rely on to disinvite El Rufai as a Guest Speaker, when it had earlier invited him to its conference? Had NBA earlier exercised a wrong judgement by inviting him in the first place? Was his invitation and disinvitation a grand scheme to ridicule or humiliate him by the NBA? Was antecedent of El Rufai as a controversial personality unknown to the NBA, before he was penned down as speaker for the conference? It is a deceit to say that the decision had no ethnic or religious coloration, because by that decision, the NBA has created a bad precedent in the sense that, any group of Lawyers can wake up at anytime and write a petition to stall an arrangement already concluded by the NBA or any of its committees, even without hearing the other side. Are the reasons being canvassed by the NBA leadership for the disinvitation acceptable to many of its members? My answer to this is capital NO! We have seen several literary protests by Lawyers and non-Lawyers in form of open letters and press releases, either commending or condemning the disinvitation.

The Muslim Groups too

While the Muslim Shitte group led by the Mallam El-ZakZaky has commended the NBA for the disinvitation, another Muslim group known as MURIC, condemned the action and called on the Muslim Lawyers to boycott the NBA virtual conference. There is no doubt that, most of the reactions have generated tribal and religious sentiments.

Some Lawyers expressed the views that El Rufai should have been brought back as a speaker, so that he could have been heard, some others said that there should be no going back on the NBA NEC decision. There are some NBA branches particularly in the North, that threatened to boycott the conference, if the decision wasn’t reversed. I’m  very sure the NBA leadership must have found itself at crossroads, walking on a tight rope. In one of the published open letters to the outgoing NBA President written by A. U. Mustapha, SAN, protesting the disinvitation, he said :

“…My response is principally dictated by the strange circumstance leading to and surrounding the said withdrawal of the invitation, which is based on a one sided allegation contained in a petition by the so-called Open Law Initiative which was believed and acted upon by the Annual General Conference Planning Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association, without any reference to Governor El Rufai. The decision taken by the NBA to withdraw their invitation to Governor El Rufai on the basis of wild and unsubstantiated allegations contained in the Open Bar Initiative petition without any reference to the Governor, is not only a naked affront on the rule of law, but also a contradiction of the NBA’s motto which held itself out as the custodian, defender and guardian Angel of the rule of law in Nigeria…”.

The NBA President, in his release, tried to convince everyone that NBA NEC did not pass any judgement on El Rufai by the disinvitation. As much as I tried to comprehend the outgoing President’s press release on the disinvitation, it was the James Hardly Chase’s title “Believe This,You’ll Believe Anything” that continued to flash in my mind. I dare say that with that decision of disinvitation, the Leadership of the NBA made a great blunder. You either take it or leave it. I am of the view that  the Organising Committee of the NBA Conference having exercised its discretion or judgement to pick El Rufai as one of the Guest Speakers and published same to the public, should not have entertained any idea or suggestion to disinvite him. El Rufai’s consent must have first been sought and had by the Organising Committee, before he was slated as a Guest Speaker. In the event of any petition against him subsequent to that, it should be an issue to have been strictly dealt with by the NBA National Officers and the Organising Committee of the Conference even if it was raised at the NBA NEC meeting, the President should have known better how to handle the situation.

Wrong Handling of the Situation 

For those who are well experienced in the NBA activities, is it all the petitions that are attended to by the NBA NEC as done in the case of the disinvitation? Was the NBA leadership not thoughtful of the likely consequence of subjecting such issue to a debate at the NEC meeting? If the NBA could believe the story of those calling for the disinvitation and acted on it, why was the Association afraid of listening to El Rufai since he had agreed earlier to speak?

Except the allegation of “Sole Administratorship” being levelled against the outgoing NBA President is true, I think one of the best ways to have handled such issue by National Officers and the Organising Committee of the NBA Conference upon the receipt of the petition against El Rufai,  was to tell the petitioners that they are in receipt of their petition but since the man had already been scheduled to speak in the conference, a copy of their petition would be sent to El Rufai  with  the NBA cover letter for him to get prepared to address those issues raised against him during the conference, where the petitioners will be allowed to ask him questions. Unfortunately, this was not the case and therefore, the outgoing NBA leadership should take the responsibility for the present mess the Association has found itself.

Inviting El –Rufai to speak at the NBA Conference is like bringing him into the Witness Box for proper Cross-Examination. The allegations against him are too overwhelming, that we all need to hear his own side of the story. Was he truly involved or taken sides with  either of the Warring Parties as the Governor of that State? What role has he played to bring peace to the entire Kaduna State, particularly the Southern Kaduna?  I do not think there is any right thinking person that will rejoice or be happy about what has been happening in that State, particularly in the Southern Kaduna that has for years, been turned to a war zone. It was an area I once lived, and still have friends and relatives there to date. Whenever I hear the area is boiling, my mind is not at ease. I continue to ask for how long will these people continue to kill themselves?

We should all be concerned about how peace and stability will return to that area and other parts of the country, where security of lives and properties has become a serious challenge. But, are the 1700 Lawyers said to be behind the petition for the disinvitation, helping the situation? NBA is an association that has many hypocrites in its midst, than those who are genuinely concerned about its unity. I find it difficult to understand those Lawyers that go about parading themselves as Human Rights activists, but do not believe in the principles of fair hearing. Is Fair Hearing alien to the Human Rights activism?

This is a period in which  we have greatly missed the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, the real human right activist who once said Lawyers must “stand up for what is right”. Why do people not reflect deeply before signing any petition?

Parallel Bar Association

There was a particular year when some aggrieved Lawyers were going about gathering signatures to create a parallel bar association, they came to me and I declined on the ground that the solution to the NBA problems is not in creating another association, but to continue clamouring and agitating for a better reform of the existing NBA. I know some of those Lawyers today, now struggling for positions in the NBA.

Serious allegations have been levelled against Governor El Rufai. A group that calls itself ‘Human Rights, Liberty Access and Peace Defenders’ Foundation (HURIDE) in a statement by its Chairman, Dede Uzor has this to say:

“ ..The Governor of Kaduna State should resign or the State House of Assembly should immediately commence his impeachment process. He cannot exonerate himself from the continuous massacre and the genocide in Southern Kaduna. El Rufai still provides logistic and financial backing to those murderous Fulani Herdsmen, to continue to kill innocent Christians in the Southern part of Kaduna.  He is not hiding it. He accepted backing them…”.

Now, if such a grievous allegation was made against El Rufai or any other person to the NBA, will it be proper for the Association that prides itself as promoter of the rule of law to act on such allegation without allowing the person concerned to be heard? The NBA Leadership in the case of El Rufai, this time around got it extremely wrong.

In the last elections of the National Officers in which Deacon Dele Adesina, SAN took part and came third in the race for the presidency, he sent a powerful petition to the Trustees of the NBA, asking for the cancellation of the election. The BOT did not consider Deacon Adesina’s petition without hearing the response of the Electoral Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (ECNBA), and thereafter, in its wisdom concludes thus :

“….We note that the elections were not perfect. We reviewed your petition and note that, it raises serious issues. Nonetheless, our advice will be the overall interest of the Bar should be paramount on the mind of every Nigerian Lawyer, and to that extent, we urge that all Lawyers and no less the candidates be mindful of the need to promote a cohesive, united, and strong Bar. We regret that we are unable to advice that the election should be cancelled in the overall interest of the Bar”.

Can there any well thought decision  than this? But, what did we have from the outgoing NBA Leadership’s decision on the petition for the disinvitation of a particular guest speaker? Was the other side heard before the NBA NEC’s decision? Was that decision in the overall interest of the Bar? Can that decision promote a cohesive, united and strong Bar? The irony of the whole situation was that the outgoing NBA Leadership was looking for a perfect guest speaker in the world, where there is none. When you said you are looking for a leader that was never involved in what you call human rights abuses or violation of the rule of law, in what way is Chief Olusegun Obasanjo or Governor Wike better than Governor El-Rufai? There are Lawyers who often accuse government about being selective in the fight against corruption, can they now agree that the NBA NEC was selective in the disinvitation of guest speakers that are seen as violators of the rule of law? The present NBA leadership’s blunder, has again  justified the clamour that the composition of the NBA NEC is not democratic and needs to be revisited. As long as we continue to have a NBA NEC of which selection of 100 of its members is absolutely left in the hand of the President, so long will such NBA NEC be churning out decisions that are embarrassing to the rest of us. If the BOT had gone the way of the NBA NEC, I believe the tight rope on which the NBA has been  walking  may have broken or caught off by now, but I commend the BOT for its high level of wisdom, courage  and foresight .

Conclusion 

It is very unfortunate that the present NBA leadership had bowed to the unnecessary pressure of those Lawyers who asked for the disinvitation of a Guest Speaker, after the invitation had been issued in the first place. Now that they have achieved what they wanted, they are going about jubilating about their victory, without caring about the negative impact such attitude may have on the unity of the NBA. The jubilation has showed the version of the human rights activists we have in this country, who do not believe in the principle of hearing the other side. Where are the advocates of No Media Trial (NMT)? We needed to hear from El Rufai on the grievous allegation against him, that he “provides logistic and financial backing to those murderous Fulani Herdsmen to continue to kill innocent Christians in the Southern part of Kaduna”. This issue should not have been allowed to be swept under the carpet, for the sake of unity of the NBA, if the outgoing NBA leadership was truly committed to the survival of a united and all inclusive Nigerian Bar Association.

Abdulrasheed Ibrahim