The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is a professional organisation of all lawyers admitted to the bar and all members of the jury, admitted to the bench. Its website touts the association as the ‘oldest professional members organisation and Africa’s most influential network of legal practitioners, with over 120,000 lawyers on its roll, in 125 active branches across the 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria.’
The NBA’s mission statement ‘to use the law as an instrument for social change in Nigeria’ aligns with their duty to courageously engage in the promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and good governance with integrity, excellence and professionalism in the country.
The NBA Constitution (2015 as amended) states the aims and objectives of the professional body, which can be summarised into maintenance and promotion of the independence and integrity of the Judiciary, the defence of human rights, and the establishment of the rule of law. It also serves its members by making sure that qualified, trained and disciplined lawyers make the fold.
In the past, legal beacons like Barrister Femi Falana were not seen as rebellious outcasts amongst the fold because he represented an extension of legal luminaries like Alao Aka Bashorun, Gani Fawehinmi and Olisa Agbakoba who took an activist stance against military dictatorship outside the collective umbrella of the Nigerian Bar Association. This showed that these individuals were prepared to commit class suicide for the collective good of Nigerians when the NBA was perceived to be in conspiratorial alliance with the military. Some of these men were jailed, molested and monitored but they forged on till democracy was enthroned. Their acts, speeches, pronouncements gave ample respect to the Bar and the Bench in the eyes of the public.
On the flip side, the lawyers in the NBA in the present times have taken a backseat in the defence of the common man. The spate of extrajudicial killings, incarceration of persons without trial and the gross negligence of issues of human rights and rule of law for the pecuniary gains in Oil and Gas Law, Entertainment Law, Commercial Law and election tribunals. This has made the Nigerian rely heavily on media trials or self-judicial actions as a precursor for the distrust for delayed justice in the courts. The NBA as a body has not been able to resolve the excruciating delays and postponements that stifle the administration of justice, neither have they come together to give direction to the spate of our prisons. They have also been silent on election violence amongst other issues in the Nigerian polity. The common man is now left with only support from highly underfunded legal aid NGOs for defence.
A study of the 2019 Policy Book of the Annual General Conference of the NBA shows that the NBA focused on matters of international affairs and the implications to Nigeria, professionalism amongst its members as well as the economic decision of the Federal Government above human rights issues. Paul Usoro (SAN), then President of the NBA, stated that the focus of the NBA was to discuss the implication of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement and the implication for the legal community and to engage the implications of BREXIT on the Nigerian economy. While other issues such as information sharing, artificial intelligence, the NASRDA act on space intelligence, and the need to protect female lawyers from sexual molestation came second on the front burner. Human rights matter was squeezed into the agenda in a country where grave human rights atrocities, nepotism and corruption take centre stage in public discourse.
Although in 1999, the NBA went on strike to assert that rule of law must be adhered to by the Federal Government, and in 2013, the Ondo State Branch had gone on a full-blown protest, the reality of the general NBA today is that they do lack the courage to be the critical voice in the protection of the common man and the reformation of the administration of justice in Nigeria. The victory and the pedigree of lawyers have begun to slide into the annals of disrepute as top lawyers become mouthpieces for unpalatable and grinding government policies. This shows that legal professionals are only simply out to promote, protect and advance their careers.
The fate of the career of the Bar and Bench seems to be directly and variously in the hands of the Executive and Legislative arms of government – most especially the Executive arm which exerts great influence over the National Judicial Council, and has the powers to appoint an Attorney General of the Federation at the Federal level and a Commissioners of Justice at the States. With the exerting influence on the NJC, the appointment of judges in the Supreme Court, High Courts and Courts of Appeal, as well as the elevation to the high Bar position of Senior Advocate of Nigeria is now heavily and unashamedly politicised along the paths of many vested interests. This, in many ways, undermines justice. It also turns the legal luminaries from critics to career lobbyists. Lawyers are now found to belong to the elite class of society while they are meant to fairly navigate the logic and balance of justice between the haves and the have nots instead of being well-propped to sustain elitist agendas and helping to assert the superstructures of oppression.
Another matter that has emerged in the NBA is the balkanisation of the force of the NBA by the establishment of the New NBA, a legal body comprising of Northern lawyers who assert that the NBA has been sectionally marginalised and has not been fair in the disinvitation of Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State. This news, for many, further indicates the ability of external political powers, and social and tribal nuances to disrupt the collective decision of the leadership of the NBA. On the other hand, it reflects the internal wrangling caused by lack of equal opportunities and equal representations that signify the different nationalities within the NBA. Headed by Barrister Nuhu Ibrahim, Esq and Abdubasit Suleiman Esq, the factional NBA leadership, has boasted recently that over 5000 aggrieved former NBA lawyers have joined their ranks. They claim that they would serve as a competitive alternative to the NBA.
The NBA cannot be thoroughly criticised without been praised. They have improved the mechanisms for reporting misconduct amongst lawyers and the investigative panel has taken up quite a lot of cases about the underhand dealings of lawyers who sabotage their clients, and misrepresent the legal process. Nevertheless, more of these cases need to be showcased in the public to prove that lawyers who have breached the codes of professional ethics do not collude with the officers of the panel to the detriment of unlearned folks.
Barrister Olumide Akpata, the current President of the NBA, in a campaign interview in July 2020, convulsed at the challenge facing the NBA and by extension the legal infrastructure when he said, ‘As I said not too long ago, the consequences of failures of the administration of justice system in Nigeria include the fact that the lawyers themselves who are key stakeholders in the system largely consider the process to be tedious and inefficient; the economy continues to suffer on account of the apparent lack of synergy between it and the system, and perhaps most importantly, the citizenry has lost faith and confidence in the justice delivery system. Using the illustrative example of the court system, the justice delivery system in Nigeria has been historically plagued by fundamental ills such as delay and congestion of cases in courts, stories of judges who do not sit and sadly do not inform counsels in advance only for the counsel, who sometimes come from outside jurisdiction, to find out after waiting long hours in court; or judges with overloaded dockets without basic facilities and resources and who sometimes keep counsel in court from morning till 4pm before adjourning; over crowded court rooms that are inadequate and unfit for purpose; archaic systems of filing and storage of court processes; undue delays in delivering rulings and judgments, etc.’
Mr Akpata emerged as the first non-Senior-Advocate President because of the internal shocks and complaints of non-SANs who feel diminished and ostracised from the decision-making process of the body. His also validates the urgency of young lawyers to subvert established lawyers who have complained of being underpaid over the years. The challenge before Akpata is to change the landscape by making major reforms that would suit both SANs and Non-SANs. Tough decisions await him and his executive team in reconciling, reformation and realigning the values of the NBA with the realities of the practice.
As the story of the NBA continues to unfold in the latest dispensation, Mr. Akpata certainly must weigh the enormity of the task before him as he must also know and fully appreciate what is at stake for the NBA.
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