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The faulty premise of the so-called new NBA

Last Friday, some supposed lawyers from Northern Nigeria, namely, Nuhu Ibrahim, and Abdulbasit Suleiman basking in the euphoria of their self-importance or perhaps a 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 was 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 behavior 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 away 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 Organization 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 dis-invited Governor, the group gave itself away as tribal champions who should not be seen or heard, angling to promote a splinter cosmopolitan organization 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“.

The circumstances in which the Kaduna State Governor was dis-invited 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 dis-invitation motion was put to vote, and was resolved in favor of those who wanted the Kaduna Governor and perhaps the financier of the so-called conveners 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, has 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 dis-invite 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 dis-invite 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 become 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 Mahmud Balarable SAN emerged the 33rd president of the Association after beating his closest rival, Joe Kyari Garzama, 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 1927 in the late Abdulganiyu Abdulrazak. 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 the 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 the 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 overtime 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 a 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 liberalize the accountancy profession in Nigeria and to float a virile home-grown accountancy body, which would provide a path to a recognized professional qualification, which was of the highest international standard. It was not informed by proxy ethnoreligious 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 seems 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 balkanization 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.

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 the 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 Nigeria extraction and those practicing therein with the view to constituting the Trustees and for purposes of fixing a date for the 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 the Northern Nigeria Bar Association wouldn’t have been an apt name for this proposed organization threatening to make heaven and earth, one.

Raymond Nkannebe, a legal practitioner, writes from Lagos.

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