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NBA elections: To be or not to be?

By Joseph Onyekwere
26 July 2016   |   5:02 am
It is recalled that NBA President, Mr. Augustine Alegeh, SAN had announced the commencement of campaigns for the elections during the NBA National Executive Committee (NBA-NEC) meeting in Jos last February.

Barring any hiccups, Nigerian lawyers will this weekend elect national officers to run the affairs of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) for the next two years. JOSEPH ONYEKWERE in this report examines the issues involved in the forthcoming election and the challenges confronting its conduct.

According to a revised time-table released by the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA) led by Mr. Ken Mozia (SAN) the election is scheduled to hold on Saturday, July 30 and Sunday, July 31, 2016.

However, for the first time in a long while, the NBA General Elections have been overshadowed by controversies and hiccups even before the first ballot is cast, culminating in a lawsuit aimed at stopping the polls, pending the determination of the matters in issue. Although the suit was filed before Justice Mary Anenih of FCT High Court, it has since been transferred to Justice Olukayode Adeniji who is now saddled with the duty of determining whether the troubled elections should proceed.

It is recalled that NBA President, Mr. Augustine Alegeh, SAN had announced the commencement of campaigns for the elections during the NBA National Executive Committee (NBA-NEC) meeting in Jos last February.

An Electoral Committee was also set up to organize the elections. It was felt that due to the amendments injected into the NBA Constitution, the elections would be less acrimonious. That does not seem to be the case, as several controversies have trailed the run-up to the elections, unlike past polls when post-election discord prevailed.

Though the Electoral Committee had issued “Preliminary Notice” essentially calling for nominations for several posts, it was not until the election portal was unveiled by Law Pavilion, the ICT Partner, that all hell was let loose. Sundry complaints on the voters’ register by several lawyers including, former NBA President, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN); former NBA presidential candidate, Mrs. Funke Adekoya (SAN); former FIDA Nigeria President, Hauwa Shekarau and current FIDA International Secretary Ezinwa Okoroafor, to name a few, soon became the order of the day.

The complaints ranged from missing to misspelt names and email addresses, from missing telephone numbers to strange names in the register for some branches. Again, when the Electoral Committee commenced sending of confirmatory messages to lawyers who had updated their profiles on the election portal, another set of complaints ensued, as virtually all the enrollees received email addresses with a “0” prefix. This was subsequently rectified following an outcry by lawyers, though a few lawyers complained of receiving yet another set of emails with the prefix even after the rectification.

While some said the “bug” was not unexpected as glitches usually affect electronic systems, others felt that it was one bug too many, given that when the Electoral Committee demonstrated the voting process at the Benin NBA-NEC, a single vote cast produced seven ballots, leading to yet another outcry. Alegeh had assured that all such glitches would be fixed prior to the poll while another demonstration would be conducted to reassure all stakeholders. The repeat demonstration was held last Wednesday reportedly with mixed feelings.

However, aside from the challenges being faced on the ICT front which has led former NBA National Assistant Publicity Secretary, Mr. John Unachukwu to drag the NBA leadership to the FCT High Court, another issue that has cast a major slur on the forthcoming polls is the charge of partisanship leveled against the outgoing NBA President.

The Campaign Organisation of one of the presidential candidates, Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN) had accused Alegeh of denying it a level playing ground in the run-up to the elections. In a letter dated June 24, 2016 and signed by its Director-General, Alhaji Garba Gajam and Secretary, Mr. Steve Abar, the group alleged that Alegeh planned to ensure that a particular candidate “emerges by all means.”

Noting that “No President in the history of the NBA has openly showed support for any Presidential candidate in the manner that you (Alegeh) are now doing,” the campaign organization asserted that Alegeh was “not only actively encouraging but you are fully sponsoring some young lawyers to aggressively campaign for the same candidate.”

“It is also a known fact that at the conclusion of the NEC meeting in Benin, you held political meetings on Thursday night into the wee hours of the following morning,” they alleged. “In attendance were members of the Bar who came away feeling pressured by your words and conduct into supporting your anointed successor.” The letter was copied to all past NBA presidents, the chairman of Body of Benchers, as well as the chairmen of Governing Council of the Bar and Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN).

This compelled BOSAN to wade into the debacle after its meeting held at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos on Saturday, 9th July, 2016. In an apparent bid to stave off a major crisis that may balkanize the lawyers’ body, the body mandated Olanipekun to interface with the NBA President towards convening a meeting of past NBA Presidents to save the controversial elections.

Olanipekun wrote to Alegeh conveying BOSAN’s decision. In the letter dated July 11, 2016 the former NBA President noted that BOSAN “resolved that Mr. President should convoke a meeting of past Presidents/Bar Leaders on the same subject, and that a level-playing ground be afforded every candidate in the forthcoming election.” He advised that the two presidential candidates in the election should be invited to the meeting in line with BOSAN’s position. Aside from Gadzama, Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud, SAN is also aspiring to lead the lawyers’ body.

Olanipekun urged Alegeh to shun acts that may throw the association into another round of crisis reminiscent of the 1992 debacle. He noted that he was equally a victim of the hiccups that had bedeviled the electoral process, adding that it was his complaint in his earlier letter to Alegeh dated 30th June, 2016 that got his name on the voters list. “I see no reason why the name of any legal practitioner who is up to date in the payment of his national and branch dues should be missing on the voters register,” he noted.

The former NBA President also advised Alegeh “to allow a level-playing field for all candidates in the forth-coming election,” warning that “the most challenging phase of any NBA President’s tenure is the election/handing over period. I speak from experience as one of your predecessors-in-office. Therefore, permit me once again, to counsel that on no account should any candidate, member or branch be allowed to deride the outcome of the forthcoming election, particularly on the ground that it was/is rigged or manipulated. It can be very embarrassing to an association of legal practitioners.”

He further advised that election results should be declared at the branch level “just as INEC does at the polling unit level” to ensure transparency in the electoral process, warning that “All of us must consciously work and pray against a repeat of the ugly incident of 1992.” In the letter which was copied to all former NBA Presidents, he urged the NBA President to eschew acts that would imperil the survival of the association, adding that NBA would lose the “moral and spiritual right” to criticize INEC any longer if the elections are not transparent.

Though the meeting was convoked by Alegeh, it was unclear as at press time whether any major decisions were arrived at during the meeting.

Meanwhile, Justice Adeniji has the task of determining whether the elections should go ahead. Unachukwu is asking the court to bar NBA President and the election management agencies from conducting the election by Internet Voting (I-voting) on July 30 and 31 or any other date pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit. Aside from asking the court to upturn his disqualification to contest the post of National Publicity Secretary, Unachukwu is also seeking “an order upholding the principle of universal suffrage enshrined in the NBA Constitution by suspending the use of voting over Internet (I-voting) and ordering the adoption of electronic voting (with paper ballot backup) for all branches across the country in the 2016 NBA general elections.”

The defendants in the suit are the Registered Trustees of the NBA; NBA President, Alegeh, Chairman of ECNBA, Mozia (SAN); Grace Infotech Limited; Chief Gadzama (SAN) and Mr. Mahmoud (SAN) as 1st to 6th defendants.

The election management agencies have missed most of the self-imposed timelines for the elections. For instance, while Section 2.3 (h) of the NBA Constitution 2015 (as amended) provides that “The Electoral Committee shall collate all materials, arrange them in alphabetical order without regard for the position being sought and publish them in an electronic Election Magazine to be hosted on the NBA website at least twenty one (21) days before the election,” it was not until last week, barley a few days to the election, that the magazine was published.

Meanwhile, the campaigns have been dominated by a fierce face-off especially between the two presidential candidates. While the Mahmoud camp has hinged its campaign on “integrity” and engineering a “brave new Bar,” pro-Gadzama supporters are canvassing giving voice back to the NBA through a “vibrant and inclusive Bar” that is not beholden to any cabal that has allegedly been milking the association and its members.

However, the fate of the troubled elections is now in the hands of the courts.