Interview by May Agbamuche Mbu, Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi
Nigerian lawyers are now faced with the difficult task of deciding who will lead the Nigerian Bar Association for the next two years. You are in the race with an equally formidable contender. What are your plans for Nigerian lawyers if you become NBA President?
NBA elections are usually very keenly contested. But the difference this year is that both Mr. Gadzama and myself offer two different trajectories for the legal profession. My vision and mission for the Bar are clear and I hope more appealing to our members. My broad mission is to lead the quest of the legal profession to regain the confidence of the Nigerian people. This means I will work to improve on regulation, raise our standards and quality of legal services. I will fight for a clean judiciary whilst working to improve the welfare of our members in particular, the younger members of the profession. I will work to reinvent the NBA to re-establish its values of professionalism and integrity. I have set out my plans very clearly in my manifesto which is available on the NBA website.
Most NBA presidential aspirants have grandiose manifestos and seemingly populist programmes, but these are hardly followed through on assumption of office. What will be your main areas of focus if you are elected NBA President and how will you implement them during your two-year tenure?
The tenure of an elected executive of the NBA is only two years. It is quite short. In designing programmes, I take cognisance of what can realistically be achieved in those two years. Our current leadership has been very innovative. It has brought about some fundamental changes that have to some extent redefined the association. I intend to build on those ideas and programmes. I will try to deepen the institutional reforms within the NBA and reposition it. Our branches will be my main delivery agents. That means I must strengthen them, improve on their management and accountability. In terms of my programmes my main focus will be on regulatory reforms, welfare package for members and rebuilding confidence in the judiciary.
This year, the NBA’s electoral process is quite innovative; it is a radical departure from the old system. For the first time, voting will be conducted electronically. There will also be universal suffrage which will give every lawyer in Nigeria an opportunity to vote. What are your views on this system?
The new electoral process is very innovative. We must commend the NBA leadership for this. It demonstrates that technology can be used innovatively to enhance institutional processes, to improve participation and accountability. The lessons are beyond NBA borders. The nation can borrow from this. It is important therefore that we get it right. There are some concerns, particularly as we have not used it on a large scale as we would in the July elections. I am confident however that sufficient investment has been made to secure the quality of the infrastructure and also guaranty the fidelity of the process.
The welfare of young lawyers features prominently in your manifesto. How do you intend to actualize this welfare package if you win the election?
I take the predicament of young lawyers seriously. They represent the future of the profession and indeed the country. I have put up ideas in my manifesto. Once I win the election, I will put a process in motion to validate my ideas and programmes and build a consensus around them and begin implementation in earnest. The strategy is to implement some quick wins, and deal with medium term measures within the time available to my administration and set the stage for the longer term strategy to be developed. Some of the improvements will be achieved in the context of the proposed regulatory overhaul. I will explore an NBA sanctioned minimum terms of employment in different bands across the country in line with a broad mapping of cost of living. The long term strategy will focus on capacity building, professional development and a more appropriate legal education curriculum that will equip young lawyers to meet the needs of the legal market. The young lawyers will be involved at every level of design and implementation. I want them to own the programmes.
The issue of adoption of candidates by ethnic and regional fora is one which at best can be described as a double edged sword. In the past it worked well to produce consensus candidates, but this year, it appears that even your region, the North was unable to agree on a candidate. As things stand right now, the Arewa Lawyers’ Forum is sharply divided over who to adopt. This same scenario played out in the last elections when the South West’s Egbe Amofin could not agree on a candidate. How would this affect this year’s election?
Unfortunately the legal profession has become a victim of the political culture that has emerged in Nigeria amongst some Nigerian politicians. Some of our colleagues have learnt and perfected the antics of crafty politicians. They pay lip service to democratic values and practices whilst in fact they neither believe in democracy nor democratic values. The regional fora within the NBA emerged during the years of our crisis in the early 90s. They were expected to play a stabilising role within the NBA system to promote negotiation and consensus building but not to undercut our formal constitutional processes. Some of our colleagues unfortunately try to use these fora to seek unfair advantage. This is what causes the divisions and the acrimony. I hope that this trend will not be allowed to continue and these fora will resume their role of cementing unity and consensus with the NBA system. I hope I will initiate honest conversation around these issues. As for this particular election, there have been many contrived and spurious claims of endorsement or adoption. I am confident that the voting lawyers are not going to be taken in by these false claims. They will reach their decisions as informed and discerning voters.
In this year’s election, campaigns posters were banned, donations to branches were banned; newspaper and television adverts were banned. How has this affected your campaign so far? How have you been able to successfully reach out to the over 160,000 Nigerian lawyers?
The banning of the traditional campaigns using posters, banners, advertisements etc. are part of the laudable efforts of the current administration to reestablish the professional character of the NBA. The Nigerian Bar Association ought not to assume the character of a political party. Our activities including elections of our officers should be conducted within the bounds of professional decorum and ethics. But the process had become too expensive and too unprofessional. Often quite rowdy and rancorous. The changes are welcome and if I win the election, I will work to deepen these reforms. We must reclaim the association from those who seek to push us in a different direction. In terms of my campaigns now, I try to reach the generality of our members through social media. My manifesto is currently on the NBA website. I use other avenues of professional activities to put my views and ideas across to our members. At the moment I am also making efforts to visit our members in their branches and have conversations with them on issues around the election and our programmes for the NBA.
What are your thoughts on the Stamp & Seal policy introduced by the out-going administration which has thrown up over 2,000 fake lawyers within one year?
The Stamp and Seal policy introduced by the Alegeh administration has been very innovative. It has helped to expose none lawyers who have over the years infiltrated the profession. It has also helped us to reclaim the legal market from other professionals intruding into the practice of law. However, I recognise that there are many complaints from our members. I have promised to immediately constitute a broad committee to look at the areas of dissatisfaction and try to improve the scheme. But everywhere I have been to, I have emphasised on the need for lawyers to support the scheme as it has been central in protecting our broad professional interests.
Despite the remarkable achievements of the outgoing administration, the NBA Section on Public Interest and Development Law is still somewhat inactive. The Section on Legal Practice is just coming back from a hiatus. What are your plans for the sections of the NBA and how do you intend to make them viable?
I will work to revive both SPIDEL and the Section on Legal Practice. I will also encourage the Section on Business Law to enhance its reach to lawyers across the whole country. The NBA Sections will play a key role in the continuing legal education of our members, raising standards and delivering generally on my continuing professional development programmes. SPIDEL, under my leadership will become one of the main tools for public interest intervention by the NBA. I will immediately identify knowledgeable and dedicated professionals that will revamp it. I will commit sufficient resources and also seek other partners to assist my administration.
There has been a general outcry over the current state of indiscipline and poor ethics of lawyers. How do you intend to improve the professional ethics of lawyers?
As I mentioned earlier one of my major focus is reengineering the regulation of legal practice. Addressing the issues of indiscipline and poor ethical standards amongst lawyers is a prerequisite for regaining the confidence of Nigerians in the legal profession. I will work to identify and deal with institutional bottlenecks that impede or undermine the disciplinary processes. Sanctions will be applied vigorously. I think a majority of lawyers I have spoken to across the country agree on the urgent need to raise standards and address issues of discipline. I will move swiftly on this.
The level of computer literacy of Nigerian lawyers is noticeably low. If you win the NBA elections how would you improve this?
I will invest in improving the knowledge and skills of our members across all fields including computer literacy. The legal profession must brace up to new knowledge and new skills. We have to bring ourselves to the level of knowledge, sophistication and standards we see in other emerging economies and indeed developed countries. I believe that Nigeria is on the verge of a new era of prosperity and transformation. The legal profession has to play its part. It cannot do this on the basis of outdated paradigms. I will invest in creating a new culture of knowledge and skills. When, I see some of our younger members of the profession, I become very optimistic.
The Bar-Bench Forum was introduced to foster a good working relationship between the Bar and the Bench. It was very interactive in many branches, but has gradually become inactive. How can it be revived?
I am considering an NBA led initiative of periodic Justice Sector Assessment and ranking of all States of the Federation. The objective is to evaluate the quality of service delivery in our justice sector and elicit healthy competition amongst the states, including branches of the NBA and the respective State Judiciaries. Improved service delivery will naturally require close collaboration between the respective State Bars and their Judiciaries. This will require them to meet regularly if they are to do well in the NBA rankings. My administration will be seeking partnership on this initiative amongst our development partners.
The out-going Alegeh led administration despite the commendations it has received from several quarters cannot be said to be perfect. What short-comings did you observe in the out-going administration and how do you intend to improve on them?
No management of human affairs can be perfect. I will rate the administration very high. Its achievements have been impressive. But I will work to strengthen the branches. The branches will become the focal points of our activities: welfare programmes, capacity building and disciplinary control. I will also look at the implementation of the new constitution and see how I can smoothen some of the wrinkles the process has generated.
The myriad political and legal issues facing African countries require collaboration between the various regional Bar Associations. If you become NBA President how will your administration facilitate this?
Collaboration between African Bar Associations will be very important in sharing experiences in a variety of fields: human rights protection, access to justice, internal conflicts and promoting inter-African Business. Recently, in Lagos we had a meeting of African Bar Leaders. I will support and strengthen those initiatives. The legal profession, effectively collaborating across Africa can hasten the dawn of new African Renaissance.