‘We’ll Set a Standard for a Seamless NBA Election’

Again, Nigerian Lawyers are set to elect their choice of candidates for the various national offices of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), in the next few weeks. Over the last few election cycles, the electoral process has been trailed with criticisms and post-election complaints and appeals, sometimes ending up in tedious litigation in court, to the extent that following the 2018 election cycle, two Lawyers were actually arrested and charged to court by the EFCC, for offences bordering on cybercrimes to allegedly rig the election. This year presents another opportunity, for the NBA to prove the integrity of its electoral process. Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi linked up with Oluseun Abimbola, SAN, former Attorney-General of Oyo State and the Chairman of the 2024 Electoral Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (ECNBA), who confirmed the ECNBA’s determination to deliver a rancour free and fair election to Nigerian Lawyers this year 

Elections into the national offices of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) are just a few weeks away. Exactly when will the elections hold? As the Chairman of the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA), what level of preparedness can you assure Nigerian Lawyers of? 

The NBA 2024 Elections into National offices, and as representatives of the NBA on the General Council of the Bar holds Saturday 20th July, 2024. Preparations are on and in top gear. We have, in line with the Constitution, issued over the last several weeks, necessary guidelines and notices in respect of compliance steps for candidates and members, while other compliance guidelines will still follow. Our Technical Support Consultant is in place after a competitive bid process, and they have since been working with us in preparing for the election. We have cleaned up the database of voters, and recently published the list for members’ eligible to vote for verification. We have again, after a competitive bid process involving technical and financial reviews, with the assistance of our Technical Support Consultant, made a selection of the election service provider, and have commenced a secured review and preparation of the voting platform. I would say we are on course with preparations for the elections.

The issue of the process of selection and choice of IT Provider for the balloting has remained contentious. One of the Presidential candidates has alleged that the process of picking the IT Provider for the election has always been opaque, and not open for scrutiny. How did you handle this challenge, for this year’s election?

 The Constitution does provide for the process to follow in the selection of the various expert providers, and it is transparent. It requires us to post a bid invitation, which we did by our issuance and publication of a Request For Proposals, both for the Technical Service Consultant (which we did first), and for the Election Service Provider which recently concluded. Upon preliminary review of submitted proposals, we had narrowed down to a shortlist which was published on the NBA and ECNBA websites, and is still there as released. This was followed by a technical review of the shortlisted organisations and a financial review, before we selected the eventual companies as Technical Service Consultant and Election Service Provider. There was nothing opaque about the selection process. 

We had bids from local and foreign entities, consortia, etc, before narrowing down our choice based on several parameters including capacity, experience, expertise, cyber-security offerings, etc. Every step we took is open to scrutiny, and were transparently executed. It is necessary to point out that while the Constitution mandates the ECNBA to publish the list of Shortlisted entities for Election Service Providers for comments by members of the Association, it does not require us to submit the individual bids received to members of the Association. Where we received enquiries on any issue relating to the appointment of the Election Service Provider, we promptly responded.

Controversies have trailed the last few elections, from the  disqualification of candidates by ECNBA to allegations of malpractice here and there through the IT Platform. What guarantee can you give to Lawyers this time around, that the voting platform is fully reliable and there is no way to manipulate it, and that the elections will be free, fair and credible? 

First of all, understand that an election is a contest with contenders. This presupposes that a winner and loser will emerge in accordance with stated provisions of Statutory instruments, and that carries with it, its own sometimes negative energy, and biases even when there are no smoking guns. Disqualification of candidates, whether by this ECNBA or previous ones, is usually for stated reasons pursuant to the provisions of the Constitution, the Regulations and Guidelines. Disqualification of candidates either by previous ECNBAs or ours in the current exercise, is therefore, no exception, in terms of the energy it generates. Disqualified candidates all have justifications as to why they believe they should not have been disqualified, and again that sentiment is not strange in the circumstance of an electoral contest. That is why there is an appeal process engaged by such disqualified candidates and that was recently concluded, with parties demonstrating candour by accepting the outcome. 

The ECNBA extended the date for voter verification. Lawyers hope that the compilation of the Voters List will be hitch-free this year, unlike in the past where Lawyers were unable to vote, because though they found their names on the Preliminary Voters List, their names did not appear on the Final Voters List. Can you assure Lawyers that nothing like that will happen this time around?

By all means all qualified voters who paid their Bar Practicing Fees (BPF) between 1st January and 31st March, 2024 would have been captured on the NBA portal at the time of payment, and should make the list of voters. It is important to point out that, because the system for the payment of the BPF was done through the NBA portal after each member had verified his details, the system automatically generates a List of all persons who made payment between the 1st of January and 31st of March, 2024. The verification exercise that the ECNBA required members to do is that of their phone numbers and emails, since those are the means by which they would receive their authentication codes to vote. Verification was extended, to allow members check that their details are correctly captured on the Voters list (especially their phone/email contacts). Once the verification process ends, the corrections submitted by members would be certified and uploaded on the list, before the final Voters list is uploaded for the elections. We are doing the utmost and meticulously reviewing this to avoid any glitch, so there is no missing data during uploads. Names will not be missing in this election. The only names not on the Voters list, are those who did not pay for their Bar Practicing fees in 2024 within the regulated period. Some members who paid after 31st March have been trying to verify their names and found it missing, and we received various complaints by emails, calls from many, some even abusive for no just cause, when they only paid their statutory BPF fees in April, after the regulatory period. We are taking time to explain though, to all in this category, and we seize this opportunity to advice our members again, that the regulatory period that qualifies you for privileges of the Bar, including the right to vote and be voted for, is paying your BPF as at when due, that is, 1st January to 31st March of the year. 

With just a few weeks to elections, your Committee is yet to lift the ban on election campaigns. What informed the decision not to lift the ban in good time, as has been the practice in the past? How and when will the candidates be able to effectively reach their supporters and canvass for votes within such a short period?

No time is fixed by the NBA Constitution, for campaign to start. However, the electoral process and logistics of planning and regulating the stages of same, demand that some activities are desirable to be concluded or commenced (as the case may be), before the ban on campaigns can be lifted. 

Secondly, we must remind ourselves that ours is a professional body, not a political party campaign with the full blown partisanship campaigns. I always say that for Bar elections, all candidates belong to the same party called the Nigerian Bar Association; hence, they must observe the same standards and principles for campaign. Our Constitution spells out the strict limits of what is allowed, and it does not necessarily require the open country campaign in political circles; so, there is plenty of time indeed, to campaign before the election. 

We have issued to candidates guidelines that should govern their campaigns among other things, and in any case, the ban has now been lifted. Of utmost importance is to ensure all persons observe and maintain the decorum, nobility and professional culture the legal profession is associated with. We should not lose that to partisan politics, even in our campaigns. This is the clear spirit that governs the letters of the NBA Constitution.

 Some candidates who were disqualified have gone to Press, asking their supporters to support another candidate. Does this not amount to campaign?

It is regrettable that those who live in glass houses, throw stones at it sometimes. If such persons were to still be candidates, they may qualify to be disqualified. It is a simple regard for our rules, guidelines and Constitution we simply ask all candidates and supporters for, and that is not onerous to comply with. That act was jumping the gun, without the ban on campaign being lifted yet.  

We urge our dear candidates and supporters, to stick to the rules of the game please. We want a clean contest, no puns, strict compliance with our rules and Constitution, and let’s set a standard for what a seamless, rancour free and fair elections should be.

It appears that there is a need for voter-education, as many older Lawyers who are neither computer literate or internet savvy, always have challenges casting their votes online. Should Lawyers expect some tutorial on the step-by-step process of casting their ballot in the election?

By all means, there will be voter education, by physical visits across regions, and also DIY video posts, etc to guide voters on the steps and process to casting their ballot. Indeed, we have started this with the clear instructions for the verification process of the Voters list, which made it a simple 3 step “do it yourself” process that anyone could easily follow. We intend to simplify the voting process, in our continuing releases.

After the elections, what is the appeal process, if and when any appeal arises?

There is already set up a National Officers Elections Appeal Committee in place, which will determine any resulting appeals that may arise. We intend to have clean polls, that even those who may lose will have no need to appeal if the process is transparent for any objective mind to see. We, on our part, will conduct a post-election audit nonetheless with our Service Providers, and issue a report of same in furtherance of our resolve to give assurance to the integrity of the process. 

 What would you say have been your greatest challenges in this important assignment, so far?       

Nigeria has had an integrity deficiency in many sectors, processes, institutions and systems. We read narratives from a few amongst our colleagues as to whether this year’s election process will be seamless and free of the recurrent claims of interference, and we do understand those sentiments in our Nigerian environment where elections of any sort have generated such emotions. 

We are doing our utmost to disabuse the minds of even the greatest sceptic, by ensuring the integrity of our systems, processes, and procedures. We are scientifically conducting a thorough integrity test of the voting platform, and have same duly certified. 

I only wish to assure our colleagues and members, to trust that this year’s election shall be void of those challenges. We have insisted in the process of selection of the Election Service Provider, that in spite of our technical assessment, they provide certified attestation of the integrity of the voter platform which they have happily significantly enhanced over the last two years. Nevertheless, ECNBA will still, in line with its constitutional mandate, give further assurance to stakeholders by hopefully having a reputed global third party, conduct vulnerability assessments and tests on the voting platform to assure all of the processes and eventual outcome.

We thank all the candidates for their cooperation so far, and appeal to them to ensure full cooperation all through the process to the end. We also appreciate the cooperation of our dear members and distinguished colleagues for their engagement with the process so far, and continue to assure them all that we shall, by the grace of God, deliver on our mandate, a free, fair and transparent elections 2024.

Thank you Learned Silk.

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