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Olumide Akpata: One massive shock to the NBA’s heart

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When in July Olumide Akpata won the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) elections as their new president, it felt for the first time in my lifetime that the entire country was invested in the election, like we were suddenly all lawyers. But why?

The electric wave of Mr Akpata’s campaign animated ordinary folk who had no previous connection to the NBA. They had no idea either who the incumbent president — Paul Usoro — was, and couldn’t care less who his opponents were. This time, like the Obasanjo movement in ’99 and the Obama tsunami in ’08, Akpata was inevitable. We had arrived at a tipping point, the bough that was about to break. But why?

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Olu’s lunge at the NBA leadership was not a timid show of hand, a plea to be heard and counted; it was a tussle — a tussle between old power and new power, between venerated Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) and others who are not.

Old power is current; power jealously guarded and preserved for a limited few. New power is currency, a movement of peers, decentralised but united towards a common goal. Olu was the candidate, all right, but he wasn’t running by himself. The entire youth population was running. Once that was established, the whole thing became like a hot knife cutting through butter. Easy. Peasy.

There were two SANs in the race: Babatunde Ajibade (SAN) and Dele Adesina. Akpata, 47, took the presidency with 54.3% of ballots cast. To many, his victory was visible from a thousand kilometres away.

One such person who anticipated Olu’s win was famous lawyer and activist Ayo Sogunro. In a tweet hours before the final tally rolled in, Sogunro said: “Very clear that Olumide Akpata is winning this. And it’s not just a victory for him, it’s also a victory for young Nigerian lawyers; a victory for lawyers who have resisted the SAN hegemony; and a victory for social media too.”

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Called to the bar in 1993, Akpata — soft-spoken yet unmissable in a crowd — has been a lawyer at Templars for 24 years. He currently leads the Corporate and Commercial Practice Group at the firm. With his cousin, Oghogho Akpata, who founded Templars a year before Olu joined him, Olu has helped to build Templars into a magnet for lawyers who want to make for a rewarding career for themselves.

Now, did Akpata win the NBA presidency because of a liberal ideology that was perhaps most suited to millennial and Gen Z lawyers? Absolutely not.

He won because he ran on a common-sense premise that, as a body representing all lawyers, the NBA should be fair to all lawyers. It was a no-brainer. The other candidates should have had the same thought headlining their manifestos. But they didn’t.

Instead, their positioning was Old Establishment First aka This Is How It’s Always Been Done. And, in what might even be described in poker as tipping your hand, one respected SAN wrote to the Body of SANs (BOSAN) to do all it could to stop people like Olumide Akpata. “It will be a great failure of leadership,” he said in his letter, “for the Senior Advocate to surrender leadership to outer Bar when there are willing and able Senior Advocates.”

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The argument was that the legal profession must remain conservative and only the top, most experienced lawyers should lead the union but experience and seniority have not automatically translated into quality representation. And we have to remember: lawyers are people, too.

“His message struck the right chords,” said Desmond Ogba, partner at Templars and Akpata’s campaign manager. “His track record was not only relevant, but it was also the most recent. Many lawyers wanted to try someone new who particularly wasn’t SAN; and the young lawyer who forms a majority [more than 50%] of the voters stuck their necks out for him.”

Yes, many of the junior lawyers work in chambers owned by the SANs, but many of them aren’t happy that they have to trade elephant hours for ant wages, tired that no one high up seemed to sincerely care about their welfare.

“Adesina believed he was entitled to be handed the Bar Presidency,” Aderemi Oguntoye, an outspoken supporter of Akpata’s, said after the election. “Since he served with Olanipekun as general secretary and was endorsed by the Egbe Amofin group [the preeminent sub-group of Yoruba lawyers]. He however failed to realise that Egbe’s influence had limitations and it was actually counterproductive in the preceding circumstances of the endorsement…

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“…In the 21st century, nobody hands power and influence on you. You go for it. Junior lawyers don’t understand tribal sentiments, which our seniors are preaching on Egbe’s platforms, what they understand are Instagram and TikTok and that’s the language Olumide Akpata spoke to them.”

This year, especially because of the lockdown imposed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, most of the NBA electioneering had to happen in a handful of WhatsApp groups. The conversation then spilled into law blogs and social media timelines of significant influence.

For Olumide Akpata, whose wide personal network included several prodigious digital-native lawyers as well as years of record achievements that were easy to sell, it was easy to arm his formidable army of mavens with a penetrating massage. At the end of the day to lose the election, Olu would have had to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Besides, he could also identify as one of the disenfranchised. With the type of law he practices, he couldn’t become a SAN through the traditional pathway.

Before the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee would consider anyone for the SAN title, that person must either be a litigator or an academic. But Olu’s cases rarely reach the courts. His clients, some of whom are essential players in Nigeria’s oil and gas sectors, handle their business by negotiation and arbitration.

So, is that why someone of his stature and influence should be barred from leading the Bar?

This is the first time in 31 years that a non-SAN would be running the NBA. The lawyers old enough to remember the last tenure, helmed by Alao Aka-Bashorun, still rank it high. They ask: will Olu Akpata live up to that record or even surpass it?

But that, you see, is not the question. The question is this: will the old NBA now accept that there’s a new sheriff in town? Will the powers that be understand that this sheriff is young and legion, and the power she wields, though newly minted, is indisputable?

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