A President with an Agenda

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Over the weekend, corporate lawyer, Templars Partner and former Chairman of the NBA Section on Business Law, Olumide Akpata was officially sworn in as the 30th President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) by the outgoing President, Paul Usoro, SAN.

 Akpata who had been declared winner of the NBA presidential race by the Electoral Committee of the NBA on July, 31st 2020, will steer the affairs of the bar for the next two years. In this edition, we share EXCERPTS of his Agenda for Nigerian lawyers from 2020-2020.


UNITY AT THE BAR

I am not oblivious of the cleavages that emerged during the campaign and the attempt to pitch senior members of the bar against their younger counterparts. We were all witnesses to the widespread agitations against the holders of the enviable rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria to the extent that some people were eagerly anticipating a revolution. In some ways, this was understandable, having regard to the issues that characterised the election and the uniqueness of my candidacy, being the first non-Senior Advocate of Nigeria to win an election as NBA President in thirty years. However, the elections are now over, and we must, of necessity, retrace our steps.

One of the cardinal pillars of my campaign and on the basis of which I made myself available to run for this high office, was the promise to run an all-inclusive Bar. There is no gainsaying the fact that this necessarily includes giving due recognition and deference to the senior members of the Bar who are the builders of, and significant contributors to, our noble Association. Even as a candidate, I never saw myself as a harbinger of division between senior and young members of the Bar, but as bridge candidate to build better rapport between young and senior lawyers. This is a role I will approach will all seriousness.

One of the first things I did after the result declaration was to call on my supporters to desist from joining issues or otherwise attacking other lawyers, especially senior members of the Bar, but instead to be magnanimous in victory. Permit me to repeat what I said in that publication. Ours is a noble profession that prides itself on a high sense of discipline, learning, respect for seniority and character for which its members are reputed. Let us therefore join hands to move the NBA forward. The mandate that I have from Nigerian lawyers is to work for all members of the Bar irrespective of who they voted for. There is so much work to be done to revitalise our Bar and make it work for everyone without discrimination.

I am also not unaware of very recent events and agitations that have tended to divide our Bar along regional and religious lines. This is rather unfortunate for an egalitarian Association like ours.  The Bar that I want to lead henceforth is one that is united on all fronts and that recognises that our diversity is, perhaps, our greatest strength. I plead with all Nigerian lawyers to bear this philosophy of unity in mind as we commence a new journey together today.

This enormous task cannot be achieved if we continue to fan the embers of division at a time when we desperately need to unite and speak with one firm voice. We must be kind, magnanimous, respectful, and sensitive in our words and actions, as doing otherwise would be a great disservice to our vision of building a stronger and formidable Bar. Now is the time to come together because a divided Bar is a defeated Bar.

ELECTORAL REFORM

It is pertinent to state categorically that, in my view, the 2020 Election – the voting and result of which were monitored live by a significant proportion of Nigerian lawyers and non-lawyers alike – was ultimately free and fair, and the result was, by all estimation, truly reflective of the will of Nigerian lawyers. The above notwithstanding, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that there were several glitches in the build up to the Election. As Nigeria’s foremost professional Association, our electoral process ought to be the standard for others to follow and should, to the extent humanly possible, be devoid of the glitches that we witnessed. It was with this in mind that I personally wrote two separate letters to the ECNBA Chairman on 20th July 2020 and 29th July 2020 to highlight the issues that threatened the conduct of a credible election and to recommend measures to immediately address those concerns.

The consensus is that there is need to urgently review the 2020 elections and to institute urgent reforms of our electoral systems. Indeed, the Board of Trustees of the NBA in their letter of 19 August 2020 to Deacon Dele Adesina, SAN called for a major transformation of our electoral process and framework. Let me repeat what I said to the Board of Trustees in my letter to them in response to the petition of Deacon Dele Adesina, SAN; “as an Association that prides itself as Nigeria’s foremost and oldest professional membership organisation, we need to manage our electoral processes better. I pledged during the electioneering period to introduce an efficient data management system for the NBA and to follow that up with other institutional and structural reforms that would enable NBA to serve the benefit of its members and the Society. In the wake of the criticisms that trailed the Election, this is now a top priority issue for me.”

One major complaint about the last election was the issue of the database of lawyers and resultant difficulties in coming up with a credible voters’ register. To address this, my administration will improve upon the membership portal introduced by the President Paul Usoro administration. Additionally, I am immediately constituting an Electoral Audit and Reforms Committee, comprising distinguished practitioners of the highest standards to audit our 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections and recommend reforms for our electoral systems and processes. I pledge to implement whatever recommendations they come up with well ahead of time to ensure that the 2022 election is devoid of those glitches that we noticed in the 2020 election and that we truly set a standard that others will aspire to.

WELFARE OF LAWYERS

The improved welfare for our members was a cardinal part of my campaign. I assure you today that those were not mere rhetoric. I hereby restate my promise to ensure that we improve on the welfare of our members along the lines that I promised in my manifesto.

I also stated that it is at the core of my mandate to expand and deepen the market for legal services in Nigeria and consequentially improve the financial standing of our members. In the coming weeks I shall constitute an NBA Task Force to determine the scope of legal work that is statutorily prescribed to be the exclusive preserve of Nigerian lawyers and to work out modalities for ensuring that only members of our Association get to do such work. In recent times we have witnessed the brazen encroachments into our turf by other professions and private organisations like banks, consulting firms, property firms, amongst others. I will personally engage the leadership of these organisations and prevail on them to refrain from the practice of encroaching into areas that are the exclusive preserve of lawyers. In cases where this is not heeded, we shall not hesitate to challenge such encroachments in court. It is no longer business as usual.

One hallmark of my administration shall be the constructive engagement with the heads of the major regulatory agencies to ensure better synergy with the NBA in the interest of our members. In this regard, one of my first tasks as President of our Association shall be to engage with the Registrar General of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to resolve some of the outstanding issues that led to the recent protests by members of our Association and to find a lasting solution to them. Criticisms from some quarters have also trailed the passage of Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020. We shall constructively engage with the CAC in this regard to allay the fears of our members and indeed the general populace. In this regard I must immediately commend the NBA Section on Business Law for their illuminating and timely Webinar on the CAMA 2020. More of such events will be promoted under my administration. Where however, there are provisions of the Act that cannot stand the test of time, the NBA shall not hesitate to advocate their urgent amendment so that they do not constitute a clog in the wheel of progress. This shall be the template to engage other regulatory agencies throughout my administration.

 On the vexed issue of the poor remuneration which has made the legal profession in Nigeria a laughingstock, I said during the campaign that the NBA can no longer afford to fold its hands in the face of this most unfortunate state of affairs. I hereby restate that the NBA under my leadership will devise measures to tackle this issue. I will in the coming weeks, establish an NBA Remuneration Committee to recommend feasible ways to improve the poor remuneration of legal practitioners.

One of my major tasks as President of the NBA will be to table before the Legal Practitioners Remuneration Committee a request for the review of the Legal Practitioners (Remuneration for Legal Documentation and Other Land Matters) Order to reflect current economic realities. It is my strong belief that the standardisation of the fees charged by legal practitioners holds the key to the resolution to the poor payment of legal practitioners.

On the NBA STAMP AND SEAL, I pledged in my Manifesto that the NBA under my administration shall issue at no costs, one pack of 24 Stamps to legal practitioners between 1-5 years of call, upon payment of practising fees. After due consultations, we have decided to extend the gesture by issuing two packs of 48 Stamps for free to all verified legal practitioners who pay their Bar Practising Fees not later than 31 March 2021. Those who require additional copies of the NBA Stamp and Seal would then free to request additional pages at extra costs to them. I also restate my promise to ensure further improvement on the Stamp and Seal application, collection process and the digitization of the stamp and seal.

I also pledge to ensure the continuation of the NBA Members’ Life Assurance scheme. Considering our numerical strength, I will negotiate a more favourable deal with our current insurance policy provider for an upward review of benefits to members. We shall also institute a comprehensive health insurance scheme and establish a medical health fund to help deserving members subscribe to the scheme. In addition to the above, my administration will, working with the leadership of the various branches of the NBA, establish working relationship with good hospitals across Nigeria to agree discounts on bills for members of our Association.

One major promise I made to Nigerian lawyers is to TACKLE THE MENACE OF HARASSMENT AND BRUTALITY OF LAWYERS BY THE SECURITY AGENCIES. As I have said in the past, while it is part of the aims and objects of the NBA to promote and protect the fundamental rights of citizens, which we take very seriously, charity must necessarily begin at home and the NBA must take steps to forestall the breach of the fundamental rights of lawyers. For the past few years, there is hardly a month that passes without an incident of harassment of lawyers by men of the security agencies. This is completely unacceptable. While we are still on the case of Emperor Ogbonna a lawyer from Abia State who has been in custody despite being granted bail twice by the courts, we also heard just last week, of the case of a senior member of the Bar, Mr Paul Igwe, who was detained and brutalised by the Divisional Police Officer of Eastern Ngwa Police Division of the Nigerian Police also in Abia State. To say that lawyers have become endangered species is putting it mildly. This dangerous trend and we must immediately address.

The NBA that I now lead will strengthen the NBA Human Rights Institute and also engage the heads of the various security agencies proactively and constructively from the outset, to set the tone for a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship between their respective agencies and our Association. The engagements would secure assurances that any officer of the security agencies found to have abused a lawyer would be sanctioned and such sanction made public.

CAPACITY BUILDING FOR MEMBERS

At the core of my mandate for the NBA is the championing of a structured reformation of the system of legal education in Nigeria and actualise a system that produces knowledgeable, competent and ethically conscious lawyers. It is also top of my agenda to initiate programmes that are designed to enhance the capacity of Nigerian lawyers and equip them with the tools required to improve on their ability to meet the expectations of a highly sophisticated clientele. The truth is that we are not even scratching the surface in terms of what we can contribute to the servicing of not just the Nigerian economy but for the wider Africa in view of the coming into effect of the Agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area.

In this regard I promise to reconstitute the Board of the Institute of Continuing Legal Education (ICLE) and charge the Board with the responsibility for the operation of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme of the NBA. Through the ICLE, the NBA will collaborate with the Sections and Fora regarding annual programming/plan of actions that would ensure effective coordination and delivery of capacity building programmes at the Branch and national levels. We shall also undertake a review of the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Rules (MCLE Rules) 2007 to ensure that the Rules accord with modern realities, especially in a post COVID–19 world.

IMPROVEMENT OF THE SYSTEM OF ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE

I listened with great delight as the highest-ranking legal practitioner in government, His Excellency Professor Yemi Osinbajo SAN (GCON) delivered an address on behalf of the President of Nigeria during the Opening Ceremony of our just concluded Annual General Conference. His Excellency hit the right notes and expressed views that are completely consistent with mine. I also listened to the address of the Chief Justice of Nigeria Honourable Dr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed during the Conference and I am happy that we are thinking in the same direction.

Mr. President tasked the NBA and the Nigerian judiciary to come up with urgent reforms that will improve the justice delivery system in the country and decried the slow pace of trial of cases in our courts, the incidence of conflicting decisions by the courts and continuing triumph of technicalities over substance. His Excellency also advocated for the nomination of the best hands for appointment as Judges and Justices of the superior courts of record in Nigeria. In the same vein the Chief Justice of Nigeria lamented the filing of frivolous cases by lawyers.

Thankfully, we need not go far in finding solutions to these seemingly intractable issues. The answer lies in effective collaboration among the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial arms of Government, with the NBA as a key stakeholder. As I stated in my tweet to the President in response to his congratulatory tweet after my election victory, I am gratified by the President’s acknowledgment of the NBA as a crucial stakeholder in our democracy and on behalf of all lawyers in Nigeria, I accept the President’s offer of cooperation because it is a partnership that can only be beneficial to the Nigerian populace.

I unequivocally throw my weight behind the call by the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria for the provision of speedy and qualitative administration of justice, the strengthening of the structures of the courts and the need to stamp out corruption from the judicial system. I am truly committed to doing all that we can to improve our system of administration of justice and my colleagues and I have set out a clear roadmap for achieving this. We will be unveiling this roadmap in the coming weeks.

The necessary question that I am sure will be asked, is how the NBA under my leadership intends to achieve these reforms. As a first step, my first official duty will be to seek audience with President Muhammed Buhari, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the leadership of the National Assembly, and the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation. The purpose of these working visits will be to put forward practical ideas on behalf of the NBA for the reform of Administration of Justice in Nigeria. I am well aware that an important obstacle to achieving sustainable reforms in the sector is that we have done a lot of talking and limited implementation of the many reasonable proposals that have been agreed to by justice sector stakeholders over the years. I am determined to make progress on these issues during my tenure

Charity, it is often said must begin at home. In proposing these reforms, it is important that we reawaken the culture of public interest advocacy in the NBA. It is regrettable that there are too few lawyers working in the public interest. We need to bring back the culture of pro-bono work in our association. Indeed, this in my view is critical to the role of the NBA in facilitating justice sector reform. As a first step, my administration will revisit the pro-bono declaration adopted by the NBA with a view to affirming its importance in the professional development of all members of the NBA. One of the proposals I will be suggesting to the CJN is to consider a special recognition scheme under which lawyers who can show concrete evidence of public interest advocacy are considered for elevation to the rank of Senior Advocate. It is my respectful view that the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate must not simply be considered largely on the number of cases completed but on concrete contributions to the growth of Nigeria’s justice system.

Very importantly, I am in complete agreement with the President that we need to do better in terms of the calibre and quality of legal practitioners appointed as judicial officers. The NBA will henceforth monitor compliance with the NJC Rules and Procedure for the selection and appointment of superior court judges strictly.

PROMOTION AND PROTECTION OF THE RULE OF LAW AND RESPECT FOR THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF THE CITIZENRY

The NBA under my administration will regain its position as the conscience of the Nigerian society. We must be the bulwark against tyranny and injustice in Nigeria, stand up against all forms of injustice, condemn unpopular government policies and check abuse of power. I promise you today that we shall not shy away from these responsibilities. It is also my pledge today that the NBA under my administration shall restore the voice and glory of the Bar and the Bench.

AN ALL-INCLUSIVE BAR

My emergence as President of the NBA is a victory for the corporate counsel, law officers, lawyers in other forms of salaried employment; the police and military lawyers, etc and for the different segments of the legal profession who have long been seemingly treated as outsiders instead of as equal members of the Bar. Having once been a victim myself of such discrimination, I promised, and hereby restate, that the NBA under my leadership shall ensure that the different constituencies in the profession are given a voice. My Presidency has today ushered in a truly all-inclusive Bar.

To this end, I will in consultation with other NEC Members table before the general meeting of the Association, an amendment to the NBA Constitution to accord statutory recognition to the Chairpersons of the NBA Women Forum, the NBA Young Lawyers’ Forum, the NBA Law Officers’ Forum and the NBA Corporate Counsel Forum. I will also lead the charge for the creation of an NBA Lawyers with Disabilities Forum and other important fora to ensure that all segments of our profession are carried along.

I promise to ensure adequate representation of young lawyers in all appointments made in the two years of my administration. It is my long-held belief that it is impossible to have a conversation about the future of the legal profession without the young lawyers, who are the putative owners of that future, having a seat at the table. For an Association with a National Executive Committee of about 450 members, it is sacrilegious that there is no single statutory representation of young lawyers-constituency.

 

OLUMIDE AKPATA

President, Nigerian Bar Association

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