Anger is a central emotion of action and motivation, it makes people make decisions on the spur of the moment and we saw this play out on 30th July, when the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in a free and fair election elected Olumide “Oga kpata-kpata” Akpata as its 30th President.
Olumide won by maintaining a healthy “social distance” of over 5,500 votes from the first runner-up Babatunde Ajibade, who I proudly supported.
The NBA election involved almost the whole country; indeed one would have thought it was another national election. On various social media platforms, one could deduce that apart from those who believe in the mission of Olumide Akpata, a major reason why many young people voted, even those who were apathetic or undecided, was anger. It was raw outrage at the NBA and the SANs, hence the need to change the status quo. It led to mantras “we want change”, “revolution”, “break the jinx”, “free at last” “like Kwara ‘O to ge’ like NBA”. Unfortunately, they were not sure or clear what they were changing to — they just wanted change.
Although free and fair, the vote was not free from the fear that Olumide Akpata would be rigged out of the election. Most young lawyers who formed the bulk of his supporters held this suspicion. Their fear was not totally unfounded; it arose from a generally held but erroneous belief that the NBA has been led by Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN); and to perpetuate their rule would scuttle the chances of Olumide.
This theory was heightened when a letter addressed to Okpoko SAN by Awomolo SAN became public. Okpoko was requested to rally past NBA presidents and to “do all within your powers to preserve the integrity, respect, honour of the office…because of [an] unannounced but powerful and potent revolutionary move by our junior colleagues who are very much in larger numbers to wrestle the office of the NBA from the rank of SAN…It will be a great failure of leadership for the senior advocate to surrender leadership to the outer bar when there are willing and able senior advocates”.
The letter was condescending. It was disrespectful to junior and senior lawyers and presidents of the bar who were not SANs. It would make one imagine that the tenures of those presidents exemplified failure or was worse, when compared to those of senior advocates. This reductionism and arrogance enraged many young lawyers and entrenched them the more in their quest to truly revolt.
Young and senior lawyers, SANs (including the other two contestants who are SANs) quickly disavowed themselves from the letter and distanced themselves from its anachronistic line of thought.
The letter, a personal opinion of one of 500 SANs, several of whom had openly supported Akpata, made young lawyers see the letter as the “official” position of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria and vowed to take revenge. Political pundits have described this letter as a turning point in the election.
Despite the outrage that met the letter, barely 48 hours to the election, another senior advocate, Daudu, released a letter which was also fixated on the electoral power of young lawyers. From the letter, I got the impression that the learned silk was not comfortable with universal suffrage, as it has altered the dynamics of the NBA elections. I suspects he prefers the “glorious days” of the delegate system, which history suggests was fraught with both financial and political corruption as it placed enormous power in the hands of a few.
Moreso, the general tone of his letter suggests that young lawyers are unable to make the right political decision and they should be patient, slave (sorry, learn) and wait to become senior lawyers and do what “seniors” do and then they can “chop alone”. To his credit, unlike the first letter it does not see the rank of SAN, or the absence of it, as the sole criteria for the office of president. He suggests that requisite experience at branch level is of more importance.
When one reads both letters, one won’t be surprised at the anger of young lawyers. Indeed, like most elections, this election was influenced by anger, misinformation and weaponisation of both.
Little wonder many see this election as a political statement from young lawyers. Anger is fuelled by the consciousness of power and young lawyers are showing they have power and they would use those powers to fight for inclusivity and for reforms to engender more welfare and respect. Indeed with the election, many young lawyers pride themselves not as spectators but as participants in making history.
Joanne Freeman, professor of history at Yale University, captures the sentiments of young lawyers when he said “anger has a peculiar power in democracies. Skillfully deployed before the right audience, it cuts straight to the heart of popular politics. It is attention-getting, drowning out the buzz of news cycles. It is inherently personal and thereby hard to refute with arguments of principle; it makes the political personal and the personal political. It feeds on raw emotions with a primal power: fear, pride, hate, humiliation. And it is contagious.
Apart from anger, there was misinformation and unnecessary information, for example some supporters of other contestants, wanted to make the marital status and weight of the President-elect an election issue, this was clearly beneath the threshold of dignified and civil politicking, moreso not one, expected from “learned men”.
The biggest misinformation among many, which is stiff rife even after the election, is that the president-elect is the first non-senior advocate to lead the bar. Unknown to them, the NBA has had more non-silks than silks as president. Some are even saying that he is the first non-silk president in 30 years. This also is misinformation. What is true is that the President-elect is the first elected (emphasis on elected) non-silk president since 1991. The non-silk presidents from 1991 to date were not elected but were elevated when the then Presidents became Attorney Generals of the Federation. I have had to burst this misinformation bubble a couple of times to the dismay of friends whose sole reason for voting was to break the illusory jinx. This is just for clarity sake and not to diminish the victory or weight of our President-elect whose firm is minutes away from mine.
It’s true that all these are tools of politicking; however it is still helpful to call this out, for posterity sake at least.
To Olumide Akpata’s credit, his agenda of lawyers’ welfare, continuing legal education, entrepreneurial opportunities, health care, access to finance, curriculum revamp resonated with young lawyers who for many years have been underdogs, time will tell whether he achieves all these in two years, or not.
Interestingly, he does not have a record of public advocacy but the young lawyers don’t care. They are tired of an NBA that fights and thinks of Nigerians (if they even do) but do not cater for its members, most especially young lawyers; they are requesting that charity begins at home. The President-elect captured this concern in his post- election speech he said, “ the victory of last night is for young lawyers who have become disillusioned with the way the NBA has been run over the years and how the profession appears to be disconnected from the challenges that face them and their future”.
With his success at the polls, emotions are calming down. After having 24 hours of celebration and taunting, many are now hoping and praying that the President-elect fulfils his campaign promises. The euphoria of the election is over. Some of your friends who supported Olumide have told me to face reality and “calm down”.
The danger of utilizing anger is that while it reaps short-term gains, history suggests that it also provokes a fearsome backlash. The President-elect has spoken a lot; we hope he achieves all or most because there is nothing more disappointing than the head of a government talking tough and achieving nothing or little.
Indeed, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, the President-elect has a huge task at hand, to prove young lawyers right and to prove the likes to Awomolo and Daudu wrong. The choice is his. He also has to douse the growing polarization in the legal profession. He has to debunk the extremist beliefs of some of his supporters that he has come to challenge the SANs, because as Winston Churchill said, meeting jaw to jaw is better than war-war.
I wish the President-elect and his team, an adventurous two years.