In a few days, the Eastern Bar Forum (EBF) will converge in the oil city of Port Harcourt and it is believed that a candidate—out of the five running for the Presidency of the Nigerian Bar Association and other positions—would be adopted by EBF. There are also strong indications that the adoption may not happen.

The EBF was founded in 2004 to cater for lawyers from Rivers, Bayelsa, Abia, Imo, Anambra, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Enugu, and Ebonyi and protect their interest in the NBA. Though less than 10% of lawyers in the country from that region are registered members of the EBF, it has managed to keep itself afloat.

The concept of adoption of political candidates is not new to Nigerian politics— neither is the concept of zoning and most recently, the latest inclusion to our national vocabulary, “marginalization”, the treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral.

The concept of adoption of political candidates in party politics has always met stiff opposition from party members. Such adoptions are agreed not to represent the true wish of stakeholders but an enthronement of candidates on the voting populace. Under such instances, merit is not necessarily the motivation behind the selection but factors such as tribal sentiments, favoritism, God-fatherism, and loyalty.

In a highly sensitive political landscape as ours, it is agreed that everyone be given a fair chance and opportunity in the political field. This is justice. It therefore should come as a surprise when injustice is now proposed within the Bar. It must sound as a warning when tribal sentiments and marginalization raise their heads under the watch of Bar members. Like an enemy-aircraft carrier in the time of war, it must be brought down.

In the race for President of the Nigerian Bar, the Eastern Bar Forum (EBF) proposes to adopt a sole candidate—an action that will marginalize others and is not being propelled by the idea of putting the best candidate forward.

Moreso, according to the EBF Constitution, the guidelines set for such candidate include;

  1. Every aspirant shall submit the following letters to the Screening Committee as Notice of Aspiration:
  2. Expression of Interest Letter
  3. Letter of Allegiance to Be Bound By EBF Decision
  4. Letter of Good Standing from the Aspirants Local NBA Branch, Duly Signed By the Chairman and Secretary of the Branch.
  5. Every Aspirant Shall Submit to the Screening Committee, Copies of All Documents Qualifying the Aspirant for the Office Being Vied for in Accordance with the NBA Constitution.
  6. For Any Aspirant to Qualify for EBF Adoption, such Aspirant Must Have Been Duly Qualified Pursuant to Article 11(2) of the Constitution and Shall Submit to the Screening Committee, Copies of the EBF Receipt for the Preceding Two Years Dues.

Members of the Nigerian Bar will be voting for the office of President of the Bar and other national positions within the Association. Lawyers will choose their representatives according to who is best for the job. It will also be counter-productive should the EBF treat any candidates or other candidates as insignificant or peripheral. Officials of the NBA hold the office in trust for the members of the NBA. The Association belongs to its members and everyone should have equal opportunity to add value to the Bar from their professional and corporate perspectives.

In 2006 Olisa Agbakoba SAN, Chris Uche SAN, and Funke Adekoya SAN ran for the position of the NBA president. Agbakoba and Uche came from states that are presently in the East, while Mrs. Adekoya came from the West. EBF which was young at the time with a few members mobilized support for Agbakoba, not because of any convention but because it considered it politically expedient to ensure that an outsider in the name of Mrs. Adekoya did not take it away since two people from the East were in the race. Chris Uche was left in the cold. Until today, the EBF has never had reasons to choose any candidate based on any convention. If they do that in Port Harcourt this weekend, it would be the first in 12 years.

Some lawyers who have sympathy for EBF have argued that in the election between Okey Wali SAN and Emeka Ngige SAN in 2012, the EBF adopted Okey Wali over Ngige because of a “turn-by-turn convention”. That is grossly incorrect. In the 2012 NBA presidential election, NBA at the time was opposed to adoption of candidates by pressure groups. Emeke Ngige did not put himself out for adoption so Okay Wali became the sole candidate for the election since he put himself forward for adoption. According to EBF at that time, Okay Wali was the only candidate that they knew since he was the only one that came forward. There was no opportunity to give reasons why one was chosen over the other since they did not stand side by side for adoption.

Unfortunately, recently some lawyers have started changing the narrative that Okey Wali was chosen over Ngige because of a convention that is obviously not in existence. Again, the question now is how could you have chosen one candidate over the other when indeed there was only one person for consideration? Another pertinent question is when exactly was this convention entrenched?

In my view, for an action to qualify as a convention, it must have at least happened. The so called convention of turn-by-turn has never happened in the history of EBF. The EBF has never in its history put out a presidential candidate on the basis of the so-called turn-by-turn convention which according to them provides that the position will be alternated between Igbo-speaking members and OTHERS. If the EBF says they want to start it now, it is a different ball game and it will raise many questions which will include the question as to how many sections or interests actually make up the EBF and what will constitute fairness in alternating the position.

Recently, some lawyers have started the agitation that the EBF as presently constituted is actually made up of four groups namely old Imo state, old Anambra state, old Rivers, and old Cross River state. Since the recent history of the Association, old Anambra has produced three presidents; old Rivers has produced two presidents; old Imo has produced one; while old Cross Rivers has produced none. They argue that technically, 100% of those who have been presidents of the NBA from the region are all of Igbo origin and no one from Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio, Anang, Kalabari etc has been supported to attain the position. This line of argument is gaining popularity by the day.

Some hardliners in EBF have also argued strongly that the zones within the Association are recognized only on the basis of Igbo and non-Igbo states. But some other members who I consider unfaithful members of the EBF have argued that the intent of those who drafted the NBA Constitution or even founded the EBF was to strike an ethnic balance. They argued that the use of sections and geographical interest as used in the NBA Constitution is a mere diplomatic approach not to categorically import tribalism into NBA elections.

In support of the argument that the turn-by-turn claim is faulty, some lawyers across the country who have taken time to study the EBF have discovered that even if there was such an agreement, there are two vital positions in the NBA: the secretary and the president. If indeed a turn-by-turn agreement existed, how come out of the five secretaries from the region in recent past, only one came from outside Igbo-speaking states—Eddy Mark from amongst Obi Okwusogu, Philip Umeh, Emeka Obegolu, and Afam Osigwe. Even when Joyce Oduah—a woman from AkwaCross though married from Anambra contested, she was never adopted.

That is not fair on Akwa Cross lawyers who have been left in the cold for too long.

This sentiment is really playing in the minds of lawyers from other ethnic groups in the west and north who feel that the system in the EBF is skewed against Paul Usoro SAN and the people of Akwa Cross. Though this sentiment is playing positively and adding value to Paul Usoro, the top brass of Akwa Cross lawyers who were conspicuously missing at the last meeting in Abakaliki are advocating that the EBF jettison the issue of adoption and float the election by allowing all the candidates run. They are also saying that adoption of a sole candidate will exclude the best brands from the race. The handwriting on the wall has shown that Paul Usoro SAN—a successful lawyer who practically grew Nigeria’s telecom legal framework; and Prof Ernest Ojukwu—a renowned professor will not be adopted. This will not go down well with the rest of the lawyers in Nigeria who are now more progressive-minded.

However, the good news is that as at the time of writing this, information from the grapevine has it that three of the candidates did not put themselves out for adoption. This means no matter what the EBF does this weekend, lawyers will still enjoy the option of choosing from all the candidates presently in the race.

The implication of this is that if the EBF this weekend goes ahead with the adoption of a candidate when there is no threat from any outsider and in this era of universal suffrage, it may not only amount to an exercise in futility, it will set the EBF on a dangerous sail to the rocks—especially if the candidate they didn’t adopt wins the election.

The leaders of the Bar must be candidates, all lawyers—whether young or old—will respect. If there is anything like an adoption at all, EBF SHOULD ADOPT ALL THE CANDIDATES FROM THE EAST AND BURY THE IDEA OF ADOPTION OF A SOLE CANDIDATE. Let all the candidates be embraced equally so that EBF can boldly claim the eventual winner as its own.

 

Anthony Atata shared this piece with NLT’s Legal Industry Headlines.

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Nigerian Law Today

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