‘My Administration is Committed to Reforming NBA’s Electoral System’

Olumide Akpata

Coming into the saddle of leadership of Africa’s largest professional body, albeit through a much faulted and criticised election as President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olumide Akpata has wasted no time in assuaging the confidence of Nigerian Lawyers that, he indeed, can deliver on all his electoral promises. Even in the midst of a debilitating global pandemic, he told Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi in a chat that his administration will not have any excuse not to lift the NBA back to its past glory (and more), and ensure the welfare of young Lawyers, amongst many other productive initiatives designed to benefit all members

After the criticism that trailed the conduct of the 2020 elections and your swearing in as NBA President, you seem to have hit the ground running. Given the tremendous challenges of the pandemic and its attendant effect on the legal profession and Bar activities, how have you managed run the NBA these past few months? How do you intend to restore the lost glory of the NBA, refocus the Association to play the role that a Bar Association is designed and expected to play, and make our voting system unimpeachable? It was recently reported in the news that two members of staff of the NBA Secretariat are present facing criminal charges for rigging the 2018 elections.

The year 2020 has truly been an unusual one and has thrown up significant challenges for everyone, including those of us running of the affairs of the NBA. However, what I quickly realised after my inauguration as President of the NBA is that the effects of the pandemic will be with us for a while and that we cannot use the pandemic as an excuse not to deliver on the mandate that my team and I have been given. So, we told ourselves that we must quickly adjust and hit the ground running.

To function fully at the NBA, we have leveraged technology to keep up with the demands of office. For example, the emergency meeting of the National Executive Committee of the NBA which we held on the 22nd of October, 2020 was a virtual meeting that had close to 200 committee members in attendance, and we had a robust engagement. However, we have also had physical engagements in certain cases, but with full compliance with the protocols advised by the relevant public health authorities. For instance, just last week, our first regular NEC meeting was held at Abuja with representatives of almost all our 125 branches attending. So, we have adjusted well and are able to function fully notwithstanding the challenges and effects of the pandemic.

On how I intend to restore the glory of the Bar, I will quickly say that whether the glory of the NBA is indeed lost, is a matter for the jury, which I believe is still out. Having said that, we are not oblivious of the great expectations of Lawyers and the generality of Nigerians from the NBA. In that respect, we remain committed to achieving three broad objectives at the NBA: first, to consistently take steps that will ensure that the Bar remains the conscience of the society and a clear voice on all national issues; secondly, to deal with critical issues affecting the welfare of our members, and lastly, to reposition the legal profession in Nigeria for better. This is what we have been trying to do since we came on board a few months ago, and all our policies and programs are geared towards achieving these objectives. I am not unaware of the fact that many of our members had lost faith in the Association, but since we assumed office and began to take some of the steps that we have been taking, I have had thousands of Lawyers either calling or sending emails and text messages to say that they are happy with some of steps that we have been taking, and that they believe that we are on course. As gratifying as that is, it is not lost on me that there is still a lot of work to be done.

On making the NBA voting system impeachable, I certainly acknowledge that there are issues with the current system and these issues resulted in the complaints that we have had during the last three elections of national officers of the Association. However, my administration is dedicated to making a difference in this respect, and that was why, as one of my first official assignments after being sworn in, I empaneled an Electoral Audit and Reforms Committee with a mandate to audit the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections of the Association, and to make recommendations on how we can conduct credible and transparent elections that would be acceptable to all sides ahead of the 2022 elections. That committee led by Ayodele Akintunde, SAN has since commenced work, and delivered an interim report at our last NEC meeting held on the 15th December, 2020. I have confidence in the Committee and believe that at the end of the exercise, there will be tremendous improvements in the way we conduct our elections at the NBA.

The legal profession now operates under an inclement weather resulting from the unprecedented and unexpected outcome of the pandemic. What plan does your administration have to alleviate and cushion the effects on Lawyers? What plans do you have for the young Lawyers, many of whom voted for you in the election?

My bias for the welfare of Lawyers, is very well known. To give you an example, at the last meeting of the NBA NEC, I sought approval to launch the eight priority projects of my administration. About five of those projects are welfare focused. That should give you a sense, of how important the welfare of Lawyers is to me. That said, the devastating impact of the pandemic on Lawyers cannot be overemphasised, as many of our members earn their daily bread through court appearance fees. Also, the downward turn in businesses meant that many clients including corporates, were reluctant in prosecuting their cases. All of these have come at great cost to the economic well-being of the average Lawyer. We are very well aware of these headwinds, and the impact that they have had on the finances and well-being our members.

As part of efforts to cushion the effects, the NBA, as part of a project which we christened “Project Exchequer” has commenced talks with a financial institution on the possibility of providing access to finance to our members on liberal and concessionary terms. In addition, we are working to see how our members can access institutional funding that is available to micro, small and medium enterprises, during this pandemic and beyond. We are convinced that the structure of law firms, fit into the delineation of businesses as MSMEs. This is because, the 21st century law practice is essentially a business, and in advanced economies, law firms benefit from such government interventionist policies. For example, law firms were factored as beneficiaries of the $2 trillion stimulus package approved by the Donald Trump government in the United States, in the hopes of keeping the economy afloat. When these plans come on stream, it would assist in no small measure, in ameliorating the economic hardship wrought on our members as a result of the pandemic, particularly those whose practices have been most impacted. When this is done, law firms can apply for such loans to keep up with their practices. This has become all the more imperative, as we prepare for the second wave of the pandemic.

As for our young Lawyers, their interest remains top priority for me. As I have always said, they, as a collective embody the future of the profession, and we cannot afford to take them for granted. The three problems facing the young Lawyer today, are poor remuneration, inadequate employment opportunities and limited capacity to venture into new or emerging areas of practice. The NBA under my watch, is taking these issues seriously. As I said recently during the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on some of our members, our SANs must lead this charge from the front. As far as practicable, our senior Lawyers must be able to pay a living wage to Lawyers working in their offices, particularly young Lawyers, for whom the early years of practice is often nightmarish. They must also be constantly encouraged to try new things and venture into new areas of legal practice so as not to saturate the traditional litigation space.

As an Association, my administration is working out modalities for determining and recommending the appropriate living wage for Lawyers across the county, and as a corollary to that, we will also be institutionalising an arrangement that will enable our Lawyers earn more for the work that they do, so as to improve their capacity to pay the recommended living wages. We are doing this under a project that we call “Project Benjamin” and it will benefit not just our young Lawyers, but the entire body of Lawyers in Nigeria.

On a related note, I have always posited that as Lawyers, what we boast and trade, is the knowledge and skill set that we have. To this end, I believe that if we can equip our young Laeyers with the right information and knowledge, we will improve their preparedness for the future and also make them more attractive for diverse opportunities. This is why at the core of “Project Enhancement” (one of the 8 priority projects that the NBA NEC approved for me last week) is the reinvigoration of our Institute of Continuing Legal Education, and the establishment of a Career Development Centre. This Institute, when it berths, would be saddled with the responsibility of training our young Lawyers in niche and emergent areas of practice, to make them more relevant to service a 21st century clientele. The Career Development Centre, on the other hand, will help to, among other things, aggregate several available opportunities that our young Lawyers will be interested in, and based on data or statistics available to them, recommend those areas where we need to focus on in training your young lawyers so as to make them more relevant to the market.

You have expressed serious concerns over the parlous security situation in the country, which seems to be getting worse. What strategies does your administration have, to engage the Government in ensuring better security for Nigerians? Should the President have acceded to the National Assembly’s request to address members on the state of insecurity that has pervaded the nation, especially as we just faced the new issue of the students that were kidnapped from the Kankara Boys Science Secondary School in Katsina State (#BringBackOurBoys)? How would you say this administration has done so far in stamping out corruption, revamping the economy and upholding the rule of law?

I think that it has to be said, howsoever unsavoury, that the security architecture of the country has broken down so much so that, Nigerians are now at the mercy of criminal elements who now strike whenever it pleases them. This is totally unacceptable. I don’t think that we have ever had it this bad, in the odd history of our existence as a nation. But, unfortunately, it is our reality today. As an Association, we reckon that there is little we can practically do in this area, since security is totally under the control of the Commander-in-Chief and those whom he has appointed to assist him in that regard. The much that we can do is to constantly engage the government through the right channels to demand for improved security of lives and properties of Nigerians, and to lend our voice to these issues. We are also calling on the service chiefs to live up to their responsibilities, or resign their appointments. If the government is really determined to fight this insecurity, the President should also fire the top brass of our current security architecture, and bring in those who will be willing to deliver results expeditiously.

Having said that, I understand that Lawyers, in our typical fashion, have taken contradicting sides on the decision of the President, not to answer the call of the National Assembly, to proffer salient responses to issues surrounding the government’s handling of the security situation in the country. I will not join that legal debate. But, beyond the legalese of it, there is no reason in the world why the President should renege on his earlier commitment to honour the call, on moral grounds. Irrespective of how convoluted the issue has been made to appear by the presidency, it still beggars reason and logic that a President elected by the people, and from whose authority, he derives legitimacy to govern, refuses to honour the call of the representatives of the people on a matter of national importance.

On the performance of the Muhammadu Buhari administration in the areas of revamping the economy, stamping out corruption and upholding the rule of law, your guess is as good as mine. Even before the Pandemic, the economy was in a wobbly shape, with the Naira consistently on a free fall with multiple exchange rates. It has only taken the Pandemic to set us on a second recession, in the life of the administration. I think that sums up the performance of the administration, in that regard.

You have been very passionate about African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), to the extent that you led a team of Lawyers who advised the Federal Government on its acceptance. Now that the Government has signed the Protocol, what are the next steps for Nigerian Lawyers to engage and ensure we don’t miss out in the huge potential opportunities accruable therefrom?

The AfCFTA boasts enormous opportunities for Lawyers. And it is an opportunity which I’m prepared to see that many of us benefit from. With a population of 1.3 billion people, and a combined GDP of $ 3 trillion, there’s no gainsaying the fact that the trade area when it becomes fully operational in January, 2021, would be the largest in the world in terms of participating countries. The entire value chain of the trade area requires the role of professionals, particularly Lawyers. However, it is only law firms with capacity in the areas of international trade, international finance, international dispute resolution and allied areas, that can look to benefit from the opportunities to be afforded by this trade agreement. Unfortunately, most of our law firms lack the needed international exposure to play in this area. We face stiff competition from law firms in countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa in this regard, who have established international partnerships and bilateral business relationships. Already, 80% of legal briefs and services consumed in Africa, are handled by law firms from outside Nigeria. We can’t afford to allow that repeat itself, against the backdrop of Nigeria’s inputs in the trade area.

Now that the trade agreement has been ratified by the Federal Executive Council, law firms who lack capacity in that area, should think partnership with leading law firms outside Nigeria to strategically position for the boon to come from the trade area. This sort of partnership would eventually crystallise in knowledge transfer, and create indigenous skill. And to be sure, one does not have to travel to do this, at least at the initial stages. Law firms who have interest in this area, can initiate such conversation through emails and other forms of electronic communication. Also, Lawyers and law firms must think technology to be relevant in this space. It is doubtful whether one can become fully relevant in the 21st century legal marketplace, without “intelligence augmentation”. As an Association, when the Institute of Legal Education comes on board, we’ll design courses and seminars tailored to how Lawyers and law firms can position to take the benefit of the opportunities to be afforded by the trade area. So, I think it comes down to three things: capacity building, intelligence gathering, and strategic networking/ partnerships. We’ll continue to provide members with privileged information coming to us as an Association in that regard, and we expect that they’ll sure make the best of it.

To the chagrin of many Lawyers, the Privileges Committee recently released a new set of rules and requirements for the conferment of silk. Many see the new requirement as tedious and unrealistic, like obtaining certified copies of Bank statements evidencing payment of practicing fees and Branch dues. What does NBA leadership intend to do about this?

First, I think the point has to be made that the distinguished rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is a privilege, and not a right. To that extent, the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee has been imbued with the powers to make rules and guidelines for prospective advocates interested in the coveted rank. What I’m trying to say is that, those rules are exclusively those of the Committee which it alters from time to time to meet with the issues associated with the process of applying for the rank. In recent years, the process has been fraught with all manner of criminalities ranging from forgery of court processes, warts and all. A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, decried the spate of criminalities that attend the process in 2018, you may recall. Recently, a Lawyee was dragged before the Federal High Court, Abuja on charges bordering on forgery of judgements of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. It therefore, begs the question; if applicants could forge Court processes, what would they not do with receipts of branch dues and duplicates of bank tellers evidencing timely payment of Bar practicing fees! So, if the Committee decides to ask for certified copies of these documents, from applicants, I like to see it as a response to a mischief which is well entrenched in our interpretative jurisprudence. So, as an Association, we see these new rules, howsoever perceived to be cumbersome, as an effort at enthroning probity, which an Association like ours, should always vouch.

The pandemic has further impeded access to justice for many Nigerians, even in an already challenged justice delivery system. Only a limited number of cases receive attention in courts. What would be your approach to ensuring that this doesn’t further worsen an already bad situation?

Let me firstly commend the Judiciary for the sheer amount of work they’ve been able to put out, despite the disruptions of the pandemic. During the 2020/2021 Legal Year opening of the various courts, I was pleased to learn of the number of matters handled by the Courts within the 2019/2020 legal year, in spite of the number of months lost on account of the lockdown between April and July, of 2020 which greatly impacted the work of the Judiciary. From what we have seen in the interval between the relaxation of the lockdown and now, one can say that the Judiciary has learnt to function within the limits of the Covid-19 protocols. To the extent practicable, I believe that in the new normal, the Judiciary can consolidate on these efforts. Heads of Courts have devised measures of ensuring physical distancing in court rooms through efficient case management and scheduling. Also, the mandatory wearing of face masks and sanitisation of hands before entering of all courts, have also helped to create a sustainable Covid-19 court environment. So we’ll continue to emphasise the need to observe these protocols subject however, to the directives of the Federal Government as we brace up for phase 2 of lockdown as already seen in States like Lagos. Further, the recent swearing-in of eight Justices of the Supreme Court, bringing the total number of Justices of that Court, to 20, the highest in the history of the Court, would no doubt also help in the expeditious determination of appeals arising from the decisions of the Court of Appeal, as well as matters brought under the original jurisdiction of the Court.

There has been this raging controversy over the severance allowances, salaries and emoluments of past Governors, especially those who are now serving as Ministers and Senators. On which side of the divide are you? Do they deserve these humongous salaries for life, as presently obtaining in several States?

I think the practice is highly unconscionable, in the context of our peculiarities. This is a country where hundreds of millions of the citizens are hapless on account of political corruption and appropriation of funds meant for their socioeconomic well-being, by the same persons whom they’re being made to finance their post-service life. I think it’s a clear case of robbing Peter to pay Paul and therefore, totally unacceptable. Governors are not public servants within the context of the 1999 Constitution, and are therefore, not subject to public service rules which provide for severance allowances. I think it’s the endemic culture whereby politicians see the elective offices as an opportunity to plunder rather than serve, that feeds such selfish expectations in a country where resources are scarce, and public infrastructure largely in a state of disrepair where they’re available. So, for me, that is a totally greedy and unconscionable practice, and the legislature in the States where such practice is obtainable, should rise to the occasion to repeal the legal framework that allow for such mind-boggling profiteering.

For the first time, Nigerian youths came out massively to protest nationwide against the unprecedented violation of human rights by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police (#EndSARS). What are your takeaways from the historic event which ended on a rather sad note in which lives were lost? Would you say the protest achieved any meaningful purpose? Some say that the NBA did not comment adequately about the Protests. What message do you think was sent by the Police by the matter they filed to stop the State Panels of Inquiry, despite the Supreme Court decision in Fawehinmi v Babangida which allowed States to set up such Panels? Does the fact that the Police appears as Item 45 of the Exclusive Legislative List, affect the Panels of Inquiry?

The #EndSARS protests teaches the lesson that there’s a limit to which people could be taken for a ride. It also speaks to the ease with which this soro soke generation can organise via social media, and other social networks. These are enough reasons, for the government to wake up and smell the coffee. The protests might have ended, but I tell you that the embers are yet to smoulder. At the slightest provocation, we might be headed for another round, if my reading of the mood of the nation is right.

To a large extent, I would say the protests achieved a lot in terms of the awareness created on the political consciousness of Nigerians who were before the protests, perceived by the political class as docile. Could it have achieved more, if there was a clear leadership structure? Perhaps. Maybe it wouldn’t have led to the loss of lives and the destruction of public and private properties in the manner it panned out. But, is that a reason to assert that it wasn’t a success? Not in the least, for me.

Having said that, I don’t think it is correct to say that our intervention as an Association wasn’t enough. As the records bear out, and as reported by this THISDAY and other media, we didn’t just issue statements in condemnation of the ugly turn of the protests, we were also on ground through our branches to assist in the release of unlawfully arrested protesters; providing pro bono legal services where needed; partnering with the National Assembly in the draft of a legislation in response to some of the issues that led to the protests; and threatening legal action against the military both in local and international fora, if indicted by the panels of inquiry set up by the Federal Government and the State governments. Speaking of the constitutionality of the panels of inquiry, and the purported action by the Police seeking an injunctive order against the mandate of the panels, I understand there’s been a rebuttal by the Police hierarchy that the Force wasn’t carried along in the action filed in its name. That remains a knotty issue, which I believe would be settled eventually in the Court. That said, the constitutionality of the panels of inquiry was one of the issues discussed at the last NEC, and we have set up a Committee led by the former 2nd Vice President of the NBA, Monday Ubani, to interrogate the conflicting legal opinions on the debate, and come up with a reconciliatory legal opinion which the Association can rely upon. So I wouldn’t want to preempt the work of the Committee. Suffice however, to state that we’re in support of the mandate of the Panels of Inquiry, and the Association is hugely involved in the process in dual capacity: providing pro bono legal services to indigent petitioners, and acting as Amicus Curiae to the panels through our members across our branches.

Kindly, share your thoughts on the Judiciary? Is it simply a matter of increased funding to make it run more efficiently and serve the people better? Or what other steps must be taken to make the Judiciary run optimally? What are your recommendations about the mode of appointment of Judicial officers in both Federal and State High Courts? In the past few years, lots of criticisms have trailed judicial appointments.

The problem of the Judiciary, is beyond funding. There’s an equally fundamental problem of the make-up of the people we send to our Benches. Therefore, we must attempt a handshake between funding and character of Judicial personnel. The dangers of a corrupt Judge to the jurisdiction where he sits, is better imagined. The legendary Justice Oputa, graphically equated it with a blind man running with a dagger into a crowd. To this end, we must commend the National Judicial Council (NJC) for not shying away from wielding the big stick against corrupt judicial officers. Lest I’m misquoted, funding is also key. A highly motivated and diligent judicial officer, with a proper attention to his/her welfare, would no doubt make a great addition to any jurisdiction where he/she sits in judgement over others. Of course, the reverse is also the case. Funding is also critical for the court infrastructure which also makes the work of the Judges easier. The outlook of many of our courts, leave so much to be desired. All of these issues bow to funding, hence why we have not stopped in our advocacy for greater funding for the Judiciary. In terms of the mode of appointment of judicial officers, which has received criticisms in recent times, I think the current procedure in print, is enough to guarantee a foolproof process. However there’s the need to deploy technology in the processes, so that it wouldn’t be susceptible to compromise or cronyism, as we saw recently where the names of the wards of serving and retired judicial officers dominated the list of successful candidates for appointment to the Judiciary of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The current analogue process can only lend itself to manipulation, as there is no internal mechanism for checking against same.

You will agree that 2020 has indeed, been an annus horribilis, not just in Nigeria but globally. What advice do you have for Government, to make 2021 better for Nigerians? As it is, we have one of the highest number of out of school children in the world it seems, different unions threaten to go on strike practically every week, the people are hungry and angry. In fact, Nigeria is no longer the giant of Africa, but the poverty capital of the world. What in your opinion, is the way forward?

The Nigerian problem is simply and squarely one of leadership. I hate to end on a depressing note, but nothing gives one hope that 2021 would be any better with the current leadership in the country, both at the Federal and State levels. But, I hope to be disappointed. The recommendations have been there for time without memory, on how the Nigerian leadership can get the country working, but it’s often a long mile between, talk and action. Already, 2021 doesn’t look great from where we stand. We are in a recession which would last at least until the end of the first quarter of the New Year from what we’re hearing from financial analysts. We’re at the cusp of a second wave of the pandemic which would also see the price of crude oil crashing again, with implications for government revenue. It’s unfortunate that we have ourselves in a deep hole, which you’ll agree with me, are largely self induced due to leadership choices.

So if you ask me the way forward, I’ll say government must get more serious to undertake the business of governance. For starters, we must cut the cost of running the government since we’re in a pandemic, and invest more in infrastructure and human capital, which are known drivers of any economy. Diversification of the economy which has been bandied around by successive governments, should also be prioritised. On this score, the Agriculture and manufacturing sectors are two areas we must leverage the AfCFTA to improve, and get our fair share in the burgeoning trade agreement.

And then, the elephant in the room: security. The Muhammadu Buhari government must make a decision at once in the matter of the service chiefs, as we approach the New Year. The popular opinion is that new hands should be brought, to inject fresh ideas in the anti-insurgency war. It’s high time the government hearkened to that voice of reason, and climb down from its high horse. Truth is, without any meaningful improvement in National security, businesses would not thrive, foreign investment would not berth on our shores, and our economic woes are likely to continue. This is why security is paramount. But, while it is easy to blame the service chiefs, it can equally be said that they’re not the ones whom Nigerians voted into office to protect their lives and properties. The buck at all times, stops at the desk of the Commander-in-Chief. And as one man said, he must be seen to chiefly be in command.