Nigerian Bar Association and controversial electronic voting
Since the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) introduced electronic voting in its 2015 constitution, under the leadership of its former president, Mr. Augustine Alegeh (SAN), allegations of electoral manipulations, which characterised its hitherto delegate system, have just refused to go. Expected to cure the ills of electoral fraud, vote-buying and sundry irregularities, the new system, which grants voting eligibility to all lawyers who pay branch dues and practicing fees, has woefully failed to achieve the desired result. Transparent, fair, credible and free e-voting devoid of rancor, acrimony and bickering has remained elusive for the body of lawyers in Nigeria.
The NBA constitution recognises rotation of its presidency among the three old regions of North, West and East. After the amendment that provided for e-voting, the 2016 election was zoned to the North. Two major candidates emerged after the screening. They were Chief John Kyari Gadzama (SAN) and Mr. Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud (SAN). Build-up to the election, allegations of electoral irregularities were made, but the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA), pledged to overcome what it considered teething problems of an evolving system. At the end, Mahmoud was declared the winner. Gadzama rejected the outcome and challenged the election in court. Unfortunately, the case lingered until Mahmoud finished his two years tenure and the judgment became academic.
In spite of these shortcomings, Nigerian lawyers were upbeat that the 2018 election would address the drawbacks encountered in the maiden attempt, but that did not happen. It turned out to be even worse. Prof. Auwalu Yadudu was the ECNBA chairman for the election, which was zoned to the South East, comprising all the states in the former Eastern Region. The first uproar happened when the electoral committee “unjustly” disqualified the then immediate past general secretary of the association, Mazi Afam Osigwe, who was adjudged to wield a major political influence among young lawyers. Following the contentious disqualification, the battle for the NBA presidency became a tripodal face-off between Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), Chief Arthur Obi-Okafor (SAN) and Prof. Ernest Ojukwu (SAN). Members encountered overwhelming challenges during the verification process and consistently called for the postponement of the election.
Clearly dissatisfied and upset with the process, ex-president Alegeh (SAN) called on Mahmoud-led executive to surrender office to the board of trustees, who will conduct the election at a later date to ensure a credible process. He was ignored and the issues were not resolved. The crisis aggravated when at the eleventh-hour, the ICT partner chosen to conduct the election was changed, when clear cases of identity theft and fake voting websites became undeniable. They all combined to compromise the integrity of the process. In the end, Usoro was declared the winner and all his co-contestants protested. While Ojukwu called the election a charade and declared that he was not going to contest the outcome in court, Obi-Okafor, who described it as a sham, vowed to challenge Usoro’s victory.
Consequently, the leader of the technical team of Obi-Okafor campaign group, Mr. Olumuyiwa Olowokure sent a petition to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), alleging cyber-crime, after investigating the process with his team. In the petition dated August 28, 2018, the petitioner stated: “The NBA 2018 National Elections which held from August 18 to 20, 2018 has been mired in controversy following complaints of gross irregularities characterised by theft of members’ identities and data, internet fraud, interference/manipulation of the online portal…parties connived to fraudulently manipulate the electoral process to achieve a predetermined outcome”.
Prior to that petition, the group had described the elections as a “robbery,” adding that it had identified no less than 4000 fake telephone numbers and 1004 fake emails deployed to rig the elections. Olowokure said: “One can confidently say the alleged victory of Paul Usoro (SAN) at the recently conducted NBA elections is the biggest embarrassment and robbery that members of NBA have ever experienced since the formation of NBA. You would recall that there were serious reservations in some quarters about permitting Chams to participate in providing services in this election in any form or manner. As a result of these reservations a company known as CRENET was brought in to repeat the vilified verification exercise previously conducted by Chams.
“For some inexplicable reason, Chams was retained to provide the voting platform despite it being established that the Chairman of Chams Plc and Usoro (SAN) are co-directors of Access Bank and are members of the same committees of Access Bank. Trusting in the assurances given by the President of NBA, A.B Mahmoud (SAN) and the ECNBA, the other candidates decided to participate in the election with Chams involved.” Following the petition, the EFCC carried out a detailed forensic investigation, which has resulted in prosecution of two identified suspects at the Federal High Court, Lagos.
Unfortunately for the NBA, the 2020 elections did not make any difference in erasing doubts about the possibility of fraud, rigging and manipulations. Zoned to the South West, comprising the former Midwestern Region, three formidable candidates emerged. They were Mr. Dele Adesina (SAN), Dr. Babatunde Ajibade (SAN) and Mr. Olumide Akpata, a member of the outer bar. During the build up to the election, Akpata had raised alarm about the possibility of electoral fraud. In two separate letters, which he addressed to the chairman of the ECNBA, he questioned the verification process and hired his own digital forensic team to test the integrity of the NBA portal. He communicated the forensic audit report, which indicated that the portal was insecure to the ECNBA and also published the same in national dailies.
Since the constitution of the NBA requires the ECNBA to issue the list of eligible voters within 28 days before the voting date, the final list of eligible voters ought to have been out by July 1, when the election was scheduled to take place on July 29. But this didn’t happen until five hours to the commencement of voting on July 29. The ECNBA issued a provisional list at the end of May with 21,067 names. By the end of June, the ECNBA replaced the first provisional list with a second, which grew by 86.65 per cent to 39,321 names. This was the list with which members were required to verify their identities. The idea was that only those who were verified would make the final list of accreditation.
When the ECNBA eventually issued the final list on July 29, it had dropped by 9,686 or 24.63 per cent to 29,635. While the ECNBA managed to eliminate “Opening Balance”, in its first list, it included “Diaspora International”, with 87 members, into the list, thereby impugning the credibility of the process. In addition to other irregularities, many lawyers who had verified and had been digitally assured that they were confirmed to vote could not find their names in the final list and there was no more time to right the wrongs.
Few hours to the end of the process, Adesina, obviously unhappy with the results trickling into the portal, called for the cancellation of the election, citing irregularities. His call was ignored by the ECNBA. The process concluded in the early hours of July 31. When the votes were eventually tallied, 18,256 cast their votes, representing a turnout of 62 per cent. Akpata polled 9,891 or 54.3 per cent to beat Ajibade (SAN), who polled 4,328 or 23.7 per cent and Adesina (SAN) with 3,982 votes or 21.81 per cent. In the end, over 14,300, representing 48.25 per cent of the voting notices to prospective voters sent through SMS channels were undelivered.
Consequently, Akpata was declared the winner and returned elected. According to the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, who said it was an election of unintended consequences, “the margin in the messy process” was substantial. “In the end, reluctantly, most people appeared to agree that the most popular candidate was declared winner in the contest for the presidency but the flaws in the process created a mess,” he noted.
He charged Akpata to work hard to keep his campaign promise of bequeathing to his successor a reformed and much less flawed process than the one that produced him. “This begins with making the NBA credible in the management of membership data and information. That will be the biggest – and most fitting – unintended consequence of 2020 NBA decides,” he said.
While Ajibade has congratulated Akpata, Adesina, who came third in the poll, is aggrieved over the outcome. He has also rejected the results and called for its cancellation. Similarly, the umbrella body of lawyers of Yoruba extraction known as Egbe Amofin disagrees with the outcome. In a communique issued at its emergency meeting on August 1, 2020, the group said the 2020 Election of National Officers was conducted in breach of the provisions of the NBA Constitution. Part of its grouse was that the ECNBA created a Diaspora branch of the NBA for voting contrary to the stipulation of the Constitution. “Failure to make available the final voters’ list 28 days before the election as prescribed by the Constitution; large scale disenfranchisement of a significant number of lawyers who underwent the verification process; removal from the final voters’ list the names of voters without lawful justification leading to their disenfranchisement; the unlawful inflation of the number of voters assigned to some branches as well as the unlawful declaration of an inconclusive election as final results notwithstanding the fact that the number of verified voters who were unlawfully disenfranchised was significant to affect the final outcome of the election,” it declared in a communiqué signed by Chief Adeniyi Akintola (SAN) Chairman, Egbe Amofin Steering Committee and Oluwole Akintayo Secretary, Egbe Amofin chairmen of branches.
The group therefore stated that it would not recognize the result of the election. Apart from also calling for the cancellation of the election and for the board of trustees to appoint a caretaker committee to oversee the affairs of the association for six months within which to conduct a credible poll, it sought to halt the inauguration of the newly elected national officers. They also communicated these decisions to the chairman of the NBA board of trustees, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN). It is unclear whether Agbakoba would be willing to accede to the request.
Reacting to Egbe Amofin’s communique, former chairman of the NBA Ikorodu branch, Mr. Bayo Akinlade, while agreeing that there is a need for electoral reform in the NBA, rejected the call for the cancellation of the election.
Akinlade, who contested for the office of the first vice president in the election and loss said although there were irregularities, they were not sufficient enough to warrant another election. “While I agree with the grounds of Egbe Amofin’s complaints and share in the logic of having much needed reforms, I struggle however, to agree with the calls for cancellation of the just concluded elections. As one who contested in the last elections and came third out of six contestants, I have my own doubts but those doubts are not enough for me to go all out asking for another election.
“We all had something to complain about in the run up to this election but that’s all we really did. We just complained, no contestant withdrew his candidacy or threatened to do so if ECNBA didn’t comply. We all went to the poll knowing full well that the process was flawed,” he said.
He blamed Egbe Amofin for adopting a single candidate for the election instead of maintaining neutrality, insisting that since it took side with a candidate, it has lost the right to speak for the Yoruba lawyers. “May I use this opportunity to call on my elders within Egbe Amofin to accept this election with all its flaws but use their influences, leverage and expertise to promote structures that would ensure free and fair elections within the NBA in 2022 and beyond,” he stated.
Publisher, Legalpedia, Mr. Emeka Albert said allegations of rigging “pervade our national polity all the time, so the allegation is not unexpected.” According to him, lawyers must pull together, join hands and fix processes and systems in the NBA. “There is no doubt that this election is a statement by the young lawyers that they have had enough of the domination of the profession by the seniors. I think we should see their point of view and make amends,” he said.
Responding to Egbe Amofin’s rejection of the outcome and quest for fresh election, Akpata said his election fairly represents the wishes of the majority of Nigerian lawyers, irrespective of the flaws. He told The Guardian that while he complained of the flaws during the build up to the election and shouted about the possibility of rigging the poll, those who are now crying foul commended the ECNBA with the thought that the perceived rigging would favour them.
“There is no process that involves humans that is perfect. The outcome of this election is largely a manifestation of the will of Nigerian lawyers. Again, I am on record as the only candidate who wrote to the ECNBA, complaining about the process. I wrote, published it in the Guardian and Vanguard and sent it to every lawyer on the database that I had. I called the ECBNA out on the NBA portal, which they wanted to use at that time to conduct the election.
“I want to believe that it was my shouting that made them abandon the NBA portal and outsource the voting to a third party that I don’t even know where they came from. When I was saying that there were problems in the process, Mr. Adesina (SAN) commended the ECBNA. He didn’t ask any question about the process during the only zoom meeting candidates had with the electoral committee. So, when I see Adesina shouting blue murder and saying the election was a sham, he submitted himself to the process,” he declared.
Also, Lagos lawyer, Mr. Chris Okeke noted that although the election cannot be described as perfect, it is an improvement on the last elections. “I expect that people will express dissatisfactions, just as they have expressed. However do these dissatisfactions justify the throwing away of the baby with the bath water? I don’t subscribe to that. What guarantee do we have that any such election re-run will not have issues to be dissatisfied with?
“Let me suggest that we do a thorough analysis of this election, identify the shortcomings, and use it as a template for the next elections. Let us be reminded that elections will not end. Opportunities will also not end. Let us not destroy tomorrow’s opportunities on the shortcomings of today,” he advised.
Human rights activist, Inibehe Effiong, said it is unfortunate that the NBA has not been able to organize credible elections without controversies and rancour. This development, he stated, shows that lawyers in Nigeria are not leading by example in the conduct of their affairs. His words: “I am not certain whether the last election was rigged in an organized manner in favour of Mr. Akpata, but what is apparent is that many lawyers in Nigeria do not have much confidence in the NBA electoral process. I advocate for a deep reflection by lawyers. The leaders of the Bar should address the concerns and credibility crisis that has plagued recent elections. I am also worried about the commercialization of the NBA elections. It appears the presidency of the Bar is now reserved for only moneybags.”
However, constitutional and human rights lawyer, Ms. Caroline Ajie in a statement, also called for the cancellation of the outcome of the “most shambolic exercise you mistook for an election in 2020”.
The controversial lawyer, who charged Usoro not to swear in Akpata-led executives on August 31, advocated the conduct of a credible, transparent and fair re-run acceptable to all. According to her, the consequence of ignoring the call for a re-run is that a parallel Bar would emerge.
“We worked for years to adopt e-voting but not to tolerate electronic malfeasance. We must clean the Augean stable and practice what we preach as society’s foremost, honourable, noble and learned profession,” she declared.