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‘It can no longer be business as usual for the legal profession in Nigeria’


Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud

Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud

What we are witnessing today is more than just a change of baton. The Nigerian legal profession, by this election, has signified its intention to turn a new leaf. It has chosen to re-invent itself. It has chosen to win back the confidence of the Nigerian people. Throughout the campaigns in the last few months, everywhere we visited across the length and breadth of this country we realized that the majority of our colleagues were eager and determined to build a new legal profession. They want a legal profession that is respected and that enjoys the confidence of the Nigerian people. Our campaign messages with the hashtag #ABraveNewBar, and our messages of “A Clean Judiciary” – a judiciary that will deliver consistent and predictable outcomes; “No to Corruption”, whether in the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branch of government resonated very well with most of our members. It became clear to us that, for the legal profession in Nigerian, it can no longer be business as usual .

Lawyers want to be respected. They want a country that works and works for everyone; not just for a selected few. Lawyers want to be prosperous, therefore they want a country that is ready for business. Majority of our members are beginning to appreciate that there cannot be rich lawyers in a poor country. They realize that their prosperity is somehow linked to the prosperity of the country. It is clear to our colleagues, that to have all these, the legal profession must play its part. There appears an appreciation that to regain the confidence of the Nigerian people, the legal profession needs to go back to its core values of ethics, courage, integrity and professionalism. This election, appears to me, a clear resolve by our members to turn a new leaf and to begin to build a brave new bar.

Let me admit however, that this journey did not just begin. The outcome of this election was only possible because of the role played by our past leaders. President Augustine Alegeh must be singled out here for special commendation. His innovation, his foresight and doggedness made this election possible. The introduction of universal suffrage for lawyers, on a new and innovative electronic platform is clearly a revolution of some sort. Universal suffrage gives a voice to every member. It changes the dynamics of the association.

Although the legal profession is steeped in tradition and respect for seniority, one lawyer one vote compels leaders of the association to respond to the specific issues affecting all segments of the membership. The electronic platform means that our members could cast their vote from virtually any location. Several of our colleagues cast their votes from the comfort of their homes, offices and hotel rooms across the country and from different continents around the globe. Here is a testimony from a senior lawyer: Mr. Asamah Kadiri posted on the internet on Saturday, July 30, 2016 at 5:37 PM with Subject: Re: NBA 2016 National Election: “This is amazing! I can’t just believe that I could just cast my vote in the NBA national election from my hotel room in a far away country overseas. This e-voting is the best revolution in NBA for years to come. Thanks to the Augustine Alegeh led NBA presidency, for making this revolution a reality.

Even the online voters verification exercise I did about three weeks ago, as well as the final online accreditation exercise I did yesterday, were very easy, smooth and seamless. As soon as I received the email from the “” email address, requesting me to complete the accreditation exercise, I just clicked the button and did it smoothly, without any hitches. We all have to support this laudable jet age system of voting, which is surely the best way to go, if indeed, we must move our country Nigeria out of the doldrums. Perhaps, those that have had challenges with logging into the NBA e-voting system to do their verification and/or accreditation, and voting, should actually first check the capacity of their own internet service systems. Universal Adult Suffrage through Electronic/Internet Voting has come to stay. Good riddance to the archaic and anachronistic erstwhile “Delegates Conference”!Yusuf Asamah Kadiri, Esq.FCIArb (UK); LLM (BU, Boston, USA); DipICArb (Oxford, UK); LLB (Benin, Nig); BL (Nigeria); Int’l Comm Mediator (CEDR, UK)”

This is only one of the several messages which commended the innovation that made it possible for lawyers to reject the old system built on inducement, undue influence and other Machiavellian tactics that some of our colleagues had perfected. It made it possible for our lawyers to reject form over substance. It made it possible for our positive messages to reach the vast majority and for the majority to express their rejection of negative and divisive messages. I therefore wish to specially congratulate Mr. Alegeh for this transformational initiative.

I will also like to thank our various past Presidents and other Bar leaders for their very noble role in standing up for what is right. I thank President OCJ Okocha,SAN who graciously nominated me for the election. I thank President T.J.O. Okpoko SAN, President Olisa Agbakoba,SAN President JB Daudu,SAN President Okey Wali,SAN for their unflinching support. My special thanks to Mrs. Funke Adekoya,SAN ; Prof. Konyinshola Ajayi, SAN; Chief Kanu Agabi SAN, Mr. Albert Akpomoje, SAN, Chief Niyi Akintola SAN, Mr. Charles Edosomwan SAN, Mr. O.A. Omunuwa SAN, Mrs. Funmi Roberts, Mrs. Boma Ozobia, Chief Linus Ejiozofor SAN for their support.

But I must also seize this opportunity to express my debt of gratitude to the leadership of my Campaign Organisation who played very key roles in our quest to achieving #ABraveNewBar. I thank so many distinguished colleagues who participated actively in our campaigns. Many of them travelled with us to all the nooks and crannies of this country, others played very active roles in numerous ways. I thank you all most sincerely.

But perhaps the real heroes of the campaigns were the very determined young men and women, who worked on our campaign. They manned our secretariat, our technical and situation rooms, reaching our many colleagues via social media, or worked in our help desk educating colleagues on the electronic voting processes. We also have the foot soldiers who walked from door to door in all the major law firms in Lagos, Ikeja, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Jos, Kano, Maiduguri etc. I thank all of you most sincerely.

Your excellencies, distinguished colleagues, the elections are now over; though admittedly the dust is yet to settle. At many campaign speeches, I have heard my brother JK Gadzama, SAN speak of his several qualities one of which is that President Goodluck Jonathan learnt from him how to accept electoral defeat. I did say to him teasingly, in Ilorin during our visit in July that I will be holding him to his promise to accept defeat graciously in the spirit of sportsmanship just as I had also publicly committed myself to that. As a senior member of the Bar, I am sure that he appreciates that, in situations like this, it is imperative for us to put our personal disappointments behind us and move on. Any prolonged contestation can only hurt our Association and indeed the country. I will therefore once more appeal to him to join hands with me as we work to uplift the Nigerian Bar Association and the legal profession in general. As President Alegeh will say, we are all one big Family. The Nigerian people are watching us. As I said in my acceptance speech early morning of 1st August, 2016 for every contested position, one person gets elected, but everyone is a winner.

Permit me at this stage to congratulate my fellow colleagues who were elected to serve with me as national officers of our association for the next two years. I am confident that we will commit to working together collectively in spirit of brotherhood to discharge our mandate and deliver the promise of #ABraveNewBar.

Undoubtedly, the task ahead is arduous. In the course of my campaigns I pledged to put in my sincere best efforts. I am sure with your continuing support and the help of Almighty God, we will succeed. Let me therefore reaffirm my commitment to work assiduously to pursue our programs and implement our campaign promises in line with our constitution. We will do this work collectively with other elected National Officers, with a high sense of responsibility, honesty and integrity. The NBA is without doubt the foremost professional body in Nigeria. The entire nation looks up to the NBA for leadership and guidance in all matters of national importance and interest. We will pursue our mandate with a sole objective: promoting the welfare and development of our members and the pursuit of the overall national interest of our country.

We have made giant strides under the leadership of Augustine Alegeh, SAN; I pledge to continue his progressive programmes and build on them. Many of his initiatives stand out. The Stamp and Seal program has been a great innovation. It has helped to bring about sanity in the profession where entry by quacks had become common place. We are now reclaiming the legal market not only from quacks, but also from intrusion by other professionals. The Completion of our National Secretariat is without doubt a monumental achievement. It provides us a befitting and modern infrastructure that we can deploy effectively for the development of the profession. The introduction of electronic voting and the Universal suffrage for all lawyers may perhaps be the Past President’s greatest legacies. Once again I congratulate him.

Our vision for #ABraveNewBar
Let me in the next few minutes attempt to set out even if with a broad brush, our vision for a brave new bar and to speak to some of our programmes. As set out in our campaign manifesto, our programs will be anchored broadly along four areas: Reform of the Regulation of the legal profession, enhanced representation of our members’ interests, the reform or re-engineering of the NBA as an organization and finally the greater and more active pursuit of the public interest.

Our country is today at cross roads! With deepening economic crises fuelled by unprecedented corruption, widening inequalities, increasing inter-communal conflicts, threats of secession, insurgency and other forms of criminality, it is clear that we are facing daunting challenges. These challenges belie our potential as a country richly endowed with human and natural resources. A few days ago, we listened to the President of Rwanda, HE Paul Kagame, speaking through his Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Busingye Johnston how he has led his country out of the depth of human tragedy to now emerge as one of Africa’s model countries in reforms and transformation that is ushering in a new era of prosperity and national pride for all Rwandans. Rwanda is a small country of about 11.8 million people. Put in context, Nigeria, with a population of nearly 170 Million, Nigerians do not have to wait until we sink to the depth that Rwanda did, or follow other tragic examples in Africa like Somalia or even South Sudan before we get our act together, before we make that singular concerted effort to rescue our country from further decline.

Perhaps no other profession has the potential to really impact on national development and transformation as the Legal Profession. Our motto “Promoting the Rule of Law” is at heart of securing security, good governance, development and prosperity. Our skills in a variety of fields of legal knowledge place us uniquely in a position to understand and impact positively in various spheres of national development and guarantee the security of our citizens and the prosperity of our country.

Historically, lawyers in various capacities and the legal profession in general have played pivotal roles in crucial phases of our national development. We played key roles in the anti-colonial struggles, in the struggles against military dictatorship. The question we must ask ourselves now is: what is the challenge of modern day Nigeria? How can we assist as lawyers in meeting this challenge? I think in a nutshell that challenge can be summarised as “Nigerians’ right to Development”. The right to live in peace, in security and in prosperity. What can lawyers and the legal profession do to usher in this era? I think it is precisely this sort of realization that has informed the choice of this year’s annual general conference: “Democracy and Economic Development”. Positioning NBA and the Nigerian Legal Profession to play this role of ushering in a new era of social and economic transformation and providing the legal support or structure for this transformation of our country is what the vision for #ABraveNewBar is all about. In other words, to enable the legal profession play its key role in the next phase of our National Development, the NBA must reinvent itself. The legal profession must retool itself. It must re-establish its core values whilst at the same time realigning itself with new global trends, equipping members with new knowledge and new skills needed to operate in an increasingly integrated yet competitive world. In our campaign manifesto we articulated four broad thematic areas around which we will pursue our agenda for #ABraveNewBar. These are Regulation, Representation, Re-Engineering and Public Interest. And hence we reduce them to 3Rs and P. I will try to elaborate on this .

The 3Rs and P.

With respect to Regulation, it appears clear that the regulatory architecture of the legal profession is out of date and out of sync with modern day Nigerian realities and indeed the size and complexity of the legal profession today. We must interrogate this and build a consensus on the direction to go. We need more rigorous and effective framework for establishing professional and ethical standards, reining in erring unethical lawyers and rebuilding confidence in the legal profession. In doing this we will look at current global trends and trends on the African Continent. We cannot assume leadership role, regain our respect, nationally, across the continent and indeed globally if we do not change the current perception of the profession. We will review all current models of regulation and attempt to adopt new models or revamp the existing model. But this in our view is something we must do in our overall best interest. If the Nigerian Bar Association must retain its self-regulatory status, sufficient internal mechanism must be devised and adequate resources deployed to ensure that regulatory responsibilities are carried out effectively and efficiently and in line with accepted global standards. The major task of the Bar should be in enhancing its standards at professional and ethical levels and ensuring that bad eggs do not find sanctuary in its ranks.

With Regards to Representation, our objective is to enhance the protection of the interest of our members. We will quickly establish programmes and strategies necessary to enhance the welfare of our members particularly the young members of the profession. A major aspect of this will comprise educational and professional development of our members. We will bring proposals to establish a Legal Education and Development Programme that will be IT driven and will be structured to reach as many lawyers as possible. We will establish a mentoring programme both at Individual and at firm levels. Senior Lawyers and more developed firms will be encouraged and incentivized to mentor younger lawyers and smaller firms to take on for complex and sophisticated legal work as a strategy of enhancing legal capacity across the country. The Nigerian Bar Association under my leadership shall also focus on preparing its members to meet the new challenges of globalization, creating new opportunities and preparing the economy for greater investment and wealth creation. We will also work to develop a minimum standard and practices for the employment of younger lawyers in law firms across the country. We hope by the next meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) in November 2016, proposals will be in place for the consideration and approval of NEC on this.

Your excellencies, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, several of the programmes of my predecessor Mr. Alegeh align very much with our vision. The Stamp and Seal programme for instance has been very successful in assisting us to reclaim the legal market both from quacks and from intrusion by other professionals. I am aware however, that there are a lot of complaints from our members regarding some practical matters on the operational aspect of the programme. In fulfilment of our campaign promises, I will constitute a committee immediately to review the operations of the Stamp and Seal programme and to recommend ways of enhancing it to serve our members better.

I have already commended President Alegeh for the introduction of electronic voting. We are all agreed that this is the only direction for the NBA. There is no going back on this. We will as part of a general review of the NBA electoral process however, undertake further studies with the objective of enhancing electronic voting and generally improving the electoral process where possible. NBA electioneering campaigns have remained expensive, tasking and risky. Even more importantly they have become acrimonious and divisive. Needless to say, as a professional association, this is not good for us. We must conduct ourselves with the highest regards to the ethics and demands of our professional calling. We are neither a political party nor trade union. I will engage Bar leaders to examine how we can further reform the process and make it more compliant with what happens in other advanced law societies and bar associations.

One of the major legacies I will be inheriting from my predecessor is the new imposing NBA National Secretariat Building in Abuja. I want to assure all our colleagues that we will put the edifice to good use. We will set up a framework for the efficient management and maintenance of the building to ensure that it remains a veritable resource for us and a symbol of pride for all lawyers.

Distinguished colleagues, In the course of the coming weeks, we will engage in extensive consultations with all segments of the membership of the association to fine tune and roll out our programmes. We will count on your support and participation as we move forward. I am aware that there are some rumblings here and there especially involving some branches following recent elections of branch executives. We will appeal to all parties involved to put the overall interest of the Association first. We will take appropriate steps to achieve speedy reconciliation in the affected branches.

With regards to Re-Engineering the NBA, the broad objective is to quickly transform the NBA to become better structured and more efficient. It is only a well structured and efficiently managed institution that can drive our programmes and activities. We will quickly commission a needs assessment, organisational and human resource audit of the National Secretariat to see what needs to be done to position the Secretariat to deliver on our programmes. A major component of the re-engineering of the NBA will also comprise the review of the structure and functioning of our branches. With 120 branches across the country, the branch structure appears unwieldy and cumbersome. Whilst the idea is to bring the association closer to its members, yet, this current structure of branch proliferation does not allow for efficient utilization of resources. We would encourage branches to work in every State to achieve greater synergy. The Branches should become the main delivery agents for our programmes and services. These will be more effective if there is greater coordination and synergy at State level. We will devise strategies for achieving these goals. In addition to this, we will review the activities of the Sections and fora and see how best to encourage them to do more to aid the attainment of their specific mandates and also the broader objectives of professional development of our members.

Public Interest
The Public Interest dimension of our programme will focus on certain key areas. First is the promotion of a Clean Judiciary. The NBA will work closely with the Judiciary to attain this goal. President Augustine Alegeh in his speech at the opening ceremony of the AGC 2016, decried the spate of conflicting Judgments as we have seen most recently in our courts. I am aware that the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria has expressed similar concern and has been working on specific proposals. This development brings the Nigerian judiciary and the legal profession in general to ridicule, contempt and undermines the Rule of Law. We will galvanize the concerns of all Stakeholders and confront this problem head on. Judges found complicit in this must be sanctioned. On our part, we will constitute a high powered committee to review all such cases in particular with respect to the role and conduct of our members. Any member found complicit in this will face disciplinary action and sanctioned appropriately.

Let me now move to broader public interest matters. I want to speak on four key problems, the fight against corruption, the reform of the judiciary, the Insurgency and reconstruction of the North East and the Resolutions of the crisis in the Niger Delta. As Nigerians, as lawyers, we are all directly affected, alongside millions of our compatriots by these major challenges our country is facing.

The Nigerian Bar Association commits itself to the fight against corruption in Nigeria. We will put our knowledge, skills and all other resources to combat corruption and reclaim the dignity of Nigeria and Nigerians. We recognize however that the fight against corruption can only be achieved if we do so within the frame work of the rule of law and by strong institutions. The critical institutions involved must be repositioned, re-equipped and re-tooled to confront the problem of corruption on a consistent sustainable basis. As a start, we commend the efforts of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for the work it is doing and for its modest achievements. However, going forward the NBA must demand the reform of the institution itself. We need to define its mandate more narrowly and more clearly. In my view its broad operations as an investigative and prosecutorial agency should be reviewed. I recommend strongly that the EFCC be limited to investigation. The decision to prosecute and the conduct of the prosecution must be by an independent highly resourced prosecution agency. In addition, the EFCC and the prosecution agency must be secured from political interference in their activities. There is absolutely no reason for it to report operationally or otherwise to the Presidency. The NBA Anti-Corruption Commission will be mandated to develop clear recommendations towards enhancing the fight against corruption and improving the effectiveness of all the agencies involved. These, we shall present to the Federal Government of Nigeria.

On the Reform of the Judiciary, the NBA will advocate for urgent reforms that will reposition our judiciary and equip it to play its future role. A clean, efficient, knowledgeable, effective and transformative judiciary is at the foundation of building an orderly, peaceful and prosperous society. It is the only way we can guarantee the rule of law and an egalitarian society for our people. The notion that a judge could be bribed either by a lawyer or litigant is completely obnoxious and unacceptable. In many countries it is unthinkable! The NBA under my watch will fight judicial corruption. We shall also make the legal profession unattractive for corrupt lawyers. We will ensure that the NBA does not become a safe haven for miscreant lawyers.

As a strategy for rebuilding public confidence in the Judiciary and the legal profession, we will encourage greater public interest representation in our activities. Therefore, whether in the Judiciary or at the Bar, there must be sufficient infusion of public participation or public interest representation in our activities. What happens in the legal profession must be everybody’s business. Appointment of judicial officers should be more open and subject to public scrutiny. The affairs of the Judiciary need to be conducted in more open and transparent manner. The public should be aware of what goes on at all levels. We must devise ways of identifying and flushing out bad eggs at all levels of the Bar and the Bench. And this we must do as a matter of urgency. In the two years of my presidency, we shall advocate for the reform of the method of appointment of judicial officers across the country. Promotion to higher appellate courts should not be a ‘cab rank affair’. That is every one awaits his turn. The method should be more open competitive and transparent based on intellectual ability, integrity and competence. We shall also advocate vigorously that the Appellate Courts be enriched with the appointment of quality Lawyers and Academics into its Bench. The Judiciary should evolve a credible system of review of judicial performance. To this end we shall set up a high powered committee to assess the state of justice delivery in all the States of Nigeria with a view to drawing attention of all governments and stakeholders to areas of concern.

Your Excellencies, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, We think the NBA should take a more active interest in the happenings both in the North East Region of Nigeria and the Niger Delta Region.

The North East Region of Nigeria has remained a flash point of conflict and theatre of humanitarian crises as the country struggles to contain the insurgency in that region. We have in the course of our campaigns visited the region after my initial visit led by President Alegeh on 30thNovember, 2015. I have been back in the North East at least twice since then. The destruction and human suffering cannot be overstated. Millions of Nigerians have been affected and others displaced. The internally displaced persons in the region are estimated to be 2.3Million which is the third largest in the world after Syria and Columbia. The NBA will set up a North East Task Force with the following mandate: i. To assist our members affected by the conflict
ii. To provide pro bono legal services to individuals and communities in the region who are victims of the conflict to aid the process or rehabilitation, resettlement and reconciliation.
iii. To provide expert services to Federal and State Governments in the region and the National Assembly on devising appropriate legal framework and other legal services for the reconstruction of the region.
iv. To advise on broader issues of transitional justice to assist the process of reconciliation and reconstruction.
v. To monitor the region especially human rights observance and flag issues requiring the attention and engagement of the Nigerian Bar Association.

With regards to the situation in the Niger Delta we note the devastating impact of the conflict on the various communities and citizens living the region. It is clear that the environmental destruction and the human suffering and the general impact on the national economy are huge. The NBA will similarly put at the disposal of all communities and all parties to the conflict in the Niger Delta, its resources, knowledge and skills towards achieving a resolution, reconciliation and rebuilding of the region. I will constitute an NBA Niger Delta Task Force with the following mandate: i. Providing legal assistance and support to our members affected by the conflict; ii. Providing pro bono legal assistance to individuals and communities within the region affected by the conflict;
iii. Providing pro bono legal assistance to all parties in the conflict working towards negotiated resolution and reconciliation;
iv. Providing legal support to advise on the general challenges in the region with a view to enhancing environmental protection and the quality of life in the region;
v. Monitoring developments in the region especially human rights observance and flagging issues needing immediate attention and engagement by the Nigerian Bar Association.

These Task Forces will be manned by volunteers from our membership. The NBA will also mobilise resources from donor agencies and development partners to support the work of the Task Forces. We hope that these initiatives will help in addressing the humanitarian crises in the two regions and lead to lasting solution and reconciliation.

As distinguished ladies and gentlemen, colleagues. I assure you, the NBA under my leadership will be vigilant and will speak up courageously on all matters of national interest and in the overall best interest of our country.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to assure you that 2016-2018 will be a shift for the NBA as we will do all within our powers to re-engineer and re-position it into a bigger, better, more efficient, more responsive, cohesive and globally competitive Bar Association. Nigeria needs a new and robust legal profession fully conscious of its pride of place and historic obligations. The NBA must position itself to lead the change required in our country and this requires the right leadership. The legal profession has a crucial role to play in setting the stage for the next phase of our journey in democracy and development. We must guarantee the right to development for all our citizens by ensuring the right institutions, systems and processes that guarantee good governance and balanced sustainable development. This is our mandate for the next 2 years and I must say; be rest assured that we will work assiduously to achieve these goals. I wish to state clearly, that we shall run this new administration on the core values of integrity and ethical Lawyering; Nigerian Lawyers have voted for #ABraveNewBar and indeed “it shall no longer be business as usual”.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I take my seat, let me place on record my depth of gratitude for the unflinching support I have received from my wife Justice Patricia Mahmoud on this project. She has spent endless days fasting and seeking for divine protection and guidance for me and my colleagues in the campaigns and in the election. I thank her very much. I must also thank our children; Salim, Sadiq, Zainab, Zubaida and Hauwa and indeed their friends who all made it their project by contributing in various ways. I thank you all.
God Bless Us all! God Bless the NBA!! God Bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!!!

Mahmoud SAN presented this as inaugural address on assumption of office as 28th president of the NBA at the Alfred Diete Spiff Civic Centre Port-Harcourt, River State, August 26, 2016.

In this article:
Abubakar Mahmoud
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