‘NBA Under Our Watch, Wasn’t Any Government’s Appendage’

‘NBA Under Our Watch, Wasn’t Any Government’s Appendage’

In less than 72 hours, before the conclusion of what will hopefully be a ‘Conference Extraordinaire’, the Olumide Akpata-led administration of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) will handover to the incoming Y.C. Maikyau, SAN’s team of new national officers of the NBA. Over the past 24 months, Olumide Akpata took bold steps to ensure that the Association reclaims its pride of place, particularly as the watchdog of the society. How well did he fulfil the campaign promises which he made to NBA Members in 2020? As the Annual General Conference of the Association kicked off in Lagos on Sunday, Olumide Akpata took time out to speak with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi on the highlights of his tenure, some of the achievements of his administration and many other issues which are of interest to Nigerian Lawyers. We congratulate Mr Akpata on a successful tenure, and going forward, we wish him all the best

Your valedictory Annual General Conference is on, holding in Lagos. What have you done to make your outgoing Conference memorable? 

Time really flies, and I am grateful to God for the grace and strength that He has given me and my team to steer the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) on the right path over the last two years. 

Regarding our valedictory Annual General Conference, what we did was to first assemble a great team as members of the Technical Committee on Conference Planning (TCCP) under the leadership of Mr. Tobenna Erojikwe, and impress on them the need to plan a world class and befitting Conference that would mark the end of our administration and usher in the next. They have done very well so far, and I commend them. 

As soon as the TCCP was inaugurated, one remarkable thing that they did was to come up the idea of ‘Bold Transitions’ as the theme for the Conference.  The idea behind the Conference theme is that we are witnessing major transformations around us, and technology has disrupted various aspects of our lives; thus, resulting in significant changes in our way of doing things. The law and its practitioners must continually evolve to meet the demands of an ever-changing clientele, otherwise the law and Lawyers will remain static, while the rest of the society moves on. 

In Nigeria, there are also many instances of transitions. From the NBA where we are scheduled to hand over at the end of the Conference; to the rest of Nigeria where general elections are scheduled to take place in February 2023; and at the level of our national economy, there are also deep-seated conversations around Energy Transitions and the impact that might have on our oil-dependent economy and by extension, the legal profession.   

To deal with this theme, the TCCP has designed about 30 technical sessions where industry experts will lead discussions on the rapidly changing world. The Keynote Speaker for the Conference is Chimamanda Ngozi-Adiche, a worthy Nigerian daughter who has continued to break bounds locally and especially internationally. We have also extended invitations to the Presidential candidates of four of the major political parties in Nigeria for a session titled, “Democratic Transitions in the 21st Century Nigeria: 2023 and Beyond” where they will have an opportunity to discuss how they plan to transition Nigeria to a better place should they get elected. 

To bring it closer home to our members, we have set aside an entire day of the Conference to discuss only issues that relate to the Nigerian Lawyer and the legal profession. That way, our Conference is not just addressing societal issues, but also dealing with issues affecting our profession as a whole and Lawyers as individual members of the Association. 

Looking back on your tenure, what would you say were the notable highlights of your tenure as NBA President, and your major accomplishments? Do you have any regrets? What did you want to do, that you couldn’t do?

Whilst we have made historic strides in various aspects of the NBA’s role to its members and the general public, I think that what stands out for me is the extent to which we have put the Association back to its place, where it was the conscience of the Nigerian State. We see this in the way in which the Association is now being taken more seriously and its views on issues that affect all of us as citizens, forming a critical component of public opinion. We achieved this by taking a firm stance, and making our position known on critical matters – whether it was in the efforts that we made in the quest for judicial autonomy during the industrial action by Judiciary workers; the public interest lawsuits that we filed challenging government actions in deserving cases; our role in the ensuring respect of human rights during the #EndSARS crisis; defending the Judiciary at different times, etc.  So, from the point of view of the public, the feedback that I have is that there is a sense in which it may be said that ‘the NBA is back’. These things may count for little to some persons, but in a country like ours where respect for the Rule of Law and due process is not particularly an article of faith, we cannot overemphasise them. And looking back, I am happy to say that the NBA under our watch, was not an appendage of any government. 

While our duty to the public is important, delivering on that responsibility did not stop us from meeting our obligations to our members themselves. Through our various programme and interventions, we made membership of the Association a value-driven dynamic, where members could see the NBA taking steps towards improving their circumstances and providing avenues for scaling their work as professionals in whatever area of practice. For example, under the now revitalised Institute of Continuing Legal Education (NBA-ICLE), thousands of our members have been trained on various new and emerging areas of practice at no cost, in order to improve and enhance their earning capacities. To be sure, this initiative has been criticised in some quarters, but the sheer amount of our members who apply to take the benefit of it, cast the minor voices of opposition as anything but constructive. 

In terms of direct impact on the welfare of our members, our Access to Finance Scheme, where eligible Lawyers can access concessionary loans that are backstopped by the NBA, in order to meet their capital expenditure and working capital needs.  I am proud that we were able to pull this off, in spite of the less-than-friendly financial ecosystem on the back of which the initiative was negotiated.

In the same way, we set up a Health Insurance Scheme for Lawyers. This did not exist when we assumed office. Under this scheme which involves a partnership with the National Health Insurance Scheme, our members who subscribe to the scheme will be entitled to primary, secondary, and tertiary healthcare cover at NHIS-approved hospitals for a hugely discounted annual premium of N15,000. Our members have been using this service, it is working well, and it has reduced the number of “go-fund me” and similar fund-raising drives that we used to see amongst Lawyers. I admit that there may be administrative lapses and teething problems here and there with process, but there is good progress. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I woke up to a text message from one of the beneficiaries telling me that her surgery for myomectomy was scheduled for that morning at the National Hospital, Abuja, and that she was writing to express her gratitude because she was not required to make any payment for the procedure.  That was heart-warming.  

The second limb of our health programme, is the critical ailment insurance that we launched in 2021 as part of our arrangements with Leadway Assurance.  This is related to, but different from, the N2 million life insurance cover that we also have for our members with Leadway Assurance.  Under this arrangement, our members who are diagnosed with “critical illness” will, subject to meeting agreed conditions, be entitled, at no extra cost to them other than payment of practising fees and branch dues, to receive N1 million towards the treatment of such critical illness.

We also set up an NBA Medical Fund, from which funds will be applied from time to time, to support the medical needs of our members who cannot benefit from the NBA-NHIS scheme, or whose ailments do not qualify as “critical ailment” under our policy with Leadway Assurance.  

For our courts, we have started a process that will help check the frequent adjournments and delays that you witness in our courts, and which results in slow administration of justice and its resultant effect the economy. 

We started a partnership with the House of Representatives, under which the NBA will provide specialist support on critical and systemically important laws coming out of the National Assembly. This helps ensure that those laws are well thought out, and meet best standards.  

I can certainly go on and on to reel out the divergent heads of interventions we have made in the last two years to improve the utility-quotient of the NBA to its members and the society, but suffice to leave it here for the purposes of this interview.

Do we have any regrets?  I am not too sure.  All the decisions we had to take in the course of the last two years, howsoever unpopular, were taken from the standpoint of the larger interest of the NBA and its members. As a leader, when you take decisions from that point of view, one finds out that there is nothing worth regretting. So, for us, our approach to the office was from this point of view; and if anything, it made some of the decisions we had to take, easy, conscious that posterity would vindicate us in the end.

Perhaps, the only regret is to say that no matter what or how much one achieves, there will always be room to do more and make more improvements.  So, maybe if we had more time, we would have completed some of the activities and programmes that we started. However, I should say that when I made myself available to run for the office of the NBA President, I knew that I was constitutionally restricted to a single term of two years. I also knew that some of the transformational programmes that we needed to instate required more than two years to accomplish. However, this did not perturb me because as two famous sayings go, “Rome was not built in a day” and “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step.” 

For some of our programmes, we began and actualised them during the life of this administration and institutionalised the initiatives such that, it would be difficult for successive administrations to abandon them. For other programmes, especially those that require a longer gestation period, and extensive engagement of the government and other third-party stakeholders, what we did was to begin the detailed background or foundational work and then even took some of the initial implementation steps in the time that we had. For instance, we have been working on how to address issues around the slow justice system, congestion of our courts, incessant adjournments, etc. Issues like these, require working with the Heads of the various courts across the country and the Judges themselves. We have also almost completed work on the scale of charges and remuneration in the legal profession, but now need the relevant administrative and legislative instruments to finalise the process. As you would imagine, coordinating external parties and getting their buy-in on your programmes that require widespread engagements, lobbying and persuasion can be tough but we have made some commendable efforts in that respect, and it now behoves the Y. C. Maikyau, SAN administration to which we shall presently pass the baton, to take things further. 

The other thing that I would have loved to see to completion, is the reforms that we started at the NBA Secretariat to streamline our processes for improved efficiency, and the complete digitisation of the NBA, including our database and a unified easy means of identifying our members. We made a lot of commitments and investments on each of this, and have taken some concrete steps but have not fully actualised them. With more time, we would have completed this, but I am hopeful that my successor will continue to pursue these worthy initiatives.    

One thing I have promised Nigerian Lawyers is that I will prepare, and I am currently preparing a comprehensive hand over note that details all programmes we undertook, especially the ones that we are yet to conclude or even implement. The hand over note details the initiatives and programmes that I would have loved to accomplish, and a roadmap for actualising them.  I think that with a conscientious implementation of such plans by incoming administrations, we can get the Bar to where we want it to be. 

You put the NBA back on the right track, in terms of the role of a Bar Association in society. NBA has regained its voice. What main legacy are you leaving behind? What advice do you have for the incoming administration, on how to keep up the momentum and improve upon what you have started?

I think that there is a sense in which the thrust of this question had been addressed, in my response to your earlier question on what we consider the highlight of our administration. Having said that, one legacy that we will be leaving behind is that under our Administration, we demonstrated to our members and Nigerians at large, the possibilities inherent in an active NBA. We also demonstrated that the NBA can achieve its potentials, without compromising her responsibility to her primary constituency: members of the Association. If I am in a position to advise the incoming administration, I would say that it should remain loyal and committed to the promises it made to our members who gave it the popular mandate to lead the Association further, from where we will be leaving it in few days.

Being NBA President would have given you a better insight on certain measures that can be implemented to improve the administration of justice sector, especially the Judiciary, starting from the process of recruitment of judicial officers to get the brightest and the best, to their remuneration, stemming the tide of judicial corruption and rascality (like issuing conflicting court orders) etc. Kindly, share your thoughts on this, and the recent NICN judgement in the case of Hon v NASS on increasing the salaries of judicial officers. 

Certainly. Our commitment to improving the system of justice administration, was never hidden from the first day we took office. Thus, when we came on board, one of the first things we did was to set up, with the approval of the National Executive Council, the Judiciary Committee of the NBA under the leadership of my friend and brother, Babatunde Ajibade, SAN.  The Committee has been working relentlessly with my office, for possible solutions to these issues. 

To properly dimension the issues and develop practical ideas and implementable solutions to the problem of court congestion and other matters affecting the Judiciary generally, in January 2022, we organised a Justice Sector Reform Summit where some of the issues militating against optimal performance of the Judiciary were properly dissected, and proposals made for dealing with them. Armed with this and other findings, the NBA Judiciary Committee recently undertook a pilot court monitoring scheme or exercise in selected courts across the country, to test run some of the ideas that have been developed with experts on dealing with the slow pace in our courts. The scheme is leveraging on technology, and a dedicated App that has been developed for that purpose. These things are currently going on, but, like I mentioned earlier, where an initiative requires the buy-in and active involvement of other stakeholders, you may experience some delays and setbacks on account of administrative, budgetary, and other constraints. However, I have the assurances of the Judiciary Committee that, on account of their work, we will soon begin to see changes in our courts through their court monitoring activities and other high-level engagements. So, we have worked hard on this, and could not have overlooked the court system from where over 70% of our members earn their living. 

On the second arm of your question, I should say that it is a shame in the first instance, that we have to rely on a judgement of court to revise the earnings and emoluments of our judicial officers. Nothing can be more illustrative of the plight of the judicial officer in this country. So, I welcome the decision. It will however, be interesting to see how the orders of the court could be carried into effect, against the backdrop of the fact that legislative intervention is also instructive in the increment of salary of judicial officers given its budgetary implications.

What are your expectations of Acting CJN Olukayode Ariwoola upon his confirmation as the substantive CJN?

Let me take this opportunity to once again congratulate His Lordship on his well-deserved appointment as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. Indeed, the circumstances that necessitated his appointment speaks volumes of the issues in the Judiciary, and particularly, in the Supreme Court where he sits everyday amongst his Brother-Justices. I therefore, would expect him to use that scenario as a springboard to instate reforms that will improve the quality of the Nigerian Judiciary during his occupancy of the office. 

One reform that I expect from His Lordship, is the liberalisation of the resource-pool of the appellate Benches. Here, I speak of the need to elevate deserving senior and erudite members of the Bar from the academia and private practices, to the appellate courts. Unfortunately, this is one area where our advocacy has failed over the years. After the list of the most recent Justices of the Supreme Court was released, I had written to the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Dr Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad GCON (rtd.) to complain about the non-consideration of the very senior, experienced, and respected Lawyers that the NBA put forward for consideration to the Supreme Court bench. Sadly, My Lord, Justice Tanko, resigned just after my letter was delivered to him. I hope that the incoming administration will continue on this advocacy, in the interest of a more diversified Judiciary.

For one, as a means of prison decongestion we understand that Magistrates/judicial officers so assigned, are empowered by law to visit Police stations every month to check on detainees (awaiting trial), and even grant bail on the spot to those who are entitled; that Lawyers are also supposed to be assigned to every Police station in the country as well. What role has the NBA played as far as this is concerned, especially as a way to create jobs/opportunities for Lawyers?

Thank you for this question; this is because it has implications in expanding the practice space for our Lawyers, as well as creating opportunities for work. Yes, the Police Act nominates that a Lawyer should have a desk at every single Police formation in the country, in order to check against excesses of Police officers and to checkmate abuse of the human rights of suspects in detention, amongst others. Ordinarily, this laudable legislative intervention would have been a source of income for many of our members, who would have been employed in this capacity. However, and most unfortunately, the situation in reality is a far cry from the legislative intent, and it was one of the issues that I discussed with the Inspector-General of Police during my most recent visit to him. 

This, of course, is as a result of the poor funding of the Nigeria Police. If the institution was well funded, it would have had the resources of the added wage bill for the Lawyers who would be employed in this capacity. But, sadly, the reverse is the case, and so with all the best intentions, that lofty idea could remain a mirage. This again, is one area where the NBA and its members have been victims of the mal-administration of the Nigerian State, resulting in very weak institutions.

But, all hope is however not lost, and I would think that the incoming administration has its work cut out in that regard. 

Lawyers have never seemed to take the role of the Legal Practitioner’s Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) as seriously as they should. What was your experience in this regard as NBA President? Why did some of the members of the LPDC, including the Chairman resign? Has the LPDC been reconstituted?

I think it is quite sweeping to suggest that Lawyers have never taken the role of the Legal Practitioner’s Disciplinary Committee seriously. On the contrary they have, and the LPDC, through its Directions has punished Lawyers who have been found to infract our rules of professional conduct. Having said that, it is also true that the LPDC has been punching below its weight. As President of the NBA in the last two years, I witnessed this at close quarters. Some of the issues that I found were external interference in some cases, poor case management and/or adjudication of petitions referred to the Committee, sometimes resulting in the overturning of Directions of the Committee through elementary adjudicatory errors and omissions. There was also an issue with lack of institutional capacity, and funding.   

This situation is certainly not unconnected to the resignation of two members of the Committee, including its then Chairman – Emmanuel Ukala, SAN. The optics of course, is ugly, and reflects badly on us as an Association. 

The recently concluded election into national offices of the NBA, is being contended. A candidate for the office of President has challenged the outcome of the election. Although you have disbanded the ECNBA and set up another Committee, what happens if the appeal is not settled before swearing-in of the new President, which is just a few days away?

First, it is within the right of an aggrieved candidate to challenge any electoral process in court, if they feel that the process was tainted by any irregularity. Having said that, permit me to say that even our worst critic will not argue, with any sense of rationality, that the 2022 NBA election was not credible and generally satisfactory. You may recall that in the wake of the criticisms that trailed the 2020 NBA election, I pledged to, and indeed, constituted a Committee comprising distinguished practitioners of the highest standards, to audit the 2020 elections and recommend reforms for our electoral systems and processes. The Committee was led by Mr Ayodele Akintunde, SAN. When they concluded their assignment and presented their report to NBA-NEC, it was overwhelmingly accepted, and I passed the report to the NBA Constitution Review Committee. If you look at the NBA Constitution 2015 (as amended in 2021) there are far-reaching and transformational changes made to the Constitution, in terms of our electioneering. All these contributed to the hitch-free election we experienced in July 2022. But, again, aggrieved candidates have a right to challenge the process as a constitutional guarantee before a free, fair and transparent tribunal.

As per the last limb of your question, the pendency of any petition before the Committee, would not frustrate the hand-over ceremony at our Annual General Meeting. This is because, the result of the election as by the ECNBA enjoys the presumption of regularity, and until set aside by the Appeals Committee or any Court of law, will remain binding. In any case, I have received a report from the Elections Appeals Committee that no one petition was filed at the end of the period allowed for filing petitions; so, that perhaps, demonstrates that any perceived grievances have been assuaged. 

The Access to Loan facility initiative you instituted is one that many Lawyers lauded and hope will endure. But, the details and procedure on how to access funds from the Banks are still unclear. Kindly, enlighten Lawyers on how to access the facility.

On Access to Finance for Lawyers which I already spoke about, one of the things we tried to ensure is a seamless application process that doesn’t turn out to discourage members from assessing the facility. So, we had written to our members explaining the process of assessing the facility complete with infographics before now. The process begins with an interested member obtaining a letter of good standing from his/her local Branch attesting that he or she is a ‘financial member’ of the Branch with paid-up branch dues, and Bar Practising Fees, as well as attesting to the member’s character. Upon obtaining the letter, the member will be required to apply for a Letter of Loan Eligibility via a designated email at the NBA Secretariat. The application will be supported by the Letter of Good Standing issued by the Branch. Upon issuance of the Letter of Eligibility, the NBA would provide the loan documents as provided by the participating financial institutions. The member will then complete these forms, and submit to the Bank for processing. The Bank will confirm the genuineness and eligibility of the member with the NBA, before the request is processed. Of course, the member will be required to provide the relevant know-your-customer (KYC) documents required by the Bank for processing. Upon provision of the relevant KYC documents, the Bank will review the documents to determine the credit history and also establish the amount the member can borrow. After this, each qualified member will sign an offer letter and other relevant documentation with respect to the loan documents as determined by the Bank. Upon fulfilment of the foregoing, the loan will be disbursed. 

What is your opinion on ransom payments for abductees? Is the new law criminalising ransom payments necessary or unrealistic?

The so-called policy is indicative of a government that has run out of ideas, but does not accept it. It is quite preposterous that a government that has failed woefully in its primary mandate of securing the lives and properties of its citizens, is prepared to criminalise the citizens’ deft effort to save their loved ones from being killed by terrorists and criminals who have even threatened to kidnap the Commander-in-chief himself, and even made an attack on his convoy in his home State. It is totally ludicrous. No government conscious of its image and sensitive to its failures would recommend such a legislation, let alone passing it as a law. And, in any case, isn’t the same government deploying back-end channels to secure the release of abductees after payment of humongous ransoms? This demonstrates the sheer absurdity of the legislation.

How would you rate this administration on its rule of law and human rights record, and it’s three main campaign promises, fighting insecurity and corruption, and revamping Nigeria’s economy?

The score card bears itself out: a less than complimentary performance across board. You only need to engage the average Nigerian on the street, to understand where we are currently as a nation. Our currency is on a free fall, and no longer worth the paper on which it is printed; insecurity has encircled the land such that, even the seat of power is no longer safe; and the anti-corruption campaign lacks any rigour and vigour. So, it appears that we have retrogressed in the past seven years such that any government that takes over from this Administration, will have a really tough task. I am happy that these issues will take focal point at this NBA Conference, where the invited candidates will get the opportunity to engage on their reform agenda. It is one engagement that is worth looking out for.

What are your parting words to Nigerian Lawyers whom you served for the past 24 months?

I am grateful for the mandate that you gave me two years ago, and it has been a true privilege serving you in the last two years as NBA President. When I was seeking your mandate, I had envisioned an NBA that would be value adding to its members and the society, and it is my hope that what we achieved in these last 24 months, will be the foundational stone of an NBA that is constantly alive to its responsibilities to its members and Nigerians at large. Both individually and as a team, we have made mistakes and learnt from them; we had a few disagreements and agreed on most issues; and we also took hard and painful decisions that may not have been acceptable to all, but overall, I am satisfied that everything that we did was in the best interest of the Bar, and the legal profession in Nigeria. 

Thank you Mr Akpata.   

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