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Why NBA must reform

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Austin Alegeh (SAN)

Austin Alegeh (SAN)

The morning after the recent Brexit vote that got the global economic community teetering on the edge, one distraught European Union bureaucrat peevishly exclaimed that the ramification of the UK decision meant that the EU must “reform or die.” This urgent phraseology commends itself to the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as it sets its eyes on the biennial conference in Port Harcourt this week: reform or die.

A traumatised populace is wondering what has become of a once stirring body in the face of the incredibly diminished circumstances of rule of law in Nigeria today. It is a legitimate concern, because pitching in with the constitution, the very guarantor of rule of law, should be the role of any group of lawyers worth its name, not least one that loudly proclaims the promotion of rule of law as its motto. But the clear evidence on the ground is that the NBA is in a pickle and staring down the barrel of complete public irrelevance as a consequence of its staggering failure to live up to the lofty ideal of an ombudsman of sorts.

The NBA has fallen horribly short, become voiceless, tepid and devoid of any interest or enthusiasm in the Nigerian public square. Yet, there can’t be a more auspicious time to assert its social relevance. The country is reeling under hitherto unseen levels of tyranny and lawlessness as government doubles down on impunity and naked abuse of power. Democracy is meaningless and, in fact, a hollowed-out framework if it cannot guarantee basic rights like fair hearing, presumption of innocence of an accused and the right to bail as a corollary of freedom of expression, association, etc. The NBA has imperviously looked on without a whimper as individual rights are capriciously negated and institutions desecrated.

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No allegation of corruption, no matter how burnished, can justify the wanton denial of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. But people are now routinely hurled into custody, where they languish for months without a charge while government fishes for evidence. Today a mere allegation equates guilt and accused persons are coerced to self-incriminate in custody and post bail bonds equivalent to the amount of infraction alleged against them. Court orders mean nothing today as government cherry-picks which orders to abide by and which to ignore.

And straight out of Mussolini’s copybook, an administration intent on stifling dissent tees up a concourse of senior lawyers as surrogates, who are engaging in perverse revisionism and providing legal justification for these obnoxious and illegal acts. They’re making a case for “moderated democracy” (beat that!). They’re the ones calling for changes in the rules of evidence, which would permit the presumption of guilt of an accused until he proves his innocence. They’re the ones sticking up for the present practice of arresting people before commencing investigation. And they’re the ones leading the misguided clamour for special courts to handle corruption cases. No prizes for guessing those who would be rail-roaded into prison on trumped-up charges through such special courts were they to materialize.

These tendencies are at once an abuse of privilege and a rousing invitation to anarchy. To use that famous line from the Tomb Raider series, they’re also a poignant reminder that “there are no heroes here, only survivors.” This is why an active NBA matters; it matters because it is greater than the sum of its parts. The NBA should be summoning its collective vantage to lead the charge against manifestations of lawlessness on the part of government, not pre-occupy itself with quibbling at niceties. Updating members’ professional knowledge is prosaic and can only go so far; if the operating environment does not conduce to the practice of law, it would all be a futile endeavour. This is the big picture today’s NBA does not see.

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But it is a prognosis its members in Rivers, where it will be meeting, can relate to. For one full year prior to 29th May 2015, they rotted at home as a local dictator locked up the entire state judiciary. The NBA did nothing as its Rivers membership roiled in misery and idled away. As its dinner-eating elite gather in Port Harcourt to clink glasses and make big speeches, they must realize that they failed their colleagues when their support mattered.

The choice of Port Harcourt for this year’s conference is also significant for another insalubrious reason. It was the place where a man who would later lead the NBA played a critical role to help Gen. Sani Abacha achieve his goal of using the judiciary to murder Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others in 1995. Many years later, in 2011, he returned to his old stomping ground as NBA President to make grand exhortations on rule of law and the needs of justice.

The NBA is hostage to the same debased elements that have hobbled Nigeria. The cue is how a body of 50,000-odd lawyers cannot organise its leadership contest without restoring to base prebendalism in form of zoning. Since 1998 an NBA president has in reality always been the choice of only the section of the country to which it is zoned. If that section decides to put forward an invertebrate choker, the rest of the country must live with it. As mediocrity is enthroned thereby, the NBA has well and truly become yet another rent-seeking association. Its leadership at all levels is self-serving, hankering after personal empowerment, dinners, foreign travels, appointment into government or the bench, and so on. Public service is the last thing on their minds.

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As a first step to fighting its way back to public relevance and shedding the present humiliating climbdown from the Olympian heights of the Aloa Aka-Bashorun era, the NBA must abolish its zoning principle. Let the very best around throw their hats in the ring. If a grouping of supposedly learned men cannot banish their demons and stage rancour-free and open contests, then its very existence at all is open to question. After all, following the fracas that attended the 1992 Port Harcourt conference, the NBA had no national leadership for several years and it didn’t fare worse than it is doing now.

Secondly, because the NBA cannot afford to be an extension of the Ministry of Justice or a club of suited wheeler-dealers, it must demand of its future leaders a prior record of public interest advocacy against which their peformance in office can be benchmarked. Experience has shown that presidents, or for that matter, branch chairmen with no known views on the vexed questions of public concern bask in the convenience of their previous anonymity or voicelessness to simply go with the flow.

In the same vein, deliberate effort must be made to extricate the NBA presidency from the seeming exclusive clutches of the senior advocates. Their imprints have become an albatross around the association’s neck as it is pretty much the case everywhere else in the profession. Available facts indicate that they’re more likely to put a dampener on reform efforts and resist any sort of momentum in the direction of changing the new normal, being seemingly content to tread water and take their chances with any government. But by definition, a bar association evinces a degree of activism consistent with rule of law watchdogging, especially in a society with abysmal institutional checks against abuses. The energy and dynamism of younger lawyers would be necessary elixir in this regard. Besides, if service is the overriding motif, the senior advocates cannot claim to be specially driven.

Bob, a lawyer, writes from Port Harcourt.


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