NBA: Ruling in the midst of controversy, the Akpata style

By Ogunsakin Mustapha

DESPITE the myriad of controversies and challenges that has bedevilled the Nigerian Bar Association(NBA) in the last two years, the outgoing President, Olumide Akpata on Tuesday took a look at his leadership of the largest bar in Africa and gave his administration a pass mark for a job well done.

Akpata at a plenary session of the ongoing Annual General Conference of the association tagged ‘Bold Transitions’ disclosed that 62,000 lawyers paid their practicing fee in year 2022 while 38,000 members participated in their election held recently, as part of the achievement of his administration.

The one week conference is currently ongoing at the Eko Atlantic City. The session was coordinated by Kunle Ajagbe and Ms Jane Asim-Etim Eta, and  had past presidents of the association, A.B Mahmoud SAN, and Paul Usoro SAN in attendance.

Earlier in the morning, Akpata had appeared on Arise Television ‘Morning Show’, anchored by Dr Reuben Abati, also a lawyer, where he pleaded ‘not guilty’ to ‘charges’ that he divided the bar more than he met it. Abati had asked whether he was guilty on accusations of how he handled the many battles he fought while presiding over the affairs of the association. Some of the battles he fought included that of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN), Body of Benchers (BoB), his General Secretary, Ms Joyce Oduah who was elected as he was, the Attorney General of the Federation(AGF) on the review of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC), and Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, Chairman, BoB who he asked to recuse himself as chairman of BoB.

Akpata had pleaded ‘not guilty’ explaining why his administration took certain decisions in the course of his leadership. He explained that asking Chief Olanipekun to recuse himself was not a personal decision. He believed that it was in the best interest of the bar.

“We cannot be teaching law students some principles of law, and be doing something else in practice. Chief Olanipekun’s chambers was accused of ambulance-chasing. It is only proper to ask him to recuse himself so that the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) can conduct proper and unbiased investigations into the matter,” he said.

Not many people, however, believed him. Many lawyers argued that though a committee of BoB, LPDC has its independence as BoB never interfere in its work. Besides, the case in question is just one out of the several that LPDC deals with. Is it right to ask the chairman of BoB to recuse himself over just one case? What happens to other cases?

Aik Malik SAN  faulted Akpata’ position. “I totally disagree with the NBA President on the contents of this letter to the BoB Chairman. In my view, the President is merely playing to the gallery. The facts in the public domain, discernible from all the leaked mails and letters do not suggest that other Partners in the firm of Wole Olanipekun & Co. are/were complicit. So why should the BoB Chairman be impeached on account of the misconduct of a Partner in his private law firm?

Malik went further; “Critically, and I say this with every sense of patriotism, the issue at stake is so remotely or approximately unconnected with the role or status of Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN as BoB Chair. For the record [and I shudder to surmise that the NBA President ought to know better than I do having regard to his membership of the BoB], the BoB does not control the LPDC, beyond appointing its members. The Committee does not take instructions or directive from the BoB and decisions/Directions issued or handed down by the LPDC are not subject to any review by the BOB. Although a Committee of the BoB, the LPDC performs, strictly, quasi-judicial function which is only subject to a review by the Supreme Court;

“I take the view, therefore, that the case of the Partner in the law offices of Wole Olanipekun & Co is only just one isolated case, amongst the many cases that the LPDC sits over. I fail to see how this solitary case, alone, all, all alone, can be a ground for a complete, total and outright recusal or resignation from BoB chairmanship position, as advised by the NBA President in the letter under reference!  At best [albeit I do not even concede],  the NBA President may invite the BoB chair to recuse himself anytime the issue about his Partner comes before the august body; Be it noted that the BoB is a statutory body and its functions are well enunciated in the statute establishing it. These functions do not, with respect, and by any stretch of imagination, include, discussing or reviewing matters before the LPDC! In a nutshell, the NBA President’s letter only carries with it the concomitant of unduly heating up the polity. It is, in my humble opinion, unnecessary and ill-advised”.

Yomi Aliu SAN added an ethic dimension to the matter when he said that Yoruba lawyers will defend their own. Many may not understand what Aliu tried to hit at. The election that brought Akpata in as president was criticized as being rigged. The Dr Olisa Agbakoba SAN Committee confirmed that the 2020 election was rigged. That election was between the Midwest and Southwest candidates. Akpata is from Midwest and was believed to have rigged the election against southwest candidates. Chief Olanipekun is the leader of Egbe Amofin at bar politics. Many therefore see Akapta’s fight against Olanipekun as a proxy fight to further humiliate southwest lawyers.

Besides, watchers of Nigerian bar politics are of the view that since 2014, the leadership of the bar has been hijacked by a certain cabal that has consistently produced the presidents since then. They have perfected a way of positioning, and supporting one of their own to take over from the former. This cabal are mostly solicitors and very few are noted advocates. Prior to the take over, past leaders at the helm of affairs of the bar had been advocates that take the social well been of the society seriously. They belong to the Alao Aka-Bashorun progressive school. But these new clique are rich and very popular with politicians in government. They therefore have access to government purses, both at Federal and State levels. With cash in their hands and influence, it is easy to take over the bar.

Many of them are hardly seen in courts. However, they have taken control of bar politics and influenced decisions through electronic voting that gives room for manipulation. One of them reviewed the constitution to an all inclusive participation in elections as against delegates system. This led to a situation where junior members of the association who are in the majority have louder voices than their seniors. For a conservative profession that cherishes seniority, this new power of the juniors led to gross indiscipline where there is almost a total lack of respect for seniors. Not a few argued that Akpata is fighting a proxy war on behalf of these class whose aim is to take over other organs under in the justice/judicial system just like they’ve taken over NBA.

Akpata particularly took advantage of this innovation to emerge as president in 2020. For one, he is not a senior advocate. But he galvanised the youths through social programmes like partying and dancing to woo young lawyers. In the process however, the essence of the profession was compromised.

Although he has the power, Akpata fought legitimacy battle, even within the secretariat headed by the General Secretary, Ms Joyce Oduah. While his election was reportedly mired with electoral controversy, Ms Oduah, election was not. Which was why the lady kept on harping on “protecting the mandate given to me by Nigerian lawyers”. Till the last hours of the administration, the legitimacy battle is still on, resorting to suspension and court orders for, or against a principal officer. Only on Tuesday, a Federal High Court, Abuja presided over by Justice A.R Mohammed set aside the suspension of Oduah. Even before the court order, every effort had been made to obliterate the name of Oduah from the records of the administration, including removing her name and picture from the printed program of the conference.

The clear evidence of lack of cohesion in the secretariat is the total chaos in the distribution of conference materials. Lawyers had to battle, and even protested lack of conference materials. Although the Chairman of the conference planning committee, Tobenna  Erojikwe stated that he had to stop distribution because the quality of conference bags was compromised by the producers, the damage was already done as aggrieved lawyers had gone on rampage, destroying and grabbing whatever they could.

No wonder a lawyer, Sylvester Udemezue (Udems) posited that Akpata divided the bar more that he met it. “NBA is too serious, mature, and enlightened an organization to be left in the hands of exuberant immature minds such as we did in the period 2020-2022”, he posited.

He asked in derision mixed with seriousness: “Learned Benchers, Silks, Profs, Seniors and Colleagues, How Market? Has Olumide Akpata leadership united or disunited the Bar? Is it not messy everywhere within the Bar!”, and adding that “NBA leaderships have, in favour of the pursuit of egocentrism, self-aggrandizement, and egoistic shenanigans, abandoned the unity, professional wellbeing and the welfare and economic advancement of lawyers in Nigeria”.

Udemezue asked: “What serious achievements has the current NBA leadership recorded in the past 2 years other than pursuit of frivolousness and irrelevancies, misplacement of priorities, and deprioritization of the  numerous challenges facing the law profession in Nigeria? I challenge any fair-minded NBA member to name any one achievement of the Olumide Akpata NBA leadership outside destabilizing, disorganizing, and disuniting (1) the Bar, (2) NBA leadership, and (3) NBA followership?

However, speaking on Tuesday, Akpata said that his administration maintained an effective secretariat with better remuneration for staff, and urged the incoming president to continue with the set legacy. He admitted that his administration did not measure up to expectation in the area of stamp and seals for lawyers due to lack of effective distribution as a result of weak secretariat. He also urged members to participate in the affairs of the association and boldly lay their complaints when necessary.

The President-elect, Mr. Yakubu Maikyau SAN  promised that his administration will build on the past legacies as he thanked lawyers for giving him opportunity to steer the affairs of the Bar. said his committed to take the association to greater heights said his administration will ensure welfare packages to all the members.

He emphasised that he will build on the accountability, regulation and transparency and he noted that the voice of the bar has been restored.

“My administration will build on what my predecessors have done, most importantly the Olumide Akpata led administration”. He appreciated NBA members for electing him as the president and also participating in the election despite being an online voting.

Reeling out his plan for the association, he said he his administration will continue to engage the stakeholders on interaction and make practice easy to lawyers with disability.

He reiterated boldly to uphold decision making, create employment opportunities for young lawyers, improve and encourage health insurance for all members, deal with sexual harassment for female lawyers.

“We will make sure all lawyer benefits on the health insurance scheme. The N1.5 billion Akpata administration save as the sterilization fund will be built on. The law officers in the prosecuting duty will not find it difficult to work under my administration. We will work for perfect law firm mentorship program to build young lawyers. All of us will be impacted, you will be able to pay your practicing fee and get your stamp and seal in due time.”

Maikyau thanked his predecessors for maintaining transparency in justice delivery and pledged to build on it.

“There’s nothing that will deter me from continuing in what our fathers have laid down. My administration will be fair to all and treat everyone equally no matter who the person is.”

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