NBA Heads For Another Crisis
Posted: 11/Aug/2020

Following unresolved questions on the credibility of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) national officers’ elections of last July 29 and 30, there is growing talk of the formation of a parallel Bar. Will the association survive this latest crisis? ROBERT EGBE examines the issues.

Lawyers, who followed the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and its politics before, during and in the aftermath of the 1992 Port Harcourt Conference, often describe the period as the ‘dark days’ of the Bar.

One of them, Richard Ahonaruogho, recalls that the Conference in the Rivers State capital sharply divided the Bar “like nothing else before – nor since.”

The incidents of that day, 28 years ago, bear the High Chief witness.

For instance, rumour made the rounds that some lawyers accessed the Conference venue with thugs, disguised as lawyers, for the purpose of manipulating the elections fixed for the day.

Ahonaruogho recalled the events in a The Nation article, titled ‘Rebirth of NBA after 1992 Port Harcourt conference crises, learning from history or repeating it?’

He said: “When Chief Gani Fawehinmi (as he then was) was recognised to address the Conference, the microphone was seized from him.

“In the ensuing confusion, Chief (Mrs.) Priscilla Kuye was forced to adjourn the election sine die when she was served with an interim injunction issued by a Port-Harcourt High Court which ordered the suspension of the election.”

One of the consequences of Port Harcourt was that the NBA was effectively out of the picture for at least the next six years, during which time, the military got away with some excesses which the Association would otherwise have challenged.

NBA 2020 elections

Ahonaruogho was Secretary of the Committee of Branch Chairmen and Secretaries that returned the NBA to national life after the Port Harcourt crises of 1992.

His article was published on July 7, 2020, three weeks before the NBA’s July 28 and 30 national officers’ election.

The NBA leadership had been dominated by Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), until 47-year-old candidate, Olumide Akpata, caused an upset and won the presidential race by a landslide.

Akpata defeated two SANs – Dr Babatunde Ajibade and Mr Dele Adesina – to become the first elected non-SAN president of the NBA in 29 years.

But the election has not come without some unintended aftermaths, including a crisis reminiscent of 1992.

Aggrieved stakeholders, including Adesina, who pointed out alleged irregularities in the polls, are seeking a cancellation and a reform of the electioneering process.

Some, including pan-Yoruba lawyers association, Egbe Amofin which endorsed Adesina, hinted that some disappointed lawyers might quit the NBA or form another association if there is no reform.

Ahonaruogho, among several other stakeholders, seemed to have seen it coming. Sharing his fears in his article, he said: “Recent events in the NBA have compelled me to write about this period in the life of the association…”

He explained that “…This is more so as some of the active players at the Bar today were not in the profession 28 years ago. Calls to dismember the Bar have been growing louder, hence my appeal for caution.”

Ahonaruogho’s pessimism was shared by a former Chairman of the National Human Rights omission (NHRC) and co-convenor of the Open Bar Initiative (OBI), Anselm Chidi Odinkalu.

Days before the election, Odinkalu warned that the election could be compromised, in an article ‘How 2020 elections of the NBA will be rigged’.

Election umpire in focus

Shortly before the polls, Akpata and Adesina raised the alarm about shortcomings in the electioneering, superintended by the NBA’s Electoral Committee (ECNBA).

Akpata, in a July 20, letter to the ECNBA highlighted several problems identified by users of the NBA portal, as well as an IT security firm, whose services he engaged to investigate the portal’s integrity.  Some of the problems, he said, included a voter’s list flawed with anomalies, including duplicity of names and the inclusion of non-persons, among other things.

Akpata, in a July 20, letter to the ECNBA highlighted several problems identified by users of the NBA portal, as well as an IT security firm, whose services he engaged to investigate the portal’s integrity.  Some of the problems, he said, included a voter’s list flawed with anomalies, including duplicity of names and the inclusion of non-persons, among other things.

Similarly, the Dele Adesina SAN (DASAN) Group raised seven posers for ECNBA concerning its preparedness for the elections.

It said the ECNBA needed to explain discrepancies about the voters list, verification of members online, use of service provider(s) to develop the election portal and manage the electoral process and non-involvement of aspirants/candidates.

During and after the polls proper, these and more issues fuelled anger that the polls were compromised and should be cancelled.

Adesina, even before the election ended, called it a sham; the Egbe Amofin alleged that there was infusion of 4,000 ghost voters. Jibrin Okutepa SAN said there were breaches of the rules; while activist-lawyer Femi Falana SAN similarly condemned the process.

Allegations of manipulations

One of Adesina and the Egbe Amofin’s major allegations against the elections is that about ‘4,000 ‘ghost voters’ were smuggled into the voters’ register.

The Egbe Amofin said, “Over 4000 ‘voters’ appeared on the emergency voters’ list used for the election and these ghost voters have no identifiable branches or are not linked or traceable to any branch.”

Egbe Amofin added that as of the time the electronic election ended at 11pm last Thursday, not less than 13,000 of the 29,636 lawyers accredited had not voted.

The pan-Yoruba body hinted that some lawyers might be encouraged to exercise the right to freedom of association if their grievances are not addressed.

It said: “The NBA Constitution is the organic document that binds its members and blatant violation of same by elected leaders of the NBA is an open show of disrespect and disregard for the very basis of our mutual alliance.

“The Egbe Amofin issues this communiqué and makes the pleas and recommendations with every sense of responsibility, as failure on the part of our great Association to urgently address the issues contained herein might, wittingly or unwittingly lead members of the Association to consider other options available in the exercise of the fundamental right of members to freedom of association; a situation that the Egbe Amofin believes can be honestly and sincerely prevented.”

Adesina raised similar allegations in an August 3, 2020 letter to the NBA’s Board of Trustees Chairman, Dr Olisa Agbakoba.

He urged BOT members to “intervene and right these wrongs and save the NBA from condemnation and destruction.”

He said: “86 names of Lawyers (were) under the category ‘International Diaspora’ from Serial Number 12182 to 12268, a clear violation of the provisions of the Constitution of the NBA. International Diaspora as a Branch is unknown to the NBA Constitution.”

He alleged that there were cases of inflation of the list of some Branches, including “For instance, Obollo-Afor Branch had only 39 names from Serial Number 30424 to 30462 on the Final List for Verification. Strangely, this increased to 662 on the Verified Voters List published on the date of the Election.”

According to him, there was also deletion/removal of names of many members from the final list. “For example: Ikeja, Ibadan, Enugu, Ife, Ado-Ekiti and many others had their number of voters substantially reduced without any explanation whatsoever or howsoever,” Adesina said.

In another instance, he alleged that the voting site had predetermined election data.

He added: “A close examination of the recorded result at different timelines shows percentage movement of the Presidential Candidates as 54 percent, 23 percent and 21 percent with little or no variation.

“The system was obviously programmed to distribute votes at either +1 or 1 throughout the 24-hour period.

“Besides, about forty percent of voters could not vote as they were not sent with the links to do so. Again, ECNBA admitted this fact by stating that notices were delivered in batches what ought to be delivered at once to all prospective voters.

“Out of about 29,000 prospective voters, about 14,000 were not able to vote by the reasons stated above. As if that is not enough, instead of the recorded system stating that Mr. Olumide Akpata leads by 54% barely from about 20 minutes after voting started, the system stated that Olumide Akpata is winning by 54 percent in order to hoodwink and bias the mind of the voters in an election that is supposed to be free and fair.”

His allegations were however denied by outgoing NBA President Paul Usoro SAN in a memo to NBA Past Presidents & Trustees.

Usoro said: “To reinforce the explanations in the ECNBA Statement No. 19, I further explained to Mr. Adesina that (a) all the names in the Verified Voters’ List were drawn from the Final Voters’ List that was published by the ECNBA on 01 July 2020 and that no new names were added;

“(b) all the names in the Verified Voters’ List are lawyers and had paid their Bar Practicing Fees and Branch Dues and had therefore met the eligibility qualification to vote in the Elections;

“and (c) the Elections would be determined, not on the basis of NBA branches but based on universal suffrage of the members which is the voting system enshrined in the Nigerian Bar Association Constitution, 2015 (as amended) and we should therefore not be fixated on the electronic glitches that assigned wrong branches to members.

“I stand by those explanations…”

He added: “It is strange that Mr. Adesina claims that there were members ‘who received the link’ but ‘could not vote’. The overwhelming evidence that I received and also read on social media was to the effect that the voting process was ‘seamless’ and very easy for our members. I have so far not received any report from any member claiming that he or she had challenges in voting on the basis of the unique link that were sent to members from and by the Election Platform server.”

Case for parallel NBAs

Constitutional and human rights lawyer Dame Carol Ajie proposed what, in her view, would be the consequences of Akpata being sworn in as NBA President later this month.

She stated this in a Facebook post last Friday, titled  ‘Let us work strenuously together learned friends to avoid the formation of a parallel Bar’

Ajie said:  ”Consequences of insistence on wrong by swearing-in Akpata & Co:

(1) A parallel Bar would emerge and we could have two functional NBA. One with President Akpata and the real NBA run by President Adesina isn’t that scary? So, why don’t we all work together to avoid this scene?

(2) Our NBA would issue press statements and directives to lawyers and your NBA would do the same. Our NBA would be sworn in by a Notary Public or a Judge, your NBA maybe.

(3) Our NBA will organise cutting edge seminars programmes and NBA events online and offline. We will have a website.

(4) Our NBA would get a good printer for NBA Stamp and Seal better than yours and hand a complimentary packet of NBA stamp and seal to our members upon payment of Bar Practising fees to the Supreme Court from Jan 2021. Your NBA would be there collecting more taxes as you have nil reputation for selfless work. You are takers. We are givers.

“(6) Our NBA would write to all our Banks to not allow you access to NBA money that Mr Usoro may have left in the Bank and if he has nothing there he has to fully account for his deeds anyway…”

New Bar Initiative?

On Sunday, it was reported that some lawyers received anonymous emails inviting them to join a ‘New Bar Initiative’.

“If you crave a Nigerian Lawyers’ Association that would truly serve its members and the society….Please fill out the form in the link below to become a member.”

A lawyer, who craved anonymity, told The Nation that the invitation was circulated on her Law School set WhatsApp group.“

She added: “Its rubbish. I didn’t receive any such email. If they send it to me, I won’t join.”

Would a parallel NBA be legal?

According to Egbe Amofin chieftain, Chief Niyi Akintola SAN, membership of the NBA is voluntary and none can be compelled to join or quit.

In an interview published on Sunday, Akintola observed that the constitution guarantees freedom of lawful association and freedom of assembly, adding that parallel Bar Associations coexist in several countries.

He noted, however, that the Egbe Amofin is yet to decide along that line.

Case against parallel NBAs

A former NBA president Augustine Alegeh SAN urged Adesina and Ajibade to support Akpata.

Alegeh, in a congratulatory message the day after the polls, noted that there were no perfect elections, adding that it was time for unity in the association’s best interest.

He said: “I also implore all other candidates who were unsuccessful at the elections to continue to contribute their quota towards the development of the Bar.”

Alegeh noted that the elections were over; hence the need for all to come together as a family to offer support, advice and encouragement to the newly elected national officers to enable them succeed.

“We must appreciate the fact that elections are never perfect and I trust that the incoming administration will improve on the gains recorded in the electronic voting system that guarantees universal suffrage under our constitution.

“We must appreciate the fact that without electronic voting, it would not have been possible for us to hold this election during this COVID-19 pandemic. We must keep improving our electronic voting system.”

For Usoro, the election was ‘free and fair’.

Usoro was reacting to the earlier call by Adesina to cancel the election.

He said allegations relating to the procurement of the Election Platform were all incorrect and urged the winners and losers to join hands in “healing the wounds and bruises that may have been occasioned by the Elections campaigns and results”

Way out of crisis

For Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa SAN it “would not be a surprise at all that lawyers are mooting the idea of a parallel Bar,” but the situation can be salvaged.

He said the election “left a sour taste in the mouth of many lawyers across the country.

“We started this electronic voting in 2016 and it was a complete disaster. Court cases were filed but nothing meaningful came out of it and instead of those concerned to take a cue from that to remedy the situation, we had a more disastrous outing in 2018, to the extent that the EFCC has filed a criminal charge in court alleging forgery of emails and personal details of lawyers to alter the votes.

“I am worried about these trends as it would seem that a pattern is being established, of manipulations during the NBA elections.”

He noted that lawyers are supposed to set a good example for the rest of society to follow. “I am worried that an association of learned minds cannot organize very simple elections.

“What should have been done was to use the 2016 and 2018 elections as springboards to interrogate the system of voting.

”The first thing would be to audit the votes to see if indeed there were manipulations, isolate the areas of influence and then prepare for the next elections. That was what Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua did as President. He openly acknowledged that the election that produced him was faulty and he proceeded to set up the Justice Uwais Panel to fine tune our electoral system. It is on record that he attempted to do something even though death did not allow him.”

Adegboruwa said for the 2020 NBA national election, “the issues raised should not be swept under the carpet.

“It is for all stakeholders to meet and examine these issues and chart a way forward. And by stakeholders I mean the Trustees of the NBA, the Body of Senior Advocates and other relevant persons. We cannot continue in this way at all.

“This is what is raising the issue of a parallel Bar by some lawyers. If you would not listen to the grievances of people and you continue to poke your finger in their eyes, they may look for alternative means of association. After all, the Constitution in its section 40 grants to every citizen, including lawyers, express freedom of association. People are free to form any association such as Nigerian Lawyers Union, Body of Nigerian Lawyers or Lawyers of Conscience or any other name they want to give to it.

“My expectation is that those who have been declared winners of the last elections should reach out and build bridges across the board. The kind of insults that we read on social media in relation to those who lost the election and even to Senior Lawyers should not be tolerated at all.

“In the NBA presently, we have ethnic associations of Egbe Amofin, Eastern Bar Forum, Mid-West Bar Forum, Arewa Bar Forum, Middle-Belt Bar Forum, Young Lawyers Forum, etc. We don’t have a single NBA again. My own worry is that it will get to a time when people will refuse to associate with the National body again.

“It is not too late to mend the cracks and restore the glory of the Bar Association as we used to know it.”

Word of caution

Ahonaruogho, also proposed a solution.

He said: “I, however, believe that the quality of the persons who sacrificed their time, money and ideas in getting the NBA out of the ‘woods’, (in 1992) will assist those clamouring for the dismemberment of Bar Association, to know that getting the Bar Association back after Port Harcourt crises, was herculean.”