In 2005, Lanke Odogiyan, a non-SAN, completed the tenure of Bayo Ojo (SAN) who was also appointed the Attorney-General. So, Akpata is the first elected non-SAN president of the NBA in 29 years.

NBA’s 2015 Constitution

Akpata’s win would most likely not have happened but for the success of the one lawyer one vote campaign.

On August 27, 2015, then NBA President Augustine Alegeh (SAN) fulfilled his campaign promise when the NBA adopted a new constitution, which contained several key rules.

It provided that the mode of electing NBA national officers shall be by electronic voting. It also replaced the association’s 17-year-old Electoral Guidelines (by delegates) with universal suffrage.

Under the new rules, any lawyer who has paid his or her annual practice fee is qualified to vote. This, since 2016, opened the door for an inclusive Bar and permitted young lawyers, who are in the majority and many of whom bought into the Akpata campaign, to determine who leads the Bar.

This was unlike the previous system which put voting power in the hands of a select few.

The delegate system had for years been opposed by many lawyers, including former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Prof Chidi Odinkalu; activist-lawyer Femi Falana (SAN), Convener of Open Bar Initiative, Silas Onu, and Dame Carol Ajie, among others.

They observed that the delegates system was prone to a lot of manipulation and disenfranchisement of young lawyers, who are in the majority.

The association also agreed that for the purpose of elections into the national offices, the country shall be divided into three zones: North, East and West.

Divided Southwest lawyers

The NBA zoned the 2020 presidency position to the Southwest, which comprises the Yoruba-speaking states plus Edo and Delta states.

The pan-Yoruba lawyers association, Egbe Amofin, keen to avoid the situation in 2014 when the region’s votes were split in favour of a non-Yoruba candidate, Alegeh, galvanised its members for a consensus candidate. But the bid failed, as Ajibade declined to withdraw from the race for Adesina.

”The reason why I have refused to be bound by the Egbe Amofin selection process is that it was obscure and lacking in objectivity or transparency. It failed to meet the basic tests of an acceptable selection process for a variety of reasons,” Ajibade told The Nation: 

His claims were, however, denied by the Egbe Amofin committee which superintended the process through which Adesina was adopted.

Chief Adeniyi Akintola (SAN) told The Nation: ”There was no manipulation of any kind. As a matter of fact, I didn’t vote as the chairman. It was overwhelming in favour of the person we adopted. It was 27 votes against four votes. And that was without my vote.

“I remained neutral in the whole process; nobody manipulated anybody contrary to the insinuations being peddled here and there.”

Nevertheless, the failure to reach a consensus split the region’s votes in three to the detriment of Adesina and Ajibade.

The Southwest Lawyers’ Forum apparently did not respect their adoption of Deacon Adesina. They did not mobilise support for him, both in voters and financial resources. Also, Ajibade’s emergence and the strength of his campaign and reputation for integrity further weakened the Southwest base for their adopted candidate.

Awomolo’s letter

“If @OlumideAkpata is declared the winner of #NBADecides2020 tonight, he should give credit to the man who must count as the most effective #CampaignManager in the history of @NigBarAssoc, Asiwaju Gboyega Awomolo…” Prof Odinkalu tweeted via his handle @chidiodinkalu.

Prof Odinkalu was referring to a letter last June by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), to a former NBA President, Chief T.J.O Okpoko (SAN).

The letter informed Okpoko of an alleged “unannounced but powerful and potent revolutionary move by our junior colleagues who are very much n larger numbers to wrestle the office of the NBA from the rank of SAN.”

Awomolo urged Okpoko, who was the NBA president from 1998 to 2000, to do his “best to keep the tradition of the rank and seniority that helped you and all those who came after you”.

He added: “It will be a great failure of leadership for the senior advocate to surrender leadership to Outer Bar when there are willing and able senior advocates.”

The message was condemned by the three candidates and many other SANs, but not before it had leaked to the media where it whipped up sentiment against senior lawyers.

Commenting on his Twitter handle @CyprianEsq after the elections, Cyprian Afahanam said: “I personally campaigned and voted for Olumide Akpata because of that letter. Asiwaju (Awomolo) made the victory seamless for us.”

Many other young lawyers railed against it with the hashtag #ProudJuniorLawyer tweets. The Young Lawyers’ Forum also demanded Awomolo’s apology “for this discriminatory letter.”

But the respected SAN, who is the pioneer Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Osun State, justified his letter.

“There is nowhere in the world where seniority in the Bar does not matter. Even in the United Kingdom, it matters. But here we are saying it is all-comers affair and anyone who wishes can contest for the NBA presidency. Where is that done?” he asked.


Former NBA chairmen and presidents

Past chairmen of the association were:

  • Christopher Sapara Williams (1900–1915)[3]
  • Sir Kitoyi Ajasa (1915–1937)
  • Eric Olawale Moore (1937–1944)
  • E.J. Alex Taylor (1944–1950)
  • Sir Adeyemo Alakija (1950–1952)
  • Jubril Martin (1952–1959)

Presidents of the Bar Association, who had the same authority as the former Chairmen, were:

  • Frederick Rotimi Williams (1960–1968[3])
  • Peter Thomas (1968–1969)
  • Chief B.M. Boyo (1969–1970)
  • Chief Richard Akinjide (1970–1973)
  • Chief Adebayo Ogunsanya (1973–1974)
  • Dr. Mudiaga Odge (1974–1975)
  • Dr. Nwakanma Okoro (1976–1978)
  • Chief B.O. Benson (1978–1980)
  • Chief Adetunji Fadairo (1980–1982)
  • A.N. Anyamene (1982–1984)
  • Prince Bola Ajibola, (1984–1985)
  • Ebele Nwokoye (1985–1987)
  • Alao Aka-Bashorun (1987–1989)
  • Charles Idehen (1989–1991)
  • Chief Clement Akpamgbo (1991–1992)
  • Priscilla Kuye (1991–1992)

Between 1992 and 1998 the NBA had no president, functioning only in branches. After the crisis, presidents were:

  • Chief T.J.O. Okpoko, SAN (1998–2000)
  • O.C.J. Okocha, SAN (2000–2002)
  • Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN (2002–2004)
  • Chief Bayo Ojo, SAN (2004–2005)
  • Prince Lanke Odogiyo (2005–2006)
  • Olisa Agbakoba (2006–2008)
  • Chief Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, SAN (2008–2010)
  • Joseph Bodurin Daudu, SAN (2010–2012)
  • Okey Wali, SAN (2012–2014)
  • Augustine Alegeh, SAN (2014–2016)
  • Mahmoud Abubakar Balarabe, SAN (2016–2018)
  • Paul Usoro, SAN (2018–2020)
  • Olumide Akpata, (2020–present)

Note:

  • NBA National leaders were referred to as chairmen between 1900 and 1959.
  • From 1960, the title of national leader of the Bar changed from chairman to president.
  • In 1992, leadership crisis rocked the NBA and for a period of about six years, between 1992 and 1998, NBA had no president. However, the various branches were functional. After the crisis, Chief T.J.O Okpoko (SAN) became the president in 1998

Young lawyers’ revolt

Agboeze Ugochukwu was excited when in January 2019 he secured his first job at an Abuja law firm. Just two months earlier, the Enugu State native was called to the Bar, becoming the first lawyer in his clan.

It was not a large firm: there were only 10 other lawyers there. But it was owned by a SAN.

Ugochukwu told The Nation that the work conditions there were shocking.

He said: “I was paid N10,000 as salary. We reported for work before 7 am and closed by 8 pm.

“We were only entitled to 30 minutes break in a day. I was steadfast at the firm till my fourth month. During the Easter break, my boss granted me two weeks leave to go visit my parents; My dad was sick. On my return, he said I was not eligible to be paid my monthly salary having been absent for two weeks.

“His refusal to even pay me half of the month’s salary was just about the last straw that propelled me to quit. I eventually joined another law firm where I was paid N20,000 monthly.”

A few months ago, Ugochukwu joined an army of angry young lawyers on social media to canvass votes for Akpata.

Many young lawyers had also complained over the years about neglect by the NBA. They often accused the NBA of not representing their interests, imposing high conference fees, etc; so they felt it was time for a revolution.

Many of them saw Akpata as young and pragmatic, and as someone they could easily relate with. They were also inspired by his message of transformation and inclusion.

In previous elections, each of the candidates promised special programmes for young lawyers, but none really changed their lot.

Akpata was seen by many young lawyers as a model, with some junior associates in his law firm, Templars, said to be among the best paid in the industry.

It was, however, noted that his law firm mostly recruits lawyers with a Second Class Upper and above degree, which is understandable considering the number of lawyers that must aspire to work in the firm.

There was a desire among many members of the Outer Bar for a change in the status quo. It was an opportunity to get a pound of flesh from SANs who they believed corner the biggest briefs and impoverish the rest.

Aggressive campaign

Akpata carried out a vigorous campaign, matching physical presence with an aggressive deployment of social media. He was said to have hired an aircraft to reach far-flung places. His campaign message of “an inclusive Bar” resonated with a larger section of the Bar that felt marginalised. His affable nature and his lack of air of arrogance that defines many SANs also worked in his favour.

During the lockdown, Akpata’s friends set up a welfare fund for relief materials for lawyers, through which some got relief materials. Some in opposing camps criticised the gesture.

Youth advantage

There have been calls for youths to be given more leadership opportunities, which culminated in the Not-Too-Young-to-Run law. Lawyers who wanted a break from the past saw Akpata as the best choice. Having already successfully piloted the affairs of NBA SBL, many saw him as capable of taking the Bar to an era that is already being defined by technology and artificial intelligence.

Junior lawyers’ tech savviness

As Akpata raked in the votes last Thursday afternoon, a SAN shared the story of an incident that occurred a few hours earlier when another elderly SAN tried to vote.

Grinning, he said to a colleague: “Mr … called me this morning to ask me where the polling booth was.”

The story highlights the fact that alongside their numerical superiority, junior lawyers also had another ace up their sleeve in Akpata’s favour: tech saviness.

They were more comfortable with onlinevoting than their older colleagues and there is anecdotal evidence from their social media posts that they easily navigated the voting procedures, voted earlier and in more numbers than older lawyers.

Allegations of irregularities

Soon after the results were announced, Dr Ajibade congratulated Akpata in a phone call. But not everyone agrees that the elections were free and fair.

Adesina’s supporters kicked against the election, alleging several infractions. They claimed that the election lacked “all features of credibility and transparency.”

A statement signed by the National Coordinator of Adesina Support Group, Adesina Adegbite, listed various concerns.

“Our ICT consultants further informed us that though the voting site ostensibly appears credible on the surface, it is apparent that the data uploaded to the site was programmed and pre-configured to achieve a desired result in an obvious case of data diddling.

Prof Odinkalu also described the election a scandal.

“The #ECNBA was, in my view, unfit for purpose. At all times, it was tone-deaf, at best or transparently on the wrong tarmac. The best that can be said about its capabilities, communication and outreach is that they were abysmally sub-par. That is kind too.

“The process was deeply, deeply flawed. Discovering that did not require any huge skills in rocket science. The electoral roll was a scandal. The hide-and-seek was befitting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.”

Akpata said he was not unaware of the “administrative issues”, adding that there was “plenty of room for improvement” in the association’s electorial processes.

Congratulations pour in

Akpata’s tenure will end in 2022, just seven months to the general elections. The significance of his victory and the importance of the NBA president’s office did not go unnoticed in political circles.

President Muhammadu Buhari congratulated the winner. But so did his opponent in last year’s polls, ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar via his Twitter handle last Friday.

“As a lawyer of over two decades who has held several strategic positions in the legal association, President Buhari trusts that Mr Akpata’s vast knowledge and experience in litigation, corporate world and engaging with government at different levels, will greatly benefit the Bar and indeed all Nigerians, who look up to the learned fellows as crucial stakeholders in a modern democracy,” said the Special Adviser to the President (Media & Publicity), Mr. Femi Adesina. in a statement last Saturday.

For Atiku, Akpata’s victory was “proof that real power lies with the people,” a reference to his Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) slogan ‘Power to the people.’

Adegboruwa’s agenda

In a statement, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN) urged the newly-elected national officers on their responsibilities to the Bar and the country.

He listed five areas they should focus on. They are: protection of lawyers, lawyers as champions of the rule of law, state of the courts and judges’ welfare, effective and quick dispensation of justice and bridge building.

Adegboruwa said: “A lawyer is essentially an advocate, who takes on the cause of his client. The persecution that lawyers have suffered in the course of advancing the cause of their clients in the present dispensation should be halted. No lawyer should be victimised simply because he offered to defend another citizen.

“A lawyer, by virtue of his knowledge and training, is a custodian of history, who is well equipped to liberate the rest of the society from oppression, abuse and impunity. To that extent, the NBA must be in the forefront of championing good governance, insisting on democratic conduct and adherence to due process of law.”

Adegboruwa noted that the motto of the NBA is Promoting the Rule of Law, which will require insisting on independence and autonomy of the judiciary, respect for court orders and proper funding for the judiciary.”

He added: “The state of our courts all over the nation is nothing to write home about, in physical structures, infrastructure and manpower. The situation of the Federal High Court in Lagos in particular is no longer acceptable, whereby lawyers and litigants stand outside in the sun and in the rain to conduct their cases.

The process of the appointment of judicial officers should be properly interrogated to achieve some transparency and probity. It will then be necessary to address the welfare of judicial officers and judicial staff.”

He lamented the delay in the prosecution of cases in the courts, noting that it is affecting national and economic progress.

“The time it takes to determine cases in court is too long. This is caused by a number of factors. With the adoption of technology, the NBA should work with the heads of the various courts to achieve quick dispensation of justice, rather than the agitation for the creation of special courts for virtually all cases.

“The NBA Exco has to set to work to unite the Bar across all sectors of the legal profession, between advocates, transactional lawyers, professionals in government departments, solicitors and also bridge the gap between senior and junior lawyers,” he said.

This, Adegboruwa added, should then be followed with cooperation with the government in the fight against corruption, “especially within the judiciary.

“The issue of proper ethics should then be looked into as a means of instilling discipline in the practice of law

“Above all, the voice of NBA must be heard on all occasions against all forms of injustice, arbitrariness, impunity and executive lawlessness.”

Daunting tasks ahead

Convener of a human rights group, the Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh, said Akpata has “daunting challenges” before him, urging him to rise to the occasion.

“It is our hope that he will refurbish and rejuvenate the Bar’s role in shaping how justice is delivered in Nigeria as well as rebuild confidence in Nigeria’s justice institutions. Today, public confidence in justice institutions is possibly at an all-time low and references to the stature of Nigeria’s justice institutions is unflattering internationally.

“Mr. Akpata must ensure that the Bar is not anymore a bit-part player in the scheme of things, but an important lever in shaping policy – both national and judicial – in things affecting the administration of justice and the rule of law.

“Mr. Akpata must raise the bar of the Bar’s influence in resisting tyranny and abuse, safeguarding human rights, and resisting a government’s often push towards authoritarianism and despotism. Had the Nigerian Bar pulled its weight well in the recent past, it would have served our country better, and stood in the gap for our country people who were simply bewildered by the impunity of government.

“He should lead the Bar to seek constitutional reforms that put the Nigerian people, their dignity and welfare – and not simply our politicians – at the centre of governance, strengthen the fiscal independence of the judiciary and ensure that Nigeria’s judiciary and legal professionals are accountable for the delivery of efficient and effective judicial and legal services. We wish him Godspeed.”

The Nation

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