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I Tried to Steer the NBA Away from Politics

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IMAGE: Okey Wali, NBA President »


As you bow out as President of the Nigerian Bar Association what achievements would wish your administration to be remembered for?

I am particularly delighted with what we were able to achieve in the field of discipline at the Bar.  Every lawyer today knows that there must be consequences for misconduct at the Bar.  Within the two year life span of this administration, twelve members of the NBA were disbarred and five suspended for varying number of years for various acts of professional misconduct. This is more than the number of members of the Bar disciplined for professional misconduct in the last thirty years. We do not celebrate this but we believe that a very strong message has been sent to our colleagues that it cannot be business as usual.  To my mind this is a key accomplishment of this administration. We have implemented the Stamp and Seal policy of the NBA, from 1st of April 2015, you can only practice law in Nigeria if you have your seal and stamps issued by the Nigerian Bar Association so the issue of fake lawyers becomes a thing of the past. On the 12th of August 2014 we commissioned the second building of the Nigerian Bar Association in Lagos built by Stabilini Nigeria Limited, under a build, operate and transfer (BOT) arrangement between the company and Nigerian Bar Association. The NBA will be entitled to the rent one floor of the building during the operation of the BOT agreement.  We also commenced the construction of a ten floor National Secretariat at the Central Business District in Abuja.  One of our areas of focus during our administration was human capacity building.  We did not only achieve this at the secretariat level, but we used the platform of the Institute of Continuous Legal Education (ICLE) to promote the knowledge and skills of lawyers.  Our administration has been able to digitalise the CLE credit hours of all lawyers, from the inception of the program in 2008 till date; this we believe will encourage lawyers to acquire more knowledge and keep abreast of the current developments in law both locally and internationally.  These are some of our key areas of focus.

You took over as president after an election which raised many complaints, including the fact that names of dead or non-eligible voters were found on the accredited list. Many thought that your administration will correct those perceived electoral ills and radically reform the system. But in the last election, a few more complaints were raised. Why was the NBA electoral system not reformed after so many have complained?

Firstly let me say that your assumption of irregularities at my election is not correct. That was all sour grapes and I did not think that was very honourable. I got a very popular mandate from my colleagues in a process that was transparent and very credible. Do not forget I had over two hundred votes over my friend and colleague who came next to me in that election. So it was a clear victory. To deal with your comment about names of dead people on the voters register, I have heard of such names as Chief Nwobidike Nwonodi SAN and Chief C. A. B. Akparanta SAN. Firstly these were very senior and elderly members of the Bar who died at over forty years at the Bar, and so are too well known to the legal community for anybody to attempt to impersonate them.  Secondly as I said earlier the process was so transparent, as you got accredited by signing your signature against your name and photograph in the voters register and only then could you have voted at the elections. Those registers are still available at the National Secretariat if you need to inspect them.  Finding names of dead people in voters register is normal if they had died after or during the exercise of the compilation of the register, just like Chief Nwonodi SAN and Chief Akparanta SAN died about the same time when the exercise was on, and so it was possible that the Electoral Committee did not have that information.  What was important was that the records show that they were not accredited to vote and so could not have voted.  I remember very well that the General Secretary of the NBA at the time Mr. Olumuyiwa Akinboro addressed a press conference on this matter and dealt with it in details.

What are your views on Universal Suffrage for NBA Elections?
I doubt that we are there yet.  The problems of universal suffrage as experienced at the Port Harcourt Conference in 1992 led to the decision at the revival of the Bar in 1998 to experiment with the delegates conference system which I believe has served us well. We probably would need some modifications on how we can get the generality of the membership of the Nigerian Bar involved in the process.  Because I believe that the current agitation is a product of how branch Chairmen have gone about drawing up their delegates list. Ideally there should be elections at the branches for delegates but I doubt that this ever happens, as most chairmen just sit down and draw up lists without reference to the membership of their branches. That to my mind is the problem.

The ongoing Annual General Conference focuses on Nigeria’s 100 years as a nation. Given the myriad of professional issues that confront Nigerian lawyers what informed the choice of this year’s theme?
If we understand the fact that the NBA has a tripartite role of representation, regulation and advocacy in public interest then we will understand better why this theme. As Nigerian lawyers we are also Nigerian citizens.  A great Bar thrives in a great country. The theme of this year’s conference was carefully chosen in view of the current state of affairs in the Nigeria.  We believe that one of the challenges facing Nigeria as a nation is the absence of knowing the historical background which of course includes the political and economic developmental background of our country.  There is this adage that once you know the genesis of your problems then the problems are half solved. This is our contribution to national growth because we believe that we provide a nonpolitical, religious or ethnic platform to discuss the history of Nigeria.

At last year’s conference the association picked a non-lawyer as keynote speaker. This year we are also witnessing the choice of a non-lawyer as keynote speaker. Is this a deliberate arrangement to have persons outside the profession speak to lawyers?
Not really a deliberate policy but rather a well considered decision to get the best mind to deal with the issue of discourse.  If this is a walk into our past, then the best person to deal with it will be somebody with a good knowledge of our history and we are privileged to have Dr. Amale Kwanashie, a renowned historian who for over forty years served at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria as a founding staff of the university’s Centre for Historical Research and Documentation and subsequently as lecturer in the Department of History.  We should have no difficulties in getting somebody from outside our profession to get what we are looking for.  That to my mind is called humility.

The threat of the Ebola pandemic in Nigeria appears to have had an impact on this conference. Despite warnings and fears expressed by some lawyers you decided to go ahead with the conference, was it expedient to ignore these calls for postponement?
Again I would want to disagree with your choice of words about warnings and fears expressed by some lawyers. The majority of Nigerians from the feedback we get are very desirous and eager to come to Owerri for their annual conference. What you refer to as some lawyers is one or two very vocal members of the Bar with access to the media.  The Ebola Virus Disease outbreak is a very serious crisis and no responsible leadership will toy with such a deadly matter.  As a responsible leadership we are collaborating with the health authorities particularly the Federal Ministry of Health and the Imo State Ministry of Health. They have both most graciously been very supportive in even assisting with some of the items we would need as well as expert advice. We would have officials of the Federal Ministry of Health give a ten minute talk at the opening ceremony of the conference on Monday the 25th of August 2014.  Don not let us forget that the NBA has 109 branched all over this country and with that spread, a veritable source of information dissemination to Nigerian on how to contain the ebola disease. This is the sensible and responsible way of dealing with the matter and not by getting hysterical and spreading panic. We will continue to collaborate with the health authorities during and after the conference. On our part we have purchased sanitizers and other items for use by conferees at the conference.

One of the criticisms against you as NBA president was that as soon as you stepped into office you lost your voice and never took up the authorities on so many issues as expected of the official mouthpiece of Nigeria’s most vociferous professional body and one that has been acknowledged as the watchdog of the Nigerian society. What is your response to this criticism?
That again is not correct.  Leadership is a style, different strokes for different folks, sometimes determined by circumstances of the day. In the past we had Military governments, so it was us against them. But today, the story is different, because we are in a civil administration and so often what may be painted to look as a national issue may very well be political squabbles between politicians, and so we must be discerning enough to know when to intervene and when to leave politicians with their politicking. Again we must get it right, the NBA yes, is a pressure group but it is a professional association. I think it was a state chief executive who first used that expression that NBA has lost its voice but we know his background and I respect that and we expect our own background to be respected too, because of the above we may not be expected to see things and do things the same way.  The objective may very well be the same, but the approach most certainly may not be the same.  Even within the profession we have these tendencies, some think the NBA should be up in arms all the time and some think that the NBA is not a trade union and must keep away from political squabbles and so it becomes the responsibility of the leadership to strike a balance between these tendencies, that I believe is what we have tried to do.

Another criticism is that you are leaving the association more fragmented than you met it. Is this not a cause for concern?
This is also not correct. The NBA is more peaceful than we have ever known. That is the feedback we get, and I think that is the correct position. I have just received at my home in my village in Rumualogu in Obio/Akpor LGA in Cross River state the Chairman and leadership of the Ikom Branch of NBA with a lot of goodies that Ikom offers on a thank you visit for a job well done with the NBA. This was a very emotional thing for me as it is a continuation of the show of love, support and goodwill that I have enjoyed from my colleagues in these past years.  I must use this opportunity to continue to thank the members of the Bar for this much support and goodwill.  At the risk of sounding immodest, the world over, you do not have too many examples of leaders leaving office with so much goodwill.  I thank you all.

Are there things you could have done better during your tenure as President?
Obviously yes.  I think we need to take a rather hard look at the committee system as too many people lobby for and get committee appointments without the corresponding interest in getting any responsibility assigned to them done.  I watched in the last presidential elections, one of the candidates who as a committee chairman did not conduct one meeting of his committee.  So there is the need to be very careful in making committee appointments.

Your administration however has received commendations for your efforts at acquiring and initiating the building of the NBA National Secretariat in Abuja. It is what many have called a befitting edifice. What exactly is the present state of the project as you hand over to the next administration?
I thank you for the compliments, at least you have one good story for us, even the way you prefaced this with “however”, all the same I thank you. We did not acquire the land, it was actually acquired by Olisa Agbakoba SAN’s administration.  What happened was that due to non-development over the years, our title over the property was revoked, and sadly enough we did not know about this.  When I became president I was determined to build that house so I set up a crack committee under the chairmanship of Dr T. C. Osanakpo SAN, with a clear charge that I wanted that property completed when I leave office.  We did not know how acute the problem that laid ahead of us was.  The lands authorities in Abuja had insisted that as a show of seriousness we commenced construction work before coming for the perfection of our document, but no sooner did we get on site in July 2013 that the FCDA development control unit came and flushed us out of site that we did not have the necessary building approval.  Then we reverted to the lands authorities, and we were then informed that our title to the property had been revoked.  We then needed to revalidate our title to the property.  Many thanks to Senator Bala Mohammed, the minister for the FCT and our own Oloye Jumoke Akinjide, a great member of the Bar, who graciously ensured that we got our land back.  With the title back to us, we went back to development control for the building approval where fortunately I had immense assistance from an old secondary school mate who did his level best in ensuring that we got the necessary building approval.  Then and only then were we able to get back to site in February this year. With a building of this magnitude and soil texture of the land, so much went into the construction of the foundation and basement of the property.  With that done we expect the process to be faster as we are already on the second floor.  It is my hope and prayer that my successor would complete this house we should be commissioning it within the next twenty months, God willing.

What were your biggest challenges as president of the 90,000 strong association?
The presidency of the Bar is not a tea party, there is a lot of work, the administrative part of running the Bar, as the face of the Bar, you represent the Bar at events, programs and meetings all over the world. That is what I call the ambassadorial aspect of the job and of course the capacity to deal with the intrigues and politics which unfortunately, is taking a life of its own today. In all it is a very enriching and rewarding experience. Again as I have always said, it is a mindset, if you know what you are walking into, it is by choice and so you do not complain, you try and live with it and enjoy it, and as we lawyers will say volenti non fit injuria  .

At some point in your tenure you specifically said you would merge some branches of the association. Rather than doing this we saw your administration creating more branches. What informed this change in direction?
Yes we did say we were going to deregister branches that were not doing well, because many branches were beginning to exist for election conference purposes alone. But that cannot be a basis for not registering prospective vibrant branches. We have set criteria for the creation of new branches, and if any application met the set criteria, that was it. And I think our threat made a lot of difference, many branches knew that we were determined to carry out our threat and so they sat up, which is good for the NBA.

During your tenure as NBA President practising fees were increased what was the rationale behind this development?
We did not increase practising fees as an administration, and for your information practising fees are not determined by the NBA but they determined by the General Council of the Bar.  During the presidency of Mr J. B. Daudu SAN, my illustrious predecessor in office, the General Council of the Bar came up with a new regime of practising fees.  At a meeting of the NBA NEC in Lokoja sometime in May 2012, NEC decided that the proposed new regime of practising fees should be slashed by 50% and Mr Daudu SAN was directed by NEC to take that to the General Council of the Bar.  Seeking the presidency of the Bar at that time, I made a commitment to my colleagues that if elected president, that I was going to ensure the implementation of NEC resolution in the event that Mr Daudu SAN was unable to conclude that before leaving office, as he had little time left to the expiration of his tenure in August 2012.  As expected, Mr Daudu SAN could not deal with that before leaving office and upon assumption of office I ensured that NEC’s resolution in Lokoja was implemented.  So what we have today is the reduced practising fees as decided by the NBA NEC in Lokoja 2012, and not by Mr J. B. Daudu SAN nor Mr Okey Wali SAN.

What steps did your administration take to improve the welfare of young lawyers?
We encouraged their programs and supported their activities. We also set up a welfare foundation which should cater for such issues as housing program other facilities, for the welfare of lawyers generally and young lawyers in particular. Unfortunately we are not yet at the implementation stages and I trust that my successor will take it from there.

How would you assess your relationship with members of your cabinet?
Very cordial. But you know as president you are the leader and so like a father you must applaud when you need to applaud, and criticise or correct when you have to. I am a stickler for the rules. In the beginning some national officers had issues with that but in the end they appreciate that it is in their interest that things are done properly.  This may very well be a training ground for the young ones amongst us, and that’s my responsibility. I am not only president, I am most senior at the Bar and oldest biologically on the EXCO and I see myself as a colleague, friend and big brother to my colleagues on the EXCO. We have been a family and I believe that we will continue to be a family hereinafter.

What can be done to improve the NBA Women Forum?
In my judgement so far so good. They have had a good leadership in Hadjia Fatima Kwaku MFR, a wonderful woman with whom I have had a wonderful working relationship with.  She insists that I am her son and I say no, that she is only aunty Haj and not mummy Haj. I use this opportunity to say thank you to Hadjia, she has been a major pillar of support for my administration. There is always room for improvement, I pray that those who would come after her will have the tenacity and love for the job.

What would be your advice to the incoming president of the NBA?
I hear the last word a departing American president says to his successor, is GOODLUCK.  I now understand the meaning of that.  All I can say to my brother and my friend Augustine Alegeh SAN is GOODLUCK and I will add God’s favour.  The rest will not be for the media.

Article Credit: Thisdaylive

Updated 5 Years ago

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