The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the umbrella body of lawyers in Nigeria was once the most respected association of professionals.
It used to be the foremost conscience of the nation. It ranked above all others including the NMA. In those days, when the NBA spoke, the political class not only listened, they hastened to act!
Many will remember the glorious days when the NBA confronted social ills on behalf of the citizenry. From military rule to civilian rule, the NBA helped set the rudder that kept governments on the path of honour and justice!
Alongside the media, lawyers acting through the NBA were crucial and critical to the quest for realisation of democracy in 1999.
The voice of the NBA was never taken for granted and it gave the military a run for their money in terms of standing firmly against obnoxious decrees of the military junta, and all that. NBA, the body of learned men always stood tall and firm on behalf of human rights, constitutionality and justice!
NBA through its highly principled leadership helped this nation set a populist pro people agenda that curbed the excesses of the political class. Indeed, then the fear of the NBA was the beginning of wisdom. No government, military or civilian dared cross the NBA!
It is against this background that one must seek to situate its inexplicable fall from the utopian heights of public respect to what it is now, a mere shadow of its former self!
Its just concluded Abuja Conference certainly leaves much to be desired. The odium and stench of revelations by the treasurer of that olympian body is yet to abate!
Shadow Of Itself
At the conference there were allegations and counter allegations of corruption. This unexpected slide came to the fore at the 2023 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Association held in Abuja, where wanton corruption, non-adherence to constitution and other misdemeanor were exposed to the world by no less than the very executives of that once hallowed body.
It was in that conference that the present leadership of the NBA “fall our hand” as Nigerians would say. They really lowered the bar and the esteem with which the public view members of this noble profession.
I watched video clips of that their Abuja outing in dismay. What caught my attention was the viral videos that came out from the meeting. I saw trending videos and reports where the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) vice presidents accused NBA President Yakubu Maikyau, SAN of deliberately undermining NBA by his below the bar conduct, a conduct not expected of learned men to whom mere mortals like us depend on in our own times of trouble!
In one of the viral videos, National Treasurer Caroline Anze-Bishop disowned the presented financial statement, saying it was prepared without her input. Anze-Bishop refused to adopt the financial report, saying she respects the Bar too much to sign off on unknown accounts.
In his own report to the conference, 2nd Vice President Chukwuemeka Clement Ugo lamented being sidelined by Maikyau despite his constitutional duties as acting president when the president was unavailable. He reportedly pleaded for empowerment of his office at the AGM, regarded as the NBA’s highest decision-making body.
Likewise, 3rd Vice President Mandy Asagba accused Maikyau of disregarding her office and enacting deliberate measures to render her position redundant. Asagba claimed the entire AGM and Annual General Conference planning excluded national officers.
It was indeed an embarrassing moment for the NBA and Nigerians who watched it. This is because Nigerians had expected better from those who knew and understood the law.
According to reports when former NBA President OCJ Okocha SAN suggested the national officers’ grievances be addressed through an elders committee, Maikyau allegedly insisted on responding directly to the allegations.
Maikyau then accused the national officers of resentment over his refusal to share lawyers’ annual practicing fees with them, referencing past attempts to share millions in NBA funds which he blocked. He alleged the officers came to the National Executive Council meeting intent on squandering BPF money, leading to their rebellion when he opposed the plans. Maikyau reportedly spoke extensively in his defense while rejecting others’ right to respond. The AGM ended abruptly amidst shouts and chaos as Maikyau hastily adjourned the tumultuous meeting. The chaotic AGM has stirred debates within the legal community over the NBA’s administrative structure and allegations of marginalizing national officers. While Maikyau defended his actions, many have questioned the transparency and efficacy of NBA’s governance.
In a hilarious note, which many lawyers did not find funny, Nigerian street-pop artiste, Habeeb Okikiola, also known as Portable who gained national attention for allegedly assaulting a policeman, resisting arrest and assaulting one of his followers, was the choice of entertainer to perform at the ‘Unbarred’ concert, organised by the Nigerian Bar Association.
It really caused a stir on social media, as some lawyers staged walk-out. This makes one to wonder what the present leadership of the NBA had in mind when it chose Portable to perform at that event.
Portable may have followership indeed but he is also a disreputable fellow that on the whole cannot be described as a role model worthy of the company of learned men. Unless the NBA itself has lost high concept of itself. It will be recalled that many Nigerians had publicly chided a political party that had once invited Portable to feature in its rally at Ogun. Indeed, many then believed that his shirtless presence on the state of Awolowo, the great sage was a sacrilege and an insult to Awolowo’s legacy. Interestingly, Awolowo himself was an eminent lawyer.
What should also worry the NBA is the perceived partisanship of the organization especially under the Presidency of Yakubu Maikyau SAN. Recall that shortly after the announcement of the presidential election results on March 1, 2023, the NBA president appeared on Channels TV and said despite challenges, INEC performed well in the delivery of the elections.
He also scored INEC an A, in an election that was not so well adjudged by most credible local and international observers. Besides, the NBA knows quite well that the election outcome was headed for the courts, as such, he ought to have remained neutral. These were his words, “I will say that the elections went well. Those who came out were happy to express their franchise,” Maikyau said. “There were challenges, definitely. There were some infractions, some of them actually constituted electoral offences but on the whole, I will score INEC as having performed maybe about 78, 80 percent in the delivery of these elections. That will be an A for every exam.”
It was therefore not surprising that the former chairman of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chidi Odinkalu, himself a lawyer accused Yakubu Maikyau (SAN) of partisanship.
Corruption And Abuse Of Power
What played out at the NBA conference has also exposed the fact that alleged corruption and abuse of power is not restricted only to governmental institutions. What the vice presidents of NBA accused their president of doing and what he in turned accused them of doing showed that the body needs more transparency in its administration and governance system.
MAY NIGERIA REBOUND
For a body that its members hold prosecution briefs for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) the NBA leadership should be above board and above suspicion.
It is now clear to the whole world that something is wrong with the umbrella body of Nigerian lawyers. The present leadership may not be able to cleanse and redeem itself, but in subsequent elections for leadership positions, members of the bar should aim at electing men and women of proven integrity. It is also obvious from what emanated from the conference that the office of the President of the NBA has near dictatorial powers to the level that can be deemed tyrannical, given the outcry of the vice presidents.
Protecting Interest Of Lawyers
The NBA must also be seen to protect the interest of lawyers. Recall that not long ago the Department of State Services (DSS) described the lawyers who filed contempt charges against DSS Director-General, Yusuf Bichi, over the continued detention of embattled former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele as “charge and bail lawyers”.
The service in a series of tweets posted via its official handle noted that the lawyers were headed by an “overzealous and uninformed IPOB/ESN lawyer”. They said, “Charge and bail, overzealous uninformed IPOB/ESN lawyer Maxwell Okpara mobilises other like-minded lawyers against DGSS. Futile Efforts. Well, Nigerians, beware! This is in bad faith! The NBA of the past would have demanded an apology from the DSS but the NBA kept quiet.” That sordid smirch on the legal profession was literally swept under the carpet.
Of a necessity, lawyers are constitutionally empowered to come to the defence of every citizen. This is the reason why in many countries and jurisdictions, you cannot bring a man before the courts without his own defence lawyers. In the USA for instance, every accused person who cannot pay for a lawyer is assigned a public defender whose fees will be paid by the state. Therefore, it is not right for the NBA not to come to the defence of lawyers who are harassed and intimidated for doing their legal and constitutional duties!
Lawyers are indeed free to defend anyone that needs their services and the DSS categorization and profiling of Emefiele lawyers was unnecessary and uncalled for. It was an opportunity for the NBA president to speak truth to power. But he didn’t unlike in the days of Aka Bashorun, Olisa Agbakoba etc where such a slur would have been seen as enough transgression to call out lawyers on the DSS.
I have many close friends who are SANs, I have many cousins and nephews in the noble profession and what they tell me in private about the shenanigans in their profession leaves much to be desired. Certainly, an activist NBA can help curb some of the open judicial rascality that is corroding citizen confidence in the legal/judicial process. As has been shown by history and the experience of other countries, lawyers ARE an important bedrock of democracy, NBA and its members should do their utmost to once again raise the bar so that they can regain the olympian admiration of Nigerians!
Certainly, their Abuja outing has bad sullied their image and their reputation!