Stoking the embers of crisis in Nigerian Bar Association
In the race for the leadership of various organizations, sportsmanship and transparency are, sometimes, sacrificed on the altar of a win-at-all-cost goal. Recent developments at the esteemed Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), a body of learned men and social engineers rolled into one, tend to suggest that the Association is set for a fresh crisis which has the propensity to consume it or attenuate its relevance in the larger society.
With the election of its national officers set for a few weeks away, some fancy footwork that call into question the integrity of the entire electoral process put in place by the incumbent President, Abubakar Mahmoud, (SAN) lend credence to this assertion.
Recently, the Prof. Auwalu Yadudu led Electoral Committee disqualified one of the nominated Presidential hopefuls, Mr. Afam Osigwe, on the ground that there was no evidence before it to show that he paid his Annual Dues to his (Nnewi) Branch as and when due for at least three years immediately preceding this year’s election. Secondly, that Mr. Osigwe did not provide satisfactory proof of his relocation to the Nnewi Branch so as to accommodate him within the window of exception created by the proviso to Paragraph 4(1) of the Third Schedule to the NBA Constitution, 2015 and that his payment of 2016 and 2017 Branch Annual Dues “cannot” be verified.
For the record, Mr. Afam Osigwe, the immediate past General Secretary of the NBA was a member of the Abuja branch until January, 2018 when he transferred his membership to Nnewi branch, following the relocation of his residence and principal place of practice. He is the youngest of the four persons seeking to succeed the incumbent President and the only one who is not a member of the privileged and exclusive club of “Senior Advocates of Nigeria”. Although the above reasons were given by the ECNBA for his disqualification, the belief among the members of the NBA is that the true reasons are more than meets the eye.
There is no doubt that Mr. Osigwe is a strong contender for the office of NBA President. At 46, he is the youngest of the four persons seeking to succeed the incumbent. He is said to be the preferred candidate of the young lawyers who constitute over 60 percent of the registered members of the Association but have been relegated to the background and are not involved in its decision making processes. To the young professionals, therefore, Osigwe represents a hope for them and the only candidate that can dislodge the old order, with a promise of a paradigm shift.
Osigwe was once quoted as saying that: “There is no doubt that we need the age and experience of our seniors, but we also need the energy, innovation and progressive ideas of our female and young colleagues, in-house counsel and lawyers in public service who are not presently involved and or integrated into the activities of the Association. We need to modify these legal strictures to ensure that all segments of the legal profession are well represented in the management and control of the finances and affairs of the Association”.
The afore-quoted which comes with the candidacy of Afam Osigwe has never been well received by some powerful older folks in the Association who believe that at 46 years of age, he is too young to run.
It has also been contended that not being a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Afam Osigwe is not good enough to lead the Bar. It matters not that at his “young” age, Mazi Afam Osigwe sits on and takes decisions with the creme-de-la-crème of the legal profession on the Body of Benchers, Council of Legal Education, General Council of the Bar, NBA-NEC Advisory Committee of the NBA Abuja and had, in times past, held offices as Chairman of the Abuja branch, General Secretary of the NBA, to mention but a few.
Indeed, it does appear that both Mr. Osigwe and his supporters are not surprised about his disqualification. It is something they expected and had prepared for. Long before the ECNBA was constituted by the incumbent President, Mr. Osigwe had been told by several persons of clout within the NBA that he would not be allowed to run. Thus, unless those persons were closet seers, it stands to reason that the ECNBA, which has now disqualified him from contesting in the election, is a little more than a puppet dancing on the end strings of some puppeteers.
The reasons given for the disqualification of Afam Osigwe are puerile and laughable. Given the notorious facts which are in the public domain about or concerning this case, the reasons fly in the face of law and logic. In a protest against his disqualification, Osigwe insisted he could not have paid Branch Dues as a member of Nnewi Branch in 2016 and 2017, since he paid branch dues as a member of NBA Abuja branch in 2016 and 2017 and only joined Nnewi branch in 2018. He further argued that even though the NBA Constitution does not require him to ‘provide satisfactory proof of relocation to Nnewi Branch”, he informed the Committee of his residential and office address in Nnewi, Nnewi branch gave him a letter of Good Standing as a member of the branch his name appears as No 82 on the listed of potential voters submitted by the branch. Finally he insisted that in 2016, Abuja branch submitted to NBA, the statement of account which showed he paid branch dues for that year and that the branch statement of account will also show he paid dues in 2017.
More worrisome to many lawyers is the accusation the Electoral committee acted in bad faith by claiming to have sought to verify his payment of branch dues without ever doing same for about 40 other aspirants. Lawyers believe the committee’s integrity has been damaged by its handling of this matter. If the committee fails to publish a printout of NBA Abuja Account No. 0113428334 (Guaranty Trust Bank Plc) for January 12, 2016 and NBA Abuja, Account No. 0694758692 (Access Bank Plc) for February 14, 2017 to substantiate its claim the payments he made on those dates could not be verified, its moral authority to conduct the election would have been damaged. Commentators would also want the electoral body to publicly explain why there was no verification of the payments made by about 44 other aspirants who were nominated for various offices.
No doubt, the ECNBA decision speaks volume of the level to which the NBA has degenerated. It has greater and wider implications on the corporate image of the Association whose motto is “promoting the rule of law” when it cannot promote same within its rank and file. No doubt, the discriminatory stance against Mr. Afam Osigwe on the basis of his “young” age and status (of not being a Senior Advocate of Nigeria) leaves much to be desired.
There is fear the NBA may be headed for crisis. There is widespread belief among younger lawyers the actions of the committee reeks of corruption, nepotism, mischief and impunity for selfish interests and pecuniary aggrandizement of select few. One Ochiora Enkay Ogbuka-Oboshi captured the mood of many lawyers in a Facebook post “We are like the conscience of the Nation, if we allow reign of impunity in NBA, we will have no moral justification to talk to the political class of their ultra vires acts; we must put our house in order. Say no to impunity; so no to men of questionable characters, say no to men who “act” God. Can we condemn the government for not following the rule of law? That will be Hypocrisy. If we as lawyers do not obey the rule of law, who else will?”
To avoid the crisis which looms in NBA, the electoral Committee must act fairly, in accordance with law and give all aspirants a level-playing field in the electoral processes. It should work to dispel the general belief it is working to satisfy a few individuals who manipulate the electoral process to achieve unlawful results. As Mr. Osigwe said in his protest, the Committee is “to handle this matter in a manner that shows that it can be trusted to conduct this election in a transparent and fair manner. Anything short of even-handedness to all candidates will deal a fatal blow to the image of our great Association. The Committee still has an opportunity to write its name in gold by not taking unlawful and unjustifiable actions which lend credence to undemocratic boasts that I will NEVER be a candidate in this election. Nigeria and indeed the whole world are watching.”
Abubakar is the former Publicity Secretary of the NBA Bauchi Branch
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